The Folded Earth: A Novel (10 page)

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
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The afternoon deepened and grew more mellow. A large family of pale-furred langurs alighted on the deodars. Their tails painted elliptical loops in the air as they swooped from tree to tree; the branches swung low with their weight as they landed. The monkeys disagreed with each other, now in soft chatters, now in screeches. Some of the mothers held tiny, ancient-faced babies to their breasts. Dogs barked at them in a frenzy and strained at the chains that tethered them to doorposts. The langurs knew the dogs were tied up and paid them no attention, but when they noticed us they turned their black, human-looking faces toward us, trying to decide if we were a danger.

Until humans came and made anthills out of these mountains, Diwan Sahib was saying, looking up at the langurs, the land had belonged to these monkeys, and to barking deer, nilgai, tigers, barasingha, leopards, jackals, great horned owls, and even to cheetahs and lions. The archaeology of the wilderness consisted of these lost animals, not of ruined walls, terra-cotta amulets, and potsherds. Only now and then did we catch a glimpse of the distant past of our forests, when the shadow of a barasingha’s horns flitted through the denser woods, or when a leopard coughed at night. It was extremely rare, though not unknown, for wild animals to trust human beings, Diwan Sahib said. Why should they, when we have destroyed their world? Puran’s affinity to animals was a lost treasure. Puran was the sanest of us all, because animals knew whom to trust. They were imbeciles themselves who called Puran half-witted.


Veer returned at the end of the month from Dehra Dun and Delhi. He had been away for a fortnight, getting things organized for the next trekking season, which he was going to run from Ranikhet. He came back laden with gifts. There were exotic southern edibles for me: yogurt-marinated chilies, murukkus. He had even brought me a bottle of pickle, made from whole baby mangoes—the kind I had been used to in Hyderabad and had only dreamed of ever since. Had I told him about my past? I flipped through our old conversations, which I could recall virtually down to the last detail. The bottle remained unopened on my table for several days as I tried to get used to it. I picked it up every now and then, my heartbeat quickening each time I examined the label, which said, “Begumpet Pickles: Traditionally Made from a Secret Recipe Handed Down for Generations.” I was reminded of the day my father had put one of his palms over my eyes as he led me to a thick-trunked mango tree in our garden to show me my new tree house. I must have been seven years old. A little red ladder led up to the house, and its inner walls were painted with butterflies. It had a toy telephone with a bell that rang. One morning my father had called me down from the tree house saying in an absurd telephone-operator voice: “Hello, hello, phone call for the princess of Begumpet Pickles. She must come down at once to see the new labels on our pickle bottles!”

For Diwan Sahib, Veer had brought an expensive illustrated guide to India’s birds that had just come out. I began leafing through it as soon as Diwan Sahib let go of it, to look up a bird I had seen that very morning, when I turned a wooded corner so loud with harsh screeches of magpies that it sounded like the playground at St. Hilda’s when the bell rang at the end of the school day. I had crept closer to see what the birds were agitated about, and a slow, large, brown shape had detached itself from a shadowy branch and sailed off toward a nearby tree, with the magpies in outraged pursuit. It was an enormous owl, made eyeless by the sun. It sat immobile on the second tree, submitting to the screeching and pecking of the many magpies, like some ancient nobleman resigned to his suffering. The prince of darkness, reduced to nothing when his time was past, I told Diwan Sahib in an unthinking attempt at cleverness. He raised an eyebrow, and with a rueful smile murmured, “How true.” He reached for the book again, opened it to the right page, and returned it to me. “Maybe this one?” he said. There it was, in glossy color, my owl: a brown wood owl. I snapped the book shut, triumphant. The caption said it was usually almost two feet tall.

“It was exactly that height, it hardly even looks like a bird,” I said.

“‘After variations in color, form, and melody on a million birds, he was cast on earth, an afterthought.’” Diwan Sahib spoke in the voice he kept for quotations. “Maya, do you know that poem about the owl? And then how did it go? ‘When stars their voyages fulfill, attired in light from east to west, cloaked in night he moves to kill’ . . . no, I think I missed a verse.”

Veer had also brought alcohol: two cases of superior rum and gin. Until Veer came, Diwan Sahib had bought humbler alcohol, a bottle at a time, via the General, who had access to subsidized army supplies. Despite his grand past, Diwan Sahib was no longer wealthy. He had rented out the two cottages on his estate for extra income, but he ended up taking no rent at all from Ama, and for the past two years he had left my own rent checks uncashed. If I protested, he said I was paying him rent in kind, by running his errands and typing his manuscript. He lived an austere life and his bare house contained nothing but worn essentials. I rejoiced now to see him surrounded by creature comforts: a new heater; an imported, feather-light duvet; thermal socks; and good gin and rum. Veer saw to it that Diwan Sahib had the best, and plenty of it. But since Diwan Sahib in turn passed on a bottle or two to me, I had nothing to grumble about.

For himself, Veer had brought a new wristwatch. If you pressed any of the tiny knobs that ran down each side in a row, it turned from watch to compass, altimeter, thermometer, or barometer. The needles that told the time swung up and down to inform us that in the cantonment we were at about 6,100 feet, while St. Hilda’s, in the bazaar, was at 5,600 feet. Veer could not stop fiddling with the watch, but when I teased him, saying he was like a child with a new toy, he protested. “This is survival for me. It’s work. It’s like having a phone or a computer. It’ll be my lifesaver in a blizzard on some glacier far from help.”

The rhythm of my life changed whenever Veer returned. My days became changeable. I could not tell if he did it on purpose, but very often he drove up the hill from the bazaar just around the time I walked up from St. Hilda’s to the factory. His jeep would stop beside me, a look would pass between us, and I would get in. Sometimes he paused to buy hot samosas and we took the longer, more isolated route back home, stopping on the way for a brief picnic. I could talk to him in a way I could with no one else. I knew I would be understood, and knew exactly the conversation we might have when, for example, I said, “I wonder if mules too wear horseshoes.”

Our road had been blocked by a line of sweet-faced, slow-witted mules. They were being urged on with much shouting and prodding by their herdsmen. Some of the mules, living up to their reputation, simply refused to move despite being pushed from behind.

mules wear shoes or not?” I said. “And what about elephants? Do they wear horseshoes? And if they do, what are the shoes called?”

“A topic most worthy of research,” Veer said. “The field could be extended and deepened. What decides it? Is it soft-footedness or hoofedness? Is it the distance traveled, the load carried? Shall we propose it to my uncle as the subject of his next book?”

“What about bullocks? They have to walk miles. Dragging heavy carts.”

“Not to forget camels,

Veer said in a parody of a formal, professional voice. “And yaks. Have you considered yaks? Nilgai? Zebras? Other than research, I see definite business possibilities here. Maybe you should give up your school and get into making shoes for animals? Might they have standard shoe sizes? Should you outsource the manufacturing to China?”

Once a new teacher at St. Hilda’s was in the jeep with us when Veer and I wandered into one such nonsensical conversation. She had wanted to visit me at home—to test out the possibility of a friendship, I suppose. She looked out of the window throughout the drive, saying nothing, and after five minutes I forgot that she was there. After Veer had dropped us off at my door and driven away, she walked through my two rooms picking up this and examining that while I made tea. She paused before the pictures of Michael on my desk, and of my mother, and wanted to know about Michael, about when my mother had died and why I did not return to my father to be with him in his solitary old age. When we had settled down with cups of tea on my veranda, she said, “You talked very funnily with that gentleman in the jeep. Like you’re a mad child. And the way he replied—as if you’re both eight-year-olds. Are you friends? Or is he a relative of yours?”

She gave me a searching look. I changed the subject as soon as I could. Neither she nor I mentioned a next visit when she left.

One evening soon after coming back from his Delhi trip, Veer unveiled his slide projector. With the first slide, the far end of Diwan Sahib’s disused dining room, usually a bare expanse of rough whitewash, turned gold and blue and a sigh went across the room. It was the high-altitude desert of Leh: barren gold earth in moon-surface formations beneath a vast sky. The land looked as raw as on the day of creation. In its folds you could see the shifting of continents, the breaking away of the Indian peninsula from Africa, and hear the cosmic boom as it crashed into Asia and thrust the Himalaya out of the ocean.

Another click and we moved to blue goats somewhere on a mountainside, and traditional stone and slate houses that had stood intact through earthquakes when new concrete structures had tumbled into the dust. Then the wall turned indigo with water and a gasp went around the room. Slopes of snow rose out of the liquid and clung to a very blue sky. “This is Pangong Lake,

Veer’s voice said from the back of the darkened room, “in Ladakh. I took a group of Swiss bird-watchers there a few years ago.” A whir and a click lit up another view of the lake. Ama said, “That’s one place in the hills where water won’t ever run short,” and there was a murmur of laughter until Veer said, “It’s salty water.” Ama came back with, “No need to spend on salt then, just boil the vegetables in it straight.”

The room was dark, crowded with shadows of people: all of the hillside—Charu, Ama, and their three visiting relatives from a remote village, the deaf-mute twins Beena and Mitu, the clerk from the water board and his young son—had assembled to watch the magic of pictures from Veer’s just-unpacked projector. Ranikhet had only one battered cinema. It cost money. A free slideshow was a novel treat.

“We went by motorbike from Manali to Ladakh—through the Rohtang Pass, the Baralacha La, and we could even see the Karakoram.” The slides moved almost too quickly for us to register details as Veer showed us pictures of prayer wheels, exotic Buddhist dwellings, and the monasteries of Shey, Thikse, Alchi. It was remote, spectacular, and unfamiliar for those of us who had only seen such great heights from a distance. Another click: a view from the Ladakh plateau of barren land far below. Veer said, “That is China; half of Pangong Lake falls in China. Nobody is allowed up that close to the boundary, but I knew someone in the army. We left our motorbikes and trekked all over Ladakh and reached here in the end.”

“So if we start walking today in Ranikhet, one day we will reach China?” This was Ama.

Diwan Sahib said, “You’d get a bullet in your head when you crossed over.” Diwan Sahib had no patience with Ama’s garrulity and what he called her “animal husbandry department.” Every so often he had futile arguments with her over her goats lunching on the lilies and marigolds that still survived in his garden.

“Arre, Ama,” the clerk said, “your forefathers and mine walked to China many times. That’s what my great-grandfather told me. He went twice with some firanghis in the time of the British.”

There was a babble of voices. “Your great-grandfather was a coolie,” Ama said. “What was he doing in China?” Himmat Singh gave a series of phlegmy coughs and struggled up a thought: “I have heard they eat tigers in China. And dogs. They also eat dogs.”

“Aah, but then what do the leopards in China eat if the people eat the dogs?” the clerk wanted to know. They laughed. Charu, who had not spoken so far, said, “I would kill any leopard or Chinese who laid a finger on my Bijli.”

“That useless dog has a magic life,” Ama said. “So many dogs get eaten. But this one roams all over in the dark and next morning he’s sitting right there, by the stove, waiting for a roti to fall.”

I sat back, warm in my shawl, feet tucked into it, a woolly bundle listening to voices eddying over me. Diwan Sahib began to talk about the Great Game—the intrigues and spying, the explorers sent in disguise over the undiscovered massifs, passes, peaks, and ravines of the Himalaya by the Russians and the British looking to gain control of them. The names of early travelers fell from his lips like those of old friends: George Moorcroft crossed the fast-flowing Sutlej on the inflated skins of buffaloes and traveled disguised as a Hindu sadhu to search for the goat whose wool made pashmina shawls. Nain Singh Rawat surveyed the Himalaya to map it accurately for the first time. He was a pandit from our region, the Kumaon, said Diwan Sahib, and he reached Lhasa, Xinjiang, Nepal, and China not once but three times in the 1860s. His brother Kishen Singh Rawat went to Lhasa too. At that time nobody even knew exactly where Lhasa was.

How did they do that, Charu said in wonderment, on foot? To which Ama replied, impatient, “That is what was his bijniss. Other people run shops and offices; his work was to measure distances. Just like us: don’t we walk up and down the hills after cows day after day in rain and sun and snow? Can a city person do that?”

“You illiterate woman,” Himmat Singh said. “Walking Ranikhet’s slopes is not like walking through the mountains to China.”

“They could walk for days,” Diwan Sahib said. “Look at Corbett. When he was hunting the Chowgarh tiger, he went without food for about two days, and he was quite comfortable sleeping in the forks of trees.”

“Maybe he thought an underfed man would be less appealing to a hungry tiger,” Veer said. “And a lighter weight on the forks of those trees.”

I thought Diwan Sahib would lose his temper this time. Why was Veer attacking Corbett again? It was childish, the way he tried to antagonize Diwan Sahib. But Diwan Sahib went on as i
Veer had not spoken and I relaxed in my shawl again. “Those people were made differently from us,” he said. Nain Singh Rawat had to use exactly two thousand footsteps per mile, using a rosary with a hundred beads to keep count. Because the Chinese would have executed him if they found him, he traveled dressed as a lama, turning his prayer wheel, in which he had hidden a compass.

For the moment everyone was too busy talking to remember they were in the middle of a slideshow and that there were many more slides to see. Veer was behind me, at the back of the room. If I turned an imperceptible fraction, I could glimpse him outlined against the faint light that came in from the veranda through a murky old glass pane, could sense his eyes upon me in the darkness. I curled deeper into my shawl, my arms holding my shoulders close. He had bought the murukkus because he had heard me saying how much I missed them—I had said it only once, in passing. But he had remembered—and the pickle, which by some miracle was from my father’s factory. I wished the room were empty and his show for me alone.

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
9.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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