Read In the Shadow of Crows Online

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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However, for that one night, all remorse at my imminent departure was short-lived. The gentle touch of responsive hands and the cool air, so deliciously balming after the searing onslaught of the day, soon seduced me into a depth of sleep I had not known for many months, as heat-lightning illuminated the tops of the mango trees and gave the monkeys nightmares.

***

The mountain was foggy that morning. A dispiriting drizzle was fast dampening Bindra's shawl.

Before continuing their journey towards the Plains, she gave the boys a little of the
aloo dum
from its greaseproof paper. They both ate the
shingara
she had saved from the pastrymen, with a sprinkle of extra salt from its newspaper twist. And they all shared one orange.

Back home, it was
haat
market day and the road was already busy with buses and jeeps as both shoppers and merchants wound their way up to the old hill station. Bindra kept to the dark tree line as often as she could for protection from both the weather and cruel eyes.

Jyothi cried out in triumph when he spotted an
iskus
vine heavy with fruit. Together, they gathered the squash gourds and bound them in Bindra's cloth. Although they hung heavily around her waist, the promise of baked
iskus
for dinner had already lightened the load.

The drizzle was fast becoming rain, so Bindra called for the boys to find shelter until it passed. She laughed as Jyothi and Jiwan ran ahead, kicking up their legs and whooping in the wet.

When Bindra reached the broad-leafed tree selected as the driest spot to wait out the weather, Jyothi was sitting alone.

“Where's your brother?” Bindra asked. Jyothi stared back, his face expressionless.

Bindra swung around and called out, “Jiwan! Where are you hiding?”

She looked back at Jyothi. His silence had begun to frighten her. “Son, where's your brother?” she asked again with greater urgency.

Something was very wrong. She recalled the talk of tigers in these lower slopes, when she was a girl. Her heart began to deafen her ears.

She stumbled towards Jyothi and cried, “Where's your brother?”

Jyothi looked up at her and shook his head.

“Tell me!” she ordered.

“Jiwan-
bhai
was behind me, running,
Ama
. But when I reached the tree, he wasn't there any more.”

Bindra turned to retrace their path, calling for her little boy at every step.

The forest was silent.

The pain of panic in her chest was catching every breath. She turned back to Jyothi, who had not moved from the shelter of the tree.

“You heard nothing? Saw nothing? Your brother did not call out?”


Ama
, I saw a man . . .” Jyothi muttered in fear, his cheeks beginning to run with tears.

Bindra's eyes darted wildly as she scanned the undergrowth. No man could move in silence across these
thumki
hillsides. No man could move without leaving his trail.

“Where was he?” she hissed in whisper, certain they were now being spied upon.

Jyothi pointed towards a towering peepal tree, the sacred fig of Shiva, symbol of the liberated mind. Some said that to tell a lie beneath its shade brought upon the culprit the very affliction his mother now bore, yet Jyothi had only ever known her to speak the truth.

Soft rain rustled the tree's vulva-shaped leaves, symbols of the Goddess, as Bindra forged into the undergrowth towards the pale, peeling trunk. At its base stood an old stone
lingam
, emblem of universal union. The upright stone was garlanded with an offering of fresh flowers, and yet she could see no footprint, no broken foliage. She touched the base of the tree, touched her heart, then waded back to Jyothi.

“How did he look, this man?” she asked, in heightening alarm. Jyothi shook his head.

“Son, tell me!” she cried out.

“He was like a child. Small, like a child. A red child,” he blurted. “Red?” Bindra gasped. “Was he naked? Stained with
sidur
?”

Jyothi rocked his head from side to side in anxious affirmation.

“Wearing many
malas
around his neck? Around his arms? A drum in his hand?”

Jyothi had not stopped nodding.

Bindra put her bandaged hands to her mouth, as though to muffle the words she feared to say out loud.


Ban jhankri
!” she cried. “Jiwan has been taken by the
ban jhankri
!”

Chapter Six

First impressions of Gujarat's principal city of Ahmedabad convinced me to remain no longer than the time it took to travel between the train station and the bus depot.

Seven hours in a sweltering second-class carriage, with a projectile-vomiting infant beside me, and two itching strangers sitting on my backpack due to the lack of room, had left my nerves frayed and my patience worn. This city may have beckoned tourists to its splendid Indo-Saracenic architecture and the Mahatma's celebrated ashram, but the blinding dust, lung-solidifying pollution and relentless roar of the traffic drove me to seek an escape just as quickly as I could.

Unlike the cheery rickshaw-
wallahs
at Valsad, those waiting outside Ahmedabad station were aggressive and bad-tempered. They fought each other for my custom. They pulled at my dampening clothes from every direction. I defiantly ignored them all and marched straight for a young man, so thin that his eyes bulged from his face, so gaunt that his arteries pulsated visibly beneath translucent skin. He smiled weakly at me and glanced nervously towards his competitors who were now jeering as they wrestled with each other to be the first to reach us.

“Long Distance Bus Station
chalo
!” I shouted above the hullabaloo.

He shook his head in incomprehension.

As his native Gujarati was beyond me, I tried, “Drive me to the Long Distance Bus Station, please!” in my most pedantic RP.

Still no joy. I had thought that “Bus Station” was widely understood.

The other drivers were already upon us and had begun to pull at my backpack. As I struggled into his rickshaw, they punched my emaciated peddler with their fists. I hastily scoured my limited memory of childhood Urdu for some appropriate term for him to get going, while fighting with his rivals to retain my luggage.


So jao
!” I shouted at my driver.

I cringed. I had just ordered him to go to bed. Under such duress, my minimal childhood vocabulary had become completely muddled. I berated myself for never once having thought to learn a word of Gujarati from Priya, or her parents. I had never imagined that I would have had a reason to make this journey alone.

The crowd was now maddening itself into an incomprehensible frenzy. It seemed I was about to be dragged from the rickshaw, and the skinny man gripping the handlebars brutally concussed. Despite my dismay at the forceful fingers now trying to wrench the shoes off my feet, I was distracted by the physical state of my malnourished driver. As bare toes kicked hard into his spindle shins and stark knuckles slammed against xylophone ribs, he turned around to me with tears in his eyes and lips drawn thin. It looked to me as though he was about to expire.

“Go!” I yelled at him. “Drive! Pedal!”

This was ridiculous. I was being attacked and robbed on a busy station forecourt. My driver was having his bones broken by bullying competitors because he did not understand a word I said, yet still he patiently awaited my direction.

Utterly desperate, I shouted, “
Bawasir
!”, a word with which I had vague recollections of my father's father once filling me with alarm. To my amazement, it did the trick. My rickshaw driver immediately began pedalling at top speed and fast pulled away from our abusers.

Not until the raging mob was far behind did I look down to find my clothes and skin covered with a Pollock-like paroxysm of dirty fingerprints in sweaty smears. I slumped against my rucksack in exhaustion, and puzzled at the dynamic response I had finally achieved. A fact made all the more inexplicable as the word I had inadvertently yelled was “haemorrhoids”.

***

Bindra clung to Jyothi as they made slow progress through the dense undergrowth of mountain jungle. She called Jiwan's name at every difficult step, certain that the
ban jhankri
could not have taken him far. He was somewhere in the shadows of these misty trees. He was somewhere on this hillside.

The
ban jhankri
was a figure of mountain folklore, whose continuing appearance and interaction with the local population enabled the diminutive forest shaman to move with ease between myth and man. Many tales were told of children who vanished whilst walking in the forest, or working in the fields. Their disappearance was always so swift, so gentle, that even those by whose side they stood did not feel their departure.

It was said that the
ban jhankri
stepped out of the tree line and beckoned to those innocents he chose. It was only they who could see him. Some denied their capacity for the path he offered and ran straight home. Others willingly followed him into the jungle, where they were initiated into the limitless potential of the Words of Power.

Bindra had met a man when she was a child, who had been taken by a female
ban jhankri
. The
ban jhankrini
, as such mystical women were called, generally lacked the discretion of their male counterparts, and she had charged down the hillside, pendulous breasts slung over her shoulders, to simply snatch him as he had foraged amongst the trees. He had been returned two years later, barely recognisable to his own family. Bindra thought of him now and found herself sobbing into the damp quiet of the trees.


Ama
, look!” Jyothi suddenly tugged at her arm. “
Ama
, there are soldiers!”

Bindra peered down the hill to a large army truck drawn up against the roadside. A row of uniformed men was gathering along the cliff edge to urinate into the river below.

Bindra had forgotten her fear. She had forgotten the damage to her body that others found so threatening.


Dajooharu
!” she shouted as she stumbled, slid and fell towards the serpentine length of grey road below them. “Brothers, help us!”

The abrupt appearance of Bindra and Jyothi as they tumbled out of the undergrowth and hit the wet tarmac caused some of the young men to start. Bindra instantly became self-conscious again and prudently drew the shawl over her head, around her face and hands, as Jyothi helped her to stand upright. They both stared at the soldiers, at their mottled-green uniforms, their heavy, shiny boots and unwieldy wooden rifles. They had often seen the enormous army trucks grinding up towards the Tibetan border posts, but these Bengalis, Biharis, Rajasthanis and Punjabis, with their incomprehensible speech and inexpressive faces, were normally avoided by the local population.

“Kali Ma,” Bindra whispered under her breath, and stepped forwards. “Brothers, my son is missing. My son is gone. In the trees...”

They stared back at her in incomprehension.

“Brothers, my son is gone . . .” she repeated. “I beg you to help me.”

More men buttoned up their flies and joined their comrades on the road. A Bihari with a large belly that refused to be reined in even by his broad, regulation leather belt, laughed out loud. He crudely, flatulently encouraged the others to return to the vehicle.

“Please, brothers!” Bindra pleaded. “My son!”

The tumble to the road had loosened the long length of cloth bound around Bindra's hips. In a moment, its knot unravelled, releasing her meagre provisions to the ground. The scavenged
iskus
rolled straight toward the row of obsessively polished toes. Jyothi ran to grab the precious yellow gourds, but a tall, slender Sikh stepped forwards and caught the vegetables in his large hands. He walked across the road to help Bindra scoop up the few remaining items, then chased off three mangy rhesus monkeys that were showing a little too much interest in her greasy paper parcels.


Dhanyabad dajoo
,” she said in thanks, her gaze exploring his finely coiled, green
pagri
turban and the impressive length of his well-shaped nose. “It's my son, my little boy. He's lost in the trees!”

The bearded Punjabi stood up and sought out Bindra's eyes. He did not speak Nepali. She looked straight back with an unfaltering gaze. This uncommonly tall man, with his noble, foreign features, was going to help her. She had decided.

The soldier turned and in English called, “Hey, Kabir! Nathu! Come out here a moment!”

Two dark, broad-cheeked faces peered through the canvas cover of the truck. Gurkhas.

“Brothers! Brothers!” Bindra called in excitement, her heart brightening in relief at the sight of Nepali-speaking kinsmen.

She quickly recounted Jyothi's sighting of the
ban jhankri
and Jiwan's disappearance. The two men listened intently, then turned back to their comrades. Bindra strained to hear, but could not understand the foreign tongue shared by the soldiers, into which her account was now translated.


Mero chora
!” she just kept repeating. “My son! My son!”

“Sister,” one of the Gurkhas smiled, “we'll help you look, but we don't have long. We're expected up at Deolo camp.”

And into the forest the soldiers swarmed.

***

The main road along which my scrawny Gujarati rickshaw-
wallah
and I trundled was melting and sticky in the noonday sun. The fablon-covered bench on which I perched, balanced atop rusty bicycle wheels, gave me little confidence. We swerved wildly between lorries, buses, motorbikes, ox-carts, pony-traps and countless fellow rickshaws, my heat-plumped fingers whitening as I dug them deep into slippery upholstery.

Every jolt and slue drove us further into dark, obscuring fumes that billowed in aggressive threat from innumerable engines run on low-grade petrol cut with oil. I choked through my grimace, briefly clutching a handkerchief to nose and mouth until I had to concede defeat and, with near-feral gesticulation, direct my dishevelled driver to turn off down a narrow backstreet. He drew to a halt and turned to stare at me with vacant eyes. It occurred to me that in our panicked departure from the train station, I had not yet determined whether he had understood my desired destination. I took the opportunity of comparative quiet to try again. “Bus Station. Long Distance Bus Station.”

My pronunciation was now that of a baritone Joyce Grenfell. Still it did not appear to register with him. I had but one option and winced in anticipation.

“Long Distance Bus Station, please,” I said in an embarrassing imitation of Peter Sellers' Doctor Ahmed.


Thik che
!
Thik che
!” he responded in delighted Gujarati, releasing his grip on the handlebars to shake my hands in triumph.


Boom ditty boom ditty boom
,” I sighed in relief.

I decided to celebrate our advance in communication by dismounting to approach a
dhaba
food-stall, where I bought two cold bottles of an over-sweetened fizzy drink called Limca. My driver's delighted grin stretched his gaunt skin to its limit. Looking into his face, I had the distinct feeling that this was a man whose life would not be long. It was difficult to tell, but I guessed he could have been no older than about twenty-five. Frustrated and angry with my own helplessness, my impotence to make the slightest bit of difference to his life, in a pathetic attempt at a philanthropic gesture I returned to the stall and bought him a selection of savoury pastries and fruit. Harsad, as his name proved to be, seemed astonished, whilst I, with a pang of ancestral colonial guilt, fretted as to whether I was, in fact, being condescending.

With new confidence and strength, Harsad pedalled on through a squalid quarter of pollution-corroded tenements. As we rattled over bricks, cracked pipes and spasmodic sections of crumbling tarmac, we approached a young husband and wife struggling to pull five small children and all their belongings on a heavy cart. The wagon was also piled with cardboard boxes, scrap paper and a mound of broken stones. Amongst this refuse, presumably collected for reselling, lay a shrivelled old woman with watery eyes who was partially covered in pieces of sacking and rag. She was feverish and breathing heavily. Although the couple leaned into the yoke with all their weight, they failed to move the wooden wheels.

I was still stupefied into pathetic inaction when, as we turned a tight corner, a violent buzzing filled the air and the sky turned black. We had disturbed a frantic swarm of innumerable flies. My driver had to swerve to avoid not only the reeking corpses of what appeared to have once been two dogs lying in our way - so bloated that their stiff limbs no longer touched the ground - but also the pack of hairless mongrels that now tugged with cannibal dementia at bulbous bellies and paws.

At the crowded depot, I purchased a ticket for the “luxury bus” to the city of Udaipur, which lay over the state border in Rajasthan. Harsad saw me right to the door. I put an arm around his fleshless shoulders to express my thanks for his courteous and efficient service. He weakly shook my hand goodbye, with a grin so triumphant that it seemed to threaten to tear his fragile face.

As he walked away on spindly limbs, proudly clutching the meagre bag of food I had purchased from the street stall, my head began to swim with the sights, sounds and smells encountered since boarding Harsad's rickshaw at the train station.

Distress, disease and death. Cruelty and corpses.

This was not the India of my father's stories and Grandmother's tales. Not the India I had tasted in Priya's burning kisses. This was not the India of my childhood imaginings, my lifelong dreams.

I was suddenly submerged in a confusion of memory.

I cried out and ran towards Harsad and his rickshaw, but he had gone. I had no idea what I might have done if I had found him.

I sat on my rucksack in the billowing dust, confused and disorientated.

I needed a moment. To catch my breath.

***

As the army lorry's grumbling roar faded, Bindra slumped to the sodden earth.

“I'm sorry,
Ama
!” Jyothi choked. “It's my fault. I wouldn't go with the little red man. So Jiwan went instead.” He dropped to the ground beside his mother and covered his face in shame.

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
5.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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