A million muffled hammerings floated into Mala’s semi-asleep mind. She felt drawn to the beat like an amnesiac pulled to the rhythm after forgetting the dance. She got out of bed, walked across the verandah and down three steps into the sparkling wind scattered beads of rain. The heady wet scent of fallen oak, pine and rhododendron leaves, sodden grass and soaked earth settled into her nostrils. The stars were veiled from sight, as a grey vastness folded onto itself above the land. Mala walked barefoot, relishing the squished malleability of the earth beneath her. She was drenched in the lightness of letting go.
The slate-paved path led left to a row of walnut trees at the property’s edge. In the dark the trees seemed smaller and indistinct, their canopy of wide-open branches and broad leaves filtering the rain to a lighter spray. Mala’s fingers trailed along the trunk of the nearest tree. Some of the dried wood, flaky and now laden with moisture, crumbled onto her hand. The feel of wet moss contrasted velveteen against the hardiness of the tree trunk, and her skin tingled with awakened memory. Images flashed again from another time and place, of hard knuckles on soft flesh. It was a safe time to look into the mists.
A week had passed since Mala had arrived back in Devpur, after getting news of Baba’s death. Baba had left the running of the estate to Reva long time and if all went as planned it would soon legally belong to her as well. With the recent unrest back in the city, it wasn’t prudent for her or Ravi to leave the business for too long to a rather new and inexperienced team. Ravi and his father had been the ones to see to the funeral in the last week. Ravi’s father, who was Mala’s father-in-law and had been the longest serving former Chief Minister of the state, had been Baba’s political mentor. His press statement on his protégé’s passing likened it to a loss of his limbs. Mala could hardly say what Baba’s death had meant to her. A distant, feared presence that had directed her life was forever stilled. She had followed the code he imposed all her life. Fear and habit had held past and future at bay. But since her arrival at Devpur, fresh fault lines were creeping into forgotten remembrances. A spring thaw was stirring in Mala. As in the land around her.
On her way to Devpur, she had spent a night stranded on the highway. A massive landslide blocked the road. The winter freeze was melting in the newly fiery sun, and the schist and quartzite had cracked and crumbled with the shifts in the day and night temperatures. Walking up and down the edge of the road lined with stranded vehicles and their passengers, Mala forced herself to pull one breath after another. In the wide-open unmarked location she tried to focus on the sights around. There was the dull and bare cliff on one side of the road, and the snaking line of the river down in the valley on the other. All around her she found a disappointing lack of order.
Baba had strict rules about her never walking out of their property fence to enter the village woods or other homes, nor had he allowed random halts by the roadside on her trips to boarding school or college. The wilderness was lethal, he said, and Mala was to follow his rules for her own safety. The worry lines on Mala’s forehead deepened as she looked at the line of stuck vehicles. She would have to go back to the car and gulp down a couple of tablets.
A girl of about 20 approached from the opposite side. Smiling at Mala, she started talking.
“Are you a trekker?”
“No. I am not a tourist. I have family business here.”
“Oh. I am off to Trimukhi glacier. What a landslide.”
“A heap of inconvenience. They should have managed it better. And no one is bothered…”
“Oh, but I guess had it been earlier in the day it would have been cleared faster. I think they won’t risk it on these roads at night unless it is a really huge disaster.”
“This is not a huge disaster?”
“Oh, not compared to some that I have seen. Thank God I kept a couple of days extra in this itinerary. It is not a bad spot to be stuck in, don’t you think? And the fading light at this time makes it even nicer. Look at those shades of green and blue and purple. Those tiny village houses on that slope gleaming like a necklace.”
“Wow! You could make me wonder. Like this place is worth noticing. You are from the plains? Your family won’t worry about you, being here? ”
“I can take care of myself. If you understand their ways, the mountains are like a second home.”
The girl’s face flushed and her cheeks dimpled as she smiled.
“It sounds like mumbo-jumbo, I suppose. But don’t you feel it too? Now, I don’t bother with small things so much; not the way they used to bother me earlier. Or even the big things…they look small when I get out there in the snow at fifteen thousand feet. I feel at home anywhere I pitch my tent. The road is our home tonight, isn’t it? Anyway, I better get back to my bus now. Nice talking with you. Have a good night.”
Mala moved away from the loud crowd of people swathed in mismatched clothes and stale body odor. A twinkling next to her shoulder startled her. A shooting star so low on the horizon? Fireflies! Oh the joy of unbidden memory! How Mala had loved sitting in the veranda at the house at Devpur imagining she was one of those glowing bits of freedom. Sometimes a few would land on her arm or on her dress, blobs of bioluminescence, lighting a whole world of bliss in her soul. A lightness buoyed her as she watched the flitting orbs fired by luciferin. A fluid ease relaxed her body. The glow uncoiled a chronic tightness. She breathed deep. Had she taken her evening pills or had she not? She felt so fine, so she surely must have, but was she now losing her memory of the present?
Lightning split the sky into jagged bits. Sweat dripped down Mala’s back and she scanned the sky. The few stars that had started shining were no more to be seen. The air was very still. Thunder rolled in and then more streaks of electricity tore the night apart. Mala got into the car in the back seat.
“Mala madam, you are coming home after so many years. But still this is something new for you. Don’t worry, it is nothing. We will be cleared to go in the morning.”
The driver was already settled in for the night in his seat, now reclined almost fully flat.
“Hahn, hahn, I know. There are so many others too stuck like us. It is OK, you rest. I am fine here. ”
She stretched her legs out, flexed her toes and spread her arms to the sides. She pulled out a shawl from her bag and threw it around her shoulders, and leaned back. She would close her eyes and rest a while. Then maybe she could pull out her papers and look into the property papers. She was asleep within moments. The rumble of machines clearing the rock fall is what woke her up next morning. A few hours later they had reached Devpur.
In the week gone by, Mala had tuned into the rhythms of the different life around her. She ventured deep into the state reserve forest with an earnest local forest ranger and heard stories of patrols on foot deep into the range where one came face to face with tigers. The ranger lived in a forest department quarter at the edge of the forest with a handful of other staff. She talked of how the land they now lived on was once the bed of the ancient Sea of Tethys that had buckled up to from these mighty mountains. How the forces of the earth’s magma had pushed the continents into new alignments and the sliding was still ongoing. She was a woman in love with her job and proud of her ability to do it well. She spent a lot of time learning about the forest she was assigned to protect. Luckily, she said, poaching was not such a problem anymore but of course she had heard of the terrible legacy of Devpur’s dead tigers.
Like everyone else in Devpur, she assured Mala of her firm belief that Baba had not been a poacher, even if he was jailed for the charge soon after Mala’s marriage. She talked about how the wildlife here was now thriving. Blood thirsty, cruel and wicked predators? That was a mean myth to malign the magnificent animals, and the forest ranger thought it odd that a local like Mala held on to such a lie. A tiger never hunted for sport or for money or greed.
Back at the farm, with Reva she started to know her old neighborhood for the first time. Reva’s passion was the revival of the once denuded and stunted forests where streams had dried up and cattle found little sustenance. So much of the revival work was actually about not doing too much, Reva explained to her. It was a lot about letting go, about letting the earth remember.
“A natural forest system forms deep and old connections. The soil, trees, grasses, shrubs, insects, animals, birds, they play a symphony, with a self written code. We grow whole when we work with it rather than be mere takers.”
“It just never felt like much, when I lived here, Reva. Now, I can see some sense in your coming to work here.”
“I know you always disliked everything about Devpur. The lost land of nothing good, you called it in school? But I grew up different. I guess being an orphan, brought up in forest monasteries nature is the only real home I have known. Now that you are here, stay a bit. It has been a long time.”
A week had passed in a blink. And tonight, another storm had arisen. Mala’s petrified memories raised up more fossils in the fresh wash of cleansing rain. As the water inundated her body and her soul, an image sharpened in her mind of a man and a woman making love, caught in just such a downpour. She had broken all of Baba’s rules to be in the man’s arms. She was to be married to someone else in ten days. A match of great political significance, Baba had said. She begged the man to take her away. Desire had made her reckless. But it was her identity that drove the man’s embrace; he broke her heart to avenge his father’s betrayal at Baba’s hands.
Watching the woman she had been, Mala let the rain wash her anger, her tears, and her fears. It had all gone; she was free of it all. Facing the past she could let it pour away. Holding herself, loving herself, forgiving herself, Mala knew felt she could lift and touch the clouds in space. She had cut her tethers. She was here, flowing free from the bunds of her incarceration.
The storm had blown away by dawn. Stains of mauve orange pink and blue began to bleed into the heavens as the earth turned closer and closer to the sun. Warblers and thrushes twittered across trees and golden stalks of wheat. The terraced fields were awash with the new blooms on the sheep sorrel in ruby pink and topaz yellow. Mala slept on the planter chair in the verandah. Reva walked out of her room across the other end of the house, shading her eyes from the glare upfront.
“Hey sleeping beauty! Quit dreamland. It’s almost noon”.
Mala opened her eyes and sat up, stretched and yawned. She knew she had to let Reva know what she herself now knew. Surely it could not have been a dream?
“I must have wandered about at night to settle my jetlag. It is still not out of my system. Can take weeks sometimes. You work so hard while I laze around and sleep…”
“Come join me for breakfast soon. I love this life Mala, but yes, it was hard here at first. Alone, a new place, and the scandal about your father. But I always felt he was a scapegoat- mind you, I did not ever think highly of him, but poaching? No. That was a set up, of that I am sure. There were others who were the real operators.”
“I don’t care Reva. I have put a lid on all that. I am just glad you made it through and stuck around.”
“I know, M, I know. What with your new family, the move to the city…I knew you would be a long time away, though 15 years is mighty long by any standard. And that marriage of yours, so sudden. It was a circus here those days…for months…then it all died down. The government changed, the whole power equation shifted.”
“Yes, I can imagine. Ravi and his family too had faith in Baba’s innocence. But they also said the case was water tight, so they were helpless.”
“But lets leave all that, it is all in the past. Are you off to the Dharidevi stream? I will catch you there in a couple of hours maybe.”
Mala inhaled long and deep as she climbed into the village commons. By now she was adroit on the slopes and rocks, having found her mountain legs a couple of days after arriving. The slant of the sun at this high latitude felt comforting, and the shadows it threw companionably lengthy. Maybe soon she would go on a trek too; maybe there was something to what the girl trekker on the highway had said?
She reached a small meadow where a brook skidded over edgy little rocks and perfectly smoothed pebbles. Sunlight broke into mini rainbows that hovered on the rapids.
Mala sat by the stream and marveled at the human capacity for denial. How easily we made bubbles to time-proof ourselves, choosing to be rootless driftwood that could not grow fresh shoots.
“Time to head home,” Reva’s voice brought Mala out of her reverie.
“Isn’t it odd how I was told all my life to stay out of these jungles? I never knew I could like it so much.”
“But you were forced to. There is something you need to know Mala. Something very important. I have just got the news. Lets go back home.”
“Reva, I need to tell you a whole lot first. It is only now becoming clear to me. Facts I had no recall of for the longest time. Isn’t that weird? Memory is a tricky business. You remember Vir at the wedding? The assistant who shouldered every chore at the wedding, who was my chaperone?”
“Sort of maybe…what about him?”
“I had wanted to elope with him, I wanted so badly to get away...”
“You and him? No, no, no...How could …”
“Oh Reva, it wasn’t like I planned it. It just happened. But the main thing is what it meant to him. Vir’s father was the fall guy for some scheme of Baba and my soon-to-be father-in-law’s. Vir had been taken on by Baba as a compensatory gesture, to be his lackey. Vir hung around with Baba to have his revenge. I gave him his chance, by dreaming of a life together. And then, Baba went to jail for poaching and Vir had a double revenge on us…”
“Mala… you never said a word to me! There was time still; I could have worked out something…but touchwood your marriage did okay, at least that turned out good. Forget about Vir.”
“You know why Ravi and I never had kids?”
“He didn’t want any? Or you didn’t? Or a medical…”
“Our marriage was never consummated. It could not be. That was Ravi’s secret. I had mine. I was carrying Vir’s child, which I lost. An ectopic pregnancy. I was lucky to survive. I never let myself come back. Not even in my mind. Ravi and I have kept each other’s secrets well.”
A tremor broke through Mala’s voice, and Reva came and sat by her side. She pulled out a newspaper from her bag, and pushed it in front of Mala.
“No wonder you never came home. And Baba, all the while he was trying to…but now that you have come, time is turning. See this says here…no, best you read it yourself. This came in the morning mail after you left for your walk.”
The article headline in the newspaper was outlined in red. “Ex-Chief Minister’s links to poaching racket exposed.” A big color photograph of Baba in his heyday was centre-stage. The caption read, “The ex-Chief Minister fostered a network of aides who handled his vast business and political interests.” The reporter went on to wonder, “Who were these aides? Were they being used as scapegoats?” Mala’s tears and the flow of the stream soaked into the paper as it slipped out of her fingers and first rode and then sank into the waves.