Death came silently, frequently, to the little town in the mountains. And it always chose the men. They would go away on mysterious journeys, on “operations”, carrying olive-green rucksacks, and holding rifles black and glistening with oil like a school-girl´s plaits. Fingers caressed prayer beads, lips moved soundlessly over the sacred words, and eyes looked steadily forward, as the trucks carried them away.
Left behind, the women would watch the soldiers disappear into the distance. And a little later, the hum of a plane would rise from the distant airstrip. The women would pause in their conversations, their prayers, their cooking, to listen to the drone grow softer as the aeroplane flew far, far away.
Theirs was a small community, spread over a mountainside, dotted with bungalows that the British had built nearly a century ago. Lower down the slopes were the barracks, and still lower and closest to the plains, the tiny market. Beyond the tall deodar tops, the mountainside dipped into a wide valley, the Doon valley with its soil rich with fragrant basmati scents, the many lights of the Dehra twinkling at night.
On clear nights, the lights twinkled right across the valley and on to the mountains at its other end, just like a sparkling necklace flung carelessly across the darkness. The necklace stretched right across the valley and up the mountains on the other end, its end shimmering in the night. That end, where the sirens never called for black-outs, was Mussourie, a tourist town. A happy, social town, full of parties and happiness and laughter. Even as a seven-year old, Ruchi knew, when she watched the Mussourie lights, that Death went infrequently to that far town.
Because Death stayed right here in the cantonment, stalking through the misty mountain top high above the bungalows amongst the multi-coloured prayer flags. It sneaked past the offices where the “operations” were planned; crept past the cheerful barracks that smelt of butter tea, thukpa, momos and human determination. Death climbed silently on to the olive-green trucks that carried the men away on operations. It stowed away secretly on the aeroplanes that flew the men even farther than the Doon valley below.
Ruchi knew this, because when the men returned, grim and weary, there would be faces missing their ranks. “Death marched again with us,” her father, unshaven and bone-tired, would inform her mother as he collapsed on the soft bed, too weary even to remove his mud-spattered jungle boots. Mother would look grave, sometimes even weep a little, as she removed Father´s boots and then tucked him safe under the vast green down-quilt.
When Death took the officers, their passing would be marked with a quick, sombre toast in the mess, and by the hasty removal of the dead man´s family down to the plains. In the barracks, the passing was even quieter. A face would vanish, only to be replaced by another, impassive, slant-eyed one, even as the other soldiers continued their chanting: “Om mani padme om.”
On days that Father was not away on operations, he took Ruchi for walks on the mountain-side. They would stroll through the deodars, the rhododendrons, and the pines on the higher reaches. Ruchi´s favourite stretch was a solitary walk lined with towering pine trees where the ground was carpeted by tangy-smelling needles that sank under her feet. In the dim twilight that always lived under the tall trees, Father taught her to walk silently, testing the twigs and needles under her soft-soled shoes. “Not a crack,” he would instruct, solemnly demonstrating his own stealth. Later, kneeling on the pine-needles in companionable silence, they would watch the clouds swirl through the narrow gaps in the mountains and observe the furry creatures of the forest go about their own business.
Once, while walking on that soft pine carpet, Ruchi found a small furry body the colour of dry dirt. A faint, acrid smell rose from it. “Death marched with it,” Father murmured, running his fingers through her hair and pulling her head against himself. They moved away, Father carrying her home in his arms. From the edge of their garden overlooking the pine walk, Ruchi heard him instruct one of the soldiers. “Bury the body, pinjala, I don´t want her upset again,” he said, holding Ruchi tight in his arms.
Later, when Father had gone up to the offices near the top of the hill, Ruchi ran down to the pine walk to see the animal again. The body was gone, the patch covered with a fresh layer of sharp, green needles. But the odour – of the non-living – still lingered on the spot, blending with the tangy new scent of the needles.
When she grew older, Ruchi could never remember how she came to identify Nine-number bungalow as Death´s house. Perhaps, Gompo-la, the sweet tempered soldier-monk who watched over her as she played, had informed her. Or perhaps Father told her about the abandoned old house that stood not a half-kilometre from their own, a faded number nine painted in black on its rickety wooden gate.
Its red roof was of the same corrugated metal as the other bungalows. Its wide veranda had the same dark wood floorboards. The front of the house had a large picture window, with even square glass panes set in an ornate rosewood frame. But unlike the other bungalows, the paint was peeling off the yellowed walls, the red on the roof was faded. Even the rosewood window-frames didn´t shine with fresh polish. The pebbled path leading up to the front door was overgrown with weeds. The garden was overgrown and wild. The rosebushes were gnarled and twisted with age, and the wild irises flashed a startlingly bright blue in the tall grass.
She did, however, remember the first time she walked up to the Nine-number bungalow. With father. They had gone to the house for cloud-catching.
The clouds on the mountains never came low enough to enter their home. Instead, they swirled and twisted and blanketed the mountain-top with foamy pearl grey. “We are too low, Ruchi,” Father would explain patiently. On such days, when the mountain-top was hidden by the clouds, Father would take her up to let her run through the prayer flags. She would race through the pennants, tasting the moisture on her tongue, trailing cloud-phantoms at the tips of her fingers.
She would run through the clouds, letting the damp, wispy, yet opaque streams hide her. And then, she would wait for Father to find her. “Ruchi,” Father would call her, striding through the translucence, cutting through the mists. “Ruchi,” he would call again, laughter audible in his voice. And then, suddenly, he would appear through the clouds, large and solid amidst the vapours, like a hero, or a god. His hair would be slicked and shiny with the moisture, his cheeks cold with the mountain air. Laughing, he would swoop down to gather Ruchi in his arms, his clothes damp and cold. But his arms would be warm and strong. He would carry her home, marching steadily through the clouds.But she had wanted to trap the clouds. To catch them inside the house, and keep them forever. She wanted to open the windows to let the clouds come into the rooms. And then quickly, very quickly, just when they had filled up the rooms, she would close the windows. And the clouds would have to stay in the house for her to play with, whenever she wanted.
When Ruchi explained her plan to Father, he laughed. But once he stopped laughing, he patted her head. “A good plan, a very good plan. Just like a guerrilla´s. You are learning fast.”
“So I can go on operations with you soon?” Ruchi immediately asked. That was the whole point of showing Father that clouds could be caught; that her tactics were as good as any officer´s; that she was ready to be a guerrilla like the pinja-las.
“Hmmm, soon! Let me see. I think you have to be a little taller to be a guerrilla,” Father solemnly informed her, examining her closely, holding his palm a little above her head, the height he explained was necessary to be a guerrilla. “But we should test your plan for trapping the clouds,” he told her, noting the disappointment on her face. “It is a very good plan. We won´t hold them forever, but just as a test. For a little while only. Yes?”
The only hitch of course was that their own home was too low for the clouds to reach. The only house in town high enough to lure the clouds was Number-nine bungalow. Death´s bungalow.
Father said that he would find a good time to take her up to the bungalow. Ruchi knew he was watching for a time when Death had gone walking elsewhere. Then they would sneak into the empty house and work at cloud-catching.
It was many days later that Father decided the time was right. The sky was dark and when he walked with Ruchi through the deodars, the wind blew fierce and cold, sucking away her breath and stinging her cheeks.
Hand in hand, they approached the gaping, blind windows. The glass panes were dirty and dim, but no curtains hid the empty insides. As she placed her foot on the first wooden step to the veranda, the board creaked, moaning softly under her feet. She froze immediately, holding her breath. Father smiled at her, pointing to his own feet that stepped cunningly, silently on the same boards. She nodded, shifting her weight carefully so as not to make a sound with her next step.
The front door was bolted but not locked. When Father tugged at the bolt, it squealed loudly. Ruchi´s heart gave a lurch. What if the sound had warned Death? But Father just smiled at her, and that reassured her.
Once inside, Father and Ruchi sped through the rooms, flinging the windows open. Latches protested, frames creaked, but they continued opening the windows to the winds. “Look, they are on their way down,” Father pointed out the picture window. Ruchi turned her head to see the clouds roll down from the top of the mountain. Like spreading rolls of silk, or a flood, the clouds made their way down, covering the tall pines and deodars. Steadily, almost imperceptibly, the first translucent fingers would reach to caress a tree, then slowly wrap themselves around the green heights. And moments later, the tree would be invisible, hidden in the voluminous grey blanket.
Watching the clouds make their way inexorably through the forest, down the mountains, Ruchi felt a sudden flash of terror. A cold, wet finger ran fleetingly down her spine, raising the soft hair on the back of her neck. Her stomach churned, and her breath caught in her throat. Suddenly the clouds seemed sinister, portending evil in a way they never had on the mountain-tops.
Beside her, Father laughed, throwing back his head. “We´ll catch them alright.” Ruchi had a sudden vision of the mysterious operations he went away for. The enemy approached, much like the clouds, vast and strong and sinister. And in the trees, hidden with the pinja-las, the gleaming rifles loaded and ready, her father laughed in anticipation.
That cold wet finger on her spine, Ruchi realised in a sudden flash of frighteningly adult clarity, was her fear for her father. Her stomach had churned with that terrifying intuition that all those who love a soldier must learn to bear. Death marched with her father too, and at any moment, at any place, could swoop down to claim him. She felt tears prick her eyes, even as the clouds reached the house, swirling gently against the peeling yellowed walls.
“Stay here,” Father commanded, laughter still in his voice. “I´ll go close the windows.” Ruchi could only make a soft sound, a clutching sob that ripped at her throat as Father moved away. She reached out after him but caught only a damp wisp. The clouds had already started crowding Death´s bungalow, pushing through the picture window like unruly children at recess.
Blinded by the billowing opacity, she could hear Father closing the windows, bolting each one carefully. She strained to hear his footsteps, but he walked as always on soundless feet. Time seemed to have halted, and nothing moved in the clouds that had filled the bungalow. She held out her hands before her and could only vaguely make out their outline.
Ruchi stared at the damp blindness around her and felt terror clutch at her heart. Tears poured now, running freely down her cheeks. Her hands were cold and clammy with the moisture from the clouds. She rested her head against the rosewood window frame, finding solace in its solidity, and sobbed uncontrollably.
She didn´t hear Father return. She was staring blindly before her when a figure loomed silently over her. The shoulders were massive, the head dark. It leaned out to pull one of the panels of the picture window shut. Ruchi held her breath, hoping it wouldn´t notice her. Then the figure seemed to search for something; dark, slim-fingered hands running over the rosewood. She hid in her corner, shrinking within herself in fear. Oh, if only Father would return!
As the hands moved closer, she shut her eyes, squeezing them tightly. She screamed when she felt the hand touch her shoulder. “No!”
Then suddenly, she was in Father´s arms, cradled against his chest. “What frightened you, baby? It´s alright, everything is alright,” he murmurred against her hair. His lips felt her cheeks, passing over the tears and the moisture the clouds had left. “Shhh, it´s alright.”
He carried her home just like that, holding her head nestled under his chin, her body pressed tight against his chest. She could feel his pulse throbbing in his throat against her face and pressed her cheek tight against the rhythm. He is alive, he is still alive, she exulted, breathing in his scent – musky and tangy like the forest. She knew she was echoing the words in her mind that she had heard her mother whisper each time Father came home. They were a chant, a sacred chant, like Om mani padme om. Suddenly, she knew what the words meant, why the pinja-la chanted them as they went on operations. “He is alive, he is still alive.”
And the first inklings of a plan began to form in her head, as she pressed herself closer still to Father. She would imprison Death; leave him locked in his Number-nine bungalow before Father left again on operations. She would make sure that Death would never march again with the soldiers.
The day before Father left on operations, he always spoke to Ruchi separately. The words were different each time, but the message was always the same. They would walk down to the shaded pine-walk, hand in hand, walking carefully on the needles. “You must take care of Mother. She worries too much. So you must be brave and take care of her.” Ruchi always nodded seriously and held her Father´s hand tighter. They would slowly walk back home.
The night before Father left, there was always a big dinner with all his favourite dishes. And Mother made a special treat: ice-cream packed with raisins, wild berries picked from the bushes on the slope and shreds of tangy-sweet plums from the tree in the garden. The three of them would sit together over dinner, talking softly about unimportant things such as a new doll for Ruchi, or Mother´s need for a new pressure-cooker. Sitting up so later, Ruchi would almost fall asleep on the table. Unlike other days, she wasn´t told to go to bed.
Late in the night, Father would carry her to bed and tuck her in. He would stroke her forehead softly and kiss her cheek. Ruchi knew that on nights before he left, Father stayed up later to talk to Mother. She would lie half-asleep in her bed, listening to the murmurs, the rustling of sheets and the incomprehensible, hushed moans that came from her parents´ room. At some point, as she tried to make sense of the sounds, she would fall asleep.
In the morning, when she awoke, Father would have already left.
Which is why she needed to carry out her Death-trapping plan before Father took her for a stroll to the pine-walk. She had already heard the whispers, listening in secretly to the things that grown-ups said at dinners in the officers´ mess when they thought that the children could not hear.
“High casualties on the eastern sector..four companies decimated...full out war this time...Major Rai and his boys just cut down at the dam...poor Mrs. Rajan, after only one month of the wedding, he has been sent on ops...”
Mother had already told her that Father would be gone for a long time. “This time, the operations will last a long time, Ruchi. But maybe we will go down to the plains and see your cousins. We can even go to Nani´s house.” But Mother had tears in her eyes as she said this, and Ruchi knew that Death would march with Father and his men on these operations.
But she wouldn´t let that happen.
For days she had thought of a plan. She had watched carefully the lock on the big trunk under the bed. It was the only lock in the house, a big shiny yellow circle with a dull steel handle. And its key – in a large round ring with lots of other keys – stayed in the top drawer of the high mahogany dresser in her parent´s bedroom.
She had tried to take the shiny brass key for the lock out of the ring that held so many other keys together. The whole bunch was very heavy and loud, clanking with every movement. But the ring was tight, its spirals almost impossible to prise apart. In the end, she took the whole bunch, deciding to return it after she had locked Death in.
Removing the lock from the trunk under the bed had been easier. Mother knew that Ruchi often played under the bed and never disturbed her. “She is afraid,” Mother had told Father, “it is all this uncertainty all around.” But the lock was heavy, making her arms ache when she carried it – gripped with both hands – up the mountain. The keys clanged loudly in her pocket.
“Baba, where are you going?” Gompo-la called after her. She nearly cried in frustration at being spotted. He caught up with her easily, loping after her with his long stride. For a moment, she hesitated.
“To Number-nine bungalow,” she whispered, unable to lie to the concerned face above her.
“Gompo-la was surprised. “But no one goes there, Ruchi-baba.”
“Oh, I know,” she declared airily, trying to hide the lock behind her back. Gompo-la had already seen it. He didn´t ask any more questions. Instead, he squatted down before her, balancing on the balls of his feet, waiting for her explanation. Ruchi stared at him, wondering if he would laugh at her, or worse, stop her from carrying out her plan.
Finally, she decided. “I am going to lock Death in the house. Then he can´t march with the soldiers tomorrow. It’s a secret and you have to help me.”
Gompo-la seemed surprised. But he didn´t laugh. Or even ask any more questions. He nodded wisely, his narrow eyes suddenly shiny and moist. “In the old days, in Tibet, we did the same. Before a war, the lamas locked away all the evil spirits. Come, I will help you.”
So, they walked hand in hand up to Number-nine bungalow. Gompo-la volunteered to go and find out if Death indeed was home. As he sneaked up through the garden, Ruchi watched the silent house. Its windows were bolted shut again. From a distance, she thought she saw a shadow move inside. Scared, she huddled down further, clutching the lock tightly.
Then Gompo-la came back. “Yes, he is inside. Give me the lock. I will go put it on the door.” He held out his hand. But she shook her head. Only she knew the secret words. Or rather the meaning of the sacred words that had to be said after she locked Death in.
“No, I have to put the lock myself.”
Gompo-la nodded again, his eyes shining brightly. “Good officer always do first what he asks the jawans to do,” he said, stepping aside.
Ruchi rose slowly to her feet, inching forward towards the house. Before her, the silent bungalow loomed large and frightening. The sun glinted off the windowpanes and she wondered if Death had seen her approach. The pebbles rolled and crunched under her feet, the weeds scratched her bare legs as she forced herself to walk steadily up to the front door.
Once she stumbled as she walked. She put her hands out before her. She did not fall but hit her hands against the pebbles. The lock was heavy and crushed her fingers as she hit the ground. There would be scratches, but when she looked down at her hands, there was no blood. One of her hands had touched a scorpion-grass plant, however, and began to itch. She felt tears well up in her eyes and forced herself to not wipe them off. The poisonous grass would make her eyes burn too if she took her hand up to them.
She looked back and Gompo-la was still crouching on the ground beyond the garden. He smiled at her and motioned her forward, swinging his right arm in a high, wide arc. She nodded and gathered her courage. She would tolerate the itching and pain until she got back. Then Gompo-la would find the plants to take the hurt away.
The first step up to the veranda began to creak before she remembered what Father had taught her. She removed her foot gently and then slowly replaced it, shifting her weight to tread silently. Slowly, quietly, almost holding her breath, she climbed up to the veranda.
Then swiftly stepping across the wide floorboards, she reached the door. Fumbling, nearly dropping the lock, she struggled to place it on the loop of the bolt. The door shook suddenly, banging against the frame, pulling away from her hands. Was someone trying to open it from inside? She started, her heart beating wildly and half-turned to run away. But then, she steadied herself, reaching for the bunch of keys in her pocket.
Concentrating fiercely, she found the shiny brass key, the only one in the bunch of its colour, and managed to fit it into the lock. “Om mani padme om,” she chanted under her breath, using all the strength in her arms to twist the key in the slot. The key was stuck and refused to move. She jiggled it in the lock, tugging at it, struggling to turn it. Finally, she felt the lock click shut. She tugged at it once, twice, before removing the key. For an instant, it caught in the lock again, and she had to twist it before it snapped free.
Triumphant, she turned, holding the bundle of keys up for Gompo-la to see. He jumped up and waved and laughed. She thought she knew what Father felt when his operations were over. Taking a deep breath, stifling the urge to run away from the house, she climbed steadily down the steps and walked through the garden and out on to the path. “Well done, baba, well done,” Gompo-la shouted. As she drew closer, he smiled at her solemnly and struck out his hand. Ruchi took it in hers, shaking it as she had seen Father do with his officers. “Thank you for your help on this mission, Gompo-la,” she intoned her father´s words, mimicking his tone.
Gompo-la smiled and nodded, a different gesture this time. It was a crisp duck of the head, an almost-salute that the guerrillas used to acknowledge each other. Then, he bent down and put his hands on her shoulders. “Very good,” he announced, looking solemnly, deeply, into her eyes. Ruchi was glad that his hands were strong because her legs shook with the pent-up fear and relief. He smelled different from Father, of sweat and cigarettes and of cooked meats from the kitchen. For a long moment, he stared at her, his eyes narrow and inscrutable. Then releasing her shoulders, he stepped back, rose and clicked his heels together. She looked up to see his wide grin.
Without a word, she held out her hands to him and he leaned over to inspect them, noting the red itchy rash that had sprung up on her fingers. “No problem. Behind our house there are plants that will stop the itching. You will be tip-top by the time we reach home,” he announced.
When she looked up at him, he was smiling. She laughed out loud, joyously, relieved; a laugh so infectious that he joined in. And so laughing, they began their walk back down the mountain.
When Ruchi awoke the next morning, Father had left on operations. She ate her breakfast in silence and then found a seat on the veranda, the place where she always sat to wait for his return. She knew it would be some days before Father came home, but she watched the road twisting down the hill anyway. And softly, under her breath, she chanted.
The sun was high in the sky when Gompo-la came, having finished his chores, and sat on the steps, next to her stool. They smiled at each other conspiratorially. Watching the road together, they began to chant the sacred words, the words of hope:
Om mani padme om!
He is still alive. He is still alive.
Om mani padme om....