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
She had never felt comfortable with Plains-men.
Dawn had barely dissipated the bug-drummed darkness, yet the village was already wide awake and working. I breathed in the sweetness of warm cow dung steaming in the yard, the comfort of spices tempering brightly in the kitchen. I stretched my toes and rolled onto my back to listen to the harmony of voices, tools and animals, the concord of a whole new world beyond the windows.
Suddenly, an anxious cry. Mr Mehta.
I leapt from the bed, wrapped around my waist a
cloth, and ran out onto the verandah.
Priya's grandfather was bending over the buckled body of a perspiring stranger. The man's head was bleeding badly.
“What's happened?” I asked, as Mrs Mehta hurried to join us. Her hands were already heavy with clean cotton and a bowl of steaming water.
“This fellow is a
, from the edge of our village,” Mr Mehta said, gently laying a hot, wet compress across the man's wounds. “You understand the term
?” he asked.
I shook my head.
means âbroken', âshattered', âoppressed',” he explained. “This fellow is an
, an Untouchable - even though Untouchability has officially been illegal in India since the days of the Mahatma!” he added with manifest frustration.
I crouched down to meet the eyes of the ostracised man, whose sort my Grandmother had told me to embrace.
“His name is Pankaj - âmud-born',” Mr Mehta said in introduction, quickly adding in response to my look of surprise, “like a lotus, not a worm! He and his wife are permitted no land. Instead, they must deal only with dead livestock and the removal of the other villagers' faeces from the fields with their bare hands. Can you imagine such a scavenging
I could not.
referred to such people as
,” he continued, “Children of God, just to make his point. But you think casteminded people really understood then, or begin to understand today? Do you think they would ever allow this man to enter their homes, or even to take water from the same well?”
Pankaj looked up at me and smiled shyly, even as he winced at another application of scalding cotton. I laid my hands on his shoulders in an attempt at comfort. He looked too hurt to hug. In response, Pankaj placed his pale palms together and drew them to his heart, even as tears trickled down his bruised cheeks to darken the dust.
“Has he had an accident?” I pressed, as Mrs Mehta returned with more clean cotton and a honey-pot. She removed the wooden lid and handed the small clay container to me.
“Son, this is no accident,” Mr Mehta replied, shaking his head and tutting in despair. He dipped in the proffered spoon, then let the viscous, antiseptic syrup drip onto torn flesh. “Neither is this uncommon, nor infrequent. I am sorry to say there are some, even in our own community, who have not yet learned the inherent value of all life. Some who do not yet see that all is one . . .”
A sudden shout interrupted his explanation. Its vehemence caused Pankaj to flinch and retract his undernourished, scab-dappled legs. I had not noticed the gathering of agitated villagers that kept its well-judged distance.
A gaunt, tense man stepped towards us. He seemed angry.
Mr Mehta responded with a pacifying smile and uplifted palm. He refused to be dissuaded from his attentive ministrations, revealing the same quiet strength of character and conviction that had once been Priya's.
A second, quarrelsome voice was raised, sustained by the swell of a communal grumble.
Mr Mehta turned to face the bared hostility of his neighbours.
I could not understand a word of his Gujarati, yet was transfixed as he addressed the crowd with calm authority. What I took to be his defence of the damaged man, who now cowered at our feet, was such that all dissent was immediately silenced. Every one of the villagers dropped their eyes as though in shame, then silently shuffled back to homes and duties.
Mrs Mehta returned to the kitchen to pile a
plate with hot
khichdi rice and daal for their unexpected guest, whilst Mr Mehta indicated to me for more honey.
“In the old days,” he confided under his breath, as he continued in his care, “my whole family would have now been outcast.”
A restored and reassured Pankaj was soon sent off home in the protective company of Uncle Piyush, whilst Priya's grandfather carefully cleaned his hands and I quickly bathed in preparation for morning
“The villagers obviously respect you,” I said to Mr Mehta as we walked across the fields towards a little white-washed temple. “Priya told me that you were once a schoolmaster.”
“Indeed,” he confirmed, “some miles from this very village. But that was long, long ago, when I was a young dreamer of a fellow.”
“So, you must have been teaching under the Raj,” I asserted.
Mr Mehta slowed to a halt and took hold of my arm, as though preparing to steady himself.
“Son, when the Quit India agitation was escalating in '43,” he began with sudden solemnity, “news reached my schoolhouse that British troops were on their way to suppress the demand for
, for totally independent rule, in our district.”
I remembered hearing that my grandfather had regularly knocked
hats off the heads of Congress supporters in the street, with a swipe of his regimental swagger-stick. I now cringed at my own juvenile naivety that had been amused at the Chaplinesque slapstick of such a story, without a thought for the remarkable self-determination of a subjugated people that underlay it. I now found myself wondering at the colonial fantasy that I had been fed and so easily, if not mindlessly, accepted.
“The moment the warning came, I ordered the children straight home,” Mr Mehta continued, an undisguised strain now tightening his voice. “But word had arrived too late. My pupils met the soldiers on the road. In the impulsive bravery of their youth - enthused, I have no doubt, by the popularity of Non-Cooperation - some of my older boys defiantly mocked the Tommies. In response, the British soldiers emptied their guns into the children's legs. I heard the volleys from the schoolhouse -
! I ran to them, ran just as fast as I was able. But all too late. When I saw what had been done to my students, my innocent boys and girls, I fell flat to the ground . . .”
Even as Mr Mehta said the words, he clasped his chest and belly. I held him fast to keep him upright, as, almost half a century on, he sobbed into an empty, sun-baked field the raw lucidity of his memories.
Fire-warmed and well-fed, the two boys soon fell asleep.
Bindra, however, forced herself to remain awake. She could feel the
staring at her back, but could understand nothing of the muttered exchanges they shared.
!” one of them whispered towards her.
Bindra pulled her shawl close and looked over her shoulder. He had gruffly called her attention. Both men grinned in unison and raised their dense eyebrows. One was rubbing affectionately at a gathering in the
cloth around his loins. Bindra's heart began to pound. She turned back to her boys and pretended to busy herself with their blankets.
This time, the whisper bore yet greater intent, whilst his companion could barely contain his giggles. Bindra had determined not to turn around again.
Suddenly, an extended finger prodded her back with forthright purpose. She winced with pain and pulled away.
“No, brothers, I am hurt!” she cried, exposing the fear she was fighting to contain. “I am hurt beneath my clothing. You are not to touch me. Please, for the sake of my fatherless boys . . .”
The men burst out laughing. “
Nepali oto bhalo bolte pari na
!” one mocked in Bengali. “Can't speak Nepali that well, love!”
Bindra could not be sure what they had said. To make herself clearly understood, she lifted her shawl, deliberately uncovering a broad swathe of burnt, bare scalp. The men gasped and drew back. “Now leave us be!” she growled, revealing a bandaged hand as she pointed for dramatic threat into the impenetrable shadows. “Kali Ma is watching!” she added for effect.
Both men had lost their juvenile banter. They were puzzled by the unsightly signs of damage this woman had unveiled. They were now unsure with whom they shared the comfort of their fire.
had long made their living amongst these hill people at the end of the cold season, but still they were unsettled by the tales of
chanting women and
seers. They feared the headless
that bore eyes in their shoulders and stepped from the trees to bring nausea. The tattered
, who had died as men in the snows and now latched on to the living to sap them of life. The stories of
who spoke with the voices of the dead, and
who crouched in the shadows at dusk to wreak confusion. But most of all, they feared the
who, it was claimed, inflicted insanity, infected food and ate the hearts of children.
The disquieted Bengalis settled down to sleep. They eyed the woman and her sons one last time with uncomfortable suspicion, then cuddled up together, blankets drawn over their faces to keep in the warmth and keep out the mountain magic.
The night vibrated with insect life and the clamour of testy monkeys in the dark. Bindra looked up towards Shiva in his form of the moon god, riding his chariot of glazed water through the darkness.
“Soma-shambhu-paddhati,” she whispered, in search of comfort, “look over my fatherless boys and my lost girls as I sleep. Sweeten their dreams.”
Bindra drew up her knees and rested her head on her forearms. There was no position that did not cause new pain.
When next she opened her eyes, it was light. The fire was long out.
The moon and the pastrymen had gone.
Before the evening meal, Uncle Piyush and I walked through the sugar cane to his mango orchards. They appeared fiercely aflame in the sinking sun.
“Priya loved this place,” he smiled, his arm sweeping wide as though to encompass all fields, trees, cows and crows as far as the distant, darkening horizon. “
Gloom in the forest and glamour in the sky
,” he wistfully murmured, as his hands alighted on my shoulders.
I nodded, but found no words to offer in reply. However hard I looked, I would not find her.
“So, now you must take care,” Uncle Piyush hissed into my ear. “There are snakes here!”
As we stepped beneath the dense canopy of thick leaves, I could not initially see a thing and wondered just how he meant me to “take care” of venomous fangs gleefully primed and waiting in the shadow. “
says that man has disturbed the balance in the world, because snakes, monkeys and birds all behave differently from when his father was alive,” he explained in whisper. “You see, the snakes are cruel today, they attack for no reason.”
Once our eyes had become accustomed to the darkness, Uncle Piyush tenderly fingered the heavy fruit that hung around us. Having judged one ripe for plucking, he carefully rotated it from its hold and handed it to me.
“Mangoes are always best eaten fresh from the tree,” he advised with an encouraging grin.
“Right again, Grandma!” I smiled to myself, as eager fingernails revealed the fragrant flesh beneath smooth skin, and keen teeth plunged deep into succulent, golden glory.
Far ahead, beneath the sunless ceiling where wild peacocks courted, the solitary tongue of an oil-fed wick flickered weakly. We had come to check on the Rajasthani
, hired to guard the fruit from thieves. Despite our underfoot twig-crunchings and constant chat, the watchman did not wake from his slumber until Uncle Piyush had shaken him roughly by the shoulders. He was dismissed the following day.
Back at the village, the women were already extinguishing the lamps. Husbands were returning to waiting wives, whilst young men mounted the flat roofs of family homes to lie together on communal beds. I had been invited by cousins Mukund, Harsad, Amul and Tapan to share their sleep, so climbed the stairs to join them on a mattress of dry rushes, spread out to modify the temperature of the house below.
Beneath the lambent gaze of Orion and a lucent moon, we talked late into a night heady with the scent of liberally oiled hair, salty skin and fervent, fertile earth. The boys asked after their cousins, Priya's brothers, in England, of the crops they grew, the cows they kept, the women they loved. They discussed test matches and spin bowlers, hooks and yorkers, glides and googlies. They guided me through gods and goddesses of a teeming, joyful pantheon that encompassed all that is, or was, or could be. They told me tales of relentless wars and irrepressible passions, defeated demons and unconquered kings. They described the affectionate intimacies shared in India between closest friends, and, with the names of Lord Krishna and Prince Aravan on their lips as though in benison, tenderly entwined their limbs in mine.
The week had passed too quickly and I now regretted that my time in the village was to be brief. I had so feared meeting Priya's family, in selfish anticipation of the crippling pain it might expose, that I had purchased in advance a train ticket to leave the following morning. I was about to commence my journey northwards, in search of whatever remained of a distant childhood that had so inspired my own. I had determined that, from amongst the ruins of an empire, I would find some remnant of my father, an echo of a man who had remained so inaccessible in my life and yet so influential in his distance.