Read In the Shadow of Crows Online

Authors: David Charles Manners

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The soldiers had been kind to them. They had searched hard. They had shouted Jiwan's name loudly. None had called her
bokshi
. None had tried to hurt her. The Gurkhas had pressed a little money into Jyothi's right hand as they left. The Punjabi with the warrior eyes had given them
mewa
papaya that he had found growing in the forest. They had all been kind.

“It's not your fault,
mero ramro, shashi keto
,” Bindra assured Jyothi, “my good, brave boy.” She cuddled him to her breast and sought for words to comfort both of them. “We must believe that Jiwan is not gone. The
ban jhankri
are not bad men. They bring their chosen ones back, in time. We must just stay here and wait - until Jiwan is returned.”

“But
Ama
, the doctor said I must take care of you. The doctor said I must see you get good medicine from the Ancestors at the Tune-Snake-Hand Ashram,” Jyothi insisted.

“They'll have to wait,” she replied with tired resignation. “Just as we must wait for your brother to come back.”

“But
Ama
,” he persisted, “where shall we live? We have no house here. No
bakhri
goat for milk. No
kukhurii
hen for eggs. No
haat
market for rice and daal!”

Bindra did not reply for a moment. She looked far into the trees.

“Then we shall sing sweetly for the
Punyajana
,” she announced quietly. “This is their world and we shall show them respect. We shall apologise for the disruption we have already caused to their peace, and offer our best songs in our finest voices.”

She smiled at Jyothi and wiped his dirty, tear-streaked face with the frayed hem of her shawl.

“There is nothing to fear, my darling son,” she promised. “The Good People of the forest will watch over us.”

***

The “luxury bus” was filthy.

The seats had lost much of their upholstery and rusty springs poked directly out of the exposed horsehair, which crawled with mites. I sat in the stationary vehicle at Ahmedabad for almost two hours of unexplained delays in paint-blistering heat. Not only was I sticking to the tacky seat and, though desperate for air, forced to breathe shallowly due to the abominable stench of the open cesspools outside the bus, but I had also begun to scratch.

I had convinced myself that our deferred departure had enabled some unseen miscreant to steal my backpack from the roof-rack above. My minimal funds would never accommodate a new wardrobe and I now mentally prepared to live in the same shorts and shirt for the coming weeks. In addition, I was trapped behind cracked windows, which would not open, and was drinking my bottled water too fast. I quickly realised that I would have to limit my intake if my diminishing supply was to last the journey.

My fellow travellers were all local and a sullen set, so unlike the hearty rurals of Valsad and Dalba. I tried to initiate conversation, but felt that I was regarded with suspicion and my attempts remained entirely without success. I did however discover that I had been charged over twice the price for my ticket than any other passenger.

Before I could muster the will to return to the ticket office and cause a scene, the engine burst into splutters. The new promise of escape from the insanity of the bus station and of a sewage-free breeze through the windows kept me in my seat.

However, as brakes squealed and gear-box grated, a dysfunctional cassette player also struggled into life. For the entire six hours of the journey, we were continuously blasted with a single tape of Bollywood favourites at double speed, while the speakers distorted and the screws worked loose.

And yet nobody seemed to mind.

Except the lone, sweaty, angry, itchy foreigner.

***

Bindra and Jyothi had sung their gratitude to the
Punyajana
before tearing into the perfumed orange flesh of the papayas.

“You see how good they are to us, the Good People?” Bindra affirmed, her mouth full of delicious sweetness. “The
Punyajana
are worthy of their name!”


Ama
,” mumbled Jyothi, his face pressed deep into the skin, his teeth and lips still busy seeking out the remaining fruit, “why can't I see the
Punyajana
?”

Bindra cleaned her lips with her tongue and edged closer to him on the pile of large, waxy leaves Jyothi had gathered as a waterproof carpet on which to sit.

“The
Punyajana
are all around us in the forest,” she explained, as comfort for herself as much as for her son. Jyothi loved his mother's stories and snuggled in, without once faltering in his busy exploration of the now bare papaya rind. “We see them in all the goodness that they offer us. In the trees that give us shelter, tools and honey. In the plants we use to heal and clean. In the
kapur
camphor that fragrances our
puja
fires. And in the
gurubuwa
flowers that give our hill
jhankris
and mountain
yogis
their secret knowledge.”

“Does the
ban jhankri
have secret knowledge too?” Jyothi asked, lowering the limp skin to stare hard into the trees.

“The
ban jhankri
perhaps most of all,” Bindra confirmed, following her son's anxious gaze. “And do you know the name of the King of the
Punyajana
?” she quickly continued to distract him from his quiet fear.

Jyothi shook his head.

“Why, it's Kubera, the best friend of Lord Shiva! He's a good king, who has a big happy belly and a big happy face!”

Jyothi smiled at the thought.

“And, do you know, he holds a mongoose in one hand that coughs up jewels of every colour, to remind us of the unfailing abundance of life? And a sour
kaagati
fruit in the other, to remind us that we have nothing to fear in death?”

Jyothi's dark eyes had opened wide.

“Now,” she continued, “Lord Kubera keeps only eight teeth in his head, to teach us the eight qualities that afford us peace of mind and serenity of heart, qualities that we would all do well to strive for in our lives: tolerance and self-discipline, generosity and patience, contemplation and honesty, dedicated intention and knowledge.”

“Does he live on our Kanchenjunga?” Jyothi asked, excitedly.

“Oh, very near by, in a beautiful city called Alkapuri, where all the riches of this wonderful earth are stored. It is Kubera who shares them out, to make sure we all have what we need.”

Jyothi's forehead furrowed. “Do we have what we need,
Ama
?”

“Just look at us, here!” she burst in delighted reply. “We have our sturdy trees for shelter and our bed of soft leaves. We have a changing sky in our eyes and a chorus of birdsong in our ears. We have shawls to wrap around us in the cold, dry twigs to burn and fruit to eat. We even have a clean
kulo
brook that trickles by to ease our thirst. We have good memories of good people. We have stories to share. And we have each other. See how rich we are!”

Jyothi was still deep in thought. “But
Ama
, we don't have Jiwan.”

Bindra did not reply, but looked back into the trees. The loss of her daughters had inflicted such grief and a torment of guilt that there had been many days and sleepless nights she had not believed she would bear. It was only the resolute repetition to herself that she had made the right choice for her girls, and the unwavering conviction that she would be able to reunite them, that had enabled her to endure their absence. To also lose a son now threatened to unleash a carefully contained despair. If only she could talk to the kindly
jhankri
of Lapu
basti
, he would know what she should do.

Bindra put out her hand to touch the little cloth bag of balls of cremation ash mixed with buffalo
ghiu
that Kushal Magar had given her.


Ama
, what if we were to do
puja
to Lord Kubera, and ask him to give us back my brother?” Jyothi suggested with great consideration. “He can ask the
Punyajana
to tell him where the
ban jhankri
has taken Jiwan-
bhai
.”

“You are a gift to me,” Bindra said softly, stroking his face with a bandaged hand. “And so very much your father's son,” her smile warm in her remembering.

She sat upright to ready herself.

“Now, normally we would make Kubera
puja
on
Dhan Teras
, two days ahead of
Kaag Tihar
. You remember, the day we decorate the house with
saipattri
-
mala
marigold garlands? The day we feed the crows before we eat our own meal, so that whenever we see their black plumage or hear their
kaag-kaag
caws we remember to look for the wisdom that every moment of every day brings?”

Jyothi grinned at the memory of the five-day-long festival of
Tihar
, and the deep-fried, rice flour
sel roti
fox-bread and
mulako achar
radish pickle his mother used to make to share with their neighbours.

Bindra's head was also filled with blissful memories of home, husband and four noisy, happy children lighting rows of little
diyoharu
oil lamps and singing in unison. Just the thought of the laughter and the galaxy of twinkling diamonds in the darkness cheered her heart.

Together, Bindra and Jyothi chose a long stone by the brook to stand on end. This would be the
lingam
, phallic representation of Shiva. Bindra reminded Jyothi that Kubera sported his own vertical
tesro khutta
“third leg” to show the underlying stability and limitless abundance of life, even in unexpected change and apparent poverty.

Around the
lingam
's base, Bindra had Jyothi draw an eightpetalled lotus to represent Kubera's eight teeth of Wisdom, to prompt them to purify their intentions and their purpose. As he marked the lines in the ground with a stick, she impressed upon her eager son that the riches Kubera represented were never the wealth of personal gain.

“Such wealth,” she insisted, “is not true treasure.”

Together, they gave in offering three young leaves from a banana tree that was growing at the roadside. To this they added scarlet petals from a spreading
lallipatti
poinsettia tree. They had no honey, normally poured over the stone
lingam
in Kubera
puja
, so Bindra directed Jyothi to squeeze sweet juice from the remains of her papaya fruit.

“This symbolises the wealth of earthly delights,” she explained. “When explored with bright awareness, no such pleasures need be an obstacle to wisdom.”

Bindra and Jyothi knelt down together, facing eastwards, the direction of Kali Ma as Bringer of Knowledge. Bindra showed her eager son how to take water from the curled leaf of a tree and sprinkle it first on himself and then over the stone
lingam
. She took the
desalai
striking-matches from her cloth. Together they lit little twists of torn cotton as replacements for lamps, and a ball of pungent moss as incense.

Bindra then taught her son the words of the Kubera mantra, the Words of Power that would enable them to be open to the overflowing abundance of life from every source, even from within themselves.


Aung yakshyaya Kuberaya vaishravanaaya
,” she began, “
dhanadhanyadi padayeh
...”

Jyothi followed, repeating each phrase after his mother.

“Never forget,” she taught him, “Lord Kubera is not outside, but inside. This is the wisdom of the
Thuture Veda
, the Spoken Knowledge of our mountain tradition. We are calling on all that Kubera represents in ourselves. This is to help us learn to receive in order to give. And then, in turn, to give without thought of reward. This is the order of nature, the balance in the universe. This is wisdom.”

Jyothi's tightly knotted brow indicated a pressing question. “So, will Jiwan-
bhai
come back now?”

Bindra looked up to stare into the gathering darkness of the trees.

“Let's sing for the
Punyajana
,” she said.

Chapter Seven

As the “luxury bus” crossed the state border, the landscape changed dramatically. Lush, cultivated plains withered into stony valleys incised by vast, empty riverbeds washing in dust. Gujarati villages clustered beneath palms evaporated in the desiccating heat, to be replaced by broad-roofed farmhouses squatting in solitude on arid hills.

I had entered Rajasthan, the Land of Kings.

Stones that were once great palaces and forts loomed from craggy heights, silhouettes of fallen majesty against cerulean skies. The Rajput warrior-lords who had once filled their marble-floored halls with courtly life and love, cruel vengeance and filial assassination, now surveyed their legacy through the eyes of rednecked vultures from tumbled battlements and toppled towers.

Far below, in the parched fields, sweating children slaved to break rocks into chippings, to mould head-high heaps of steaming dung and straw into blocks. Women, humped beneath stone-piled hods and sun-dried brick, laboured in half-sleeved bodices and billowing skirts of bright jasper, topaz, amethyst and cinnabar. Bare feet splayed beneath heavy anklets of silver and ivory. Necks and ears, noses and foreheads glittered with finely spun silver and thick cut glass.

The rugged route, across which the bald tyres of the bus lurched, bore the hefty hooves of camels. With jutting teeth and long-lashed eyes, they dragged lumbering tumbrels through deep dustbowls and drifting sand. Amongst their loads slumped sun-scorched men sporting soup-strainer moustaches and single hoop-earrings, narrow waists bound in pleated
dhotis
, heads wound in wide
pagri
turbans of riotously coloured cloth.

Far ahead, I caught sight of Brahminy kites and crested eagles gliding above white palaces, bleached temples and shining lakes. Through the haze of dust on the window, a dazzling, heat-inflicted mirage sparkled and reflected in the setting sun: the royal city of Udaipur.

The bus dropped me outside a solid gateway studded with iron spikes, once protection against the battering, armour-clad elephants of ancient enemies. I was genuinely surprised to find my dust-caked rucksack still intact on the roof-rack, with its promise of a change into clean clothes before dinner. It was thus with a renewed buoyancy that I hailed a rickshaw to take me deep within the confines of the city walls.

I had previously read that Udaipur promised a choice of many fine hostelries in which to stay, few of which I could afford on my budget. I had selected a cheap, though romantic-sounding establishment that had once been a minor summer palace. My rickshaw
wallah
, however, exerted defiant independence by taking me to a hotel that was not the one requested. When I objected, he pretended not to understand. While I remonstrated with him, a crafty porter removed my rucksack from the seat. As I chased my vanished luggage into the wrong hotel, the driver received his commission at the front desk and disappeared. I was furious at the deception, but in my parched fatigue conceded that the dilapidated building with its neglected garden courtyard did possess a certain charm.

However, when the extortionate tariff was revealed by a churlish clerk, I exploded. I insisted that I was not some wealthy foreigner - of which my unkempt, smelly state was certain evidence - and could not afford the rates, whereupon an uncommunicative teenager was summoned to lead me through a maze of stairways, corridors and balconies to a small back room. The disappointing accommodation offered its own toilet, meaning an acrid-smelling hole in the floor with grimly splattered foot rests. A shower, meaning a heavily oxidised, dripping tap and dirty plastic bowl. A window onto the garden, meaning a sealed, opaque mesh that would not open. And even a rusty electric fan that flashed sparks and died as soon as the dour youth turned it on. None of this, however, deterred him from demanding a tip in “good dollars” for his courtesy.

Priya would have pinched my bottom and hooted out loud, to rouse me from my stupor. She would have grasped my hand and pulled me back out into the darkness, to shake me into action. But standing here alone in this oppressive heat, I was too exhausted and thirsty to think of trawling the city in search of better lodgings. My skin and clothes were black with dust and grime. My head was splitting.

Thus, despite the questionable methods of procuring custom, I resigned and, for this night only, grumpily took the room.

***

Bindra added more wood to the struggling fire and drew closer to Jyothi. Just to watch his little chest rise and fall as he slept gave her unspeakable joy.

The air was cold in her nose, the leaves beneath her damp. She loosened her shawl and tucked one end of it around the curled shoulders beside her.

Her eyes suddenly darted back amongst the trees.

Far across the hillside, a solitary drum had begun to pound the confluent rhythms of the three worlds, of
tintirilok
. The rhythm of the seasons. The cycle of time.

The
ban jhankri
?

Bindra turned from side to side, but the density of the forest confused the direction of the sound. The drums of the mountain shamans were common in these hills at night, as were the howls of the jackals they provoked. However familiar the wail of these wild dogs in the darkness was to Bindra, it still sounded like a murdering of infants.


Aung namah Shivaya
. . .” she sang softly to comfort herself, for jackals were considered to be companions of Shiva, principal deity of the mountain
jhankri
. “Svashva, Master of Dogs,” Bindra whispered, “father and friend of the
jhankri
- and of me - may I learn to restore balance where there is instability. Compassion where there is anger. Justice where there is inequality.”

She touched her right hand to her forehead, mouth, heart, navel and pubis.

“May I, like you, be Asutosh, ‘One who Quickly Calms'. Shankar, ‘One who is unceasingly Benevolent'. Akrura, ‘One who is unfailingly Kind'.
Aung namah Shivaya
. . .” She touched her heart once more.

Bindra cuddled down beside Jyothi and placed one arm, protectively, around her sleeping son. The drums and jackals seemed farther away now. Softer, kinder, gentler to her ears and heart.

She took one last look out into the blackness of the trees before braving sleep.

“Where are you, Jiwan?” she murmured. “We are waiting.”

***

Night had fallen when I left the hotel to explore the busy quarter. Even in the dark, there was no relief from heat or noise.

The narrow streets of Udaipur were jammed with hawkers and drivers. They hassled me at every step, tugging at my arms and clothes, pushing souvenir flutes, Mughal pornography and hotel advertisements in my face, attempting to physically force me into rickshaws and restaurants.

I walked into the first Westerners I had set eyes upon since alighting at Bombay airport. They were mostly young, red-faced Germans, the last stragglers of the tourist season. None was willing to respond to my gauche smiles or attempts to engage in conversation, even in their own tongue. A little despondent, having hoped for an exchange of words with someone in this city who did not just want my money, I approached the dark, stone elephantflanked gates of a temple. The possibility of studying the lamp-lit images enshrined within its quiet precincts seemed a suitable distraction from the lack of financially independent friendship offered in the bustling streets.

At my appearance, the deformed and diseased who lined the entrance sprang into animation. They beat their metal bowls on the ground. They waved stumps of vanished limbs. They exposed running sores and infected wounds. I apologised to them all, above the clamour, above the persistent cries of “
Sah'b
!
Sah'b
!” For fear of pickpockets, I had left the hotel without my money. I had nothing with me but half a bottle of warm water.

I turned away and fought to quell the nausea that was tightening my belly. I had to fight, because any aversion to the land of Priya's birth or its people felt like a rejection of the woman who had said we would name our daughter Lali, our son Milind - Darling Girl and Honey Bee. A rejection of the woman who had agreed to grow old and die in my arms. The beautiful, light-filled woman who had loved me far beyond my merit.

Suddenly, my knees lost all strength, forcing me to steady myself against a wall. I thought I must be reacting to the unrelenting heat and decided to make my way back to the hotel. The naked light bulbs dangling in shop doorways, the flickering oil lamps in niches and windows, the spluttering candles in jars that hung by string from lintels, began to blur into unfocused streaks of glaring luminescence. The clamorous bobbery of the streets smeared violently around my head, until the rebounding echoes made me stagger and sway like an intemperate, heavily laden station porter.

I struggled to mount the main stairs when I reached the hotel. No one came to the front desk, despite my determined pealing of the hand bell. I stumbled through the courtyard until I could no longer stand, then crawled up the flights of stone steps and along the balconies to my room. The violent speed at which the fever was defeating me was alarming.

No sooner had I reached my door than all the lights went out as the entire city plunged into the darkness of a power cut. I remembered having seen a stub of candle on the dresser upon my initial arrival, so explored its grubby surface until fingers fumbled to both waxy stumps and box of matches in my first aid kit, and drove the shadows into madness.

With a wet flannel flopped on perspiring head and a dose of general antibiotic forced down into queasy belly, I was finally able to totter into bed. My sleep, however, was fitful, troubled and tearful as the searing temperature played pitiless tricks upon a heatdemented mind.

It seemed that I was sitting in an orchard with Priya, sharing a picnic of
puri bhaji
and fresh peach chutney. Grandmother was softly singing, “Johnny Sparrow, Johnny Sparrow,” as she laid mustard poultices along my spine. Mice were whispering secrets in my sheets. Spiders were whistling sea shanties from their corners. Cockroaches traversed my contorting face, a legion of furtive feelers fearlessly surveying the depths of mouth and nostrils.

By morning, my bed was sodden.

My disgust at finding mice droppings in my sheets was soon surpassed when I looked at my flushed and haggard features in the broken bathroom mirror. Stuck to my hair was a half-squashed cockroach with legs outstretched, as if suspended in an ultimate, energetic star-jump.

In revulsion, I leapt to turn on the taps. There was no water.

In anger, I kicked the corroded pipes. They did not even gurgle.

I sought a solitary comfort in the pristine whiteness of my toothpaste and scrubbed my teeth with vigour, determined that at least one part of my body would feel clean. I rinsed with a careful measure of depleted drinking water, then chewed at the brush's nylon bristles as though their residual mintiness might assuage my misery.

If only it could have been Priya's
puris
, or Grandmother's Dijon-drenched muslin that had been true.

***

Bindra woke to the sound of men in the forest. She opened her eyes and stared into the dawn. She quickly slid her hand around Jyothi's waist and drew him close.

The voices were approaching. She listened intently. Nepalis, who spoke her own dialect.

Bindra sat bolt upright.

The two figures in the trees stopped still.

She could make out the formal dress of white
suruwal
trousers worn tight on muscular legs, and the black
dhaka topi
caps on their heads. The white
daura
tunics drawn around their stocky torsos by a
patuka
sash, collars tied close to symbolise the serpent of liberating knowledge that enwraps Lord Shiva's blue-stained throat. She could see that one wore
rudraksha mala
strings and a cloth bag stitched with
kauri
shells across his chest.

The two men peered towards her.


Jhankri-jyu
! Kushal Magar
dajoo
!” she cried. “Last night I dreamed that you were coming to me! And here you are, brought with the sunlight!”

The kindly
jhankri
stared in astonishment. “
Bahini
? How can you be here, in this forest?”

“But
dajoo
, brother, how can you be here, so far from Lapu
basti?” she gasped.

Neither seemed to need to answer the other's question.

“I knew you would come!” Jyothi smiled. He had been awoken by the exchange and clapped his hands as the
jhankri
and his companion approached, their strong shoulders laden with provisions. “We did Lord Kubera's
puja
one week ago, didn't we
Ama
? And his
Punyajana
brought you to us!”

Bindra explained that she and her sons were travelling to Kakariguri on the Plains, in search of foreigners' medicine to heal her. The
jhankri
was pleased. He said it was good and right. He in turn explained that he was travelling with his brother Darpan to an ancestral village on the Darjeeling road, to undertake the annual
baje-boju puja
for his mother's forebears.

“But,
jhankri-dajoo
,” Jyothi interrupted with marked intent, “you are here to tell the
ban jhankri
it's time to give my brother back!”

Kushal Magar looked at Bindra. She rocked her head from side to side in anxious affirmation.


Bhai
,” he said softly to Jyothi, “the
ban jhankri
are great masters. Not like me. I can ask for you, little brother. But I cannot promise that the
ban jhankri
of this forest will listen.”

Jyothi stood up and boldly approached the two visitors, dragging his thin blanket behind him. “Yesterday I dug
iskusko jara
and
tarulko jara
. I shall light a fire,
Ama
will bake the squash root and tapioca, then you can ask the
ban jhankri
to bring my brother back!”

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
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