The Folded Earth: A Novel (6 page)

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
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eight

The principal of my school, Miss Wilson, had realized soon enough that I was not much good as a teacher. She thought my classes undisciplined and chaotic; I thought of it as a happy noise and could not bring myself to silence the children and impose the order that was required. Miss Wilson stormed in from time to time and imposed order with one bellowed
“Quay-it!”
and a stinging rap of her cane on the desk, after which the class and I stood in meek disgrace waiting for the angry speech that usually followed. Charu was not my only failure; there were others who had gone through my classes for two years or more, playing truant and then failing examinations. At staff meetings, looking pointedly in my direction, Miss Wilson said, “Some people think teaching is a job anyone can do. No, madam, no, it needs dedication, discipline, love of Jesus Christ Our Lord.” She addressed me as “madam” whenever she wanted to take me down a peg or two.

Miss Wilson was a Catholic from Kerala. Somehow, any sari she wore became an untidy roll of cloth around her, making her an animated bundle. Her austerity was renowned: she ate only two brisk, salt-free meals every day and for jewelry wore just a silver crucifix. Her thick, black-framed glasses slid down her bump of a nose every few minutes and she was always pushing them back up with a stubby forefinger. During her First Communion and First Confession, she had “heard the voice of Jesus, as clearly as yours or mine,” she liked to say. In her teens, she joined a convent wanting nothing but to be a nun. She was sent for a year to teach in a church school, attend Mass, recite novenas. During the time there, she, along with other girls, was under observation: were they fit for the religious life? Miss Wilson was fervent enough, but in the end the church did not allow her to take orders. She would not say why, only hinting at convent politics, but this was the great tragedy of her life and she held the world responsible for it. Whenever someone annoyed her, she would say in her grating voice, “And it is for this,
for this
that the Lord sent me out to serve the world when I wanted to be His bride in prayer and solitude!”

It was a canny move for her to make me manage the modest jam-making cooperative the church owned: the revenues from it went into the school’s coffers, and I ran it well, quickly expanding its operations. She nevertheless made it seem a favor. “You need not take the afternoon classes,” she said. “There are other teachers more experienced. You sit with the girls in the factory.” After a year or two the factory began to make good money, as well as acquiring a reputation for providing occasional employment to village girls and a ready market for the local fruit harvest. Miss Wilson took credit for it when visitors came to be shown around the factory, making sure not to introduce me to any of them.

In a way it was a grim irony. Miss Wilson pointedly made comments about how ungrateful, unloving progeny deserved the suffering that came to them; I just thought it coincidence that while my father owned several pickle factories I worked in one for a small salary. My father’s factories had never been planned. My father’s father, whom the entire neighborhood called Thataiyya, or Grandpa, was a landowner who made a fortune out of growing rice and sugarcane along the Krishna River, renting out tenements, and selling arrack (though by my father’s time we were too genteel to admit to any of this). He built a big stone-flagged house, surrounded it with mango orchards, and trees of amla, tamarind, chikoo, and guava. By the time my father was a young man, the mango trees fruited, laborers were summoned to pick the fruit, and vast vats of pickle were made out of the green mangoes, which were a prized variety. The pickle and other fruit were distributed among the larger family—until my father sniffed a business opportunity, and began supplying a few shops. By the time I was twenty, and already cast out for marrying Michael, my father owned three factories across Andhra Pradesh, which pickled every conceivable thing from ginger to gongura, from lime to bitter gourd. The labels on the bottles said that they contained an ancient and secret mix of spices handed down the generations. I knew it had been concocted by Beni Amma, our plump, flirtatious, bright-saried cook, who had had a child by my middle uncle.

As a young girl I used to play at being shopkeeper. I weighed fallen fruit on a toy balance made of two tin plates and string, making my father’s workers buy hard green mangoes from me for ten paise each. It was much the same now, baskets and gunny bags of fruit all around me. Diwan Sahib said he could tell the month from the way I smelled when I came back from work every afternoon with his newspapers. “If you smell of oranges, it must be January,” he would say. “If it’s apricots, this must be June.”

*  *  *

Charu was one of our best workers. Like many of the other girls, she worked part-time, but unlike the others she was methodical and hardworking. She was so good at solving problems and so decisive that when I saw her at work, I often wondered why she had been such a disappointment at school.

That year, however, she was different. It was February, marmalade season, and where Charu’s slicing of the orange rinds was usually even and thin whether she had two kilos to do or ten, for no reason that we could determine she began slicing the rind too thick, or did not shave off enough of the pith. When adding the pulp, she let through so many seeds that the work had sometimes to be done all over again. She spoke less than usual, smiled to herself more, and when her friends asked why, she said it was a funny story she had just remembered.

“Come then, tell us the story.”

“No, this is time for work.” Her silver nose stud sparkled as she shook her head.

She started again on the orange rinds. She would not look up for a while. Then the secret smile returned to its lodging at the corner of her lips.

The room was scented with oranges and smoke from a brazier filled with pinecones and wood. Our windows overlooked the valley. Just outside was a small stone courtyard where village women sat sorting through great orange slopes of fruit. On these February days it rained often, sometimes with sleet and hail. A bitter wind blew over us from the north, rattling windows, blowing early blossoms off the plum and peach trees, and chilling us to the bone. Then the women worked inside, close to the brazier and the gas stoves on which the marmalade boiled in giant pots. Their hands grew shriveled and cold as they sorted, washed, cut fruit. Every hour they needed tea to keep them going. I made it thick and milky, with quantities of sugar and ginger, spiked with cardamom. I had a tape recorder in the room, on which sometimes I played the news, sometimes hymns in Hindi. I was not Christian, but certain that Miss Wilson would disapprove, I would not allow frivolous music. I knew the girls switched to film music the minute I turned my back. Sound carries in the hills, especially on clear, birdless winter days, and from faraway slopes I could hear mournful songs of longing: “I have erased that name from the book of my mind, but I am still the prisoner of my love.”

Charu, who had laughed at these songs before, now hummed them under her breath. It was so cold that the water in buckets left outside grew skins of ice overnight; yet she washed her hair every few days, and I frequently saw her sitting in the yard outside their house, drying it in the milky winter sunlight. It no longer went uncombed till evening. She began to tuck flowers into it: a small pink rose from a wild bush, an iridescent plastic carnation.

One afternoon, there was a cry of pain at our workshop and I ran in to see a chopping board bright red with blood. Orange rinds need sharp knives and Charu and the other girls who had the work of slicing were picked for being dexterous. Accidents were very rare. But this time the knife had gone deep into her ring finger. She was standing there, clutching it, looking dazed. The others had wrapped a dishcloth around the finger and one of them was exclaiming, “She’s in her own world these days, never looks where the knife’s going.”
The blood dyed the white cloth red in seconds and by the time we stopped a passing jeep-taxi and got her to the Civil Hospital for stitches, she looked as if she was going to faint. The smell of blood was strong, metallic, and frightening.

The next day Ama insisted Charu stay at home and before she could utter a word of protest,
Ama had yelled toward her son, “Enough idling. You take the cattle grazing alone today, Puran. And count them when you bring them back. If there’s one goat or cow missing I’ll smash your head into so many pieces you won’t find one bit of it again.” She shook her walking stick at Puran.

But Charu stole out in the afternoon when her grandmother dozed in a patch of sun near their radish patch, and went down to the Dhobi Ghat. She held up her finger like a trophy and unwrapped the bandage to show Kundan Singh the stitches. As expected, he took the finger into his hands and stroked it around the stitches. And although that tenderest of touches was agony for the swollen finger, she kept herself from wincing so that he would not stop.

Only two months had passed since Kundan Singh had come to Ranikhet, but his presence had become air, water, and food to Charu. She had to see him every day. If he was late she worried, if he left early she sulked. She hid keepsakes from their meetings in the cowshed: a blue and white feather from the long tail of a magpie, a stone from the Dhobi Ghat stream, a bead necklace he had bought her that she could not wear for fear of Ama’s questions. She could think of nothing but him all day and if he had asked her to come to the Dhobi Ghat at midnight to meet him, she would have run down the night-shadowed, leopard-smelling slopes without a thought.

What would happen when Ama and other people found out about them? Charu confided her fears, desires, and hopes only to Gouri Joshi when milking her each morning. With the rest of the world she was as secretive as was possible in a small town where everyone came to know everything, sooner or later.

nine

Our town has two distinct parts. One part is the crowded Sadar Bazaar. In the other part, the cantonment, where the Light House is, most of the estates are at a distance from each other, and stretch for several acres across valleys and streams. The houses were built in the nineteenth century by the British, without architects or building plans. They made enormous stone mansions with chimneys and attics, fireplaces and mantelpieces, but also deep verandas and tin roofs. To the extent that it was possible in distant India, they re-created their remembered Scotland. Ever since, Ranikhet has been made up of memories and stories: of trees laden with peaches the size of tennis balls, of strawberry patches and watercress sandwiches, of the legendary eccentrics who lived here. There was the scholar-dancer who lived alone tended by a village man whom she had taught to recite Hamlet’s soliloquies. In her eighties she employed an impecunious artist to illustrate a book on dance and posed for him day after day in full Bharatnatyam costume, frail and bony, and relentlessly scathing about his ineptitude. He crept out one night, braving the darkness and his fear of wild animals, and escaped her and the town, leaving his sketches behind on his bed as a tidy heap of shredded paper. Then there was Angelina, the Goan visitor who fell in love with our retired General, who was old enough to be her father. He was smitten by her cropped, floppy hair, her careless beauty, and her brisk disregard for propriety. They married, and she wandered the town in flamboyant dresses, flowers tucked behind her ear, intercepting tourists and telling them the Forest Lodge had ghouls that drank blood on particular nights.

Our town has a private history that is revealed only to those who live here, by others who have lived here longer. Ama had a daily story for me both about the dead and the living, talking in the same breath of Janaki on the next hill who made bhang and charas out of the marijuana plants that grew wild all over the hillsides, and of unmarried Missis Lily, who had fallen pregnant forty years ago by the judge of the local court. When I went to the Christian cemetery, where I had buried Michael’s ashes, I recognized the names on the other tombstones from stories I had been told over the years. In the older part of the graveyard was Charlie Darling beneath a gravestone with winged angels. He had been dead since 1912, of syphilis, I had been told, after too many visits to Lal Kurti, where pretty Kumaoni women earned extra money from soldiers stationed in Ranikhet’s army barracks. The fiery Angelina was a few feet away, beneath a marble slab with carved roses. She never came out of anesthesia after some minor surgery at the hospital. The General, now in his nineties, had been mourning her for decades. He came to her grave every week with Bozo, and if we met there, he gave me a ride home in his old Ambassador. Bozo would sit very straight in the front, staring solemnly ahead, while I had to make do with a corner in the back that I managed to free of clutter and dog things. From behind, the big German shepherd was a head taller than the General, who—in his prime no taller than the army’s mandatory five foot five inches—was shrinking every passing year. He held himself as high as his five remaining feet would allow and as he drove he alternated between humming songs from old Hollywood musicals and holding forth on the anarchy in the country. “It’s going to the dogs,” he would say, and immediately apologize to Bozo: “Not you, dear boy, not you. You would rule with an iron paw . . . ,” and in the same breath to me, “June Allyson, my girl, did you ever see June Allyson? No, of course not . . . too young—”

These were the people I was telling Veer about one afternoon when he had fallen in step with me, as he often did these days when I was on my way back from the graveyard or when I took the shortcut through the woods and across the stream to the bazaar and St. Hilda’s. Once he held out a hand to me on the steep bit in the forest path to the bazaar where tumbling boulders made footholds precarious. I had been so taken aback that I had taken his hand, forgetting that I clambered down those stones all by myself every day.

“But what about you?” I said. “You came here in your childhood, you probably know all this old gossip. Himmat says the house was full of people in those days, and parties. I can’t imagine Diwan Sahib throwing parties. He is such a solitary person.”

“Oh, the old man was very different then. He was very handsome, straight and tall and strong looking. He had a romantic, heroic aura. People said that once he put his own life at risk to save one of those tribal lion trackers. That long scar he has all the way down his left cheek? That’s from the mauling he got.”

“He told me it was barbed wire,” I said.

“Ah, he did, did he?” Veer said. “That’s strange, he used to boast about it when he was younger. Maybe . . . anyway, he had a famously glad eye—you should have seen his entourage and the adoring women—army wives and daughters, and all those summer visitors who arrived from upper-class Lucknow and Delhi. Virtually every year there would be a new—invariably very beautiful—woman who would be introduced as a friend of the family, but everyone knew she was the flavor of that year. I only came for vacations. So did he, because he lived in Surajgarh at that time, and came here for the summer. He traveled in one of those first-class carriages, the old ones, all teakwood and gilt mirrors—and his dogs traveled with him.”

I knew about the dogs because on one of the walls above the fireplace in Diwan Sahib’s drawing room was a black and white photograph of four fringe-tailed golden retrievers on an open field. Each dog was backlit, its coat glowing in white outline from the sunset. That line of light transformed them into ethereal beings with floppy ears and panting tongues. One of the dogs had a happy smile as it looked up at Diwan Sahib. His hand had intruded into a corner of the picture. A fine riding boot was visible too.

“Parties, booze, love affairs, music on the lawn and singers he invited from Benares, meat slow-cooked on wood fires, machines for hand-churned ice cream that always tasted slightly of salt,”
Veer was saying. “He had no time for grubby parentless boys parceled out between relatives for boarding-school vacations. I was left to fend for myself. The only thing that made him take an interest in me was if I asked questions about wildlife. So I thought of something new every day. Why does the woodpecker peck a tree trunk? How does the magpie fly with such a long tail? Where did all the tigers of these hills go? And then he’d give me five minutes—undivided attention—whatever he was doing. Sometimes he would do those imitations of his: birdsong, tiger calls, barking deer. After that I would be alone again until I caught the train back. All I did was eat, ready to be the school’s fatso again when the school brea
k was over.”

The bitterness in his voice startled me. His face suddenly appeared thinner to me, worn out with remembered pain. He turned away as if he did not want me to see it. I knitted my fingers one into the other and held them behind my back so that I would not give in to my impulse to reach out for his hand. When Veer turned to me again it was with a smile, and a question about something inconsequential. We discussed his difficulties in setting up an e-mail connection and the hide-and-seek his mobile phone’s signal played. We did not mention Diwan Sahib again that day.

Veer had by now shifted base to Ranikhet. He was a climber, a professional whose work it was to take other people on climbs and treks. He was starting a new trekking company here and was busy setting up: laying in equipment, computers, looking out for an assistant to hire. When I saw the sophisticated, expensive things he came back with from trips to Delhi, I was wracked with compassion for Michael’s ill-equipped attempts, armed with little more than his passion for the mountains. Those thick-soled shoes, that plastic tent, his windproof jacket with its twice-repaired zip—they had seemed so invincible then, so flimsy, cheap, and makeshift now. It would have been a natural point of conversation for Veer and me. Yet I could not bring myself to say a word. The contrast felt too painful, the comparison almost disloyal to Michael.

Veer was away so often I might not see him for days at a stretch. We had never talked about anything personal until that afternoon. Yet every encounter with him left me feeling as if I had swallowed five cups of strong coffee at one go. A swarm of bees took up residence inside me as soon as I saw him, and they buzzed crazily, knocking against each other. I was unable to sit still, even at the factory. I was restless, and confused about the reason for it. I knew I mentioned Veer in conversation far too much but could not stop myself. I had noticed Diwan Sahib raise his eyebrow at me when I did, with a “yet again” look on his face.

That afternoon was not the first time I had felt an overpowering need to touch Veer. Not long ago, at dinner at the Light House, he was seated opposite me, telling us about a trek he had taken his clients on the year before. It was a long story involving routes, tents, altitudes, and crevasses, and Diwan Sahib stopped him often for clarifications. I had heard barely a word. There was a trace of spinach clinging to Veer’s lower lip. I was mesmerized. I noticed the exact shape and line of his lips and the cleft in his chin. I tried looking away from it, could not. I had to sit on my hands to stop myself from reaching out to stroke the scrap away.

I stared into the bathroom mirror that night, clutching a comb, forgetting it was in my hand. I did not notice the icy breath from the tiles that was freezing my toes and traveling up my legs. I remembered another time before a different bathroom mirror, moments after news of Michael’s death reached me. Water was trickling off my face that day. There were no tears. I did not know why I was in the bathroom or why I had flung handfuls of water at myself. If my body had been turned inside out at that moment, there would have been fire and drought in place of veins and muscles. My face should have been ravaged, burned away. And yet it looked as it did every other day: the same bush of dark hair around the same coffee-colored face, the same spectacles on the same pointed nose reflected in the same stained and cracked mirror that the bathroom had come with when Michael and I rented the place. We had never got around to replacing it. Parrots quarreled over the fruit on the rain tree that overhung the terrace adjoining our two stuffy rooms. I was conscious of the birds’ screeches, of children in the house next door practicing the song they did at this time, the echoing cry of late afternoon from the flower seller who circled those warm Hyderabad neighborhoods on his jasmine-laden bicycle. Each daily sound had seemed heavy with a meaning I could not understand. The toothbrushes—two because Michael had left his behind—the soap dish, even the steel tap, looked as if they were more than ordinary, utilitarian objects. Two of his shirts hung in the cupboard unwashed. I had made him leave them that way so that I could bury my face in them to breathe in his smell while waiting for him to return. The new camera bag his office had given him for assignments lay on the bottom shelf of the cupboard, unused.

It had taken me all these years to claw my way back from that day to some kind of normality.

I had lost my taste for adventure, my impulsiveness. I wished Veer had never come, to fling a stone into my calm pond.

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
11.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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