The Folded Earth: A Novel (9 page)

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
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Sanki Puran had no recollection of his cow having aimed a kick at the Brigadier, but Mr. Chauhan’s neck throbbed with stress each time he allowed his thoughts to return to that party. He had tended, since that day, to encounter Puran at every turn: smelly, slovenly, a disgrace. What was more, he grazed his animals on precisely those slopes where Mr. Chauhan had planted signs both in Hindi and in English announcing fines for illegal grazing. Puran was not acquainted with the alphabet in either language, but he welcomed the iron signboards because the posts they stood upon provided sturdy places to tether cattle.

Throughout his working life, Mr. Chauhan had despaired over the lack of discipline, civic sense, and hard work among his fellow citizens, but what he saw around him in the hill country beat everything he had ever been exasperated by before. It was as if people were on vacation all the time. Apart from getting drunk or gossiping around the peanut seller’s charcoal brazier, Mr. Chauhan did not see the men doing anything at all. And of all the men he saw, Sanki Puran grated the most. “Not only is he a shiftless rowdy,” he told his wife, “he is shiftless and rowdy in an army uniform. But I have decided what I need to do, for a start.”

His wife saw that familiar gleam in his eyes and smiled. He really did know how to change things. She remembered the time when they had been posted in a cantonment town in Uttar Pradesh, where too he was administrator, “responsible for everything from light in a bulb and water in the tap, to keeping the cantonment clean and green.” His notion of “clean” included reforming the morals of the young. He came up with a novel scheme. He sent the police around to all the public parks in the cantonment area and wherever they came upon romancing teenagers, the policemen frightened them out of their wits by taking their pictures, demanding their names and addresses, and threatening to inform their parents of—as Mr. Chauhan put it—their “extracurricular activities.

“This is when you should be studying, not being obscene in parks,” Mr. Chauhan had thundered at a cowering couple on the first raid, one that he had personally conducted to show the staff how to go about it. Mrs. Chauhan narrated this story of her husband’s innovative thinking to many people in Ranikhet and told them she was sure he had thought of something similarly novel and exemplary for the insane cowherd.

What happened a few days after the party later became a frightening haze in Puran’s head. It was around midday. He had been sitting at the edge of the slope next to his cows. He had tied Gangu, the skittish young one, to a tree; spoken some sense into the wobbly, large-eyed new calf that was unable to draw enough milk from its mother; and then sat back on his haunches, smoking grass. Charu was at some distance, high up in a tall oak tree, cutting fodder with her sickle. She saw the four men approach Puran but returned to cutting oak leaves, not for a moment imagining what they were going to do.

Without warning Puran felt rough hands on his shoulders, harsh voices in his ear, giving him instructions; he could not tell what. He saw nothing but a blur of laughing faces. They thrust him into a jeep. He responded with keening, terrified, animal sounds to its unfamiliar rolling motion as it charged off, taking bends and slopes at high speed. The men slapped him around the ears and shouted, “Arre yaar, shut up! Chootiya! Donkey!” Then they stopped the vehicle, pushed him out, stripped him down to his threadbare underpants, and thrust him under a roadside tap. The icy water clawed at him. They threw a bar of bright green soap toward him. He shivered at the unexpected feel of open air on his near-naked body. It made him ache with the cold. He clutched the soap not knowing what he was expected to do with it.

One of the men who was kinder than the others tried telling him something, then, getting no response, rolled up his sleeves, took the soap from his hand, and lathered him all over while the other men screamed with laughter and slapped their thighs, shouting, “Mammi, Mammi, give him a good wash!” Puran’s knees knocked and he clasped his hands over his crotch. A small knot of people had gathered by this time, some of them waiting with empty canisters and buckets for their turn at the tap. Nobody dared raise a protest against the men, among whom they recognized Mr. Chauhan’s guard, driver, and chowkidar. Some of the gathered people thought it was a joke. Some said, “Good thing, that crazy Puran really needed a bath.”

After it was over, Puran found himself in an unfamiliar yellow shirt, red pullover, and overlarge blue trousers. He babbled in his hollow-sounding voice and darted for his own clothes, which had been flung to the verge in an untidy heap. Before he could reach them, one of the men picked up the clothes on the end of a stick and tossed them into a heap of twigs and leaves and pinecones he had set fire to at the road’s edge. The shoes followed. The flames leaped and crackled; the fumes from the burning rubber made people draw back with choking coughs.

Puran let out a strangled yelp. He thrust his hand into the flames to rescue his clothes. The man who had scrubbed him with the soap tried pulling him away, but Puran’s small frame was possessed with a new demonic strength. Charu, who had clambered down from her tree and cut across the valley to catch up with the jeep, saw him put his hands into the fire and screamed, “Chacha, Puran Chacha!” and tugged at his new yellow shirt, but she was not strong enough to stop him.

His hands were as charred as the clothes by the time he had retrieved them, but he tore off the yellow shirt and replaced it with his tattered and still-smoking old uniform. Some of it came apart in his hands, but he managed to get it on, though one of its arms and a part of the collar had burned away.

Ama gave me a theatrical account of what had happened, but I did not see Puran for several days after the incident. He took to hiding in the cowshed and whimpering in a corner there, refusing to graze the animals. He slept huddled in the straw, holding a goat kid for warmth. Charu took him food and water and wheedled him into eating, then left to graze the cows and goats alone. Puran only dashed into the forest at dawn to shit when everyone was still asleep. One such morning, he came back, holding an animal in his arms.

He set it down in the courtyard. It stood there, only a little higher than the very tall black rooster that waggled its head at the intruder and circled it, pecking at the ground around its hooves. It was a fawn, exquisite in its delicate beauty, its long eyelashes fencing in pools of brown that took up most of its pointed face and big moist nose. Puran knelt next to it, and groaned and cooed and slapped the sides of his thighs in delight. The fawn would not let anyone else come close. If they did, it moved away with careful dignity. But when Puran cooed, it turned its head in his direction, took a step toward him and even allowed him to touch it, which he did with infinite tenderness. He gathered the creature in his arms after we had inspected it, and disappeared behind the stand of bamboo that blocked the cow stalls from our view. He made the fawn a soft, cushioned bed with piled pine needles and dry grass. He named her Rani, because she was queenly in her disdain and because she was a deer from Ranikhet.

Over the next weeks, we grew accustomed to seeing Puran carrying the fawn like a baby when he went to the forest, her legs poking quill-like out from beneath his arms. He fed her milk in an aluminum bowl and muttered to her day and night. She listened to him with the distant patience of a diva before an acolyte. After a while, having had enough of his adoration, Rani would get up and walk away to nibble at grass. The clerk said, “Puran has a lover at last, a princess no less, and she’s playing as hard to get as any pretty woman.” Everyone laughed, and shouted, “O, Sanki, shall we arrange a wedding?”

I thought it a rare thing, almost otherworldly, that this barking deer’s fawn had come to live among us. I waited every morning to catch a glimpse of her when Puran carried her down the hill for a constitutional before he left with the cattle, which he was now grazing again. It made me late for school some days, I said to Diwan Sahib, but I felt as if my day had not begun until I caught a glimpse of Rani’s liquid eyes and languid legs.

“Do you know what drew me to Corbett?” he said to Veer and me after he had heard me out. “That is, apart from the fact that he habitually described springs with ‘gin-clear’ water? There’s a man after my own heart. Imagine mountain springs gushing gin!” Diwan Sahib poured himself a hefty measure of Bombay Sapphire.

“His tall tales?” Veer said in a tone so caustic that Diwan Sahib looked at him in surprise.

“Oh, come on,

Veer said. “That story where he kills a man-eater in a gorge with a gun in one hand and two nightjar eggs in the other? A tiger that munched dozens of people for dinner is killed with one shot, and the eggs survive!”

“You’re losing the wood for the trees, Veer,” Diwan Sahib said, sounding stricken. “Every adventure story has its exaggerations and embroidery. That doesn’t mean all of it is untrue. Look at Corbett’s jungle craft, his love of nature.”

“If I want fiction, I’ll read novels,

Veer said, and left the veranda for his room. We heard him banging and thumping inside, then a bellow. “Where the hell does that fool put my laptop charger? Himmat Singh! Himmat! A different place every day. It’s just not possible to run an office in this madhouse.”

Himmat Singh scuttled past us toward Veer’s room as fast as his creaking legs could manage. Silence for a moment or two, and then Veer snapped, “Behind that curtain? Which hiding place will you think of next?”

“I won’t be back tonight,” he shouted from his room. “Going to Bhimtal for dinner. Sick of Himmat’s food. Greasy chicken curry and rice every bloody day.” After a pause, we heard a door bang and the fan-belt screech and whine as he started his jeep.

Himmat went past us on his return journey, now with an impassive face. He would not look in our direction but muttered, “All these years nobody could cook better in the Kumaon than Himmat Singh. And now the chicken is greasy. Just from this morning.”

Diwan Sahib was crestfallen. “What’s the matter with Veer?” He fiddled with his drink, trying to recover his temper. He sounded thoughtful when he began to speak. “Look at Veer, he’s the opposite of Corbett,” he said. “He climbs the high Himalaya, the mountains give him his living. Yet with all this climbing and walking, what does he know of the forest or mountain, its wildlife or its plants? There’s no sense of wonder in him. Lost. Gone, entirely. It’s a—what do you call it?—
thing for him: how high, how fast, how many peaks? The other day I pointed out the dog roses to him—the first flowers this year—and he hardly even looked up.”

“Maybe he was preoccupied with something else,” I said.

“Come, come,” said Diwan Sahib, “you aren’t the world’s most avid botanist, but you noticed those blooms before I said anything to you.”

We were quiet for a while, silenced by a shared memory. I knew we were thinking back to my first spring in Ranikhet when Diwan Sahib had found me imprisoned in the dog rose creeper that ran wild along a wall at the Light House. My clothes were caught in the briars, my fingers bleeding from efforts to take out thorns. The more I had tried to move away, the more stuck I had got. There was no help at hand. By the time he came upon me I was almost in tears of annoyance and self-pity. “Damsel in distress,” he had said, “and no knight at hand.”

Diwan Sahib had extracted me thorn by thorn while I babbled embarrassed explanations: I had merely been trying to smell a flower and pick a few for a vase and get a cutting to plant in my own patch of green and I did not know how or when . . . After a while he had said in the impatient tones I came to know so well, “Could you stop chattering for a minute please, so that I can get you out of here and not be crucified too?” But his eyes were kind and the care with which he took each thorn out made me think, for the first time since Michael’s death, that I might one day feel less alone.

Now Diwan Sahib was speaking again, his voice dreamy. “I’ve always thought about the dog rose that it was wild, unglamorous—the scent is light and a bit sharp, and there are more thorns per flower than on almost any other rose. It is the quintessential beginning rose, no breeding, almost no color, stitched probably by birds a thousand years ago. And yet when you see it, as on that outer wall of this house when it is in full bloom, holding those half-broken stones together—they remind you what is imperishable, real beauty.”

He stopped as if taken aback by his own eloquence and said in his everyday tones: “Where was I? Yes, Corbett. Corbett understood the jungle by looking, and he could tell you its story from the sounds he heard. If he heard a chital far off, he would know whether it was calling its young or calling to warn other animals of a tiger. He walked the forests barefoot when he was a boy. He understood the fall of every leaf and the meaning of a cloud—would it bring a hailstorm or rain.”

He suddenly seemed to remember it was his nephew he was discussing, and not very favorably. “Who am I to criticize?” he said, finishing his gin in one long swallow. “I taught him nothing when he was a boy. I could have.”

“But he said you taught him birdcalls and animal sounds and answered all his wildlife questions,” I said. “So you’re wrong on both counts. He
interested in nature, and you
teach him things.”

“No, it’s different. His interest in nature—it’s not what it seems. He is a complicated man, our friend Veer.”

Diwan Sahib stopped up his caustic words with another slug of gin and changed the subject. “Corbett was one of a kind because he never lost sight of the humans—and I mean the poor, the hill peasants whose cattle and kin were in danger from wild animals. In my days in Surajgarh, in the Nawab’s court, I saw many feudal lords and white colonials who knew a great deal about animals. They could read the jungle almost as well as Corbett. But they couldn’t have—wouldn’t dream of it—sat and gossiped with peasant women as Corbett did, answering all their nosy questions. None of them stayed up nights with a gun, guarding their crops from rats and birds. Why do you think they called him Carpet Sahib and adored him all over these hills? He would have understood Puran in a second.” He laughed bitterly. “He’d have understood that poor idiot’s grunts and groans and whimpers and made sense of them. He’d have talked to Puran in his own language.”

BOOK: The Folded Earth: A Novel
4.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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