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The rains have not stopped even this morning. The house is walled in by white drifting mist that seems to be endless. There is no chance of their clearing the Darjeeling road for a few days at least. And I am glad! Gladder than I’ve ever been before, because it means Mr. Bose will be staying on. He has been here for three days already and I feel as though I have known him forever.
I took up his tea tray to his room this morning. It is one of my duties. As a rule I merely leave the tray on the table and come away. In any case most of the boarders are still asleep at the time and usually no one says anything more than a muffled “come in” when I knock. Very occasionally someone asks me the time or if it is raining. But when I entered room number 1 Mr. Bose was already up and dressed. I was astonished to find his bed made up neatly.
“You shouldn’t have made the bed,” I said, “it is my job, you know. Madam would be quite angry with me if she knew that I haven’t done it and left it to you.”
“My dear little girl, I always make my own bed,” said Mr. Bose smiling at me, “and there is no reason why your Madam should get to know anything about it. Do I look like a tell-tale?”
“Oh no,” I said, warming up to this very unusual guest. He has such a lovely way of speaking, as though I am somebody, after all, and not just an orphan little parlour maid. If only I had a father perhaps he would have spoken to me like this.
“You said you were the parlour maid, Vandana, but it looks to me as if you are in reality Madam’s Girl-Friday,” said Mr. Bose giving me a broad smile.
“What’s that?” I asked curiously.
“Don’t you know the story of Robinson Crusoe?” he asked me in surprise, “I thought all children did.”
“I hardly know any stories except for some from the Bible which Joseph told me…” I began.
“Never mind, I’ll tell you about Robinson Crusoe some day,” promised Mr. Bose.
“But what does girl Friday mean?” I asked.
“One who does all that needs to be done, briefly speaking.”
“Well I don’t,” I said, “Saila and Jethi do a great deal of the housework, much more than I do.”
The raindrops rattled against the window pane. Mr. Bose made his tea without sugar or milk and took a quick sip. Then he quietly dropped two sugar cubes in the milk jug and held it out to me.
“Come on, Vandana, drink it up,” he said.
“Me?” I cried astonished, “I couldn’t do that. It’s meant for you and Madam wouldn’t like it.”
“There you go again!” said Mr. Bose laughing, “who said Madam was to know anything about it? Whatever’s on this tray is meant for me. How does it matter if I prefer to give it to you?”
“Thank you for thinking of it but it does matter, you know” I said, “I can’t quite explain how.”
His reason seemed fair enough but I knew I couldn’t do it. It didn’t seem right somehow. After all, I am supposed to bring down whatever is not actually consumed by the boarders and I know Madam trusts me to do just that.
“I am sorry to seem rude but I’d better take it back if you don’t want it,” I said feeling troubled. This too was something quite new and no other guest had ever asked me to share his/her food, except for Itsy, Bitsy and Teeny when we went out on picnics. In my heart of hearts I felt sorry I couldn’t agree because I just love milk and got to taste it very seldom. Hot milk on a cold, clammy morning like this must taste quite heavenly!
“Very well, if that’s what you’d like to do,” said Mr. Bose giving me a straight look, “and please don’t look so troubled. I merely thought you might like to have something hot during such weather. My own little girl always did – when she was your age.”
“Oh,” I said thinking how lucky she was to have a father like him, “thank you, all the same. I do hope you don’t think me terribly rude.”
“No, I don’t, because I guess it’s what my own girl would have said in a similar situation. I just didn’t think, that’s all”
I left the room. Saila would be calling me in a moment to help with the breakfast trays.
I was rather surprised to learn that Mr. Bose would be having breakfast with Madam in her own small dining room and not in the big dining room along with the rest of the guests. I arranged bowls of bright flame and magenta bougainvilleas to counteract the gloomy weather. Then I brought in the breakfast trays. Madam came in followed by Mr. Bose and they took their places at the table. Mr. Bose gave me a nod of approval.
“You have a very efficient little worker here, Mrs. Barrett,” he told her.
“You mean Vandana? Yes, she isn’t bad – quite a help to me, in fact,” said Madam.
I left the room with glowing cheeks. I know I try hard to repay Madam for having given me a home for all these years but this is the very first time I heard her say that I am of any use to her. I picked up the duster and started dusting Madam’s bedroom. I am supposed to do it first of all, before I start dusting the rest of the house. I could hear them talking over their breakfast. At first they spoke of general things - the weather, the place, the lack of good servants. Then suddenly they started talking about me.
“The child interests me,” I heard Mr. Bose say, “there is something unusual about her.”
“I haven’t been able to find out anything about her or her family” said Madam.
“I beg your pardon?” Mr. Bose’s voice was full of startled surprise.
“Her mother had been one of our weekend boarders, almost nine years ago. She had the child with her.”
“Yes?” Mr. Bose’s voice was full of eager curiosity, “did you know her?”
“No, I had never seen her before. She registered as Mrs. S. Ray. The address was one in Kurseong.”
“She went out that afternoon, got caught in the rain and was wandering in the mist for hours trying to locate our place. She had obviously been going round and round in circles,” I heard Madam reply.
“And the child?”
“She had left her behind with the charwoman as she was asleep.”
“The lady caught a severe chill. I didn’t get to know about it that night. The charwoman found her lying unconscious the next morning. And the child was crying bitterly.”
“You took the mother to the hospital, of course?” Mr. Bose’s voice was demanding and concerned.
“There isn’t one nearer Darjeeling. I sent for Dr. Thapa. He is our local doctor. But it was no use.”
“She died the same evening.”
There was an awkward pause. I couldn’t hear what else Madam said.
“Indeed! But surely it is rather unusual to die just because one has been wandering in the mist and getting wet?” I heard Mr. Bose ask.
“Dr. Thapa said that she must have been completely worn out and had a weak chest even before she got out in the rain,” said Madam, “it must have turned to pneumonia.”
“How terrible!” Mr. Bose’s voice was gruff with feeling, “the poor child!”
“Yes, I guess she was only around three or four at the time,” I heard Madam say, “but I did my best and gave her a home without turning her out or dumping her in an orphanage. I don’t know what anyone else would have done in my place,” said Madam, “but of course I had a woman-cook living in the house in those days or I couldn’t have managed it. She took charge of the child and was with us until Vandana was seven or eight years old.”
“Indeed,” said Mr. Bose, “you have been a guardian angel to her. But tell me, did no one come to claim the child? That is something I can’t understand.”
“No one at all. I had advertisements put in all the newspapers. But there was no response.”
“You knew absolutely nothing about her mother?” asked Mr. Bose.
“Nothing at all. I told you she was just a weekend boarder. A poor school teacher, probably. I have them by the dozen when the weather is fine.”
“You did not ask her anything about herself when she arrived?”
“I have never been curious about the personal lives of my boarders. I am merely concerned about their paying their dues.”
For a while there was complete silence in the next room. Perhaps Madam had stepped out to see to something. Or perhaps Mr. Bose had returned to his own room. I went on with my dusting. Suddenly I heard them talking again.
“She must have put in some address in your register?” I heard Mr. Bose ask.
“She did. But it was an old address. One of an outdated boarding house in Kurseong. When I made enquiries I was told that she had checked out and moved elsewhere months ago. They could tell me nothing more about her or where she had gone.”
“I wonder why she did that?” I heard Mr. Bose murmur, almost to himself.
“Perhaps she was contemplating moving out once again and had not found a permanent address and wrote down her last address,” said Madam, “it seems the only explanation. She didn’t look the kind to cheat anyone deliberately. I’m sure she didn’t realize that it might ever be required.”
“Strange,” said Mr. Bose, “and Vandana could not tell you anything, I expect.”
“She couldn’t,” agreed Madam, “she was only a baby. She merely said that she lived with her mother in a little house with roses all around. Nothing more than that.”
“That wouldn’t be of much help” agreed Mr. Bose.
“Vandana! V-a-n-d-a-n-a…! Where are you?” Saila’s voice wafted up the stairs, “are you coming down or not? Your breakfast is stone cold!”
I came round with a shock. My history – the little that there is of it- was not unknown to me. I had heard others discuss it in bits and scraps, not with me but in my presence. But I had never heard it so systematically before. I had no intention of eavesdropping and Madam must have known that I was in her bedroom, dusting. But I suppose it hardly mattered since it had never been a secret. And I have the right to know it.
That morning as I stood before my little window I thought of my mother more intensely than I had ever done before. I could not remember any other relation or friend. It was just mama and I in that little house, except for the boys and girls who came in to see her. Surely I had some other relatives somewhere in the world? Did no one want me? Did they not care about mama either? Or what became of us? Surely someone ought to have missed her and made enquiries even if my father was dead?
My reverie was shattered by Madam’s shrill call.
“Yes, Madam?” I answered.
“Vandana,” she told me, “Mr. Bose is keen to see the Buddhist cave beside the waterfall. The rain has stopped so you can take him there. Don’t forget your mackintosh and umbrella. It might start raining again any moment. I don’t want you to catch a cold.”
Madam always calls a raincoat a “mackintosh”. I can’t understand why she doesn’t call it “duckback” if she must call it by a brand name. It’s another of her English ways, I expect. I remember her telling me that the master always called it a mackintosh.
The rain seemed to be taking a short rest although the mist still hung like a thin veil. I felt so happy at the prospect of going out. I hate the caged-in feeling that comes when one is confined indoors for a whole week of continuous rain. Mr. Bose shut the gate carefully and looked about him with eager eyes.
“I love the greenness of the monsoons,” he said, “don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, looking about me the way he did, “yes, I do.”
Everything was sodden green with the rain – the dark green tea plants sloping down to the plains below, the pale green bamboo glades, the lush green grass and the brilliant green patches of millet. All this green was streaked with the white of the waterfalls and clouds. The chequered bamboo stems had translucent green lights reflected between them. Yes, indeed it was beautiful.
“I hope you know the place, Vandana,” said Mr. Bose, a smile lurking in his eyes, “you won’t lose the way among this all-pervading green shadows, will you?”
“No sir,” I said smiling, “I know this place like the back of my hand. I couldn’t get lost here. I could take you blindfolded to the temple if I had to.”
“I say, couldn’t you call me ‘uncle’?” said Mr. Bose out of the blue, “’Sir’ sounds so formal, just like school! In any case, I’m old enough to be your father or uncle, if you like. And I have dozens of nephews and nieces.”
“I’d love to call you uncle,” I said wistfully, “I haven’t any relations in the world. And I’ve never called anyone uncle before. But I do hope Madam won’t mind. She might call it taking undue liberty with guests.”
“You poor child,” said Mr. Bose in a soft voice, “Call me Uncle Aneesh. That’s my name. And your Madam need not hear anything about it. Not that I care if she does. I’m sure I can explain why I’d prefer it to the formal ‘sir’.”
I felt a strange lump in my throat. I knew I’d cry if I didn’t blink very hard. And yet I don’t know why I felt this way. Uncle Aneesh is the kindest man I’ve ever known, except for Joseph. Why should kindness make one feel like crying? I really can’t explain it!
Presently a white shape loomed up before us.
“Is this the place?” asked Uncle Aneesh eagerly.
“Yes it is. Can’t you hear the prayer drums? The monks are playing them. They won’t mind if we join them inside” I said. We pushed open the low gate and walked in.
Uncle Aneesh looked all around and found a great deal to interest him. When we came out of the temple he took several photographs of the place and the prayer wheels submerged in the stream going round and round as the gushing water pushed them.
“Can you take photos in this half light?” I asked him curiously. I always thought photos had to be taken in bright sunlight.
“I’ve been using the flash, in case you didn’t notice,” replied Uncle Aneesh, “I’m sure they’ll come out quite well. You see, the flash helps when there’s no natural light.”
“Oh, what a clever idea,” I said. I was sure even Kancha didn’t know it. Or perhaps he did. He and I had never discussed photography. And there was so much that I didn’t know which all other children did.
Slowly we walked back towards Villa Alpina. I wished the walk would never end!
“You are very silent, Vandana,” remarked Uncle Aneesh.
“I was thinking about the prayer wheels,” I said.
“What about them?”
“Why do people put them there? Do they really make a difference?”
“It depends on whether you believe in them or not,” said Uncle Aneesh. “Many people do. As for why people place them, it’s because they are meant to spread spiritual blessings and well being.”
“What do the wheels contain? I’ve often wondered,” I said.
“Well, I’ll tell you,” said Uncle Aneesh, “they contain rolls of thin paper where many, many copies of a prayer are printed. They are wound around an axle in a protective container. The Buddhists of Tibet believe that saying this prayer brings many blessings, whether you say it silently or aloud.”
“And what is this prayer?” I asked curiously.
“It is Om Mani Padme Hum.”
“And what do the strange words mean?”
“It is difficult to translate it,” said Uncle Aneesh, “it is said to contain all the teachings of Buddha in a kind of compressed formula. Tibetans call these prayer wheels “Mani wheels after the prayer.”
“How fantastic that four words should have so much meaning!” I said. It seemed really wonderful!
“I have been to Tibet. There you find these wheels mounted in rows next to pathways so that people can spin them when entering a shrine,” Uncle Aneesh continued, “they are placed where the wind or flowing water can spin them like you see here. Spinning a prayer wheel is as good as saying a prayer aloud. And all the thousands of prayers imprinted within increase the blessings they bring. And you know what I like best of all? The fact that when you turn the wheel you are praying for not just yourself but for the well being of all. Rather wonderful, isn’t it?”
“How do you know so much about them?” I asked curiously.
“Well, the subject fascinates me so I made a study of it.”
We were at the Villa Alpina. I was sorry I could not hear more about the prayer wheels. I whispered the Buddhist prayer to myself: “Om Mani Padme Hum”.
The rains have stopped as abruptly as they had arrived. The garden is bathed in sunlight once again. There are raindrops on the blades of grass, on the leaves and on the flowers. Bright raindrops are glistening on the trees and on our clothes lines in the backyard. The roof of our porch is covered with fever creepers, with flowers hanging down in bunches of orange and yellow. The butterflies love them and flock round them by the dozen.
Uncle Aneesh left us last evening. To the others it must seem a thing of little consequence. Guests are meant to come and go. It is not something to notice or talk about. There is nothing unexpected about it. But to me it seemed a great loss because he symbolized something new in my life. Something no one had ever given me before. Was it affection and concern? The recognition of me as a person? The acknowledgement that I too was an individual even though I might be a charity girl? I wouldn’t know how to describe it. It was a kind of awakening. And it taught me a new dignity of which I had been unaware before. Perhaps it was the beginning of growing up? I was almost a teen-ager, after all, if not one already. I’m not sure when my birthday is but I have a rough idea about my age from what I’ve heard.
I don’t know if Uncle Aneesh will ever return or if I shall ever see him again. But I am determined not to pity myself and to try and make something of my life.
“Don’t worry about your unknown family,” Uncle Aneesh had told me before he left, “always remember, it’s what you are that matters, not who you are.”
“But isn’t that the same thing?” I had asked bewildered.
“No, it isn’t,” he had replied, “Each life is a wonderful gift of God. Try to make yours worthwhile, no matter where you are and what you are doing.”
“I will, Uncle Aneesh,” I had promised, “though I don’t know how.”
“You will – when the time comes,” he had said.
But now with him gone and no one to care about what I think or how I feel I didn’t quite know how to go about it. How was I to do something worthwhile? And who’d care or notice it if I did? Right now the moments seemed to continue and drag on endlessly like water dripping from a leaky tap, without end or purpose. Or was I being unnecessarily gloomy? I asked myself over and over again as I saw today melting into tomorrow and tomorrow into the day after.
I saw the snow range for a few moments this morning. The roses were looking up to the sun. But even they couldn’t cheer me up. I looked at the raindrops on their petals and wondered if they could feel the tears in my heart, tears that I try to keep shut without their brimming over. I don’t care to have the world see how I am feeling. Even though everything seems so empty and meaningless. Because I have nothing to look forward to.
Luckily I cannot remain gloomy for long! Because it is funny how things keep happening even when you think they never will. You find something to laugh at just when you are beginning to feel that nothing will amuse you ever again. With everything moving around you, you cannot sit still yourself. It is rather like being on a rushing train. It moves along and takes you along with it whether you want to go or not. But these are not my own words. It is what Kancha told me long ago. He had told me about a piece he had read in school where the writer compares life to a rushing train. I myself have never been on a train. I wish I could and get away from everything I know.
It really felt like the end of the world when Uncle Aneesh left. I thought I could never tidy the room he had lived in without feeling downright depressed or get it ready for someone else. And possibly I would hate whoever occupied that room next. But when Madam sent for me and asked me to get the same room ready in an excited voice, the feeling uppermost in my mind was curiosity. I wondered who Madam was expecting and why she seemed so excited about the visit.
Madam did not keep me in suspense.
“My cousin will be here tomorrow, Vandana,” she told me with shining eyes, “I have just had a telegram from her. She lives in Canada and I’ll be seeing her after twenty years.”
Frankly speaking, the news quite knocked me down! In all these years I had never heard of Madam having any relations at all, let alone a cousin. The only ones she spoke of are her husband’s people in England none of whom she has ever met. I couldn’t help wondering if Madam’s cousin would be as “English” as Madam herself!
I don’t quite know what exactly I had expected but I was surprised to find a chubby little lady with a little round face like the moon alighting from the taxi the next morning. And she actually wore a sari. A SARI!! She had a bright red shawls wrapped around her shoulders and her hair was done up in a simple, unsophisticated bun with silver pins sticking out. She also wore a pair of black-rimmed glasses. There was nothing English about her at all!
I ran down the steps to help with her bags when I noticed a furry bundle in her arms.
“Oh!” I cried, forgetting everything in my excitement, “is that a puppy?”
“It certainly is, my dear,” said the lady looking at me with bright friendly eyes, “is Mrs. Barrett in?”
“Yes she is and she is expecting you,” I said looking longingly at the bundle in her arms, “I’ll go and tell her you have arrived.” How I longed to hold the puppy in my arms! Although I love dogs and cats I have never had the chance of holding one. Madam loathes them and thinks them a great nuisance. So they are never allowed within the threshold of Villa Alpina. I couldn’t help wondering what Madam would say when she saw the pup along with her cousin. Would there be the usual fireworks? Or would she let him in for her cousin’s sake?
The front door opened just then and Madam came rushing out and climbed down the steps.
“So you are here at last, Milli,” she cried.
“Pem pem! How lovely to see you again!” said the lady throwing her arms round Madam.
Madam looked both startled and disapproving and cleared her throat.
“Milli, I’d rather you didn’t call me by that outlandish nickname of our childhood,” she said, “everyone has forgotten it, including myself.” Then she started at the sight of the bundle. “Good heavens! Surely that isn’t a dog?” she cried in a horrified voice.
“Not a dog,” replied Miss Milli (Madam had already told me that she is a spinster), “he is only a pup. I’ve brought him as a gift for you. Don’t tell me you have a dog already! Do you?”
“No I don’t” said Madam, “and I don’t want one either. Nasty, smelly, tiresome pests!”
“Dear old Pem pem!” said Miss Milli with an indulgent smile, “don’t tell me you are still scared of dogs! At your age too!”
“I am not scared of them” said Madam screwing up her nose as though they were a nasty smell,
“I just think them disgusting!”
We were all in the parlour by this time and Saila had already carried her things upstairs. I waited curiously, wondering what would happen next.
“Oh well, you will change your mind after you have had old Nibbler for a spell,” said Miss Milli, “because he is an absolute darling and utterly adorable.”
“Nibbler?” cried Madam aghast, “Nibbler, did you say? What a dreadful name!”
“It’s only a nickname,” said Miss Milli, “You can give him a nice, proper name if you like. I call him Nibbler because he is always nibbling things.”
“Good gracious!” cried Madam in a weak voice, “goodness gracious me!”
“I am famished,” said Miss Milli dropping down on one of the armchairs, “couldn’t we have some tea? It’s ages since I had any and I’m dying for a cup.”
“Of course. It must be ready by now. Vandana, go and get it at once,” ordered Madam, “you took my breath away by bringing that nasty dog! I don’t see how I can keep it, though.”
“Nonsense,” said Miss milli looking about her, “you seem to have oceans of space and a dog is always handy in a lonely place like this.”
I brought in the tea and our best buttered scones. Madam looked at her and beamed triumphantly. But Miss milli groaned. “Oh no! Not scones!” she said, looking the picture of gloom.
“What’s wrong with them?” cried Madam indignantly, “our English cooking is famous, even in Darjeeling.”
“Oh dear! Don’t tell me you have only English food here!” cried Miss Milli, “And here I’ve been dreaming of crumbly mo-mos, hot samosas and wan-tans all the way from Toronto. To be served scones instead … oh dear, how very disappointing!”
“We are used to English food and English ways here” said Madam in a stiff voice.
“How utterly absurd!” said Miss Milli laughing, “what’s wrong with our Indian cooking, anyway? I find it far tastier and have really missed it all these years.”
“My dear, you forget that my husband was English” said Madam.
“But you aren’t, Pem pem! Why should you bother to pretend that you are? It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Before Madam could give her a stinging reply Nibbler jumped out of Miss Milli’s arms, upset the jug of milk, knocked down the sugar bowl and started nibbling Madam’s best tea-cosy with great gusto.
“Hark! Shoo! Get off!” cried Madam waving a cushion, “Vandana, take it away from this room. Quick!”
“Yes, do, dear,” said Miss Milli looking at me, “take him to the kitchen and give him some bread and milk.”
I caught up the bundle of white fur in my arms and loved him from that very moment. He was so soft, so warm and so cuddly! He gave my face a quick lick and settled down in my arms, ready to be carried outside.
“I must make some arrangement to get rid of it tomorrow,” said Madam in a firm voice, “I can’t allow it to stay here.”
“But why not?” asked Miss Milli peering at Madam through her glasses, “this Vandana child can look after him. Can’t you? I can see that Nibbler has taken to her.”
“Oh yes, of course I can,” I cried eagerly, “Do please let him stay Madam. I’ll feed him and bathe him and take him for runs. He can sleep in the box room with me.”
“We’ll see about that. But take him with you right now and don’t let him come into my parlour,” said Madam reluctantly.
In the meantime Nibbler, after licking my face profusely was nibbling away my hair ribbon. It was my best one but I didn’t mind at all. It felt so good to have him in my arms. So good to know that he needed me to look after him. I know now that if only Nibbler is allowed to stay I shall never be lonely again. No one can be lonely if she has someone or something to love!
“Oh God! Please let him stay!” I prayed over and over again, “please, PLEASE let him stay!”
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