The mists have been swirling past my window all evening. Mists like a thin muslin veil. You can see through it but not very clearly. There are waves of white floating by.... one after another... with suggestions of colours now and then. I can catch glimpses of the pinewood which lies just outside the low garden wall. But the leaves seem to be a blurred mass of green. I cannot see the waterfall beyond the row of pines. But I can hear the water hurling down with a splash on to the rocks far down below. And I can imagine the spray rising up on both sides.
I have heard people say that mists are nothing but clouds. Little clouds with drops of water in them. Kancha who studies in a Darjeeling school says so. He has to read a lot of things. History, geography, science .... I can't remember all the names. He says that each day seems like an adventure to him because he gets to know so many new things. But he says that his friends think he is quite nutty to like school so much! None of them do. They say lessons bore them to tears! But Kancha was always keen to go to school. So it's quite natural that he should love it.
Whenever he comes to our garden to collect roses for his father’s hotel he tells me about his school and the new things he has learnt. Some of the things, at least. Things which he feels I should be able to understand, though I've never been to school myself. When he came here last there was a mist just like this. That's when he told me about its being a cloud.
"But clouds stay in the sky, Kancha," I had said really surprised, "how could they come down so low? I bet you're making it up."
"Yes, they can," said Kancha firmly. "Only we don't call it a cloud any more when it comes down like this. We call it mist instead or fog. My teacher said so and she knows!"
I suppose it's true. Teachers would know everything!
"But why have they been sent down from the sky?" I persisted, "have they done something naughty? Is it a kind of punishment? Like angels being sent down on earth?”
"What crazy things you think of!" said Kancha tossing his head. "And why you don't come to school I can’t imagine. You're a big girl and quite old enough. Why, you're older than Neema. You’re almost thirteen, aren’t you?"
I bent over the rose bush, blinking hard. If only Kancha knew how badly I longed to go to school! It's the one thing I dream of, day after day, night after night. But I know it's no use. None at all.
"You're very quiet, Van," said Kancha, "don't you like the idea? It's great fun, really. You couldn't go to my school, of course. No girls are allowed there! But you could go to school with Shoomi and Neema."
Shoomi and Neema are Kancha's sisters.
"Let's not talk about it," I told him, "is your basket quite full?"
"Yes, just," said Kancha putting in the last rose bud, "thank Madam for me, will you?"
Kancha had walked off whistling a strange tune. He left the wooden gate wide open, forgetting to close it as usual. I ran down and shut it, like I always do.
The mist was getting as thick as a blanket. I could no longer see the road beyond. A piercing wind whistled through the pinewood. I shivered and pulled my faded blue wrapper close around me. However cold it might be, there was something strangely comforting about the wind that blew past me, scattering the mingled scent of roses and lemon trees. It seemed to assure me that I am not alone. Otherwise the silence of the garden usually makes me feel lonelier than ever.
But there was no longer any silence! A shrill voice called me from the living room. "Vandana! V-a-n-d-a-n-aaa! Where are you?"
"Coming, Madam," I shouted back as I ran up the wooden steps into the cosy and well heated living room.
"I wish you wouldn't run in and out of the house like a little wild animal," said Madam in a disapproving voice. "And how many times have I told you not to leave the door open?"
I closed the door quietly and stood before her. She looked up from the shawl she was knitting.
"Have you taken the bed-tea up as yet? To all the rooms?"
"Yes Madam," I replied as meekly as I could.
"And done all the beds and the dusting?"
"No, not in all the rooms. Two of the guests were still asleep when I went to the garden to get roses for Kancha.”
"Always excuses!" said Madam frowning, “every single guest was up hours ago."
"But," I stammered, "But Madam...,"
"Please don't argue with me, Vandana," said Madam waving towards the door, "I've told you that I won't have it. Now go and help Saila with the breakfast. Get me my breakfast tray first. And don't let me hear any complaints from room number five."
I nodded and left the room. If only I had not been indebted to Madam like this! If only I could go away somewhere.... anywhere! But where would I go to? I have no place where I have any right to be. And I have no one in the world. No one at all. As Madam keeps rubbing it in each and every day, I AM a 'charity child', living on her charity. She has often told me that but for her I wouldn't be alive at all. In her words, I “owed my existence to her kindness”.
But who wanted an existence like this? I don't think I would have minded one bit if I had died when my mother did all those years ago! But there is no point thinking about what might have been. When a person is indebted to anyone, the only thing to do is to pay that debt as fast as possible and be honest about it. These words are not my own, by the way! I had heard one of Madam's boarders, saying it. But I liked the words and have not forgotten them.
Kancha often tells me that I sound just like a grown up with a few stupidly childish remarks thrown in. Perhaps I think like one too! He says that I often make him think of an old lady in a bonnet and gloves and glasses and a walking stick, a little like his own grandmother! I know he says it to tease me. But some of it could well be true. I don't really know. I know that I can't help talking the way I do. After all, I've merely talked to grown-ups ever since I can remember. Just Madam and the servants, most of them nearly as old as she is, and the guests who are grown-ups too. I've never had playmates. No one young to talk to, except for Kancha. I don't even remember playing or seeing people play except from a distance. Is it my fault if I can't talk like other children?
Come to think of it, Kancha is the only one near my age who speaks to me when he comes here to get flowers for his father’s hotel. His mother and sisters come to call on Madam sometimes. But they don't speak to me. If I try to speak to Shoomi or Neema they look the other way and pretend they haven’t heard me. So I don't try to speak to them any more.
I brushed aside my thoughts as I heard the clock strike nine. Madam would start getting jittery in a minute, I knew. As I stood outside the kitchen door I heard the fat sizzling in the fry pan. I heard the sound of beating eggs and Saila humming snatches of Hindi film songs. The smell of boiling milk and wild roses filled up the kitchen and wafted out of the window. I pushed the door open and stepped inside.
Madam is not really English but she insists on living like one. Her husband, to whom the house once belonged, had been an English tea planter. It was he who had named it Villa Alpina. But he died years and years ago leaving her the house and the garden. And an enormous photo in a golden frame that stands on the mantle piece. As far back as I can remember, it has always stood there. There is a queer sort of smile lurking about his lips, which seems to suggest that he is keeping an eye on everything. In fact I can't imagine the house without the photo. Nor, I am sure, can anyone else. Madam turned the Villa Alpina into a boarding house after he died and that’s what it has been ever since. Not a fashionable one, by any means, nor very modern. But some people seem to like it, perhaps because it is neat and clean and comparatively cheap. So it is hardly ever empty. We have a few regular boarders. We call the casual ones “guests”. The guests just come and go. Some return and some others don’t.
I do all the dusting in Madam's apartment. But even I am not allowed to touch the photo. Madam dusts it herself every morning.
"The master was so particular about cleanliness," she says whenever she dusts it. She always refers to him as the 'master'. And all of us have to call her 'Madam'.
"It's the English way," she tells us. "I am English, you, know."
She says it to whoever comes to see her. And to all our boarders and guests. But when they stare at her slit eyes, snub nose and fair but obviously Asian looks, she hastily adds,
"Oh well, I am English by marriage. It's very much the same thing!"
I guess most people find her words amusing. I've often seen them nudge and grin at each other when Madam goes on and on about her being English. We in the house don't dare to question her, of course. In any case, I don't see how it matters as to what she chooses to call herself. But I remember our new sweeper addressing her Mataji and the way Madam threw a fit. She nearly dismissed him on the spot! And Saila all but lost his job when he announced that he couldn't make waffles and didn’t care. He had no wish to learn it either. Had people not been so scarce she'd have thrown out both of them. Jethi, who lives in a cottage on the shelf above us and comes in every day to sweep and mop the place, is called the "charwoman". And I am the "parlour maid".
"But we no longer have any parlour maids in England," said Mrs. Barlow, an English tourist who had come to India to take photographs of Buddhist caves, "and no parlours either! Space is a real problem these days. The modern apartments have just living rooms."
I don't think Madam believed her. She was merely annoyed and told us that Mrs. Barlow who had been living in Italy most of her life and spent her time doing crazy things like taking photographs of dark and dingy caves could hardly be expected to remember what was truly British. Of course there were parlour maids! Didn’t the English novels say so? And so our parlour (the boarders call it the drawing room or the lounge) continues to be the “parlour” and I am still the “parlour maid”.
Madam really has what Kancha’s father calls “green thumbs”. Or perhaps it was her husband who had it and passed it on to her. Ours is really the best garden hereabouts, especially our rose garden. I don't know what the common rose colours are. Here they bloom in every shade of the rainbow - big, bright and sweet smelling. Every one loves them. Many of the tourists who come this way buy them because there are no flower shops nearby. Just wild roses in bushes and the climbing roses. Those are neither so large nor so pretty.
There is Charmer, the big flower shop in Darjeeling where Madam sends a regular supply of roses. Darjeeling is just fifteen kilometers from where we live. But our garden is on a rather out of the way shelf, cut off from the main road except for a steep and rugged path. There is just one rackety little bus which touches our shelf and that too not regularly. Joseph the gardener, who has been here since Madam's husband's time, cycles there and back whenever he misses the bus. Which is quite often.
Kancha's father Mr. Lama owns Hotel Snowflakes on the Darjeeling Road. He buys our roses regularly. Then there are the tea planters and the people who work for them. And all the tourists who flock here in summer. There is a great demand for flowers while they are around. That’s the time we get double orders from the Charmer. Some of the tourists even land up here. It pleases Madam very much when they do. She has special bouquets made for them. She also asks them in for tea sometimes. Some of them decline politely. But at times when the mist looms up suddenly as if from nowhere and it starts raining they come in without being asked. Madam welcomes them and switches on the room heaters. The parlour has a fire-place where they once had real logs put in and lit a proper fire. But now with everyone talking of preserving trees she doesn't do it any more. I am glad. I hate the thought of people burning up trees.
Madam always asks Saila to make hot scones when she has people for tea. Saila makes them like ordinary tea cakes but Madam insists on calling them scones or muffins and apologizes profusely because they aren't made the way they are done at 'home'.
"Where's home?" I had asked her a long time ago.
"How stupid you are, child!" she had answered, "England, of course!"
"But how could England be your home?" I had asked amazed, "you've never been there, have you?"
"Don't ask foolish questions. The master was English. Don't you know that? So my home is where his was. It hardly matters whether I’ve been there or not."
I had wondered if her words sounded touching or merely crazy!
Everyone in the house jokes about Madam. Specially the boarders. I've heard them say that she lives in the India of the British Raj and knows nothing about the present. But it suits them so long as she doesn't keep up with current rates of payment! So they listen politely when she tells them that cooks are a trial. And that the days of British courtesy are over and done with, what with prince-regents and princesses marrying commoners or divorcees and....so on, until whoever is listening starts yawning and demands tea or dinner!
Madam always calls our night meal supper. Our boarders don't always understand it.
"You mean dinner, don't you?" asked Mr. Rao blinking his eyes. He had come here the previous night and that too for the first time.
"No I don't," said Madam glaring at him. "When I say supper, I mean supper, not dinner."
"But surely the night meal is called dinner in English?" he had asked in a puzzled voice.
"Obviously you are not at home with English terms," said Madam in a superior voice, “the Oxford dictionary defines dinner as 'the main meal of the day'. Look it up if you don't believe me."
"Just as you like," Mr. Rao had retorted, unwilling to get into an argument, "I don't suppose it matters what you call it so long as it is a good one!"
"Of course it matters," said Madam indignantly, "I believe in calling things by their proper names. It's what my late husband always did. And he, I assure you, was English.”
"Oh, quite," Mr. Rao had replied and made for his room hastily before Madam could say any more.
There are two kinds of boarders in this house. The permanent ones who have jobs nearby but don't want to have the bother of running a place of their own. And the temporary ones who are more frequent in number though they never stay more than a day or two. They are the ones whom Kancha's father sends here when he cannot put them up at Hotel Snowflakes. Either because it is already full or because they are the kind who cannot afford to stay there. They are mostly salesmen and medical representatives going up to or returning from Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong or one of those better known places. Sometimes we have poor school teachers eager for a holiday in the hills or unexpected travellers stranded because of a landslide or a thick fog. Once in a way we also have artists or students who are out to study life in the Himalayas or a jolly family party out to explore uncommon places. They are the nicest of the lot.
The ones I really remember and liked better than anyone else are Itsy, Bitsy and Teeni. They suddenly landed up last summer with their old grandmother and stayed for a whole fortnight. Itsy and Bitsy are twins and are of my age. Teeni is a year younger. They have no father and their mother acts in soap operas and other television serials. She had to go to Darjeeling to shoot for one of them and there was no place for Itsy, Bitsy and Teeni at the hotel she was booked in. So she sent them to stay here along with her mother.
We have no television here because Madam does not approve of it. She feels they are bad for our morals and do no good except encourage laziness. Most of our boarders complain because there isn’t one even in the parlour, let alone in their individual bedrooms. But Madam ignores their comments and tells them that they are welcome to go and stay elsewhere if they miss the TV so much.
Even Mr. Lama tried to get her to buy one, at least for her own bedroom, so that she could keep abreast with the news.
“Well, I don’t need to know any more news than I do from the radio, Mr. Lama,” she had replied frostily, “and if I had money to spare I’d choose to fling them on better things.”
“You might have found the soap operas entertaining during the long rainy evenings when you have nothing to do,” Mr. Lama had had said, his eyes twinkling. He loved to get Madam’s back up when he had the chance.
“I can’t think of a single evening when I’ve remained idle!” said Madam indignantly, “I’ve no time for stupid soap operas. If my boarders feel that they cannot exist without them, they are welcome to check into your hotel.”
“Ah that reminds me, I must remind Swingers to send me half a dozen small television sets for the new wing,” said Mr. Lama as he made a move towards the door. And he had winked at me when Madam’s head was turned. I have seen television just a few times when I had to carry a message to Hotel Snowflakes because Joseph was ill. But I had not been able to stay for more than a few minutes. Even then I had thought the moving pictures on the screen simply wonderful.
That fortnight when Itsy and her sisters stayed with us was the happiest in my life. The girls, around the same age as me, were so jolly and friendly! I'd never met anyone like them before. Madam did not like my spending so much time with them. She said they were sure to have a bad influence on me with their fast and reckless ways. But their grandma insisted on my taking them for walks and picnics because she didn't want them to get lost. And Madam had to give in. They seemed to have any amount of money and didn’t mind paying lavishly for extras. So Madam did not care to displease them. She was afraid that they’d go off to Hotel Snowflakes if she did!
What fun we had! And how I enjoyed their stories and the kind of life they talked of! Their school and friends, the parties they went to, their shopping and picnics and so many things I hadn’t even heard of! They seemed to belong to a different world altogether.
“I suppose you watch television whenever you feel like?” I had asked them wistfully.
“I loathe telly,” Itsy had said, “so does Bitsy. Teeni is the Telly addict. Can’t seem to get enough of it!”
“But surely you watch your mother’s shows?” I had asked, surprised.
“Itsy and I don’t. They are horribly soppy and stupid and boring!” said Bitsy shaking her head, “grandma does, of course. She and Teeni watch all the soaps they can. We’ve better things to do.”
“But don’t you want to watch your own mother on screen? It must be so thrilling!” I had remarked.
“Oh well, it’s nice to see her, of course and she does look lovely on screen,” said Itsy, “but the stories are terribly stupid and boring. Her directors say she looks wonderful in tragic roles so they ply her with tear-jerkers.”
I couldn’t imagine what a boring story would be like. To me every story seems fascinating! The stories Teeni had told me of the serials and films had seemed quite wonderful to me.
“What are tear-jerkers and why are they boring?” I had asked, not knowing what the term meant.
“Oh, mum is perpetually playing roles where either her mother-in-law tortures her or her husband runs away with another woman or she falls in love with the wrong man or is being bashed up by a drunken husband. You know, the sort of stuff people like to watch,” said Bitsy, “I merely find them stupid.”
“Oh,” was all I could say.
“Come on, darling, don’t say you don’t know that there are such things in the world,” said Itsy crinkling up her eyes, “you couldn’t be such an ignoramus, even though you live like a recluse here.”
For a while I had not known what to say. I can’t but know how bad and unkind people can be. After all, I hear Jethi and Saila talking all the time. Most often they are not even aware that I am there too. I know how Saila’s daughter was dumped by her husband with a little baby while he found another wife. I also know how badly Jethi’s daughter was treated by her husband’s people because they hadn’t given her enough dowry. I’ve seen Jethi herself come in with a black eye because her husband had bashed her up in a drunken fit. But I simply couldn’t imagine people actually enjoying watching such things on television! Besides, I had always thought it only happened to poor people! I couldn’t imagine the rich and the famous having to deal with such things.
“Come on, Van, forget telly serials and take us to that water fall you spoke of,” said Teeny, “you know, the one where people stick prayer wheels in the water.”
“And begonias grow under the stones,” added Itsy.
“Come on then. This way,” I said. The rest of the day ended up in a glorious picnic although Madam was quite displeased at our staying out so late and was very stiff with me. I really felt miserable when Itsy, Bitsy, Teeni and their grandma left the next morning. Everything seemed twice as bad. But they have promised to come again this summer. It is certainly something I can look forward to.
Except for those three, the other boarders, permanent or temporary, do not notice me at all. To them I am merely one of the servants. Just someone to carry out orders. I suppose they are right. Only I don't get wages like the others do. Madam keeps telling me that my keep costs her far more than I am worth. Anyone else, she tells me, would have turned me out years ago and let me fend for myself. But she could not, because she is too soft hearted for words. Something she had “caught on” from her English husband.
Usually I don't think about it. Or the fact that I have nobody in the world. I have so much work to do all day that there is hardly any time for thinking. But sometimes when the long winter evenings drag on endlessly and Madam dozes by her cosy fire, Saila goes off to the movies and Joseph troops off to the church... I just listen to the wind howling through the pines and wonder if I shall ever be able to get away from here.
If anyone were to ask me what I love most in this place I'd name two things without hesitation. Roses and the snow-capped mountains all around us, looking down at our little sleepy village. To our buyers the roses are just flowers. But they mean much more to me. Each rose bush is a personal friend. Perhaps the only friends I have.
I have loved them ever since I was allowed to help Joseph take care of them. I love them when they are in full bloom. I love them when they are tight little buds of promise. I also love them when are about to drop off. I love the raindrops gleaming on them. And I love them drenched in dew. When the sun shines on them, bringing out the soft shades of the petals, I just look at them in wonder. I don't think there is anything more beautiful than a rose. And it makes me happy to think of beautiful things. When I feel all alone and lonesome and long to run away but can't, I imagine that they are sorry for me. At least I am glad that I can imagine things! Things would be a million times worse if I couldn't.
I don't love the mountains the way I love the roses. But something happens to me when I look at their snow-capped peaks. The shiny gold of early dawn gradually turning to glittering silver, spread out against the blue sky like a series of waves. I love the names of the peaks - Kanchanjungha, Nandadevi, Annapurna, Makalu and others. I wonder who gave them all those names. And why does Mount Everest have an English name? I asked Madam once but she too didn't know.
My mother loved the mountains too. And also roses. I can vaguely remember the little house where she and I used to live. I remember a sunny room with a wooden floor that had cracks here and there. I always tried to slip little things - mostly pins and buttons from her sewing box - between them. I imagined them lying in a row at the bottom of the earth. Mama scolded me whenever she caught me doing it and dragged the frayed flowery carpet over the cracks. But there were far too many to be covered. I always found chinks for slipping in things.
I don't remember where the house was. Nor can I recall what mama looked like except that I thought her the most beautiful person in the world. But I do remember that we lived in that little house - just the two of us. I now think that perhaps she was a teacher. I remember boys and girls coming to the house with books and mama reading out to them. I was not allowed to stay in the room unless it was raining.
When it was bright mama left me in the tiny garden surrounded by roses and I could see the snow range shining in the sunlight. I also remember asking mama if that was where God lived. Mama just smiled and said that perhaps He did. She didn’t seem sure about it. But I was. Even now whenever I am in Madam’s rose garden I remember that other rose garden. I close my eyes and try to imagine that I am back at the little house and mama would be calling me in for tea just as she used to, all those years ago. But it was not mama’s voice that presently shattered the silence of the garden. It was Madam calling me impatiently. She wanted to know what I had done to her book of accounts.
I don’t think Madam was ever particularly keen that I should learn to read and write at the beginning. In fact I distinctly remember her telling one of the guests (or was it Kancha’s father?) that it would be a huge waste of time. I should concentrate on learning what I’d be doing all my life – cooking and keeping a house clean. She hoped I’d find work as a maid somewhere when I was older and not depend on her all my life. So there was no point my struggling with the alphabet since it was not likely to be of much use. Charity children had to learn to be of ‘service’ – service of my kind.
But as I was about three or four when I lost mama, I already knew the alphabet and numbers. Perhaps I’d have forgotten whatever little I knew but for Joseph. Joseph had studied in a missionary school when he was young and had liked it enormously. He taught me the letters over again in between weeding and digging up the patches. He produced a broken slate and some chalk where I could practice writing. Madam always slept in the afternoons so there was no chance of her finding out or forbidding me to do it.
My eagerness to learn things was something that never failed to amaze Joseph. Whenever he went home to his family on Sundays he always brought back torn and tattered books that had belonged to his children. To me they were the best presents anyone could have. And I read them over and over again. I didn’t dare to take them up to my room at first (I sleep in one of Madam’s box rooms). So Joseph kept them in his gardening shed and gave them to me when I came for my afternoon lessons. He also told me stories from the Bible which he read every day. They were mostly parables or lives of saints. I loved to hear them more than anything else. I have often wondered what I’d have done if Joseph hadn’t been there. He is the only person who cares about how I feel. And knows what I’d love to do. He knows how much I long to go to school. But unfortunately there’s nothing he can do about it.
Madam might not have known anything about my lessons but for an unexpected happening. One morning when Madam was out Saila came in with the weekly shopping and the washerman came in with the laundered towels and sheets. Joseph was nowhere around. Someone had to write down the accounts. I thought I could just about do it. I knew where Madam kept her ledger and pencil. I wrote down everything as neatly as I could. I wondered if Madam would be very angry to find out that I’d gone behind her and learnt how to write. But she wasn’t.
She merely glanced at the ledger and remarked, “I expect Joseph has been teaching you how to write?”
“Yes, Madam. It’s because I begged him to. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not really. Better than wasting your time doing nothing or playing silly games,” said Madam. “Your handwriting isn’t too bad. It should improve with practice.”
“It’s difficult to write properly on the slate,” I had stammered.
“I’ll give you an exercise book,” Madam had said unexpectedly.
I blinked. I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Will you really?” I had asked.
“I have plenty of old ledgers with some blank pages. You can have those,” she had said casually.
“Oh thank you,” I had cried happily. I couldn’t have felt happier if she had given me her gold chain! She also said that she’d teach me to read and do some simple arithmetic which might prove useful to her later on. It had seemed like getting a ticket to an enchanted world!
It has been raining hard the last five days. A gloomy darkness hangs about the place that I’d have found almost eerie had I not been used to it. Nothing is clearly visible in the half-light that seems to have alighted upon us with an air of finality. As if it had no wish to move away, now or ever!
The half-light makes even the pinewood and bamboo glades seem strange and mysterious. The trickle of the waterfall has turned to a positive roar now. I know I would feel scared to look at the whirling water rushing down from the wooden bridge at this moment. Nor would I dare to look for begonias which grow under the boulders near the waterfall. Right now the most prominent sound that I can hear is the drip-drip-drip of the steadily falling raindrops. The pines are dripping, the orchids that hang so artistically are dripping and the creepers are all dripping with rain. A queer smell of mould and wet wool hangs about the place. When I was cleaning out Madam’s shoe rack this morning I found the soles of her shoes covered with fungus. I hate to see fungus!
But the fire burnt cheerfully now and Madam’s parlour was rosy with the glow of firelight. The logs were freshly cut by Joseph (Madam only allows this on special occasions). But because it had been raining so continuously he had to bake them first. It was fun to see the sap running out into the fender. The room was heavy with the mingled smell of wood-sap, wood smoke and flowers. I thought is lovely because it made me think of sylphs and dryads. They are supposed to be fairies of the wood. Teeny told me a lovely story about them. She is the one who loves to read books. Sometimes I feel that even I can see them dancing by the firelight if only I look hard enough. But the main problem seems to be that I just have no time to gaze at the fire or anything else. There is always so much to do!
That evening Madam asked me to darn her stockings – all those with ladders. I’d been putting it off because I hate sewing, or at least darning, which Madam taught me when I was seven years old. I wouldn’t have minded learning to do the kind of beautiful embroidery that seems to light up the room, the kind Madam has on her sofa and cushion covers, table cloths and centerspreads. But Madam says I need not waste my time doing fancy work. After all, patches and darning are far more useful! I only wish my darning would get done automatically without my having to do anything. Like the prayer wheels of the Buddhists.
There are many Buddhist temples near our place. I have sometimes watched the Buddhist monks put up prayer flags where the wind blows them. And they place the prayer wheels in the stream where the rushing water of the falls turn them. That is how all the prayers written on the flags and the wheels get said. It seems both practical and convenient. But I wonder at times who gets the benefit of the prayers – the one who puts up the flag or the one who inscribes the prayers on it or the one who actually watches it being blown? Or perhaps all three? I must ask Mr. Bose, our newest guest if I get the chance. I heard him telling Madam last night that he had been visiting Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim before coming here.
Come to think of it, his arrival here was quite unexpected. People seldom come here during the rains because there is nothing one can do or see. The snow range is buried under the clouds. The trees are drippy and wet. The paths are muddy and slippery. And there is constant fear of landslides when we get totally cut off. Our Villa Alpina is almost deserted during these months but for our three regular boarders – Mr. Lee, the postal clerk; Jang Bahadur, Dr. Thapa’s compounder (Dr. Thapa is our local doctor) and Mr. Bist, one of the teachers in our primary school. They have been here for so long that Madam scarcely notices them. Nor is she as gracious to them as she is to our casual
When our door bell rang quite suddenly late last night we were all sure that it was Mr. Bist. He sometimes drops in at the local pub for a drink and loses track of time. Or he loses his way and wanders in the mist for ages. This had happened quite a few times in the past. No amount of shouting on Madam’s part seem to have the slightest effect on him so she has given up telling him anything. But this time Mr. Bist was found to be safe in his room, dozing in front of the heater. The one who had rung the bell was a total stranger. A stranger all smiles and apologies, because he had been forced to trouble Madam at such an unearthly hour.
He was quite different from our usual boarders. For one thing, he didn’t seem to fit into any of our usual categories. His cultured voice and accent, his vocabulary, his formality and courtesy made it quite obvious that he was no ordinary salesman or medical representative. And yet he didn’t look like a family man either. The collar of his jacket was frayed in places. Two of his buttons were missing. His shoes, though expensive, were worn out. Madam, who was frowning before he came into the room, thawed quite visibly at his words. I could plainly see that she was not being ‘compulsorily polite’ and that she really approved of this man with salt-and-pepper hair and graying sideburns.
He told us quite frankly what made him come to Villa Alpina. He was on his way to Darjeeling but a sudden landslide higher up made it impossible for his car to pass. The road was completely blocked and there was nothing for him to do but wait until the weather cleared up and the road was passable once again, which might not happen for days. The driver of his taxi had directed him to Hotel Snowflakes. But as they were having some major renovations done there was no place of him. So Kancha’s father had directed him to the Villa Alpina instead.
“And that’s how I landed up here at this unearthly hour,” he had said laughing, “Please Madam, would you be kind enough to put me up and let me enjoy the comforts of a true English home? That’s what the owner of Hotel Snowflakes promised I’d get here.”
He said it with a perfectly straight face but his eyes twinkled merrily as they rested on mine. I turned my face away so as not to burst out laughing! But Madam was all smiles as she said, “of course, Mr….”
“Bose is the name, ” said the stranger promptly.
“Vandana, take Mr. Bose up to room number 1,” said Madam looking at me, “Mr. Bose would you care for a hot cup of tea although it is long past tea time? Considering the weather and your being out at this time of night….”
“It would be sheer heaven,” said Mr. Bose with an ecstatic sigh, “thanks ever so much for thinking of it.”
Room number 1 is the biggest and best guest room in the Villa Alpina, reserved for special people. Madam’s own bedroom is bigger, of course, but not quite as nice as this one. There are windows on three sides giving a spectacular view of the snow range when they are visible. I pulled the flowery curtains across the wide glass panes and switched on the room heater.
“I am afraid the geyser is out of order,” I said, “I’ll get you a bucket of hot water from downstairs so you can wash.”
“Don’t bother”, said Mr. Bose throwing his coat on the bed, “I am quite used to washing in cold water. I always find it more refreshing.”
“Really?” I asked surprised.
“And truly,” said Mr. Bose with a smile.
Our boarders are perpetually complaining about the lack of hot water. No one has ever asked me not to bother about it before. On the contrary they tend to shout at me as though I am personally responsible for the short supply. I stood there uncertainly, not knowing what to do next.
Mr Bose whipped out a cigarette from his case and lit it.
“Are you Mrs. Barrett’s daughter?” he asked me.
“I beg your pardon?” I replied, not knowing what he meant. I had never heard anyone call Madam “Mrs. Barrett” before. She was just
‘Madam’ to everyone here.
“Is Madam your mother?” he asked giving me a curious look.
“Madam? Oh no, no,” I cried horrified, “I am her parlour maid.”
“I see”, he said blowing tiny rings of smoke in a way I’d never seen anybody do before.
I felt kind of strange. No one ever asks me about myself. No one bothers. To them I am merely one of the servants. That’s all they need to know. How did this stranger make such a mistake?
“Your name is Vandana, I presume. Where are your parents?” he asked me.
“Mummy died when I was about three or four,” I told him, “Madam has been bringing me up. That’s why I am here. I work for her,” I said.
“And your father?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember him. I am sure he must be dead too,” I replied.
Just then a shrill voice wafted up the stairs.
“Vandana, have you gone to sleep or what?”
It was Saila. He was calling me to carry the tea tray upstairs.
“Coming,” I shouted, as I rushed down the wooden staircase.
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