The Folded Earth: A Novel (5 page)

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
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“They are safer at the bottom of a trunk than in any Indian library I know of,” Diwan Sahib had said.

Diwan Sahib was brusque enough with visitors to acquire a reputation for being outright rude, and none of his acquaintances were allowed to grow into friends. Although he could not do without seeing me every day, he could become cantankerous or quarrelsome in minutes. But with his newfound relative, he was transformed. He hovered, he stood waiting as Veer looked around the house, he said in tones of apology that it needed repairing and cleaning up. Veer wandered from room to room as we followed, occasionally stopping and saying, “Where’s the walnut-wood chest that used to be here?” or “There was surely a desk in that corner.”

“If you come and live here,” Diwan Sahib said vaguely in Veer’s direction, in a voice so hesitant that it did not sound like him at all, “I would prod myself and get some repairs done.”

I lingered with them that evening and watched Veer stow his things in one of the unused bedrooms. He cast an appraising look around it as he unhitched his backpack and changed his walking shoes for slippers. It was clear he intended staying for a while and I could tell that the predictable temper of our days was to change. Himmat Singh staggered in with a bundle of wood and coaxed a fire out of it. “Very damp room, Chote Sa’ab,” he said to Veer. “But it will be better with this fire.” He had known him “this high,” he told me in the kitchen. In those days, Veer would often come during his school vacations and even then the semicircular room with bay windows and prints of rearing tigers on the walls was his room. Himmat Singh began to work through a pink hillock of onions and set eggs to boil. Because Diwan Sahib himself ate very little in the evenings, there was hardly any food to be had. Now dinner had to be conjured up out of nothing and Himmat Singh bustled about with a self-important air. “Ah, the old times were so different,” he said. “Visitors every evening and the kitchen busy from morning till night. I had an assistant just to chop and cut and clean. You should have seen how much Chote Sa’ab ate. My own stomach would feel good and full to see him licking bowls clean, and at the end he sighed like this—
—and he said, ‘Himmat Singh, there is nobody who can cook like you in all of the Kumaon.

That evening, Diwan Sahib grew merrier and merrier, drinking twice the amount he normally did. When I left them, Veer was pouring him a fourth generous measure of rum and Diwan Sahib was saying in approving tones, “A man’s inner nature is revealed by the size of the drinks he pours.”

My little house was cold and dark from being locked up all day. There was a power outage by then. I found my way by flashlight to the cupboard that hid my bottle of rum. I laid the bundle of unread newspapers beside me on the floor and leaned back in my chair, taking long sips. It was this solitary drinking that gave me the deepest satisfaction, as if it were an affirmation that my time was my own at last, after a whole day’s effort with other people. It pleased me that if anyone—other than Diwan Sahib, who supplied me with the rum—had known that I drank alone, I would have been labeled a “Bad Woman.” This thought alone was usually enough to restore me to tranquility.

But tonight I was restless and unsettled. I huddled in a shawl, hardly tasting the rum. I put off warming up my food or lighting candles or drawing my curtains. The squares of cold glass in the windowpanes had frozen the stars in the black night’s sky. I breathed on the glass and wrote the stranger’s name in the immediate mist. Veer. Where had he been all these years? Why had Diwan Sahib never mentioned this nephew before?

Diwan Sahib was fiercely private. I was the only person he ever allowed close: to argue with, confide in, joke with, or scold. Once, in passing, he had said in his acerbic way that seeing how I haunted his rooms, I might as well abandon the cottage I rented from him, and move into his house. We had smiled at that, and I had left, knowing that he now wanted to be alone. He was not the kind of person who could share his life with anyone else. He had been single all his life and it was plain he disliked constant company. But the arrival of his nephew had changed everything in one afternoon. He had not fed me my daily diet of odd news from around the world. He had not even thought to ask for his precious
. I could not remember the last time he had forgotten about the paper. It was what he waited all morning for; it was his link with the world he had renounced.

I fell into a troubled doze in my chair and woke aching and cold more than an hour later, when the power returned and the harsh white lightbulb overhead snapped to life.


Life changed for Charu that December. It began in one of the old estates of our town. Like the Light House, other estates of the kind in Ranikhet had quaint British-sounding names like Oakley and Knock Fierna, which was all that had survived of the British who built them in colonial times. The one where Charu often went to look for pasture was called Aspen Lodge. It rambled over many acres of hillside and had deodar and oak forests, a stream, and several ruined peasant huts. The big bungalow was made of stone. It had French windows; a deep, pillared veranda going all the way along its front; five chimneys; and a flat expanse of land around it that must once have been a lawn. Fruit trees twisted with age stood at the edges of the flat part, and below them were terraced slopes that in the monsoon were restless with pink swathes of cosmos.

It was a puzzle to outsiders why of all houses this one should lie buried in tall grass and bushes, almost in ruins, when it cried out for tended lawns, people, parties. The locals knew why it was derelict: a woman called Molly Mispeller had hanged herself from a roof beam in the dining room in colonial times and ever since it had been haunted. Anyone who lived in the house thereafter came to grief: all sorts of bad things happened to them and their families. It had been hurriedly abandoned by the last two families who scoffed at the ghost and had sunk good money into the estate.

That winter, a rumor had meandered its way around Mall Road, idly at first, then with energy, that there was one more aspiring unbeliever: the house had been bought by a hotel chain that planned to start operations elsewhere in our town. The hotel’s manager was to live in Aspen Lodge. “He will be driven out in a week,” it was declared. Mrs. Mispeller would see to that. She was said to walk about the house at night, sitting occasionally to play a ghostly piano.

Charu knew nothing of Mall Road rumors, nor did she believe in ghosts, so she often brought her cows to graze at Aspen Lodge. In the rainy months, she had come every day and cut tall grass from those slopes with her sickle, looking like a bush with legs as she carried enormous bundles of it home on her head. On this sun-browned winter morning, she loosed her cows on the grass that had survived the cold and sat on a boulder to fiddle with a flaming-orange sweater she had been knitting for weeks.

The cows grazed on the slopes; her goats scampered about, brass bells tinkling at their necks. Charu’s dog Bijli scurried up and down the slopes, the russet of his coat merging with the pine needles on the forest floor. The cows lumbered away, shaking their horns at him. He trotted back to Charu, parked himself next to her, and wedging his bottom against her for warmth, nibbled his paws one by one.

Charu hummed a tune that she interrupted at times with a yell to stop straying cows, then returned to her wool and knitting needles. The December sun and the soft weight of Bijli on her feet made her drowsy with the comfort of being warm after her cold day’s work milking cows, filling water, and washing clothes. Usually her uncle Puran shared the chore of grazing the cows, but the last few days he had been subdued and withdrawn, disappearing into the forest, smoking grass, hardly eating. Charu was used to Puran’s eccentricities and made excuses for him to her grandmother, but it tired her out doing his share of work too. Her eyelids dipped and the sweater-in-progress subsided on her lap.

For once, however, the Mall Road rumor turned out to be true. Sometime in the night, when nobody had been looking, the hotel manager had moved into Aspen Lodge. And now a tentative voice above Charu told her she needed to take her cows away.

“And never bring them back,” the voice went on, sounding a little more determined. Flowers were to be planted now, Sa’ab had ordered. The garden was to be protected from all cattle.

She looked over her shoulder and stood up. She squinted at the boy speaking to her. The sun was in her eyes; she had to shade them with her palm. She saw that he was tall and had curly hair. His eyes had the color and shine of the horse chestnuts that fell from trees in the autumn. When she frowned, he smiled at her in apology. It was a lopsided smile. His clothes were what anyone wore, but his face looked to her as if it had come off the pages of those magazines that were hung with clothespins at the newsstand.

She felt herself smiling back and stopped, with some difficulty. He pleaded, “It’s not me, I have to tell you what Sa’ab says. I am only the cook.”

His voice, though young, was richly rounded and deep. She felt she could roll his words on her tongue like smooth river pebbles and taste them. Just like those pebbles, the voice had faint rough edges that her tongue paused against to feel their grain.

She said, “You are not going to cook your Sa’ab the grass, are you? Or has he brought cows with him from the city?”

Like most hill girls, Charu could be tart when crossed and did not take kindly to being told what to do. The boy stammered, “This morning I found a very nice patch down the hill with grass. It has a stream; the cows will have water as well as food. I’ll show it to you, and you can take them there.”

She shrugged in scorn. “You don’t have to show me any grass patches on these hillsides,” she said. “I know them all. The way down to the stream is too steep for cows. But I have many other places. I don’t have to bring them here.”

For two days she stayed away. But on the third or fourth day, something made her leave her house again after she had tethered her cows in their stall. When her grandmother asked her where she was off to, she said she had to take the goats grazing. She skipped light-footed through the forest to the area below Aspen Lodge and made her way down the steep path to the old Dhobi Ghat. At places where the pine needles on the ground were thick and shiny she let herself slide downward. Her braids thumped her shoulder blades as she jumped from rock to rock, past the two tiny white Muslim shrines draped with tinseled cloth, and the cave where a leopard was believed to have its lair. Then she was down beside the stream. Its chilled, clear water ran over mossy boulders. At the stream’s edge there were low stone alcoves that washermen had used half a century ago. She sat on one of those and watched her goats feeding. She was sure he would come.

He did not, not that day, nor the next, but on the third day he was waiting there, and on the fourth, and every day after that. Charu’s grandmother asked her why she did not graze the goats closer to home, but she tossed her head and said she was tired of the old places and liked washing clothes in the stream. “I get two jobs done at the same time,” she said. “I should always have been going there.” Every time she went, she made sure to take a bundle of dirty clothes and return with the washed ones that she hung out ostentatiously in their courtyard.

*  *  *

I have been to the Dhobi Ghat once. You need to be agile: the descent to it is through pine forest and for feet not used to them the needles that cover the ground below the trees can be treacherous. I had to calculate every step so that I did not lose my footing and hurtle down the hillside. Around me the forest stretched for quiet miles, uphill toward Aspen Lodge, which was quite close, though hidden by trees, and on the other side it descended to a valley, which could be crossed for a shortcut to the town’s bazaar. At the heart of the forest, I felt as if nothing and nobody existed apart from my own panting breath and aching knees. I kept going, having decided I must. When I reached ramparts of thorny bushes and slippery, mossy rock I hesitated, but at the thought of the steep ascent that was the only way back, I beat down the bushes with my walking stick and pressed on.

Near the end of the steepness, I heard the low gurgle of rushing water. Where the path met the stream there was a flattening, a stretch of soft grass, an opening fringed by trees. There were boulders to sit on, over pools of clear water into which feet could be dangled. Time passed idly down the stream, as I daydreamed, watching insects slide and swoop at the edges and dead leaves flow by.

Because it was so inaccessible, Charu never came across anyone at the Dhobi Ghat when she went down with her goats. This became their most frequent meeting place, though there were others. She told the boy the names of all her goats. She told him of her five cows, especially of the black and white Jersey cow whom she called Gouri Joshi. Gouri had come as a large-eyed, timid, sweet-faced calf when Charu was a girl and whenever she was troubled or scolded by her grandmother she still ran to Gouri and buried her face in the cow’s warm flanks, breathing in its comforting scent of dung and straw and milk. Gouri’s eyes were dark pools of patience and had lashes that were a mile long. She never kicked, however long Charu held her. The only difficulty was that she was inclined to wander far off and then had to be searched for throughout the forest, and begged to come back home.

“Like you,” he said. “A wild thing.”

He was half-Nepalese, as she was, a child of the hills as well, but from a low-lying small town, so the sounds of the forest did not speak a language he understood. Over the next months she showed him which of the yellow berries that studded the bushes were edible and which ones were poisonous. She showed him how to find the best kafal trees and blackberry bushes, and which persimmon trees could be raided without fear of watchmen. She pulled sprigs of wild oregano from the forest floor and crushed the leaves between her palms and made him breathe in the fragrance. Martens should be chased away, Charu told him, they raided birds’ nests and hen coops. Foxes could be ignored, but you had to protect your goats from jackals.

He listened faithfully to her lectures, but when it came to a thorn deep in Bijli’s paw, it was he who pulled it out with no fear of the dog’s low growls, and Charu thought she had never known anyone so brave. And once at dusk they saw a leopard slink through the trees into the gorge below. They clutched each other’s hands for reassurance and did not let go long after the leopard had vanished. Charu thought it a kind of magic how neatly her hand fitted within his and how, when she was with him, her shyness left her and she became a chatterbox—as if all the words inside her had been readying and ripening for him.

One day, about a month later, when he was not at the stream, she waited and waited, growing annoyed, then anxious. She was so angry she told herself she would never see him again. The next minute, she was clawed by the worry that his city feet had slipped on the way down and he had fallen somewhere, bones broken, not able to cry loud enough for help. She clambered up the hill, leaving her goats unwatched. Where the slope met the flat lawn of Aspen Lodge, she hid in the bushes and peeped through the scrub at the edges of the lawn. She saw that the place was full of people: men and women in fine clothes, holding glasses, laughing and talking. White tables and chairs were set out under umbrellas bigger than she had ever seen. Two bearers with trays went from one knot of people to the next, waiting to be noticed and for something from their trays to be picked out and eaten. One of the bearers was the boy: hers.

Later she giggled and said, “When we are married, you will do the cooking and look pretty, and serve me food when I come home. I’ll go out and earn the money.”

He did not smile back. He turned away without a word. He went to where the stream disappeared into trees as if he had seen something there. He bent down and picked up a stone, which he flung into the water. She called his name: “Kundan,” she said, “O Kundan Singh!” and broke into more giggles. But after a few more minutes when he looked away still unsmiling and pretended she was not there, she ran up to him and tugged at his clothes and pleaded, “Don’t you know when I’m joking?”

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
11.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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