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Shadows in the Snow - Chapter 3
by Swapna Dutta

Continued from "Shadows in the Snow" - Chapter 2

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!

Continued to Chapter -4

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