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I always think of Nibbler’s first week with us as the week when things happened! He might be just a two month old pup but he certainly managed to turn our Villa Alpina upside down! He was perpetually thinking of some new mischief. For a place that used to be as quiet as a hospital during off season it was really quite a feat.
There was the time when he chewed up Madam’s expensive fur slippers. And the time he nibbled and mauled two of her best cushions to bits. The day he knocked down her favourite crystal vase and put in a dead mouse in the middle of her bed! Frankly speaking, none of us were able to predict what he’d be up to next. Because he managed to do something fresh every time! Madam grumbled and scolded (each and every time it happened) ; Miss Milli laughed and teased her and kept telling her not to be ‘old-maid-ish’ for goodness’ sake, while Saila, Jethi and I spent all our time clearing up some mess or the other for which Nibbler was responsible. But I didn’t seem to mind a bit. Nibbler’s coming had brought something new into our house which it had sadly lacked before. He had brought with him life and warmth, spreading over the entire place, and I have already been thinking of him as ‘mine’.
I can’t recall when exactly things settled down and Nibbler became a part of things – a piece in the settled routine, mischief and all. Saila, Jethi, Joseph and I adored him and Madam learnt to tolerate him.
“He is good for you, Pem pem,” Miss Milli kept saying, “at last you are learning to be more like other people and not a piece of Victorian anachronism (whatever that means!).”
Madam has now stopped talking of sending him away. But I can’t help feeling anxious about what will happen when Miss Milli leaves.
I had taken Nibbler to the rose garden with me one afternoon when Kancha had come to take the roses.
“He is a swell dog, Van,” Kancha had said looking at him, “I wish he were mine.”
“You can share him with me if you like,” I had replied, “after all, I share a great many of your things.”
“What things?” asked Kancha, surprised.
“All the things you tell me about school,” I reminded him, “and some of your interesting lessons. You don’t know how much I enjoy hearing them.”
“That’s nothing,” Kancha had said. But he looked pleased as he filled up his basket with roses.
“By the way, you are forgetting something. Didn’t you promise to tell me about the Eskimos today?” I asked him , “and did you remember to bring me the picture of an igloo?”
“Yes, I did,” said Kancha fishing a piece of paper from his pocket and handing it to me, “you are a queer fish, Van! Always wanting to know about lessons!”
“I can’t help it. Geography and botany and the things you talk about are so interesting! I only wish I knew more.”
“But Madam gives you lessons,” said Kancha, “you told me so yourself.”
“Yes, but only in English grammar and arithmetic and keeping accounts and patchwork and darning” I replied, “she doesn’t let me read anything else.”
“But what about handwriting?” asked Kancha, “you told me she makes you write pages and pages. Where do you copy them from? Not grammar books surely?”
“From old newspapers and I find them deadly dull” I had told him.
I think that is when Kancha realized the state of things – to some extent.
“Poor you!” he had said in a voice full of sympathy, “I wish I could lend you my books. I know you’d like all the supplementary readers which are retold classics and some others too. In fact, I could very well give you my old books. I’ve no use for them and neither Shoomi nor Neema are likely to touch them. My mum will only sell them to the junkman along with old newspapers and magazines.”
“I’d love to have them but I can’t, I’m afraid. Madam has always told me not to borrow things, and I guess that includes books, even old ones you have no use for,” I said. I remember she was quite cross with Joseph when he gave me some, although I never brought them home.
“Need she know about the books?” Kancha had asked, “surely you don’t need to tell her? Don’t tell me she’s going to come and look for them in your room, for I simply won’t believe it!”
“Perhaps not,” I said reluctantly, “but I know she’ll think that I’m being sly and underhand. And I know she is right. One should not take favours from people when one cannot return them.”
“Really Van, you do have the queerest notions!” Kancha had said in a cross voice, “friends are different from ordinary people and I thought we were friends.”
“Oh you are!” I said eagerly, “but please don’t insist on my taking things. It will make me feel queer to hide things from Madam, even if I’m not doing anything wrong.”
Time was running out. It would soon be time for my evening duties.
“At least you could tell me about Greenland and the Eskimos,” I had told Kancha. He shrugged and was soon telling me about them, describing their houses made of ice and their life in the icy land. I drank in every word that seemed as good as a story. And I wished for the millionth time that I could go to school!
I heard the clock chime four. It was time to go and prepare the tea trays.
“Did I tell you that Shoomi and Neema are going to a new and posh school in Darjeeling? Can’t you ask Madam to let you go to school?” Kancha said for the hundredth time.
“I have already told you that I can’t” I replied feeling peeved, “schools cost money and I don’t have any.”
“You need not go to a posh one. The local school is a free one” said Kancha.
“I don’t have time. I must work for my living as you very well know. Please don’t keep on and on about it.”
Normally Kancha would shut up after an outburst like this. But he didn’t this time.
“Couldn’t you ask Madam to pay for your education and pay her back later?” he insisted.
“How could I pay her back, silly? I don’t know how to earn money” I had replied.
“But you will when you are educated,” he said, “you could become a teacher.”
“Like my mother was,” I said.
“Oh was she?” Kancha was all eagerness.
“I think so. I don’t know for certain.”
“Tell me about her,” Kancha had said.
“I can’t. I don’t remember much” I had replied.
Just then I heard Saila shouting from the house.
“Vandana! Vandana, hurry up, for goodness’ sake! Nibbler has knocked down the flower vase in the parlour and there’s glass everywhere.”
“Coming!” I shouted back. Kancha was already out of the gate with his basket of roses. As I watched him run up the steep path leading to Hotel Snowflakes I realized that he was the only friend I had – a friend of my own age, that is. I know that he comes here because he has to take the roses and because no one else has the time to do it. But perhaps he comes for my sake as well? It certainly feels good to have a friend, one who can see things from my point of view. But he too will be off to high school in Darjeeling before long and will only be home for the holidays. Would he bother to come and pick up the roses then?
I walked back to the house. I cleared up the glass and went to Madam’s room with her tea. Miss Milli was sewing by the window. Miss milli’s coming had relaxed the atmosphere of the Villa Alpina beyond recognition. We no longer felt like stiff, prim little puppets, bound to speak and behave in a particular manner. And Miss Milli had also changed something else. She had fully succeeded in bullying Saila to cook delicious mo-mos, hot samosas, crisp wan-tans and spicy noodles and ever so many things I never tasted before.
To Madam’s utter disgust and disapproval Miss Milli has also been wearing the traditional colourful Nepalese dress and all her glittering beads, chains and nose-rings!
“You look so…so… so… native, Milli”,” Madam had protested the first time.
“So I am!” Miss Milli had said defiantly, “native to this land. I refuse to dress the English way in my own country.”
“Oh dear!” Madam had said, eyeing her dress with acute disfavour.
“I’ll get you a lovely boku from Darjeeling when I go there next,” said Miss Milli, with laughing eyes.
“Oh no no!” Madam had cried horrified, “I haven’t worn bokus since I was a little girl. They don’t suit me.”
“Then stick to your deadly dull grey skirts” said Miss Milli impatiently, “and for heaven’s sake, take off that bonnet, Pem pem! No one wears them these days, even in England.”
“I don’t care,” said Madam in a stiff voice, “I am a widow and I believe in dressing properly – whether people in England do or not! And anyway, things must have come to a dreadful pass if they don’t.”
“Very well, if you insist on being a period piece,” said Miss Milli with an air of resignation.
Madam and Miss Milli always bicker like this about English and non-English ways but they are really fond of each other, there’s no doubt about that. I keep wondering how Madam would feel when Miss Milli leaves next week. I hate the thought of it too. It is so jolly to have her here with us, I do wish she’d stay back altogether. Especially because she too has no family to return to.
“Vandana,” said Miss Milli laying down her empty tea cup on the table, “didn’t you tell me that you often hunt for begonias when you go out?”
“Yes, Miss Milli,” I answered, “they grow by the waterfall. I look for them whenever I go that way.”
“I remember,” said Miss Milli, “in my childhood they grew in the crevices – tiny pink flowers with petals like crisp, pink shells and thick heavy leaves.
“You’ll still find them there,” I told her, “they grow in masses under the boulders and under the dripping water of the falls.”
“Let’s go and get some,” said Miss Milli getting up, “Coming, Pem pem? Please do.”
“I’ve a thousand and one things to do” said Madam who hated going out at all times, “and it will be damp there, Milli.”
“Who cares?” said Miss Milli laughing, “I know Vandana doesn’t. And Nibbler doesn’t either! Come on, old boy, walk, WALK!”
“He’ll miss you,” I said as we stepped out into the open.
“He’ll have you,” said Miss Milli patting my shoulder, “he knows that he belongs to you now.”
I don’t know why her words brought tears into my eyes. I blinked quickly as I put on my rubbers.
It is the month of October. The tourist season is upon us with a swing. The snow range is almost a constant sight, glittering and sparkling in the sun. Our little out of the way shelf has turned colourful too with pampas grass as high as my waist and hundreds of cosmos flowers all over the place, blooming in masses of pink and magenta, crimson, mauve and white. The moon flowers are out too – big, white flowers shaped like a trumpet. The little houses nearby are thick with marigolds and zinnias, roses and yellow daisies. The roofs are covered with pumpkin vines and yellow pumpkins ripening under the sun. Now that there’s no more rain coming down in bucketfuls the waterfall has narrowed down. The water of its stream is no longer grey but a clear icy-blue.
Every single room in our Villa Alpina was booked from the last fortnight. The place has been packed to capacity, much to Nibbler’s displeasure, who has to remain locked in the room most of the time. A temporary cook has been hired to help Saila and Jethi has been bringing her sister Maili to help with the cleaning and washing. And as for me, I haven’t a moment to spare. I am constantly on my toes running endless errands and rushing about from one room to another. I feel really bad to hear Nibbler barking in the box room and scratching the door with short yelps of anger. I can’t even go and comfort him or take him for a run because Madam simply won’t allow it. She is sure the guests would be upset. I’m sure there must be some among them who like dogs but it’s no use arguing with Madam. Besides, I haven’t the time. There are too many chores to complete. Poor little Nibbler! If only Miss Milli were here!
I don’t mind the errands. It is so nice to have the place full of people enjoying themselves. It is fun watching them clamouring to rush to the balcony for a glimpse of the snow range and their delight if they are seeing it for the first time. It is nice to see them going out for walks, fun to watch them gazing fascinated at the tea gardens way down below and shuddering at the sheer drop. It also fun to answer their eager questions about the water fall, the prayer wheels stuck in the stream, the Buddhist temple and the little shops selling curios and of course about the bus route to Darjeeling where everyone goes during his or her stay.
Some of the guests ask me to come with them sometimes – to show them a particular place or view. But I don’t usually go and make excuses because Madam doesn’t like it. And of course I can hardly spare the time – there’s so much to do! Some of the guests are nice and speak to me normally:
“Vandana, could I have a cup of tea right away, if it isn’t too much trouble?” or
“Vandana, could you have some hot water sent up? The geyser isn’t working” or
“Vandana, could you tell me where I could get such and such item cheap?”
I love to help if I can.
But there are others who treat me as though I have no feelings or behave as though I am a nameless object. “You there, get me this” or “here, you, do that and fast.” And they blame me for things that are not my fault:
“Why is the bath water tepid, you lazybones?”
“What do you mean by getting such rotten tea that hasn’t any flavour at all? and this place is supposed to be in the shadows of Darjeeling!”
“Why can’t you make my bed first thing in the morning instead of leaving it until midday? What do you think you are paid for?”
I used to get very upset about these outbursts when I was younger. I remember running to Joseph, crying my eyes out, when a lady threw her shoe at me because it was not polished to her satisfaction. Joseph had dried my tears, patted me kindly and asked me not to think about it. He had said that there were all kinds of people in the world and some of them couldn’t help being nasty to others. The only thing to do was not take any notice of them.
“But why do they behave like that?” I had asked him again, “You don’t and I don’t and Madam doesn’t either. She has never thrown anything at me even when she is angry.”
“Forget it, little one,” Joseph had said, “I’ll tell you a story this afternoon. The story of Elijah and Elisha. Do you know it?”
“No,” I had replied, cheering up at once.
That was long ago. I am older now and I think I know why some people talk like that to me. It is because I work for Madam. They think of my kind of work as degrading. So they feel I am inferior to the others.
Fortunately I don’t believe it myself. Uncle Aneesh had told me that there was nothing to be ashamed of in working and that all honest work was good. He had also told me that people who think otherwise do so because they are ignorant. Just as people in the olden days believed that the earth was flat.
“Keep your chin up, Vandana,” Uncle Aneesh had told me before he left, “hold up your head high. I believe that sincere work brings its own reward. You must try and believe it too.”
So I try to be as sincere as I can when I am working. And I also try to do my best. Only, I don’t know if I’ll ever get any reward for it. And I start doubting the truth of Uncle Aneesh’s words when I am feeling low. I do wish he would come back. I miss him and Miss Milli. Miss Milli has gone back to Canada. She may not be home for years!
A voice shattered my reverie. Madam was calling me.
“Yes Madam?” I asked her running up the steps, “did you call me?”
“Yes, I did. Get me six air mail envelopes from the post office, will you?” And she handed me the money. I felt surprised. I had got her six air mail envelopes only two days ago. Had she lost or misplaced them? Was she writing to Miss Milli twice a day? Anyway, it is none of my business, I told myself as I got ready to go out. Our one-and-only shop at the corner doubles up for a post office too, selling postcards, stamps and air-mails as well as grocery, vegetables and other things.
Madam called me once again just as I was about to step out.
She seemed to hesitate for a moment or two.
“Vandana,” she said, giving me a straight look, “Mrs. Mehra was here just now. She told me that you were rude to her. What happened?”
“Rude to her?” I replied, feeling really puzzled, “I am never rude to any of the guests, Madam. Nor to any of our regular boarders.”
“So I thought,” said Madam, “but Mrs. Mehra was very angry. She told me you had answered her back rudely and refused to work for her.”
I suddenly realized what she was referring to.
“It was not quite that,” I said to her , “Mrs. Mehra threw her shoes at me and told me to clean and polish them then and there. I told her that I would do them later, after I had finished my routine chores which had to be attended to before anything else.”
“You are sure that was all?”
“No. she told me to wash her clothes as well.”
“I said that I didn’t wash clothes and that it was Jethi who was supposed to do that.”
“She said I’d better do it and fast because she could not wait for Jethi.”
I suddenly stopped short, feeling I could not tell her any more.
“Go on,” said Madam.
“She told me that I had to do it and added that since Jethi and I were both paid servants it did not matter which of us did the job. Especially because both of us would be clamouring for tips when her visit ended.”
“And what did you say to that?” Madam persists.
“Nothing,” I replied, “I ….I… just left the room.”
For a moment there was total silence in the room. I wondered if I should go to the shop after all when Madam asked, “Do you mind washing clothes as much as that?” Her voice was sarcastic, “and have you never polished shoes for a guest before, Vandana? How much time would it have taken? Was it worthwhile to fight over it?”
“I have often polished Uncle Aneesh’s shoes and I have washed Miss Milli’s clothes. It wasn’t that Madam,” I replied haltingly.
“What was it then? I am afraid I don’t understand.” Madam really sounded puzzled.
“Her saying it like that,” I told her, “I’d willingly do anything for anyone ….. if only they asked me properly. I have some self-respect too.”
“Indeed! And you feel you are the one to decide what is proper and what is not?” Madam sounded really angry this time, “a chit like you!”
“I am not a child any more, Madam,” I managed to say, looking her in the eyes, “perhaps that is why I feel things now that I’d not have felt earlier.”
“I am sorry to hear it, Vandana,” said Madam, “charity girls cannot afford to be so touchy … or so choosy either.”
I kept quiet but my heartbeats sounded as loud as the ticking of the clock. I did not know what to say. Or what I ought to say either. Madam started speaking again.
“You say you are no longer a child, Vandana. Very well then. I’ll talk to you like a grown-up,” she remarked. “Have you ever thought about what your future is going to be?”
“My future, Madam?” I asked, a sudden cold fear clutching at my heart.
“Yes. You have to stand on your own feet sooner or later. You don’t expect me to support you all my life, do you?”
Her words struck me with the intensity of a bullet. I suddenly felt the world spinning all round me and then throwing me into a void. I felt as though I were drowning … drowning into a bottomless pit. The Villa Alpina and all it stood for had been my world for nine years or more. My only world, in fact. Where else could I go? And what else could I do? I had no one to turn to. No one at all! I felt as though my world were crumbling about me without my being able to do anything to stop it.
“Sit down, Vandana,” I heard Madam say. Her voice sounded unusually gentle. “I did not mean to speak of it just yet” she said softly, “but perhaps it is better that I do and not leave you in the dark.”
I looked at her expecting some terrible news. My hands felt like blocks of ice. Madam sat down opposite me.
“Vandana,” she said, “I am leaving this place. I am going abroad as I have always planned to do. I may not come back for years. Or I may not come back at all.”
“Leaving this place?” I asked in a bewildered voice, “Leaving Villa Alpina?”
I repeated the words over and over again, trying to take it in. I could not believe my ears!
“Yes,” replied Madam, “I have been making plans to go for a long time, even before Milli’s visit, in fact. But it has been a long and difficult process. The paperwork has been cleared at last, at both ends. I had Milli’s letter this morning telling me all’s well.”
“Oh?” I stammered, not knowing what else to say.
“You are the only problem,” said Madam giving me a straight look, “Mr. Lama, Kancha’s father has promised to employ Joseph. He had asked me often enough before and I expect he would want to employ Saila too. And Jethi won’t have any problem finding a new job either. If only I knew what to do with you!”
Tears pricked my eyelids like thorns. But I blinked hard and refused to let them fall. So I am back to square one, facing the same problem all over again. The problem of finding someone on whom I can dump myself and become someone else’s charity girl. Just because I have no one and nowhere to go!
“I wish I knew what to do with you,” Madam said once again, “now that my first plan for your future seems to have gone awry.”
I wondered what it had been and why it had gone awry. Mr. Lama wouldn’t want me, of course. He has plenty of help already. And Shoomi and Neema might not want me there either.
“Isn’t there anyone who’d have me? Anywhere I could go? You know I’m willing to work really hard if it is something I am able to do” I asked, feeling smaller than I’d ever done, “of course I wouldn’t want to upset all your plans, Madam. Not after all that you’ve done for me already. I want you to go and live with Miss Milli, if that’s what you want to do.”
Madam got up and walked to the open window.
“I meant to ask Mrs. Mehra to take you with her. She had asked me for a maid as soon as she arrived. She is fabulously rich and has several people helping her. I wish you hadn’t been rude to her. That would have certainly solved my problem.”
“I don’t want to work for her, Madam,” I said getting up from the chair, “I’d rather starve and sleep in the open. She does not treat people like human beings.”
“It’s all very well to talk,” said Madam in a cross voice, “but I have a sense of responsibility. I can’t just leave you stranded and go off abroad. I’ll have to postpone my journey until I am able to fix up something for you, that’s all.”
“If only Uncle Aneesh were here!” I said to myself. But Madam heard me.
“So do I,” she said in a somewhat bitter voice, “he had shown so much interest in you that I was sure he would do something to help. But I haven’t had a word from him since. Only shows how gullible I am even at my age! I was foolish to take him seriously when he was just amusing himself by asking questions about you. His concern for you was just a show.”
“Oh no Madam,” I cried, “If you haven’t heard from him it is either because he has been too busy to bother about me or has more important things to do. It can’t be because he has forgotten. And he wouldn’t do things for show. Uncle Aneesh wasn’t the kind to say things he didn’t mean.”
“You are only a child, Vandana. You have no idea what the world is like or how ruthless it can be.”
“Madam,” I said remembering something Kancha had told me, “could you please lend me some money so that I may go to school? I promise to pay you back the moment I am able to earn a living.” Madam laughed at my earnestness.
“You are crazy, Vandana. Even if I had the money to spare, which I haven’t, by the way, which school would take you? You are almost thirteen and know virtually nothing! Besides, where would you stay and what would you live on? I can’t put you in an orphanage either because there would be too many questions about why I didn’t put you in one as soon as your mother died and no one claimed you. No, I certainly don’t want to get into all that now. However, I guess something will turn up. So don’t worry too much. You must know that I won’t leave you to face the world alone. And now there’s that wretched dog as well! Oh bother!”
I ran out of the room, tears pouring down my cheeks. I couldn’t help it. Why did I have to be a burden on everyone? Everyone I knew had a family of sorts. Was it my fault that I didn’t have any? Nibbler licked my cheek, surprised by its salty taste.
“I have no right to make things difficult for Madam, Nibbler” I whispered, “I can’t be ungrateful.”
“Woof!” said Nibbler.
“Let’s run away, Nibbler,” I said to him, “it’s the only thing we can do. Then Madam can go abroad in peace.”
“Woof, woof!” said Nibbler, agreeing with me.
I heard the prayer drums beating in the Buddhist temple by the waterfall. Was it a kind of omen?
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