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BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
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Free Press
A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2011 by Anuradha Roy
Map by Anuradha Roy
Originally published in Great Britain in 2011 by MacLehose Press

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First Free Press trade paperback edition April 2012

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Roy, Anuradha.
The folded earth / Anuradha Roy.
p. cm.
1. Women teachers—Fiction. 2. Social change—Fiction. 3. Himalaya
Mountains Region—Fiction. 4. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
PR9499.4.R693F65       2012
823.92—dc23            2011044146

ISBN 978-1-4516-3333-7
ISBN 978-1-4516-3335-1 (ebook)

For my mother, with whom I climbed my first hill

And for Rukun and Biscoot, dedicated non-climbers

PART I

one

T
he girl came at the same hour, summer or winter. Every morning, I heard her approach. Plastic slippers, the clink of steel on stone. And then her footsteps, receding. That morning she was earlier. The whistling thrushes had barely cleared their throats, and the rifle range across the valley had not yet sounded its bugles. And, unlike every other day, I did not hear her leave after she had set down my daily canister of milk.

She did not knock or call out. She was waiting. All went quiet in the blueness before sunlight. Then the soothing early morning mutterings of the neighborhood began: axes struck wood, dogs tried out their voices, a rooster crowed, wood-smoke crept in through my open window. My eyelids dipped again and I burrowed deeper into my blanket. I woke only when I heard the General walking his dog, reproaching it for its habitual disobedience, as if after all these years it still baffled him. “What is the reason, Bozo?” he said, in his loud voice. “Bozo,
what is the reason
?” He went past every morning at about six thirty, which meant that I was going to be late unless I ran all the way.

I scrabbled around, trying to organize myself—make coffee, find the clothes I would wear to work, gather the account books I needed to take with me—and the milk for my coffee billowed and foamed out of the pan and over the stove before I could reach it. The mess would have to wait. I picked up things, gulping my coffee in between. It was only when I was lacing my shoes, crouched one-legged by the front door, that I saw her out of the corner of an eye: Charu, waiting for me still, drawing circles at the foot of the steps with a bare toe.

Charu, a village girl just over seventeen, lived next door. She had every hill person’s high cheekbones and skin, glazed pink with sunburn. She would forget to comb her hair till late in the day, letting it hang down her shoulders in two disheveled braids. Like most hill people, she was not tall, and from the back she could be mistaken for a child, thin and small-boned. She wore hand-me-down salwar kameezes too big for her, and in place of a diamond she had a tiny silver stud in her nose. All the same, she exuded the reserve and beauty of a princess of Nepal—even if it took her only a second to slide back into the awkward teenager I knew. Now, when she saw I was about to come out, she stood up in a hurry, stubbing her toe against a brick. She tried to smile through the pain as she mouthed an inaudible “namaste” to me.

I realized then why she had waited so long for me. I ran back upstairs and picked up a letter that had come yesterday. It was addressed to me, but when I opened it, I had found it was for Charu. I stuffed it into my pocket and stepped out of the front door.

My garden was just an unkempt patch of hillside, but it rippled with wildflowers on this blue and gold morning. Teacup-sized lilies charged out of rocks and drifting scraps of paper turned into white butterflies when they came closer. Everything smelled damp, cool, and fresh from the light rain that had fallen at dawn, the first after many hot days. I felt myself slowing down, the hurry draining away. I was late anyway. What difference did a few more minutes make? I picked a plum and ate it, I admired the butterflies, I chatted of this and that with Charu.

I said nothing of the letter. I felt a perverse curiosity about how she would tell me what she wanted. More than once, I heard her draw breath to speak, but she either thought better of it or came up with, “It has rained after three weeks dry.” And then, “The monkeys ate all the peaches on our tree.”

I took pity on her and produced the letter from my pocket. It had my address and name, written in Hindi in a large, childish hand.

“Do you want me to read it for you?” I said.

“Yes, alright,” she said. She began to fiddle with a rose, as if the letter were not important, yet darted glances in its direction when she thought I was not looking. Her face was transformed by relief and happiness. “My friend Charu,” the letter said:

How are you? How is your family? I hope all are well. I am well. Today is my tenth day in Delhi. From the first day I looked for a post office to buy an inland letter. It is hard to find places here. It is a very big city. It has many cars, autorickshaws, buses. Sometimes there are elephants on the street. This city is so crowded that my eyes cannot go beyond the next house. I feel as if I cannot breathe. It smells bad. I remember the smells of the hills. Like when the grass is cut. You cannot hear any birds here, or cows or goats. But the room Sahib has given me is good. It is above the garage for the car. It faces the street. When I am alone at the end of the day’s cooking, I can look out at everything. I get more money now. I am saving for my sister’s dowry and to pay off my father’s loan. Then I can do my heart’s desire. Send me a print of your palm in reply. That will be enough for me. I will write again.

Your friend.

“Who is it from?” I asked Charu. “Do you know someone in Delhi, or is this a mistake?”

“It’s from a friend,” she said. She would not meet my eyes. “A girl. Her name is Sunita.” She hesitated before adding: “I told her to send my letters to you because—the postman knows your house better.” She turned away. She must have known how transparent was her lie.

I handed her the letter. She snatched it and was halfway up the slope leading from my house to hers before I had closed my fist. “I thought I taught you to say thank you,” I called after her. She paused. The breeze fluttered through her dupatta as she stood there, irresolute, then ran down the slope back to me. She spoke so quickly her words ran into each other: “If I bring you extra milk every day . . . will you teach me how to read and write?”

two

M
y rival in love was not a woman but a mountain range. It was very soon after my wedding that I discovered this. We had defied our families to be together, and those first months we were exultant castaways who had fitted the universe into two rented rooms and one narrow bed. Daytime was only a waiting for evening, when we would be together. Nights were not for sleeping. It took many good-byes before we could bear to walk off in different directions in the mornings. Not for long.

It began in little ways—silences, the poring over maps, the unearthing of boots and jackets stuffed into a suitcase under our bed—and then the slow-burning restlessness in Michael became overpowering. He was with me, but not with me. His feet walked on flat land but flexed themselves for inclines. He lay at night with his eyes open, dreaming. He studied weather reports for places I had never heard of.

Michael was not a climber; he was a press photographer. Through a school friend whose father was an editor, he had found a job with a newspaper when we got married. We could not afford more than an annual trek for him in the mountains and that one trek was what he lived for all year.

Michael’s yearnings made me understand how it is that some people have the mountains in them while some have the sea. The ocean exerts an inexorable pull over sea people wherever they are—in a bright-lit, inland city or the dead center of a desert—and when they feel the tug there is no choice but somehow to reach it and stand at its immense, earth-dissolving edge, straightaway calmed. Hill people, even if they are born in flatlands, cannot be parted for long from the mountains. Anywhere else is exile. Anywhere else, the ground is too flat, the air too dense, the trees too broad-leaved for beauty. The color of the light is all wrong, the sounds nothing but noise.

I knew from our student days together that Michael trekked and climbed. What I had not known was that his need for the mountains was as powerful as his need for me. We were far away from the high peaks: we lived in Hyderabad. The journey to the foothills of the Himalaya took two nights on trains and cars and it took many more days to reach the peaks. No hills closer at hand would do. Not the Nilgiris, nor the entire Western Ghats. It had to be the Himalaya—it would be impossible for me to understand why until I experienced it, Michael told me, and one day I would. Meanwhile, each year, the rucksack and sleeping bag came out and his body left in the trail of his mind, which was already nine thousand feet above sea level and climbing.

One year, Michael decided to go on a trek to Roopkund, a lake in the Himalaya at about sixteen thousand feet. It is reached by a long, hard climb toward the Trishul, a snow peak that is more than twenty-two thousand feet high. For much of the year, its water remains frozen. A park ranger stumbled upon the lake in 1942 and it has been an enigma ever since: it contains the bones and skulls, preserved by the cold, of some six hundred people who died there in the ninth century, some say the sixth. Many of the skeletons wore gold anklets, bracelets, necklaces, and bangles. Six hundred travelers at that altitude, in that stark wilderness—where were they going? Impossible to tell: there was no known route from Roopkund to Tibet, or to anywhere else. How did they die? Archaeologists think they may have been caught in an avalanche or hit by large hailstones: there are tennis-ball-sized dents on many of the skulls.

The bones were stripped of their jewelry and most of them were left where they were. And there they have remained, although memento-seekers have carried off bits and pieces as trophies. Even now, each time the lake melts during the monsoon, bones and skulls float in the water and wash up at its edges.

Michael had tried to reach Roopkund once before and failed because of bad weather and lack of experience. This time, he had better equipment, he said; he was timing it differently, he knew what to expect. Even so, I felt a cloud of dread grow and darken as the day for his departure neared. I found myself looking at him with an intensity I had forgotten over six years of being married to him. The smell of him, which I breathed in deep as if to store inside me; the bump on his nose where it had been broken when he was a boy; the early lines of gray in his hair; the way he cleared his throat mid-sentence and pulled at his earlobes when thinking hard.

He knew I was worrying, and the night before he left, as I lay on my stomach and his fingers wandered my tense back and aching neck, he told me in a voice hardly more than a murmur about the route: the trek was not really difficult, he said, it only sounded as if it was. His fingers went down my spine and up my neck while an iron ball of fear grew heavier inside me. Many had done it before, he said. The rains and snow would have retreated from that altitude by the time they reached it; there would be wildflowers all over the high meadows on their route. His hands worked their way from my legs to my shoulders, finding knotted muscles, teasing them loose before he returned to my back. The boots, sleeping bag, tent, would be checked, every zip tried, every rope tested. The bulbs and batteries in his headlamp were new; he would get himself better sunglasses in Delhi. It was as if he was running through a list in his head.

Each item he mentioned reminded me of things that could go wrong. I did not want to know any more. I touched his always fast-growing stubble and I think I said, “By the time you’re home you’ll have a beard again, like every other time.” My fingers held the inch or two of fat he had recently grown at his waist. “And you’ll have lost this. You’ll be thin and starved.”

“Completely starved,” he said. “Lean and hungry.” His teeth tugged at my earlobes. He stretched over me to switch on the shaded lamp by our bed and traced with his eyes every curve of my face and the dimple in my chin. “Why did he marry this girl?” he said in a voice that imitated the stereotypical older relative. “Why did he marry this stick-thin girl, as dark as boot polish? All you can see in her face are her big eyes.” He ran his fingers through the tangled mass of my hair. “Almost at your waist, Maya. Where will it have grown to by the time I’m back?” I could smell onions frying although it was almost midnight. On our neighbor’s radio, a prosaic voice reported floods, scams, train accidents, cricket scores. Michael’s hand wandered downward till it reached my hips. He said, “Your hair will be here—or maybe longer? This far?”

I switched the light off.

*  *  *

The news came to me by way of my landlord, who had a telephone. They had found Michael’s body after three days of searching. It was close to the lake, I was told, he had almost made it there when the landslides, rain, and snowstorms came and separated Michael from the others with him. His body had a broken ankle, which was no doubt why he had not been able to move to a less exposed place. And the face was unrecognizable, burned black by the cold.

They brought him downhill to a tiny village on the route and cremated him there. They saved the backpack they had found beside him, and the mountaineering institute sent it to Hyderabad along with Michael’s ashes, which they had put into an empty ghee can. I tried going through the contents of the backpack, but after taking out the first two sweatshirts, with the scent of him still in them, I found it too painful to unpack further and locked it into the suitcase it had come from, below our bed.

The day the backpack came, I went down our alley to the little paan shop, which had a tin box of a phone booth tacked to one side of it. We used to be regulars there. A small group of people hung around, smoking, chatting, waiting for their paan to be made, for their turn at the phone. I waited too. Eventually my turn came. Conscious of curious ears all around me, I murmured my questions into the phone. The mountaineering institute was in the hills, hundreds of miles away, and it sounded as if we were speaking through a wild storm. “What, what?” the voice at the other end yelled. I spoke louder, then louder still above the crackles and echoes. “What? Who is it?” the voice still demanded. I began to shout: “My husband has died in that accident. Could you give me more details?” The crowd at the paan shop edged closer, stared at me without blinking. The tiny booth oozed the thick scent of old chewing tobacco, cigarette smoke, and incense.
An old woman patted my shoulder, said, “Paapam, paapam,” in pitying tones. I pushed her hand away. Finished explaining all the facts to the distant voice, its unfamiliar Hindi-accented English. “Madam, I am not authorized,” the voice said, “hold one minute.” After a long silence another voice arrived and in cautious tones began, “Am I right, madam, that you are—”Again I repeated: “My husband died on that trek. Tell me what happened, I need to know what happened.” The second man’s voice ebbed and flowed into my ears; the storm on the line intensified. I could hear nothing. I could no longer see or speak for tears. I thrust the telephone into the nearest hand and stumbled away from it.

I could not face the thought of another crowded call from that booth. The next day, I started a letter to the mountaineering institute instead. “Dear madam or sir,” it began, “I am writing to find out . . .” I put it aside, then picked up my pen again a week later. I needed to know how Michael had died. How, exactly? I had a hundred questions. Could I get answers? I stared at the white, unlined sheet of paper. Faces frozen black with cold appeared before me. I heard the crack of bone as Michael’s ankle snapped. Set aside the pen again.

I lay back on the bed and saw that the ceiling was hung with sticky cobwebs in that corner that only Michael could reach with the broom, if he stood on a chair. The spiders would live there in peace now. I knew that at the back of the cupboard there were letters from an earlier girlfriend of his. I would burn them without reading them. Had he loved her as he had loved me?

I was afraid to know. I needed to not know.

I never finished my letter to the institute. Nor did I telephone again. A terrible restlessness took hold of me. I began leaving our rooms at daybreak and scouring the city as if I might run into him somewhere. I felt compelled to do it. At night I wondered why my legs ached, or why my clothes were sweat-wet, and it took me a while to remember that I had been out all day on scorching streets, walking at random, getting onto buses without looking where they were going, pausing at parks, shops, then walking on, until shops shut and traffic thinned, and the streets grew too empty for a woman alone. Once I ended up at the ruins of Golconda Fort, where, by some miracle of acoustics, the sound of hands clapping at the gateway can be heard—after a few moments’ pause—at the distant ramparts of the fort. Michael had laughingly said when we were there together not many months earlier, “What if I clapped my hands and then, the next second, dropped dead? You would still hear the echo of that clapping. Ghost clapping.”

“What rubbish you can talk,” I had said crossly. And then held his hand to my cheek to reassure me with its un-dead warmth.

I was alone. I had no contact with friends: I had lost them over the years of being wrapped up in Michael. I had in effect no family although my parents did live in the same city. My father had made a great show of formally disowning me when I married. A son-in-law of a different religion was abhorrent. My mother was too intimidated by him to do more than steal out for occasional trysts with me at a temple. She had no way of getting news of me unless I contacted her. I did not. Not yet. What was I to say to her? The pain would extinguish her. I had a job, but it did not cross my mind that I needed to inform my office why I had stopped coming to work. A tin with ashes lay in my bed where Michael should have been. I was twenty-five years old and already my life was over.

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
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