Monday, October 09, 2006

Number Nine Bungalow - For Ruskin

So after the Festschrift in Mussourie, I wrote the story for Ruskin. And here it goes, titled Number Nine Bungalow - because in that hill town overlooking the Doon valley, all houses were numbered rather than named...

Number Nine Bungalow

Death came silently, frequently, to the little town in the mountains. And it always chose the men. They would go away on mysterious journeys, on “operations”, carrying olive-green rucksacks, and holding rifles black and glistening with oil like a school-girl´s plaits. Fingers caressed prayer beads, lips moved soundlessly over the sacred words, and eyes looked steadily forward, as the trucks carried them away.

Left behind, the women would watch the soldiers disappear into the distance. And a little later, the hum of a plane would rise from the distant airstrip. The women would pause in their conversations, their prayers, their cooking, to listen to the drone grow softer as the aeroplane flew far, far away.

Theirs was a small community, spread over a mountainside, dotted with bungalows that the British had built nearly a century ago. Lower down the slopes were the barracks, and still lower and closest to the plains, the tiny market. Beyond the tall deodar tops, the mountainside dipped into a wide valley, the Doon valley with its soil rich with fragrant basmati scents, the many lights of the Dehra twinkling at night.

On clear nights, the lights twinkled right across the valley and on to the mountains at its other end, just like a sparkling necklace flung carelessly across the darkness. The necklace stretched right across the valley and up the mountains on the other end, its end shimmering in the night. That end, where the sirens never called for black-outs, was Mussourie, a tourist town. A happy, social town, full of parties and happiness and laughter. Even as a seven-year old, Ruchi knew, when she watched the Mussourie lights, that Death went infrequently to that far town.

Because Death stayed right here in the cantonment, stalking through the misty mountain top high above the bungalows amongst the multi-coloured prayer flags. It sneaked past the offices where the “operations” were planned; crept past the cheerful barracks that smelt of butter tea, thukpa, momos and human determination. Death climbed silently on to the olive-green trucks that carried the men away on operations. It stowed away secretly on the aeroplanes that flew the men even farther than the Doon valley below.

Ruchi knew this, because when the men returned, grim and weary, there would be faces missing their ranks. “Death marched again with us,” her father, unshaven and bone-tired, would inform her mother as he collapsed on the soft bed, too weary even to remove his mud-spattered jungle boots. Mother would look grave, sometimes even weep a little, as she removed Father´s boots and then tucked him safe under the vast green down-quilt.

When Death took the officers, their passing would be marked with a quick, sombre toast in the mess, and by the hasty removal of the dead man´s family down to the plains. In the barracks, the passing was even quieter. A face would vanish, only to be replaced by another, impassive, slant-eyed one, even as the other soldiers continued their chanting: “Om mani padme om.”

***

On days that Father was not away on operations, he took Ruchi for walks on the mountain-side. They would stroll through the deodars, the rhododendrons, and the pines on the higher reaches. Ruchi´s favourite stretch was a solitary walk lined with towering pine trees where the ground was carpeted by tangy-smelling needles that sank under her feet. In the dim twilight that always lived under the tall trees, Father taught her to walk silently, testing the twigs and needles under her soft-soled shoes. “Not a crack,” he would instruct, solemnly demonstrating his own stealth. Later, kneeling on the pine-needles in companionable silence, they would watch the clouds swirl through the narrow gaps in the mountains and observe the furry creatures of the forest go about their own business.

Once, while walking on that soft pine carpet, Ruchi found a small furry body the colour of dry dirt. A faint, acrid smell rose from it. “Death marched with it,” Father murmured, running his fingers through her hair and pulling her head against himself. They moved away, Father carrying her home in his arms. From the edge of their garden overlooking the pine walk, Ruchi heard him instruct one of the soldiers. “Bury the body, pinjala, I don´t want her upset again,” he said, holding Ruchi tight in his arms.

Later, when Father had gone up to the offices near the top of the hill, Ruchi ran down to the pine walk to see the animal again. The body was gone, the patch covered with a fresh layer of sharp, green needles. But the odour – of the non-living – still lingered on the spot, blending with the tangy new scent of the needles.

****

When she grew older, Ruchi could never remember how she came to identify Nine-number bungalow as Death´s house. Perhaps, Gompo-la, the sweet tempered soldier-monk who watched over her as she played, had informed her. Or perhaps Father told her about the abandoned old house that stood not a half-kilometre from their own, a faded number nine painted in black on its rickety wooden gate.

Its red roof was of the same corrugated metal as the other bungalows. Its wide veranda had the same dark wood floorboards. The front of the house had a large picture window, with even square glass panes set in an ornate rosewood frame. But unlike the other bungalows, the paint was peeling off the yellowed walls, the red on the roof was faded. Even the rosewood window-frames didn´t shine with fresh polish. The pebbled path leading up to the front door was overgrown with weeds. The garden was overgrown and wild. The rosebushes were gnarled and twisted with age, and the wild irises flashed a startlingly bright blue in the tall grass.

She did, however, remember the first time she walked up to the Nine-number bungalow. With father. They had gone to the house for cloud-catching.

The clouds on the mountains never came low enough to enter their home. Instead, they swirled and twisted and blanketed the mountain-top with foamy pearl grey. “We are too low, Ruchi,” Father would explain patiently. On such days, when the mountain-top was hidden by the clouds, Father would take her up to let her run through the prayer flags. She would race through the pennants, tasting the moisture on her tongue, trailing cloud-phantoms at the tips of her fingers.

She would run through the clouds, letting the damp, wispy, yet opaque streams hide her. And then, she would wait for Father to find her. “Ruchi,” Father would call her, striding through the translucence, cutting through the mists. “Ruchi,” he would call again, laughter audible in his voice. And then, suddenly, he would appear through the clouds, large and solid amidst the vapours, like a hero, or a god. His hair would be slicked and shiny with the moisture, his cheeks cold with the mountain air. Laughing, he would swoop down to gather Ruchi in his arms, his clothes damp and cold. But his arms would be warm and strong. He would carry her home, marching steadily through the clouds.

to be continued....

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