The Folded Earth: A Novel (19 page)

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
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“These things take no time to spread, I won’t be able to find a single boy for her if she goes on this way,” Ama cried in anguish. “I know she wanted them to go away thinking she’s deaf and insane and a cripple. Tell me, what is wrong with her? Has she said anything to you? Doesn’t she care about her future? Doesn’t she care about my reputation?”

The Ohjha had said two or three sessions would be needed if the spirit was a vengeful and determined one, as he thought it was. He worked at night, when the evil spirits that possessed human beings were at their strongest, in a rickety shed made of corrugated iron sheets. The moment they saw a snake or a toad or a scorpion leave that shed they would know Charu was free of the possession, he had promised.

When I saw Charu the morning after the first exorcism, she looked red eyed, as if she had not slept. Her hair was disheveled and she dragged her feet as she herded the goats and cows to their grazing on the slopes below her home. But from far down the slope, as soon as she saw the postman appear and turn toward my cottage, she bounded up the hill. She was at my door less than a minute after the postman had left, chest heaving, panting for breath, bright eyed, waiting for me to tell her there was a letter from Kundan.

twelve

The rain had become a constant in our lives, like the damp air and fungus on our walls. It had only to pause to gather breath for Puran to plunge into the deepest forest to root around for guchi mushrooms and tender linguru. This was something he had done every monsoon for as long as he could remember because Diwan Sahib loved eating those wild mushrooms and ferns and nobody else knew where to find them. But Diwan Sahib no longer had any interest in food. He spent his nights sitting up, trying to draw one rattling breath after another—despite which, during the day he smoked and coughed and smoked again. The doctor returned, diagnosed a lung infection, and prescribed stronger antibiotics. After two days of the antibiotics, Diwan Sahib began to vomit and his feet swelled like cushions so that he could no longer stand on them.

Mr. Qureshi and I conferred, decided there was nothing for it but to put him in the hospital. Diwan Sahib vehemently opposed it, and was full of bluster that he thought covered up his fear. “Nobody ever comes out alive from that rotten hospital!” he wheezed. “In fact, nobody I know has ever come out alive from any hospital! Hospitals were made to protect healthy people from ill people. Why don’t you two leave me in peace in my own house?”

“He is just afraid they won’t let him drink and smoke there,” Mr. Qureshi said to me as he drove off with Diwan Sahib and Himmat Singh. “The hospital is exactly what our Diwan Sahib needs at this moment.”

When the car was gone I went back to Diwan Sahib’s room and began to tidy up. I picked up the glasses and plates that had collected by his bedside and put them in the kitchen and sorted the medicines heaped on a trunk next to the bed. There were cigarettes hidden away everywhere: under the mattress, tucked behind books and papers. I stripped the bed and remade it so that it was ready when he came back from the hospital. I sat down on it with a tired sigh. The house was an echoing shell without Diwan Sahib’s coughs and wheezes and Himmat Singh’s nonstop banging about and cursing in the kitchen. I realized that in all my time in Ranikhet I had never once known the Light House empty—one of the two men was always there, creating the ineffable hum that comes just from someone else’s presence in a house.

It was a long time before I managed to push my unhappy thoughts away and return to tidying up. There was scribbled-on paper everywhere, in bunches, loose sheets, fat files. With a leap of hope, I wondered if any part of the Corbett manuscript had survived the fire. I began to collect the papers and pile them on a table. I was trying to decipher Diwan Sahib’s handwriting on a sheet of paper I had discovered under the bed when I heard a car in the drive again and looked up in a panic. Had they returned already? Had he collapsed on the way to hospital? I did not want to know.

I heard the car door bang. Only once. Then there were footsteps on the wooden floor of the living room, much more rapid than either Diwan Sahib’s shuffling gait or Mr. Qureshi’s slow amble. It was Veer, back from his travels.

“I heard on Mall Road,” he said. “Negi told me. I went to the hospital first. He’s better, they say it’s his kidneys, too weak for those antibiotics—but it’s not as bad as it looks. They’ve sent for a serum from Nainital. If it doesn’t come, I’ll go and get it this evening. He’ll be fine.” He looked around the room and at the medicines on the trunk and said, “You poor thing, you’ve had to handle the old man on your own. And it’s been too long this time. Thought the trip would never end. I was starting to forget—”

He sat down on the bed, gathered me in his arms, and kissed my forehead, then my cheeks, then my lips. He got up and locked the door and came back to me. Blue-green light washed through the curtains. A long way off, we could hear Ama shouting for her rooster, which had wandered off that morning. Veer took my spectacles off and put them on a corner of the trunk next to the bed. He plucked out the long, tasseled wooden pin that held my hair in a knot and shook it loose. One of Charu’s cows mooed on the lawn just outside and its bell tinkled. I had unbuttoned Veer’s shirt, without thinking at all what I was doing. Somewhere I could hear the
whump-whump
sound of the madman at the nettles again. But it did not matter, Diwan Sahib could not rush out in the rain after him. Our clothes fell in a heap on the floor, next to Diwan Sahib’s empty bottles, dog-eared books, discarded ballpoint pens, and shriveled orange pips. The window let in the scent of white roses from the climber that trailed over it. Veer’s hands were everywhere and his tongue was everywhere, we were on the bed, then off it on the wooden floor, and then back on the bed again. I kissed his deformed ear and the four fingers on his left hand, one by one. I closed my eyes. A bird fluttered its wings beneath the stretched curtain of my skin, trying to get out. My throat made sounds I could do nothing to stop. I heard Michael’s voice at my ear, saying, “You wouldn’t wait for me to die to find another man.”

Moments after we had prised ourselves apart, Veer got into his clothes and said, “You should go and get some sleep. You look as if you’ll fall asleep standing.” I left the room, but not the house, unwilling to lose sight of him so soon. I sat in the veranda, half dozing, half listening to the rustling and thumping sounds that began inside after a while. When I heard something shatter, I jumped up to see what had happened, and found Veer sitting on the floor before Diwan Sahib’s open trunks, looking through them. His face was as impersonal as a stranger’s. “The doctors need his medical papers and I can’t find anything,” he said when he saw me. And then with a frown, “Didn’t you go? I thought you were going down to your own place. I need some time here. I’ll come to your place later.”

I must have looked startled because his expression softened. He got up in a swift uncoiling movement and pulled me to him and kissed me and murmured in my ear. He caressed me wherever he found bare skin. I was resting in his arms, my chin at his neck, soothed by his hands when, in another switch of mood, he turned briskly efficient, disentangled himself, and gave me a little push. “You’re distracting me,” he said. “Off you go. I have to look for that medical stuff. They have no idea about his history, they need to know the medicines he’s allergic to.”

That night I sat with the jam factory accounts, totting up all we had spent on bottles, labels, fruit, salaries, and what jam had been sold. I should have been lighthearted and happy; Veer was back. If he was preoccupied with Diwan Sahib’s medical papers that was hardly to be wondered at; surely I did not expect him to be a lovesick teenager who had eyes and mind for no one else. Yet I was in a restless welter of confusion. I could not understand why I felt so disturbed about the changes in his moods that afternoon. I was used to it, not only in him, in his uncle as well. I had resented it sometimes, the burden of being the good-tempered one.

I tried to apply myself to the accounts, but my thoughts kept turning to what my uncle had found in my mother’s room after she died. He had been so perturbed he had written to ask me about it. For much of her later life, even before I left home, my mother had stopped sharing my father’s bed. She seldom allowed anyone else into her own bedroom, cleaning it herself and guarding it as an inviolable refuge, much as I did my own house now. It was only when she fell very ill that other members of the family got access to her room and uncovered all her little secrets: a tin of the chewing tobacco she had claimed to have given up, my letters to her, the album with my baby pictures that my father had wanted to destroy. My uncle said he had found there a thin, curved, lethally sharp steel knife, capable of sliding into flesh as easily as into a ripe mango. Did I know about it? my uncle had written to ask. Had she ever mentioned it to me? Why did she sleep with it under her pillow? The question haunted me still, and I would never know the answer.

*  *  *

Now my days became even busier, divided between hospital, Veer, school, and factory. The only constant, when I did come home, was the sight of Charu’s expectant face somewhere in the vicinity: perhaps the postman had come when no one was looking and left a letter under a flowerpot; perhaps he had intercepted me on the road and given me a letter. More often than not, nothing of the sort happened. Since early August many days had passed without letters. Every afternoon Charu paced about waiting for the postman, and gave up only when she heard the shouts of other cowherds calling their animals back from deep forests at sunset. I would see her soaked, rose-patterned umbrella bob up and down as she too ran down the squelchy slope toward the stream to rustle up her herd. Summer or winter, she wore the same plastic slippers, and in the monsoon, when she returned home, she had to spend a quarter of an hour sitting on the stairs to her house, sprinkling salt over her wet feet and calves to remove the leeches that had attached themselves to her skin. By this time she had a drooping, tired air: every day began hopeful and ended with the same dull disappointment.

It was not an easy time for her. That same month Ama sold Pinki to the butcher. “I wouldn’t have to sell your precious goat, if you didn’t cost me so much,” she had said when Charu pleaded with her. Ama had to finance the feasts for the prospective grooms, and there was the money she had to pay the Ohjha. “These goats are not pets,” she reasoned. “Why do you think I keep them?” All their goats were destined for the slaughterhouse, and were sold to a butcher in the market when they reached the right size. Charu had gone through these partings before. She should have got used to it, but the pain was as new, as unendurable each time. The day the butcher came to take her goat away, she stayed inside their house, curled up in a corner with a pillow over her head, holding on to the bell she had put on Pinki’s neck when the goat was a kid that delighted in leaping about, spinning in midair before hitting earth again. I saw the scrawny butcher from my window after the money had changed hands, tugging at Pinki’s rope, cajoling her to move in the direction of the bazaar. He tried oak leaves as enticement and when that failed he hit her rump with a stick.

Pinki dug in her heels and pitted all her strength against his. He could not budge her. When all his attempts failed, Ama sent Puran to help the butcher. At such times she was relieved at Puran’s feeble mind: he had never made the connection between the occasional disappearance of goats and the kind man who fed them fresh leaves. Upon Puran’s arrival Pinki
baa
-ed with relief. I watched them walk out of sight, the goat obedient now, trotting behind Puran as if it were being taken out to graze like every other day.

The next afternoon, eating lunch with Veer, I found myself pushing away the mutton curry, bile rising within me. When I told him what had happened, he looked at me with an amused smile. Had I not eaten meat all my life and known where it came from?

“This was different,” I said. “I knew the goat that had been taken away by the butcher yesterday. It had a name and a personality.” Everything had changed after what I had seen: the way the goat trusted Puran and the butcher, the way it was betrayed. I’d never eat meat again, I said. Veer pinched my cheek. “You need toughening up. You’re too easily upset.”

Slaughtering animals was something he had been made to do by one of the uncles to whom he was sometimes farmed out for the school vacations. “The uncle thought me a coward,” Veer said. “And he was right. I couldn’t stomach the slightest cruelty to anything. I’d run away and hide when there were fights. I was every bully’s target at boarding school. Once they paraded me in the corridors in a skirt because I was too frightened to join the boxing competition. I was the school wimp.”

The uncle made him wring the neck of a chicken the first day, then skin it, clean it, cut it, and watch it being cooked. He had to eat it at lunch. The next week’s lesson was a white goat kid. Veer had to bring the cleaver down on its neck. He was twelve years old. For the rest of his boyhood he no longer stayed away when pheasants and hares that had been shot on hunting expeditions were being plucked and skinned and cleaned. “And your Diwan Sahib?” Veer said. “He shot more birds than anyone. All this conservation bullshit he spouts is new.”

It was two weeks since Veer had returned. He was about to leave Ranikhet again, and this was our farewell lunch, hence the special mutton curry. Veer finished my share as well. “I’ll be starving the next few weeks, remember? Must eat up now,” he said, as I watched him suck the marrow clean from another bone before it joined the rest on his plate.

“I’ve never known you to starve,” I said. “And haven’t you read about the goat that Frank Smythe named Bartholomew? That goat walked with them all the way up the Valley of Flowers, he was their friend, and then one day he turned into food. They began to eat him, part by part.”

Veer laughed and ran his fingers through my hair as he got up, saying, “Time to leave, I can see. I’ll find a Bartholomew on the way, and save one of his teeth for you.” He was taking a German trekking group to the Valley of Flowers, which was at its most resplendent in the monsoon. Nobody could replace him at such short notice, so he told me when I protested that Diwan Sahib, still strapped to oxygen in the hospital, was too ill to be left. “I would pass it on to someone else if I could, really. I don’t want to leave the old man right now, either, but I can’t let the group down; they’ve planned this for a year. It wouldn’t be professional. Besides, you’re here, aren’t you?”

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
11.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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