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Shadows in the Snow - Chapter 1
by Swapna Dutta

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.

Continued to "Shadows in the Snow" -  Chapter 2 

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