The Rains of Ramghat

by Radha Bharadwaj

“But I didn’t really understand why she had to die in the end!”

Her jowls quivered, and flawless South African diamonds winked at me from between the thick folds of her pythonesque neck. Fat tart! I don’t know why my heroine had to die either. The book was already 106,000 words, and I was growing bored…. Would that be explanation enough?

I looked at the members of the Calcutta Ladies Club. Most of them were friends of my mother. All had husbands who earned enough to keep them swathed in silk and festooned with diamonds in the city’s fabled Park Avenue. One bloated idiot tried to stifle her imminent yawn by waving stubby, ineffectual fingers in front of a cavernous, toad-like mouth.

What a relief I don’t look like this bunch! I arched, stretching my long legs and slim arms, enjoying the feel of the thin silk skirt on my painted toes, knowing full well that the heavy set was watching my every move. There were no journalists in the crowd. The ladies had assumed their enlightened discussion of my latest work would be bait enough for me to attend. I wouldn’t be able to see my new book panned by the resident hack in tomorrow’s Calcutta Times. I picked up my clutch and walked out, the lazy smile I’d practiced all day in front of the mirror in place on my face.

In the car, panic grabbed my shoulders and spun me around to punch my stomach. I drew in my breath as I reeled from his punch, and watched him uncurl his fist and spread slow cold fingers throughout my body. When was I going to write The Novel? Once I had thought that was all I would do—write serious books, books that would dent those who read them, marking my readers for life, so one would know, looking at them, that these are Smita Ghosh’s tribe, twisted and twirled and into fantastic shapes by her thoughts, her view of life….

Where do such Novels come from? I asked myself as I squeezed my car into the narrow lanes of the Howrah slum. No choice—driving through the slum, I mean. Bannerjee Road was blocked—some bunch or the other on strike for or against something or the other that won’t matter a fig in the long or short or run. Hence the route picturesque…. A twig-hued man was lying on the pavement, vomiting quietly, copiously, into a gutter gummed with shit. I watched him through a thicket of passing human and cow legs and wheels. No one gave a damn—not me, either. Except for one woman who was crouched by him and howling, her eyes fierce like a hawk, tearless. Must put in a call to Mother Theresa’s conversion squads, I thought. Give the heathen Jesus before he dies…

I parked in a lot by the Howrah Bridge and looked at the river at my feet, winding placidly to some distant sea. Ganges—river of purity, sanctifier of human sins. Even you could not retain your ethereal nature in Calcutta. Cigarette butts, soda cans, old magazines and a dead rat floated by, all flaunting their right to the river. Up ahead, fighting through the haze of smog, the skyline—such as it is—of the city: grey and huddled like a congregation of beggars; a great grime-streaked mess, haphazardly thrown together as if by a mildly retarded child or our best government-anointed architect—take your pick. Even the buildings in this city are sheepish and apologetic, crests bowed, cringing with need. Who can write anything but crap in this city? I asked myself. It was such a fortifying question.

A car bursting with college boys passed by, and the even more fortifying melody of their appreciative whistles fluted through the din of the ever-present Calcutta traffic. This at forty, after two children! I slew my nemesis—panic—with their sword-sharp mating calls. I drove to Anoop’s clinic in Park Avenue.

It was his lunch hour—that’s also when his wife plays bridge at the club, and can be counted on to not pop in. I walked through a crowded waiting room. A starlet with a blonde mustache that was showing its dark roots tried to meet my eyes, and simpered when she finally did. Basking in whatever glory there was to be had in being the doctor’s twin sister, I entered Anoop’s office—without knocking, of course.

He was sprawled in his wing chair, pulling his lower lip, eyes cloudy, brooding. I locked the door behind me.

“What ails?” I asked.

“This and that. Everything.” He got up and stretched, fluid as a reptile. I saw his sharp shoulder blades rise and ebb beneath his foamy shirt.

He said, looking out of the window, his back to me: “There’s a new chap two streets down. Opened up his practice. Grand opening last week. He’s UK-returned. Damn these NRIs![1] If you choose to leave this country, stay the fuck out!”

He picked up steam: “There’s a rumour—I think it’s a rumour, and one he started, by the way—that he treated one of the royals in London—not Diana, the other one, the fat one—Sandra…?”

“Sarah,” this from me, who didn’t give a fuck about the royals, but knew all trivia.

“Right. Sarah. He cured her of some mild case of adult acne…. That’s on the grapevine—put there by him. And the morons here who think shit doesn’t stink if it’s foreign-returned have started to go to him…”

His shoulder blades were held for a moment in a state of tensile tension, then started to rotate, like the swishing blades of a thresher, to the tune of his bitter gloating: “So I put a bug in Mrs. Sinha’s ear: that he botched even simple peel jobs in London, which is why he’s here—why else would he come back, if things were so great there?—and telling Rupa Sinha is like beaming it from a satellite—“

“Any of it true?” I “cut to the chase,” as Americans, reared on movies that culminate in life-defining chases, have taught us to say.

Anoop turned slightly. Rewarding me with a-not-quite half profile: an aquiline nose; full, sneering lips: “Any of what true?”

“About him botching face peels,” I replied.

“No,” he said, after some silence. Then chuckled, my incorrigible evil twin. “Two can play the game.”
“What game?” I asked, as I moved towards his mobile and expressive back. “There’s no game. You’re playing a game with yourself. Shadow-boxing with paper tigers…”

I put my face in the hollow between his shoulder blades—a sheltered, safe valley. His pricey cologne mingled with his own particular musk. Intoxicating. I checked my watch—not much time. I reached around and stroked his thing until it quivered awake in my hands like a grumpy pet snake. The snake’s owner turned around to face me, then kiss me. I kissed him back. It felt like it always did: I looked into my eyes, kissed my lips, tasted the brine of my skin. Everything familiar—apt word; deriving, after all, from family—his still tentative-after-all-these-years-touch and his savage mouth and the calluses on his thin palms.

“Smita, I feel the rains coming.” he whispered, checking his watch with (what he thought was) a discreet flick of his eyes.

“And I’m scared,” I replied.

It did rain that afternoon, though….


We had a guest for dinner that night. A client of my husband’s. I sent the kids over to my mother’s house and polished silverware. I thought the client was attractive. Lean cheeks, long lashes. Like Anoop. Like me.

Leaving them to their business talk, I walked into the living room and read the two fan letters I had received that day. Both were from teenage girls who “loved romances.” The night outside was raucous with the merry-making of crickets. Starlight mingled with the blue glow of the street lamps that guarded Park Avenue’s silent houses. Palm fronds stretched spiky fingers to poke out the eye of the moon. Somewhere out there was the idea for the Novel. Maybe someone was already writing it.

Mother made tea for us when we drove there to pick up the kids. My husband, flushed with the success of a clinched deal and an excess of whisky, protested: “Tea will keep me up all night.”

He looked at me and slowly winked.

“Maybe that’s not such a bad idea…”

God, how loathsome he has become! He was crude and coarse when young but that had always been linked to a sort of boorish handsomeness. Now the links have come apart, and all the handsomeness has taken off on its own like a rogue railway car, leaving behind this de-railed wreck that is only crude, only coarse, only boorish. I couldn’t bear to even look at him. He laughed proudly when I dropped my eyes, fooling himself that my not looking at him was a sign of an Indian woman’s much-valued coyness.

I let my mother do my wifely duty and laugh coquettishly. She pulled her sari a bit too snugly over her huge boobs and led me to the bedroom.

The sight of my six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter asleep in the same bed jolted me. Mother read my look—or so she thought.

“They are brother and sister. No harm. Anoop and you used to bathe together. In—Ramghat.”

She shot me a quick look in the mirror as she said that. But her voice halted and slurred at the mention of Ramghat.

We each carried a sleeping child to the car, and I, out of sheer spite, let her carry the girl, who though younger, is much heavier than her brother. I studied Mother’s face in the darkness of the drive, wondering how innocent her remarks really were. She had taken to wearing white after Papaji’s death, like an orthodox widow. But I had always suspected that her preference for white was more for what the colour did to her golden skin, suffusing every moist pore with a shivering glow.

As the car started, she bent close to my ear and whispered: “Have an appointment tomorrow. About—the lump.”

I watched her rather loose lower lip quiver, and her eyes welled up for an instant. Then she turned and went into her house, a top-heavy little ghost in white silk.

While my husband snored and bragged in his dreams about his business acumen, I walked out of the bedroom into the tiny balcony. The ground below was still moist from the afternoon rain, and the fresh air caught the breath of jasmines straight off the opening petals.

I knew then, with a clarity that was almost blinding, that I would never write the Novel. Because I never could. There was a fatal passiveness in me. A lack of passion. No self—or any great or moving depth. Juvenile smart-ass sarcasm masquerading as world-view. Brittle defensive two-bit jokes instead of the risk of real insight. All that could ever come out of me were fantasy romances. No strain, no drain.

This realization must have been lying dormant within me, like a trailing shadow one suddenly sees. Because I felt no pain. I only felt a dull, numb relief—like I’d been let off the hook, set free. I think I laughed out loud, for my neighbour’s sixteen-year-old son materialized—pronto—behind his bedroom window, looking at me through misty curtains that didn’t quite hide his fresh crop of ripe-for-the-picking cherry pimples, or his bovine, pre-masturbatory gaze. I stared at him coolly, coldly, until unnerved, he vanished, leaving the curtains swirling like smoke in his wake, and me on the balcony as the sole witness to the death of another dull Calcutta day.


Mother often used to whine about how the rains of Ramghat had made my older sister Pritha a screaming wreck every month, led Anoop on a lifelong chase after money and power over people, and had left me a shell, scooped out of human feeling and warmth.

Anoop and I were five then, Pritha thirteen, and Ramghat was a tiny valley in the midst of the Himalayas. When we first arrived, wild blue flowers stretched for miles on end, like a tranquil sea. We were heartbroken when Papaji told us the flowers would have to go, as houses would have to be built for all of us.

Today’s economists would consider Papaji an idealist—or an idiot. That is, if they consider him at all. A certain self-indulgent masochism that’s a part of this city—and hence of me—pushed me once to go to the public library and read up on him. All Papaji had to show for his life was a footnote in a book on Calcutta University, written by some bilious British bitch who has clearly never forgiven us for cutting loose from the Empire. The footnote summed him up thus: Roy Ghosh, head of the Department of Economics and Commerce, such-and-such year to such-and-such year. Nothing at all—not a word—about why he left Cal U. How he wanted to put in practice his “back-to-the-barter-system” theories. Now that I have said it so simply, yes—he does indeed seem like an idiot. Not even worth that footnote.

All we knew then was that no money was ever used in Ramghat. The families living there kept accurate accounts of favours done, and that was our payment. We grew green beans, tomatoes and snow peas. Balram, who lived next door, gave us milk in return for the vegetables. Krishna Sen repaired our roof when the winter wind blew it off.

Life in Ramghat was an endless stretch of the greenest fields meeting the bluest skies, with tiny red roofs puffing smoke in the distance. One day blended into the next with a fluidity I have since encountered only in dreams and their sibling-rivals, nightmares. We worked hard with our parents a good part of the day, and sat down to dinner and lessons in the common courtyard at night. Papaji on economics, ex-politician Balram on history, mathematician Krishna Sen on math, mother on music and art….

When the storm announcements were all over the radio, Ramghat prepared for the worst. As I dragged our clothes off the clothesline, the shrieking wind kept tugging at my cotton skirt, to the amusement of Anoop.

All laughter and teasing ceased, though, when the skies wept that night. Great, gashing drops, tearing into the flesh of the earth, boring holes with the force, like bullets. And the wind! The madness and the fury! The great teak trees that guarded Ramghat’s western front were flattened in an hour, like the matchstick soldiers in our childish games. As we scrambled to the roofs of our houses, waves of water came crashing down, obliterating both mountain and sky with their monstrous hydra-like heads. They bore down with them into a newly created abyss all our worldly goods and possessions. Dawn saw us perched on the roofs, wet and cramped, our feet spread like the talons of birds of prey. Balram’s bloated body floated up to our roof. I held Mother, who screamed hysterically and almost fell off the roof, while Papaji pushed the corpse away with his foot.

We were left on our roofs for a whole day before the government sent rescue squads in little helicopters. And as the day tolled on, we watched the corpses of friends and neighbours fight for a place on the water’s surface with wooden planks, chairs, kitchen utensils and water snakes.

Papaji never raised his head. The first morning light had shown him the unforgiving sight of a wrecked dream, like a childhood doll with its eyes gouged out.


Mother’s lump was malignant, as I fully expected it to be. Fat anywhere on the body does nothing but ill. And what are huge breasts but huge masses of fat? My heart beat steadily in my own bud-like breast as she gave me the news. I watched her lower her head into her palms and cry silently. This—these dramas, and the chaos of the city—this was the stuff of my life. Ramghat rapidly receded into the depths of the dream-sea that had churned it.

I observed Mother’s hair as it curled gently near her hips. Not one grey strand. She raised her face and grabbed my hands in her tiny moist paw: “I’ll have to have it removed.”

Her spare hand unconsciously touched the lump on her left breast, as if trying to knead it out of existence. I found the thought of Mother with one big breast even more obscene than Mother with two.

“It’s just fat. A big, revolting lump of grease. Think of it that way,” I offered helpfully.

And this is why I don’t really like to help people—all you get for your trouble is a kick in the teeth. Here she was, looking at me like a truculent cow, her eyes stopping their production of tears and hardening as she calculated where precisely to place her kick. But nothing really prepared me for the following pearls from her mouth: “Smita. You need to know this, in case something happens to me. Papaji—Papaji did not die of a heart attack. That’s what I told you then, because you were a child. The truth is—Papaji—he hung himself.”


The slum made even less of an impact as I sped past. Yes, the scenic route again. Counter-strike on Bannerjee Road—those opposing the previous strikers. Same result for the Calcutta citizen: blocked roads, pointless delays, senseless detours.

This time I saw a baby’s corpse being prepared for cremation while waiting for the light to change. Its mother—that’s who she must have been, a very young girl, not more than sixteen herself—decked the small stretcher with blue flowers. The baby’s face was wrinkled, like those of the very elderly or the terminally ill. A large dot of vermillion adorned the wee forehead.

The mother then tried to close the baby’s open eyes. Apparently not as simple a task as one would’ve thought—I mean, you think you can do what you want with at least the dead, don’t you? She kept pressing the open eyes—gently, as if the dead baby could still feel—but the waxy lids wouldn’t budge.

“What difference does it make? It can’t see any more, you illiterate moron,” I shouted from my car, my blood boiling at the sight of her useless effort. She looked at me with a sort of dazed shock, as if hearing my noise but not my words. The light had changed—angry honks from those behind me, hugely eager to hurry up and wait at the next light. I obliged; I moved my car-pawn to the next square.

Anoop cried a little when I told him of Mother’s lump. He cried like a child: wildly streaming eyes and rapidly reddening nose, lips pushed out in a pout. A bit revolting, seeing this in a grown man. So I reminded him that we had only half-an-hour left, and he turned his tear-streaked face to mine and kissed my lips, the heat of my skin drying the wetness of his cheeks.

“Smita, I fell the rains coming,” he whispered.

“And I am scared,” I replied, putting the final touch to our rite.


I sat by Mother’s bedside after the mastectomy. White-clad doctors and nurses floated by on soundless feet, like ghosts from the next world who have blundered into this. Shadows moved behind white-screened cubicles like the dramatis personae in puppet-theatre, their moans and sobs like dove calls.

In my cubicle, I kept my eyes on my charge: I was waiting for anything else she might let loose. Drugged, and in a pain that took new dimensions during her infrequent waking spells, she still managed to hold on to the cunning of the truly weak. All she said, again and again, like a toy with only one squeak programmed into it, was: “Smita! Papaji hung himself!”

We had come back to Calcutta after Ramghat. Papaji had begun to make amends to his wealthy parents for a lifetime of independence and headstrong will. One evening, Anoop and I had come home from school to a wailing crowd. Papaji had had a heart attack.


“I’ve known about Papaji’s suicide—don’t look like that Smita, that’s what it was, a suicide, don’t fight the word—I’ve known about it for ages now. Our beloved mother told me not to tell you and Anoop. I guess she felt I could handle it, being the oldest. Though I was only thirteen then. I think she needed to tell someone to deal with it herself…”

My pale older sister droned on, her manicured hands carving concepts in the air. Twenty-five days a month, Pritha is a clinical psychologist at the city’s mental hospital. The other five she spends in her room, alone with the blood and cramps of her monthly period, reliving the horror of the twenty-four-hour vigil on the roof in Ramghat, loonier than her most memorable madcaps—but that’s the way it seems to be with most shrink-types.

With an impeccable sense of timing, Pritha had chosen that day on the roof to menstruate for the first time. I still remember the glaze of pain and shame dilating her eyes as a steady flow of blood—and an occasional fat clot—trickled down her legs and plopped into the water all around us.

I looked at her now. There was nothing in the lemon-coloured face that suggested anything other than calmness, control and breeding. But then again, I had never seen her during her “off “days. I’m probably the worst looker in the bunch, I thought. My fondness for scotch and frequent late nights had left puffed ridges beneath my eyes; cigarettes had stained my teeth for good.

Pritha’s sudden sob made me jump. In a flash, the smooth face I had envied crumpled. She said in a little girl’s voice: “I miss Papaji. You never got to know him. You were so young…”


Mother was soon better and sullenly reconciled herself to her single boob. We shopped for suitable undergarments, and she wore them with defiance. They gave her a curiously lop-sided appearance—the rotundity and pointed symmetry of the false breast drawing attention to the sagging imperfection of the real one.

“Maybe I should remove the other one, too. At least they’ll look alike,” she mused.


Close to November, Anoop left for a medical conference in Darjeeling. My grandparents had left us their red brick house in that hilly city, snug in an apple and eucalyptus wilderness. High enough in the Himalayan range to be braced by crisp, cool air, yet safe below the ice that frosted the peaks.

I sat in my room all afternoon, watching the wind chase dried leaves in circles. Calcutta was preparing for the monsoons…

Later that evening, I drove to Anoop’s Park Avenue clinic and sat in my car, as if my waiting would make him materialize in the doorway. His being away was made more unbearable by the fact that his Mrs. was with him. I felt the painful loss of a wife whose husband has left her for his mistress. It was in moments like this that I was most tempted to tell them all—Mother, my husband, Anoop’s wife. Flaunt in public my right to him. Hold his hand, lay my head on his shoulder for all to see. Who has more right to him and his body than me, his fetal partner?

Maybe the seeds for this inevitable mingling of flesh with flesh were sown in the days we shared Mother’s womb, watched each other grow, helped each other flee her body. When it finally happened, we were twenty. I had gone to Darjeeling to recuperate from chicken-pox, Anoop from his third year med school exams. We were walking by the eucalyptus trees that stood, weary sentinels, around the house. The sickly sweet smell of the leaves clung to our clothes, our hair, our skins as we walked, maintaining a safe ten-foot distance between us. It was a thing we had learned to do as children, like staying away from fire….

A sudden flash of lightning called our bluff—we ran hand-in-hand to the house, to my bedroom, to my bed.

“Smita, it’s raining,” he had whispered.

“And I’m scared,” I had replied, mainly to bolster him, to hold up his spirit as I held his thing in my firm, fearless hands, so that he would not chicken out from carrying this moment

through: touch to kiss, kiss to coitus, then everything depleted, the waters ebbing and leaving nothing behind but things too broken to be spirited away. Twilight encroached, a crone with a curse, and painted the room as black and blue as we were after we were through with each other. In bed, arms and legs entwined around each other in some unconscious mimicry of the twin snakes in Mercury’s Caduceus, we spoke—not of what we had just done or what people would say—but of Ramghat. It was the first and last time we were to do so.

“Did you see Papaji’s face, Smita? When all those men and women on their roofs began shouting at him? Cursing him? As if he knew the storms would come. They saw the valley themselves. They should’ve seen the danger—of living in the middle of mountains…”

“I won’t ever forget the look on his face. It’s how I remember him—not the strength or the stubbornness. The disintegration is what I remember…”

“After that he was as good as gone…”

“The death was an after-thought…”

“A mere token gesture…”


I walked out of bed into the balcony, my cigarette winking its red eye in the night. Behind the misty curtains, my nocturnal admirer took his spot. And I peered through the haze of the muslin that made him unreal, trying hard to really see his face.

Like I tried to remember Papaji’s face. It was my Number One preoccupation . I dug up old photographs, but he, cussed trickster, had turned away from the camera at the critical imprisoning moment, so what remained of him was a thin neck shooting out of a homespun shirt and a dark, glossy head that became one with the shadows. I vividly remembered the day on the roofs in Ramghat, but Papaji had buried his face in his hands. Long and lean hands, with slender fingers slightly swollen at the knuckles.

You are the key to all this, Papaji, I thought. The sole, clean-thinking hero in our midst. And to find you, I must go to Ramghat. All a bit melodramatic, I know, but my life is a drab drag, so I seize the moment when I can. “Carpe the diem,” as the fool who teaches Latin to my children supposedly once intoned to his brood.

Going to Ramghat was easier said than done. For one thing—the main thing, really—I couldn’t find Ramghat. Ramghat was the name Papaji had given to that little hidden valley. It wasn’t registered as such, and no maps listed it. So where exactly was it, our particular valley? There must be thousands of valleys just like that all across the Himalayan range. Asking my family was out of the question. I mean, we’ve never been that open; we’ve always been veiled in what we say and do, like aging beauties who fear the scrutiny of light.

In keeping with family tradition, I sneaked into Mother’s house one afternoon and snooped around in her study—the Lopsided-Wonder herself was not at home, having joined Anoop’s wife at the club for bridge and afternoon tea. My search yielded nothing—except some silly letters Papaji had written to her when he was very young (what else could account for their embarrassing inanity?), and which I brought home with me to read thoroughly before I shredded them to bits.

My next stop was Calcutta University’s Department of Economics and Commerce. I bribed a clerk for the phone numbers and addresses of all the geriatric geniuses who were still alive and able to speak. Five in the former group, only one in the latter. I rushed to see this last before he too was struck dead or dumb. One Vishnu Narasimhan. The clerk was right—Professor Narasimhan could still talk. What that low-class clerk bastard forgot to mention was that no one could understand the esteemed professor any more—not even his merry little bright-eyed wife, who sat by the old man’s divan, gamely attempting to interpret his garbled gurgle. I got up in disgust.

“He used to be such a chatter-box in those days. Lectured as much to all of us in the house as he did to his students, ” chortled the wife, full to bursting with glee that her once voluble spouse could no longer produce anything but wheezing squeaks and bubbling froth, watching him with the same delight that proud parents are supposed to reserve for baby’s first words.

Faced by wall after wall of blankness, I was seized by a wild panic (a new one) that maybe Ramghat did not exist at all, that it was some collective fantasy spun out by my family. This new panic goaded me, all feral smiles and wicked eyes, knowing the answer himself, taunting me to find it where he has hidden it—in his slavering, sharp-toothed maw. I ignored his prods and pushings, and kept the spotlight of my mind on one thing and one thing only: Where is Ramghat?

My newfound sense of focused, disciplined purpose made me feel terribly busy and important as I rushed around from dead end to dead end. I felt hugely superior to the languid lotus-eaters I saw wasting away the hours in Calcutta’s ubiquitous coffee shops, talking their way from dead end to dead end. Not for nothing do Calcuttans call themselves the French of the East—and they actually believe that comparison is a compliment….

In the strange way in which things sometimes work out, Mother ended up showing me where Ramghat was—quite literally. She pointed it out on a map. We’d dumped the kids with her during another one of my husband’s business promotion dinners. I’d gone alone to pick up the children, my lord and master being too drunk to drive. I heard Mother’s high, still girlish voice float out into the lawn as I entered the living room: “And that’s Ramghat.” I froze.

She was pointing it out in the atlas, which was spread over her knees. My children were peering at the spot indicated by her pointing finger. I put myself on a rapid de-frost—I ran to the atlas and pushed the children away and pulled back her finger. The place she was pointing at was nameless in the atlas, just berry-blue mountains on the page, but I could see where it must have been, not far from Simla.

“Have you told them about Ramghat?” I asked her, the children watching us intently from a corner of the couch, clutching each other so tight they looked like a two-headed mutant (I wished they wouldn’t touch each other so much).

“Only that we lived there one summer when you were small. The rest is for you to tell them, if you choose, when they are older…,” she answered smoothly, washing her hands off what she had stirred.

Driving home with the children, I made my excuses: I would have to go to Bangalore for a day or so. A writers’ conference. They watched me quietly from the back seat with grim, coal-black eyes, knowing I was lying, not loving me enough to care.

I booked my passage to Ramghat the next day.

What can I say about that dreary flight to Simla or the train-trip to the last stop on that particular line? Only that nothing seemed even slightly familiar—everything was presented brand-new to my senses. There was no sight or sound to provide a link to the past. The past was an island severed from the shore; remote, unreachable.

The last stop on the line was preceded by some truly awful train-driving—a very wide swerve and a shuddering halt at the edge of a great green field. I found my land-legs and swayed out—I was the only remaining passenger at this point. The train thundered away, and I braced myself to face the fields. Then I saw the mountains—they were way back, in the background, emerging through the mist like titans called to battle, fully armed, monstrous. More massively, mightily monstrous than anything I had ever remembered.

And now I did remember—some things coming back in bits, like bits of shredded paper that contain a piece of the message. I remembered standing here like this, but as a five-year-old, and telling Papaji the mountains looked “untrustworthy.” Yes, that was the word that I had used. I remembered him, poor idiot, laughing, taking my hand in his hands with their thin palms and calluses. I remembered him leading the way, right into the fin-blue mountains, his sharp shoulder blades moving with touching mortal fragility beneath his threadbare homespun shirt. And I followed him now as I did then. Up the steep path, watch out for that rock, one last stretch, you can do it, you’re a big girl now—and there it was. Ramghat. An endless sea of green, lit by tiny blue flowers. It had always been here—where could it go, held snug as a captive bird in the palm of the mountains?

I walked into the green, and it swelled and rose to lap at my feet. The grass that stroked my ankles was like velvet—but with a rasping edge to the blades. I tried hard to bring to life our childish laughter as we ran between those long-past houses. Silence reigned supreme now—a triumphant, withholding silence; the silence of the mountains and sky. Not a leaf stirred; not a breeze sighed to stir the leaves.

Right in the middle of the valley was something left behind: a long, jagged piece of teak. I took it in my hands, the sharp splinters cutting my palms. I knew what I would see before I saw it: the initials B.K., carved in the heart of a whorl. I stared hard at the fading letters, flogging my unwilling mind to race past the years and bring me the owner of this piece. Once long ago, it had been part of a majestic dining table….

Clutching the piece of teak, I lay down in the grass, and felt the skies and mountains huddle, shoulder to shoulder, crest to crest; to keep all else out, to keep me in. I felt them watch me as I nodded off, and my last conscious thought before I slid into black was that death was watching, too.

When I awoke, it was cool moving towards cold. The sky had turned the colour of slate, and cleared its throat in a growingly frequent flurry of thunder-rumbles. A brisk wind had sprung up from somewhere, and was racing like a rabid dog, bending the blue heads of the flowers with its force. Then the rain began, long hard drops like bullets, tearing into the soft flesh of the earth. I got the hint. It was time to go.

I walked, then ran, up the steep path, here we go, this last stretch—and I was out in the great field again, with the mountains now black and impenetrable in the background, with Ramghat hidden from view, and with the rain whining down to a weak and snivelling stop.

I looked at the piece of teak with the initials—still in my hand, used as a staff to help me in that last frantic ran. But for this single memento, I would have dismissed Ramghat as my family’s collective dream. The mountains had taken everything else away. Left nothing behind—to bear witness, to tell the truth. A thorough and perfect obliteration.

It was late when I finally reached the tiny railway station. The mountains had merged into the black of the Himalayan night—only their snowy peaks were visible, like fangs bared in the dark. I sat down on the rotting planks of the station’s wooden floor. A train was howling into the night, and the station trembled with the vibration.

The station-master approached me. He was carrying a small child swathed in woolen clothes several sizes too big. I smiled at the child and thought of my own. That was one of the few times in my maternal career when I felt some warmth venture into me—warily, as on unknown territory.

“What’s that?” the station-master asked, pointing to the teak in my hands.

I shrugged, then showed him the carved initials, watching his face closely. No glimmer of recognition. Just idle curiosity on his part. Polite chat not meant to go further—that was all he had intended. But his weather-lined face was kind, full of grace.

The next train arrived. I was the only one in my compartment, flung from end to end by the same atrocious driving that seems a pre-requisite to landing a job as train driver in these parts.

The mountains sped by in window-framed splendour. Range after range, like an unending herd of elephants, etched by an eloquent hand into the blackboard night.

I looked at my reflection on the window. No kindness here, no trace of grace. A hard face—I learned that from the mountains. But not a weak one. It wouldn’t flinch from what needed to be faced.

The rains of Ramghat were a collective dream, after all. We each carried away from it what we most wanted to disbelieve and wreck in ourselves. We clung to Ramghat with the tenacity of those who are truly stunted in heart and head. We wallowed in Ramghat, passing the pipe around from hand to hand, inhaling the escapism; exhaling our strengths…

This, too, must have been lying dormant within me. For facing it didn’t hurt—not a bit. There was just a grim get-on-with-it sort of acceptance.

The train swerved violently, and we entered the plains. Unexciting flat land fled past, as if ashamed of itself. I opened the window, gummed shut by decades of rust. A rush of fetid air on my face told me that Calcutta wasn’t too far away.

I hurled the piece of teak out of the window. It hit a passing tree with immense force and split in two. I looked at the chaotic world starting to take shape outside the window—stray huts becoming settlements becoming townships becoming a heaving mass of people hurtling towards that great city of cities.

“So much is still possible,” I thought, but aloud. “So much you can still do,” addressing myself in the third person, which I do only when I am totally one hundred percent completely dead serious.

It’s in these possibilities—in these “I can’s” and “I will’s” that the gossamer-texture of life is suspended. Not in what happens afterwards—but in that oft-skipped moment when you make the choice to act, to act despite the past; with the belief that you can and will rewrite the past, make old horror pay its price in blooms as the mountains had expertly done—in this lies the worth of a human being.

I said, in keeping with the drumming wheels:

“I can leave my husband…”

“I can do without Anoop…”

“I can write…”

Thought to thought, the unreal and the merely dreamed of becoming live and solid by the risk and daring of jumping, rock to rock, up the steep path, just this last stretch, you can do it, I know you can, see—you did it, well done, you’re my good girl now….

This mood in itself was no stranger to my life. A few times before, it had taken possession of me in an act that had begun as rape and ended with my eager submission. But maybe this time it will stick around long enough to fuel action. Isn’t that wish itself part of this mood and its magic?

In the distance, Calcutta’s lights and eternal traffic were spread out like a willing whore, and the city winked its million eyes to welcome me.

Copyright 2012 by Radha Bharadwaj


About the Author

Radha Bharadwaj is an Indian-born feature screenwriter-director with two acclaimed features to her credit: CLOSET LAND (Bharadwaj's screenplay won the prestigious Nicholl Screenwriting award; the film stars Alan Rickman and Madeleine Stowe, and was produced by Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment), and the Victorian mystery BASIL (with Sir Derek Jacobi, Christian Slater, Jared Leto).

CLOSET LAND has been adapted for stage, and has been performed all over the world by various theatre groups. Bharadwaj has finished two novels--both literary mysteries.

Her short stories are being published by Scissors and Spackle and Independent Ink.


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