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Authors: David Charles Manners

Tags: #General, #Mountains, #History, #Memoirs, #Nature, #Editors; Journalists; Publishers, #Medical, #India, #Asia, #Customs & Traditions, #Biography & Autobiography, #Sarvashubhamkara, #Leprosy, #Ecosystems & Habitats, #India & South Asia, #Travel writing, #Infectious Diseases, #Colonial aftermath, #Himalayas, #Social Science

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BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
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Mukund impressed that they were very touched by my willingness to adopt their custom of only eating with my right hand. I did not tell him that my left had been fully occupied holding down my towel, his rorty young cousins having spent the entire meal peering steadfastly under the table.

Fed and dressed, appreciative audience departed and scallywag cousins dismissed, I lay on the bed that Priya and I had been meant to share.

I fought to drive away the pervasive thoughts that threatened to stifle both mind and breath by trying to remember the many new names of the unreservedly smiling, gentle faces I had met since my arrival. The honest warmth of these strangers was conferring on me a comfort that, until now, I had not allowed myself to know. Whilst I had rejected any possibility of the least expression of sympathy back in England, here my careful restraint was yielding to the unqualified kindness of Priya's relations, the tenderness of a family that had so nearly been my own.

I distracted myself by considering the fact that the Mehtas were probably more affluent than the others in the village due to the benefits of their emigrant son. Where others were dependent upon the communal well, their house had a tap. Where others had beatendung floors and walls infested with sore-inflicting, vampiric pests, their rooms were stone-tiled and plastered in pale yellows, pinks, blues and greens. In these pigments the humidity had painted figures, faces and fantastical beasts, which seemed to breathe, move and converse in the torrid air.

My room span with the tickling twitter of sparrows that nested on cupboards and shelves, and sat in restless lines on the top of the mirror. The sultry skies beyond my windows throbbed with the percussive calls of insects. The warbling song of girls pulling water at the well. The pounding of soapy cloth as my dirties had their seams and gussets sorely tested on the
dhobi
's wash-stone.

And yet, as my mind began to slide and my eyes were overwhelmed by the weight of their lids, all I could hear was the excited chatter of the boy cousins on the verandah, relating I-dared-notthink-whats to their curious friends.

***

The bus spluttered to a temporary halt at Teesta Bazaar, affording its passengers a chance to purchase a cup of hot chiya tea and an array of local fruit, nuts and vegetables. Bindra had no intention of losing her seat, but Jyothi and Jiwan needed to relieve themselves.

“Don't let go of your brother's hand,” she instructed Jyothi as the two boys climbed down the metal steps onto the roadside. “And keep away from the wheels!” she called, but they had gone.

Bindra looked out to the low huts that balanced precariously on bamboo stilts along the steep hillsides. Below their unstable balconies, she could see the raging torrent of the deep green Teesta.

She thought of Kailash. Her sweet, simple Kailash. She thought of him sitting in the bus as it slipped off the monsoon-shattered road and plummeted into the swollen river. She thought of him trapped in his seat and the water flooding in.

Bindra leapt to her crumpled feet and struggled to the open door.

“Jyothi! Jiwan!” she called, her heart gripped tight with terror.

She climbed down into the crowd and called again, “My sons! My sons!”

Bindra pushed through the meandering throng, towards the row of shops that stood above the river's edge. A little hand suddenly took hold of her elbow. She dropped to her knees and tightly held both her bewildered boys to her chest. “Just for a moment . . .” she gasped. “Just for a moment I thought . . .”

“I know you,” a poorly dressed Marwari interrupted her admission. Bindra looked up. The man had had an accusation in his statement. “You're the widow from the old burial ground,” he affirmed, his pox-marked nose and forehead starkly revealing their shadowed craters in the low morning sun.

Bindra stood up with difficulty. It was essential that she was not known, that no one recognised her. Holding fast to her sons, she turned and, without a word, hurried back towards the bus.

“Keep away!” the man shouted to startled onlookers, as he followed close behind them. “Keep well away!”

Bindra reached the steps and pushed the boys ahead of her into the sanctuary of the vehicle, urging them to slip between their fellow passengers who were already returning to their seats.


E bhai
!” the Marwari bellowed at the conductor, who was nonchalantly leaning against the front wheel, sharing a Shikari cigarette with the driver. “You have a leper on your bus! I know this cursed woman. She's a leper and a witch!”

Bindra swung around to face her denouncer, her eyes wide beneath the shawl, her mouth too dry to speak. Passengers were now leaning out of the windows. A crowd was gathering in the road. All were staring at Bindra, at her bandaged hands and frightened children.

“Is this true?” the conductor asked, approaching apprehensively.

“I am no witch!” Bindra cried. “Let Kali Ma be my witness!” The very pronouncing of the name of the Dark Goddess began to dispel her timidity.

“But are you
kori
?” he pressed.

Before Bindra could respond, a foot kicked her from behind. She tumbled off the bottom step and hit the floor. The crowd cried out. Her shawl had slipped off her head to reveal a large patch of ugly, hairless scalp and swollen ears.


Ama
!” Jiwan cried out from within the bus.

Bindra clambered to her feet. The crowd shuffled back yet further. She brushed off her clothes and called to her sons. Jyothi and Jiwan leapt down the bus steps and ran to stand beside her.

“Do not fear us!” she said aloud, fighting with herself to calm the trembling that now threatened to defeat her limbs. “We are not different from you! It is only man's limited understanding that sees division where there is none. Your pain and suffering is ours. Our pain and suffering is yours. We are each but one expression of the same Truth. May Kali Ma brighten all our understanding!”

The crowd was unresponsive.

They parted to allow Bindra and the two boys, who now clung to her, to shuffle away. Not until the little family was out of the village and some distance from its rickety bridge and busy market did Bindra speak.

“My good, strong sons, the foreigners' medicine I need is perhaps five or six days' walk away, if we stay to the road,” she breathlessly explained. She could hear the Kakariguri bus growling its way towards them and turned awkwardly to glance behind her. “But we may have to walk in the forest . . . away from the wheels.”

“Don't worry,
Ama
!” grinned Jyothi. “I shall sing to the
Punyajana and they will watch our path.”

And, thus, as Bindra quickly led her sons off the tarmac of the old trunk road and into dark, dense jungle, the Good People in the trees were serenaded by a solitary voice confidently singing, “
Resam phiriri
...”

***

I awoke to find an elderly man sitting on the bed beside me. He looked into my eyes and smiled.

“Mister David, you are most welcome.”

Priya's grandfather was a striking figure, tall and elegant in the pure white
dhoti
cloth that wrapped around his waist and drew up between his legs. With his thick, white hair and dark, omniscient eyes, he looked to me like Rabindranath Tagore, the illuminating narrator to my life, the bright lantern that, since childhood, had chased my shadows.

I was momentarily transfixed by Mr Mehta's sun-creviced forehead with its generous daub of deep-orange ochre from his
puja
to the Monkey God. I then remembered myself, placed my hands at my heart and thanked him for the generosity of the welcome I had received, even though I had not been expected.

“You are the first Westerner this village has ever seen,” he smiled broadly, in flawless English. “You have now become part of our people's history. They will still talk of you in fifty years' time!” His face became serious. “And your welcome is such because, for all we know, you may even be God come to visit us.”

Before I could respond to such a startling suggestion, his eyes welled with tears and he wrapped his arms around me. Mr Mehta held me to him with tender, quiet strength. It was as though he sensed the burning blur of previous months had been dominated by such a profound sense of loss that I had become entirely accustomed to an enduring, ill-lit hollowness. I had existed in a void, deprived of any depth of feeling or constancy of thought, from which I had been unable to find the least escape. My only means to maintain control had been to isolate myself, to become anonymous, denying all contact with friends and family.

The facts had been irrefutable: Priya and Grandmother were gone.

No awkward condolences, no pity in self-consciously averted eyes would restore them to me.

However, to be held now by this stranger whom Priya had loved enabled me to soften in his supporting arms. To rest upon his shoulder. To cling to him and weep.

I only pulled away to wipe my face when Priya's Uncle Piyush entered the room. He was strong, handsome and confident, yet waited with respect until I had regained composure.


Our guest from the dark of the infinite
,” he quoted, with a broad and honest smile, “
the guest of light
!”

“My Grandmother and Priya were the only other people in my life able to recite Tagore!” I stumbled in recognition, astonished to hear their names together on my tongue.

As I continued to sniff my nose and dry my eyes, Uncle Piyush joined us on the bed and held my hand. The unexpected company of Tagore in our first meeting provided a safe foundation on which to cultivate an association. We compared our favourite poems, preferred passages from his prose, and found ourselves engaging like old friends.

Mr Mehta sat by, watching us attentively. He then announced, “I shall no longer be calling you ‘Mister David'. You are my own son, we are your family, and this is your home.”

I suddenly remembered my purpose and turned to my rucksack. I dug deep for two carefully wrapped boxes and hesitantly handed them to Priya's grandfather.

“The wedding gold,” I murmured. “I have come to return the wedding gold.”

He slowly placed the boxes on his lap and stared hard at the unopened lids.

Again, he took me in his arms.

Again, we wept.

***

By dusk, Bindra, Jyothi and Jiwan had travelled little distance. They had been unable to climb the steep, forested mountainside, unable to clamber across the deep, rocky gullies cut by monsoon streams. Bindra had felt she had no choice but to return them to the “blacktop” road, despite her trepidation.

Jiwan had tired quickly, but his exhausted mother had found herself unable to carry him. The new skin across her back and shoulders was still too fragile, too sensitive to bear any weight. As the light had fallen and the traffic had dwindled, she had led the boys back to the ease of tarmac.

By nightfall, they had reached a promontory, high above the river, designated a “viewing point” by the West Bengal Tourist Board. Where once there had been virgin jungle, now the State offered a pot-holed car park, a pair of dilapidated concrete benches and a roofless shelter for the recreational pleasure of holidaying visitors. The two boys wrinkled their noses as they entered the place. It stank of stale urine.

They were not the first that evening to settle at the “viewing point”. Two tall, lean
roti-wallahs
had already lit a low fire and were laying out their bedding. Such itinerant pastrymen were a common sight on these hill roads. They came from the distant Plains to walk between mountain villages with large, metal trunks balanced on their heads. These black cases were filled with such tasty and rare delights that the appearance of the
boxies
in any hill community remained a source of great excitement as the enduring chill of a long winter slowly began to thaw.

Bindra drew the shawl close around her face and tucked her bandaged hands up inside, well out of sight. The men stared hard as they approached.


Namooshkar
,” they offered in mumbled Bengali greeting.


Namaste dajooharu
,” Bindra replied brightly in her own tongue. She indicated towards their small fire with a lift of her eyes. In answer, they both briefly nodded for them to share the warmth.

Whilst she encouraged the boys to run ahead, Bindra moved closer with caution. Bengali
roti-wallahs
were well-known for their coarse manner and assertive appetites, and these men were eyeing her with more curiosity than she felt comfortable.

She crouched down at a distance, taking care to keep her back to the two strangers. The men watched intently as she discreetly unwrapped her food parcel and passed one piece of soft
churpi
to each of her sleepy boys. The fragile
phinni
had been reduced to nothing more than flakes and crumbs, but the boys scooped them from the cloth and licked them off their fingers. Bindra held back Detchen Dhondup's potato
aloo dum
and sweet sesame
til mithai
, in the hope that she could make it last until they reached Kakariguri. After that, she had not yet dared to think.

It was still the custom in these hills to share provisions, however poor. Bindra asked Jyothi to offer a piece of
churpi
to their camp mates. Both men declined. They had never been able to develop a taste for the pungency of fermented yak's cheese, so prized amongst these hill people in their jungle-clad mountains. One of the men returned the hospitality by unlocking his metal trunk and handing Jyothi three pastry
shingara
stuffed with spicy vegetables.

Bindra smiled in gratitude as her boys tucked hungrily into the crisp crusts. The
roti-wallah
offered a bloody grin in return, his mouth and teeth scarlet with well-chewed betel nut, but Bindra quickly turned away.

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
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