Authors: Anita Desai
Nanda Kaul is now old. She has chosen to spend her last years alone among the pines and cicadas, high in the mountains in a quiet house, wanting only to be left in peace. However her solitude is broken with the arrival of her great-granddaughter, Raka. Through the long hot summer, hidden dependencies and old wounds are uncovered, until tragedy becomes inevitable.
Anita Desai was born and educated in India. Her published works include adult novels, children's books and short stories.
Clear Light of Day
(1999) were all shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and
The Village by the Sea
Award for Children's Fiction in 1982. Anita Desai is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London, of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York and of Girton College at the University of Cambridge. She teaches in the Writing Program at M.I.T. and divides her time between India, Boston, Massachusetts and Cambridge, England.
was recently filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions.
Cry, the Peacock
Voices in the City
Where Shall We Go This Summer?
Games at Twilight
Clear Light of Day
The Village by the Sea
Journey to Ithaca
Fire on the Mountain
For Ruth and Jhab
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
translated by Ivan Morris 1967 by permission of the Oxford University Press.
Frontispiece from a drawing by C. S. H. Jhabvala
NANDA KAUL PAUSED
under the pine trees to take in their scented sibilance and listen to the cicadas fiddling invisibly under the mesh of pine needles when she saw the postman slowly winding his way along the Upper Mall. She had not gone out to watch for him, did not want him to stop at Carignano, had no wish for letters. The sight of him, inexorably closing in with his swollen bag, rolled a fat ball of irritation into the cool cave of her day, blocking it stupidly: bags and letters, messages and demands, requests, promises and queries, she had wanted to be done with them all, at Carignano. She asked to be left to the pines and cicadas alone. She hoped he would not stop.
Everything she wanted was here, at Carignano, in Kasauli. Here, on the ridge of the mountain, in this quiet house. It was the place, and the time of life, that she had wanted and prepared for all her life â as she realized on her first day at Carignano, with a great, cool flowering of relief â and at last she had it. She wanted no one and nothing else. Whatever else came, or happened here, would be an unwelcome intrusion and distraction.
This she tried to convey to the plodding postman with a cold and piercing stare from the height of the ridge onto his honest bull back. Unfortunately he did not look up at her on the hill-top but stared stolidly down at the dust piling onto his shoes as he plodded on. A bullock man, an oafish ox, she thought bitterly, and averted her eyes. She stepped backwards into the garden and the wind suddenly billowed up and threw the pine branches about as though to curtain her.
She was grey, tall and thin and her silk sari made a sweeping, shivering sound and she fancied she could merge with the pine trees and be mistaken for one. To be a tree, no more and no less, was all she was prepared to undertake.
What pleased and satisfied her so, here at Carignano, was its barrenness. This was the chief virtue of all Kasauli of course â its starkness. It had rocks, it had pines. It had light and air. In every direction there was a sweeping view â to the north, of the mountains, to the south, of the plains. Occasionally an eagle swam through this clear unobstructed mass of light and air. That was all.
And Carignano, her home on the ridge, had no more than that. Why should it? The sun shone on its white walls. Its windows were open â the ones facing north opened onto the blue waves of the Himalayas flowing out and up to the line of ice and snow sketched upon the sky, while those that faced south looked down the plunging cliff to the plain stretching out, flat and sere, to the blurred horizon.
Yes, there were some apricot trees close to the house. There were clumps of iris that had finished blooming. There was the kitchen with a wing of smoke lifting out of its chimney and a stack of wood outside its door. But these were incidental, almost unimportant. Nanda Kaul did not regard them very highly even if she stooped now to pick up a bright apricot from the short, dry grass. It had been squashed by its fall and she flung it away. Immediately, a bright hoopoe, seeing its flight and flash, struck down at it and tore at its bright flesh, then flew off with a lump in its beak. It had its nest in the eaves outside her bedroom window, she knew, but did not stay to watch the nestlings fed. It was a sight that did not fill her with delight. Their screams were shrill and could madden.
Instead she turned and climbed up the knoll, the topmost height of her garden, where the wind was keenest and the view widest.
But, on achieving it, she stopped to get her breath and glanced down just as the postman came out of a shadowed fold of the mountain onto the road below her gate. Still plodding on, dismally on, closer to Carignano. Her nostrils pinched and whitened with disapproval.
He slowed down, drawing out her irritation, keeping behind a small schoolboy who had materialized out of the hillside and was dawdling school wards without much sense of purpose or direction for he would stop now to pick up a flat stone, now to shy it at a chipmunk, then climb halfway up a hill for a thorny snatchful of raspberries, then slide down on his bottom into the ditch and search for a golden beetle. The postman seemed unable to overtake him â hypnotized by the boy's whimsical progress, he stopped and kept behind while Nanda Kaul, slit-eyed, burned on the knoll.
Hurry, man, she mentally snapped â get it over with.
Then, not being able to bear watching any more of such fantastic indecision, she turned around and gazed at her house instead, simple and white and shining on the bleached ridge. On the north side the wall was washed by the blue shadows of the low, dense apricot trees. On the east wall, the sun glared, scoured and sharp. It seemed so exactly right as a house for her, it satisfied her heart completely. How could it ever have belonged to anyone else? What could it possibly have been like before Nanda Kaul came to it? She could not imagine.
THE POSTMAN COULD
imagine nothing but he knew a few things. He had known the house before it was Nanda Kaul's.
Not throughout its history, no, for it had been built in 1843, by a Colonel Macdougall, for his wife who could not bear the heat in the military cantonment at Ambala in the plains and hoped to save her ominously pale children by taking them to the mountains in the summer. So it says in his memoirs, which he had privately published and distributed but which are no longer available. He ended his account of his active life and the many military manoeuvres in which he had taken part with a description of this house he called Carignano and of how he and his wife Alice would sit by the window of an evening â she wrapped in a cashmere shawl for she was sickly and he with his pipe and tobacco â and gaze out across the valley to Sabathu where, amongst the white flecks of the gravestones in the military cemetery, their own seven children came to be buried, one by one.
The house stood empty for some years after the colonel and his wife Alice were themselves carried over the hills to the cemetery in Sabathu and, one day, during a terrific thunderstorm, nearly came to an end. The entire roof â sheets of corrugated iron that Colonel Macdougall had had painted green but that had eventually faded to its natural rusty grey â was lifted off the square stone walls and hurled down the hill as far as Garkhal where its sharp edge sliced the head off a coolie who was trying to shelter beside a load of stacked wood on the roadside.
Eventually the roof was replaced â but not the coolie's head â and the house taken by the pastor of Kasauli's one church. He found it sad that its exposed situation on the ridge made it impossible to plant the cottage garden he would have liked but he did plant three apricot trees where the house sheltered them from the worst gales, and they flourished in the stony soil and bore fruit. In his delight he bought a marble bird bath at a sale held at the Garden House whose owners, the aged sisters Abbott, died within a week
of each other and whose goods were auctioned off, and placed it under the trees. It was his joy to watch the bul-buls and hoopoes come to feast on the apricots and flutter down into the bird bath and plunge and preen and scatter the water in spray.
His joy would have been complete if his wife had made him apricot jam. But she would not. She hated him too much to cook jam for him. The longer their marriage the more she hated him and almost daily she made an attempt to murder him. But he survived. When she had her back turned he would pour out the tea she had brewed for him into a pot of geraniums beside his chair and silently watch them droop and die. He woke to see her the second before she plunged the kitchen knife into him and learnt to sleep with one eye open till he went blind â but that was after Mavis died: slipping on her way to the outdoor kitchen, she plunged down the cliff and split her head open on a rock, and so he lived on safely and died âpeacefully', as they say, in a bed in Lady Linlithgow's sanatorium for the tubercular. His ghost was said to haunt the house, or at least his pipe did, for at a certain moment of the evening the veranda would be wafted over by the rich, ripe odour of invisible tobacco freshly kindled.