The Folded Earth: A Novel (4 page)

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
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six

It was six years after I began to live in Ranikhet: I remember it was a December afternoon, about three o’clock, the sun already too weak to warm anything, and I was on my way back from work.
As every day, I went first to my landlord’s house. Unusually for that time of day, he was not alone. I found him with a man I had never met before and they were so engrossed in conversation that they hardly noticed me as I laid a bundle of newspapers on the grass and stood behind Diwan Sahib’s chair.

It was a daily ritual. On my way back from school I picked up the newspapers from Negi’s tea stall on Mall Road and walked home with them to Diwan Sahib’s. His man Friday, Himmat Singh, would make tea for us and we would sit and read the papers together. Diwan Sahib got the
Statesman
for a column it had of odd news from around the world. Once he told me of a woman in Texas who had to be detached by surgeons from a toilet seat she had sat on for two years. Her boyfriend had humored her and served her meals in the bathroom for all of that time. “I have been told women take forever in the bathroom!” Diwan Sahib said. “But I didn’t think they took this long.” He had the habit of chuckling for ages over such nuggets of information before making neat clippings of them with his nail scissors and gluing them into a bulging leather-bound diary.

Afterward, if Diwan Sahib had made some progress with his biography of Jim Corbett, he gave me the additions to his manuscript, and I would type them up on his chunky Remington. I had by painful degrees grown used to his long-limbed scrawls and learned to make sense of his arrows, brackets, lines between lines, looped scribbles. I had learned a great deal from the manuscript about the hills in which I now lived, for before Corbett turned writer and naturalist he had been the Kumaon’s most famous hunter, an affable-looking man in khaki shorts and sola topi whose particular skill was the slaughtering of man-eating tigers and leopards. Over his several drafts, I thought I had become almost as much a scholar on the subject as Diwan Sahib, and if I felt brave enough I ventured comments on the book that, on the whole, he ignored.

Diwan Sahib regularly rethought the structure of his book. The first draft, which I had typed three years earlier, began with Corbett’s ancestor Joseph, who was a monk, and Harriet, who was a novitiate at a nearby convent. They met, broke all their vows, and married. I thought this a good romantic prologue for their descendant’s life, which, by contrast, was all celibacy and hunting. I had typed fifty or so pages with great care. We had scarcely reached the young Corbett’s first hunting exploits as a child, however, when Diwan Sahib changed his mind and began to organize the book thematically. In the new plan, the chapters were entitled “Scholar Soldier,” “Tiger-Killing,” “From Gun to Camera,” and the narrative moved back and forth in time within each chapter. The nun’s and monk’s story was abandoned. We were now on our third attempt, a plain chronology beginning with Corbett’s birth in Nainital, which was only two hours away from us. Bundles of discarded typescripts lay about the house. The “a” and the “s” keys on the typewriter had worn away long ago. Nobody in Ranikhet knew anymore how to repair a typewriter so the manuscript looked as if it were written in code.

That afternoon, as I stood behind his chair and listened, Diwan Sahib was sitting with the stranger under his weeping spruce, and talking about the Nawab of Surajgarh, whose finance minister, long years ago, he had been. The Nawab had kept beautiful Arab horses, Diwan Sahib was saying. They were his passion. He spent more time with them than on his royal duties. He loved wildlife and went off on horseback for long days to the jungles, where he slept on machans with no more than two servants to attend to him. Although he disapproved of hunting, he was a very good shot. He believed in keeping his guns oiled, and his finger and eye steady. He had been schooled for a world in which every self-respecting warrior had to be capable of firing an accurate shot in all situations, even when startled from deepest slumber. Every night, an alarm clock was set for five o’clock the next morning, and hung on a wall, or placed on the head of a stuffed tiger some twenty paces away across the room. The instant it rang, the Nawab sprang up, and “with one eye still asleep,” as he liked to boast, he aimed his revolver at the clock and fired at it to stop it ringing. In twenty-five years, he had never scarred the wall around the clock, or singed a whisker on the tiger’s head, and had slaughtered some fifteen brands of clocks: imported wooden and gold ones—Ansonias, Smiths, Junghans—as well as clocks locally made. He had shot wall clocks and small brass timepieces. He had once executed a Bavarian cuckoo clock, Diwan Sahib said, and got the cuckoo itself when it popped out the third of its five times. On one occasion, when he had run out of alarm clock supplies, he had made a khidmatgar wait in the room all night. At exactly five, the shaking man had had to hold a wristwatch at head height, ringing a brass bell with his other hand so that his master could shoot the watch.

After his morning shot, the Nawab returned to snooze for five more minutes with his head under a velvet pillow, and then he got out of bed to go to his horses. He had five favorites, whom he had named after Mughal kings and queens: Noor, Jahangir, Babar, Humayun, and Mumtaz. When Surajgarh fell to India at Partition and the Nawab realized he had picked the wrong side in the years before, he lingered for some months, then went into exile in Paris, parted from his palace and possessions and lands. He could not take his horses with him and they became an all-consuming worry over his last few days in India. He did not trust anyone else to look after them well enough. The day before his departure, he went at dawn to their stables, rode each of them for a few minutes, patted them, brushed them, watered them, whispered to them, and then shot them with his hunting rifle, one after the other.

The man sitting with Diwan Sahib did not look like one of his usual visitors; he seemed neither a local nor a scholar. He was wiry and long-limbed, too restless to sit still for long. He had a hollow-cheeked, cadaverously handsome face, and close-cropped steel-gray hair. I had to keep myself from seeming curious about his oddly deformed left ear, and a missing finger that I noticed whenever he wrapped his hands around his mug of tea, to warm them. Every time I stole a glance at him, I found his intent, gray-brown eyes on me, and unlike other people who look away when they are caught staring, he did not. He let his eyes linger, then float away to something else, and return again. If I interrupted Diwan Sahib’s story with comments on guns and shooting, from my recently acquired knowledge of Corbett, the man listened with great seriousness. He said very little himself, but when Diwan Sahib silenced my interjections in the acid tones he reserved for ignorant experts, I felt something like a current of sympathy pass between us, leaving Diwan Sahib out.

Now the man spoke. “I can understand the Nawab perfectly, I would have done the same myself.”

“Shot the horses?” I said.

“I’d rather kill something I loved? Than think of it belonging to someone else?” His statements ended in a question mark. A whisper of California rippled through the accents of his English. He did not smile and signpost a joke as he spoke. Instead he looked away with a slight frown, as if a troubling memory had poked its foot through a door in his head. He got up from his chair with such abruptness that it fell, and said, “It’s been too long since I came back here. Is my room still OK?”

Diwan Sahib introduced us at last. “This is Veer,” he said. “I know we are related—not sure how, but I know we are—maybe a nephew via some roundabout route? Veer, this is the love of my life, Maya, and I would certainly shoot both her and myself if she so much as threatened to leave my house for someone else’s.”

*  *  *

Diwan Sahib’s house was a higgledy-piggledy mansion built on many levels. It had doorways that turned out to be cupboards and cupboards that led into other rooms; it had attics, trapdoors, a basement. It had staircases that disappeared into darkness and so many rooms that I had not been inside all of them; nobody admitted it, but I think even Diwan Sahib thought the further reaches of the house were the domain of ghosts and spirits better left alone.

He used for the most part only two central rooms on the ground floor, and these he kept warm with a small fire and a basic bar heater. The roofs leaked and many of the chimneys were blocked. He was too old to be bothered to repair anything, he said. A neighborhood handyman was called in to patch up whatever was absolutely necessary and the rest was left to the elements and the monkeys that danced on the roof each afternoon. In the monsoon, buckets, tubs, and even gilded soup bowls from a fine porcelain dinner set were planted all over the house to catch dripping rainwater. In winter Himmat Singh, who was only a little younger than Diwan Sahib, tottered about blocking broken windowpanes with pieces of cardboard, as a result of which the inner rooms were as dark as night in the daytime.

I had heard that before my time here, Diwan Sahib used to drive around in a temperamental blue Morris Minor that passersby were accustomed to pushing to revive the engine when it lost interest. One afternoon, when it stalled thrice, he got out of it, gave it a parting kick, and left it to tip, handbrake-free, over Ranikhet’s steep western ridge. You could still see its rusted ruin trapped in the rocks below. Foxes lived in the shell. Mr. Qureshi, the man who owned the town’s garage, and had repaired it for all of its life, could not stop mourning its brutal end. “That is no way to say good-bye to a car that has served you faithfully, to the best of its ability,” he said, and Diwan Sahib scowled, “Its best was appalling.” Mr. Qureshi muttered, “Diwan Sahib is not himself after a few . . . Allah was wise to forbid alcohol.”
Yet I often saw them together in the garden on folding aluminum chairs, Diwan Sahib squeezing lemon into gin, and Mr. Qureshi holding a steel cup with both hands, sipping cautiously, as if it contained hot tea. He had a kind, bald face as round as a pumpkin, and as on a pumpkin all its lines radiated toward its center, which was his small, cherry-like nose. The cherry grew redder as he sipped, but he persisted in deceiving himself that nobody could tell what he was drinking.

Diwan Sahib’s drinking sessions were his durbar. The table next to him had a bottle of gin on it before lunch, and rum if it was evening. Next to the gin on an old walnut-wood tray stood a bottle of bitters, a saucerful of lime quarters, a glass jug of water covered with a beaded white napkin, and a silver cigarette case. Diwan Sahib no longer smoked, but the cigarette case had been his constant companion for decades and he liked having it nearby. The case was shaped as a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, with every detail of the car intricately worked into the metal. The only moveable part, other than the wheels, was the car’s hood. Instead of carburetors and pistons, what was revealed when the hood was lifted was a compartment for cigarettes. Mr. Qureshi coveted the case like a child, but Diwan Sahib would not part with it. His only concession was to allow Mr. Qureshi to use it whenever he came. Mr. Qureshi would place five of his own cigarettes within it as soon as he arrived. He would click the bonnet open when he wanted to smoke one, and quite often even when he did not. Diwan Sahib disliked the strong, filterless cigarettes Mr. Qureshi smoked and would wave the smoke away saying, “I’m not going to let you use that case after today. Never.”

Diwan Sahib looked royal: his worn, brown dressing gown was his robe, and the woolen cap Charu had knitted for him his crown, while his immense height, his great age, and the whiteness of his hair and beard made everyone around him deferential. In the morning, if he was in a good temper, he allowed entry to visitors, and in summer they were frequent. Apart from Mr. Qureshi and the elderly General, who lived on the next estate, scholars of Indian history and wildlife made the long journey by train and road up from the plains to meet him and ask him questions about the princely state of Surajgarh. Where the Nawab had wanted Surajgarh to become a part of Pakistan at Partition, Diwan Sahib had opposed it, even getting into clandestine negotiations with political high-ups in Delhi to make sure Surajgarh fell to India’s share. Eventually he was jailed by the Nawab for treason. He described this as “enjoying the hospitality of the Nawab.”

The scholars asked him questions about his Surajgarh years, but in fact the lure for their trips was not Diwan Sahib’s reminiscences. Early in 1948, the Mountbattens, Edwina and her husband, went to Surajgarh for a state visit on which Nehru accompanied them. It was rumored that Edwina and Nehru had written each other notes during the week they spent there in rooms at opposite ends of the palace, or stranded at separate dining tables. The notes were thought to have been stolen by a member of the palace staff, and ended up in the Diwan’s possession. Historians hungered for them. Dealers came for them too: their passion was not in the cause of biography; it was because of what the letters would fetch if sold. I was not sure the letters existed, but if they did, Diwan Sahib appeared to have no plans for them. He was contented enough in his dressing gown all day, drinking his rum and gin.

Because of Diwan Sahib and the rumor of those letters, I met many scholars and writers. I never knew who they were, but he gave me a summary after they left. “That man’s a fraud, he does nothing but plagiaries.” Or: “That woman sits in Chicago all year and then produces authoritative work on Indian villages after two weeks of fieldwork.” If he approved, he called them “good boy” or “good girl.” “That was Ramachandra Guha,” he said once, of a tall, distracted-looking man in glasses who had addressed him as sir throughout. “He’s a good boy, but he didn’t have a single drink.”

“Those letters should be in the Nehru Memorial Library, sir,” Ramachandra Guha had told him. “They should not be at the bottom of a trunk.”

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
2.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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