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Shadows in the Snow - Chapter 5
by Swapna Dutta

Continued from Chapter - 4

The rains have not stopped even this morning. The house is walled in by white drifting mist that seem 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.”

“What happened?”

“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.”

“And then?”

“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.”

“You mean….?”

“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”.

Continued to Chapter - 6

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