Winter’s gone. Winter with its few people on darkening streets and anonymity under long black coat collar pressed up to cheek. Winter when I could step outside my front door to walk the streets of South Hampstead and round the silhouettes of hedge-lined streetcorners, all by myself. Mind sharpened by the knife-edged air, body braced against the outside world.
In a cold country a person can be alone in winter.
Now, though, summer is here, and as the daylit evenings stretch obscenely on these streets I had claimed as my own have been thrown open to public use. And sure enough, out they’ve come, with their prams and roller-skates and cute little camping chairs to go and sit at Regent’s Park and every patch of public green they can find. Sipping on beer at pavement cafes that weren’t there last week, squinting through their sunglasses wearing fewer clothes than expected, proclaiming their sunniness to all whose eyes happen their way.
The hedonists have been let out to graze on these quiet evening streets.
There are many months to go before winter comes again. All one can do now is pray for rain, for a few weeks of constant London rain: brooding grey skies, cleansings, catharses.
That should send them scurrying back in.
Tomas has been in London for four years now, he is from a village near Prague. “The Soviet and Polish army, they both come into Prague in 68. And the Americans, they supported us but they just stayed outside the city, kilometres away, when Russia was taking Prague. America came but did not fight for us.” His uncle and aunt wanted to leave the country in the late 60s, they crossed over to Austria first where they had to wait 8 months, to be accepted by either Australia or Canada. Finally they were taken by Canada, “to Saskatchewan, you heard of Saskatchewan? It’s bloody cold there.” These would have been stories told by his family; Tomas was born in the late 70s. “A lot of people went, emigrated… and its fucking crazy man, you go and you don’t know if you’re gonna see your family again… yeah it was difficult in Czech…”
He is having problems with his boss where he works in London. One day it is stressful, “And I shouted at him – You dicksucker!” “From that day people at work they don’t smile at me properly you know? Because I say that word to a gay person.” “And the thing is, when I said the word that is exactly what I was thinking in my mind, that he is a gay bastard!!”… “Maybe you have to change yourself you know, to the situation, I am Czech and we are maybe racist country, I don’t know… in this country they expect different.”
Earlier he was telling about going back during vacations to his village (“30 minutes from Prague by car”), and going to the pub: “I know everyone there, I grew up with them, I can sit at any table in the pub” then correcting himself “well not at every table, not at the table of the Gypsies, but all the other tables.” Someone he knew as a boy had been found out by his parents that he was gay. “They gave him pills man, his family. They tried to correct him. Now he’s taken so many pills he’s crazy.” “It’s communism you know, they think all these things are disease, it can be corrected.”
People weren’t allowed to leave the country. “This guy from my village, he tried to escape to Germany by car. He drived through the border, the fence you know? And the guards they started shooting at the car!” ” And his children were in the car too..”
“We used to hunt, birds and all kinds of things, to eat.. at fourteen I got a gun and I went to hunt. Before that I had a catapult, ha ha, breaking windows! I was caught one day, they came to school the next day and told the principal.. when I was 11,12 maybe.. yeah I had a German catapult, good one.”
Food was cheap. “Yeah it was not bad maybe, communism in some ways, they gave everybody a flat too..” “But you have to work man fuckin’ ‘ell, more than one hundred percent, you have to work one hundred forty percent maybe, everybody has to work, not like here like you guys!” “They put you in jail otherwise! If you have a qualification but you cannot find a job for some time then you have to take whatever job they give you, you have no choice… you have to work because otherwise someone else is paying for your bread.”
“Now its democacy… the social democrats they are better man, but now its the conservatives in power. And the parliament, its between three parties.. what you call it? Coalition? Yeah, so now one party always say no to everything.” “And now they want to get money from us for going to the hospital man! The social democrats kept it free, from the communism days you know?… My family we are all against the conservative… we will see, the election next spring..”
“Havel was our first prime minister. After democracy came. He was good guy. Not gonna be any good guy like him anymore.”… “All his plays are from his life man! When I read his plays they are all people sitting at the pub drinking beer and talking! Because the life of Havel was like that before!”
For one year at nineteen he was in compulsory military service. “We had it till my year, and then..” counting on his fingers “..for two years after that. Then it stopped.” “You have to run, man, every morning, from seven in the morning, it’s hard.” “Running wearing a gas mask.. it’s not fun I tell you.” He was in the “Morrsa”, morse code, Division. “All day you sit with the headphones on your ears man, like this”, hands cupped on ears. “Chik-chik.. Chik-chik-chik.. Chik-chik-chik..” “..and you have to write down the message. Sometimes in the message it is coded ‘Tomas’, and then you have to call up the office and tell them. That is how they test you man!!”.. “It was a waste of time man, one year, we’re not gonna have a war in Czech Republic you know!”
A year or two ago she had begun telling her son the things she used to tell her husband. Unlike her husband her son looks her in the eye when she is telling him things, and when he finds something she has said funny or interesting – an exchange at the shop or with the slow-motion watchman downstairs that she had waited to tell her family about – he smiles and laughs readily, his eyes locking with hers.
He is all of twelve years old, and untouched by the prejudices that never leave his father (not after making friends with the cosmopolitan, successful parent-couples at the boy’s school; not after sitting down with her to watch snatches of the new Indian-English DVDs of Konkona Sen or Rahul Bose or Irrfan Khan that she brings home now and then, where the couples have lives in cities like theirs and they have balanced back-and-forth arguments). His prejudices don’t leave him because his prejudices were bred – she sees this when she sees his family, when she sees her own family. But seeing doesn’t make it hurt any less. Her son listens to her with interest when she tells him about catching up with her schoolfriend on the phone last night, then maintains his gaze as he tells her about who is on top in the IPL or the English Premier League. In doing so he treats her as a companion, an equal in a way that her husband never has, never did right from the beginning.
When the women in the building complain about “young boys and girls simply hanging around together”, about how they sit in the coffee joints and stay back at class saying they are doing project-work and group-study but “who knows what they are really upto”, she listens quietly – just as she does when her husband comes home some evenings and makes declarations about this or that. When her son prefers HBO and Friends to his father’s fleeting exhortations to watch “good Indian programs”, she does not mind, because in the HBO movies even though there are bedroom scenes unsuitable for children the man and woman always look each other in the eye, and the woman’s voice when she is talking to the man is as steady and as confident as when the man talks to the woman. And when the apartment-ladies start substituting their own growing-up children for the ones they see mixing at the tables of Coffee Day – and that is where such discussions always lead – she thinks of her own son, in a few short years becoming old enough to be part of the groups of “boys and girls simply hanging around together”: she pictures him at a table sitting with a group of soon-to-be adults, and when a girl is saying something he will look her in the eye and listen to her just as he does with his mother at home. Then she pictures him older (how will these pre-teen features, this innocence and softness play out on his face when it sets?), at a friend’s house or office cafeteria meeting a young woman with whom he will discuss his days and dreams just as he would with any of his male friends.
From across the table he is telling them now about someone nicknamed Kaka, “the biggest transfer fee Ma in football history!” She glances at her husband – he woke up early to watch the World Cup football semifinals two years ago – but he is staring out the balcony sipping his tea. She turns back to her son as he continues telling them the football news, looks him in the eye, and hopes.
The wick was so long that it had doubled over on itself, the free end falling on the wax along one side of the candle. He held the two-inch flame of the lighter to it, at the base where the wick met the wax. The flame rose up along the line of the wick, changing it from white to black as it moved up to the point where the extra thread had fallen over. But the flame of the just-refilled lighter was too strong, and the wax along the side of the candle at the free end of the wick caught too, fastening that end to the wax. Now there were two flames from two ends that had made their way up the wick, stopping just short of meeting at the head of the curve.
A slight cold draft that crept in through the gap beneath the hinge of the shut window blew the two-pronged flame about. It was seven o’clock and he wanted light at least till ten. The wax was burning too fast – the unsteady double-flame heating up more wax than necessary – and there were no candles left. Earlier the man had brought to the room a smoke-stained quarter-bottle filled with a liquid half-way to the top with a thick thread sticking out of it, but he’d decided he would rather lie sleepless in the dark than have to smell the hovering smell of burning kerosene all evening. He remembered the pair of scissors picked up a few days earlier; he took it out of the pouch, a little cardboard box not more than two inches by four with gay colouring and Chinese lettering on it. He took the thing out of its packet for the first time – it was a folding-type scissors made of steel that you had to feel at the fulcrum to figure out which part unfolded first. The blades were joined together, the little rings for the fingers folded one above and one below the pair of blades. He prised the rings apart, in a semicircular motion around the fulcrum one to the right of the blades and one to the left. Now it looked like a pair of scissors. He ringed his thumb and fore-finger through the scissor-rings and tested the blades through the air a couple of times, opening them out and biting back down.
He blew out the light of the candle, the two-pronged light whose swaying from the wind had by now caused melting wax to stream down two sides along the candle’s length right to the bottom. In the moonlight that came in through the dirty glass window he snipped using the brand-new pair of unfolded Chinese scissors that had sold for ten rupees at the shop, near the top of the curve of the wick but on the side that used to be the free end, isolating it. Then he snipped once more, shortening the stray wick’s length so that it wouldn’t catch again. With the cigarette lighter held a little further away this time so that only the tip of its flame would touch the main wick he lit the candle. The wick was slick, it caught on quickly and economically. A single flame: enough to last till ten tonight. He folded the satisfying little apparatus back into its card-board box and replaced it in the black pouch, then turned back to the book he was reading.
Always she held her words back, even as her eyes danced at the conversation going on around her. Someone would ask her a question, then her eyes would narrow: her reply would be in halting English and approximations.
She was at the cafeteria one evening with Rohit, they talked to each other in Hindi; her eyes danced even as she spoke.
At lunch she would point to each dish of our thali to find out what it was: What kind of vegetable is this? What do they put in that? The poriyal might be explained satisfactorily; the koottu would prove more inscrutable, leaving an uncertain look on her face. The sweet dish came separately to the table at the end. “Puuranpoli!” she exclaimed looking at it, “We have this in our place also.”
Someone had opened up Google Earth one day, tracing Marina Beach and Besant Nagar Beach and trying to find the office. “Will Chattisgarh be there in this?” she asked as soon she figured out what the others were upto. The map was zoomed back out until the whole of India was visible on one screen, and there was SRI LANKA, PAKISTAN, AFGHANISTAN and the names of some of the states. “Near M.P. …” she murmured taking control of the mouse, lips pursed up and eyes narrowing. She zoomed in, to mostly barren grids and a message that read “Google is unable to provide further information”, until she found a place marked Raipur where the message was replaced by a few white boxes against a red-brown background, clumps of green, and thick lines of grey. Three or four of the team sat around in chairs or on the desk of the cubicle legs dangling; Manvi scrolled the page. Then she exclaimed, “Look! This is the route we used to go to school!”, moving the cursor up and down a grey line as she spoke.
For the weekly telephone call with the client the team would gather in the meeting room; when their turn came they would deliver their work status in clipped, monosyllabic words that gave away nothing, a form of communication that the Manager had mistaken for professionalism. Manvi often came in hassled and late – she was one of the newer members of the team but had been given a difficult assignment – just in time for her turn. When she spoke her voice would have the same lilt that was there at lunch-time, thoughts darting and eyes searching the air for words. Team would look on unsure; Manager and Team Leader would glance at each other – this is the sort of openness that leads to mistakes, their expressions would say. Not that she paid them any attention, leaning into the speaker-phone child-like cadences continuing. It was marvellous.
At times people would forget she was there and the conversation would slip into Tamizh. This never seemed to faze her. Instead she would watch gestures and body language intently, and delight in recognizing the words she knew: “Haan, saaptachu!” She wasn’t more than 21 or 22, she looked even younger. “My family, we didn’t even know where was Chennai. But the job was here, so I had to come…” What all had she left behind?
Her assignment forced her to work long hours, long enough to have to have all three meals at the cafeteria. Sometimes during the day she would be flopped onto her keyboard head in hands – she had to stay late again last night, someone would explain. When she stood up her face would be streaked with kohl and tears.
At least they make chaat here in the evenings? I said to her one evening as bhel and pani puri came to our table. “Ya, but it’s quite different from what you get there… see, they’ve put meetha and all in the pani”, she grinned widely as she popped a puri into her mouth. Then her mobile phone rang, and she stared at the display for a few seconds. When she answered her voice had hushed. “Haan ji…?” it whispered almost – the only time I heard it that way – and she moved away to take the call.
She came up one day and said she was leaving. “I’m getting married next month. My parents have fixed the engagement.” Congratulations! You’ll be moving back to Raipur? “No.. he’s an Air Force Pilot, he’s posted in Rajasthan, close to the border it seems.” You must be excited? “It’s still a shock for me… When such a big change happens suddenly…” the girl for whom everything here was change trailed off.
Manvi left that day. She had a train to catch the next morning. I pictured her in a square block of flats in a military township somewhere. She of the schoolgirl cadences and dancing eyes would be once again far from home.
In Thal the machhli signs start appearing again on the item lists on the front walls of eating-houses. The river comes through an expanded section of mountain pass, and it forms a pebbly beach on one side twice its width level with the water’s surface. The water flows gently here, now in the dry season at least, and the fish served in the eating-houses in a small plate of good-sized chunks with the thin line of bone like gut in a tennis racquet that attaches to the thinner scales that run across the top of the chunk is fresh catch, and in the summer when the glacier of the Ramganga fifty kilometres and many mountain passes North has begun to melt and brings down all the mud frozen underneath it with it and turns the river fierce and turns it a light chocolate brown the Ramganga that flows through Thal is still gentle and the water still clear enough to see the boulders underneath, and on the pebbly beach migrant workers put up temporary homes of blue and black tarpaulin and live.
The migrant workers replace the bridges that have grown unsteady for the jeeps that go to Munsyari with new ones, and carry the many-twisted ropes of iron that will hold the bridges up five metres to a man in a long line of men snaking their way up the road to the site of the bridges. They build the dams across the river from which electricity is harnessed and delivered through the lines that run parallel to the river’s flow and run up mountainsides and cut dramatically across valleys to supply power to the Northern Grid for Delhi and Lucknow and Chandigarh to use while the towns and villages of Kumaon stay dark at night except for the weakening white light of solar lamps one per home whose blue-and-white-celled panels sit on the roofs of houses along the road that the jeep takes from Thal to Munsyari. Outside every house on the closest tree a bale of hay is suspended from a little distance above the ground so that when it rains the water drains through to the ground and the hay will dry fast, and on the sloping roof of cleanly-sliced grey stone next to the solar panel there is a small dish antenna marked ‘DISH TV’ that is watched over the whir of a generator filled with diesel or an automobile battery filled with clear water in the evenings for half an hour when the man of the house is eating his dinner.
For a while going up from Thal the road adjoins the river and goes against its current. It climbs up and up as it winds its way through mountainsides making the channel down below seem smaller and smaller and framing it deeper and deeper between the slick bare-faced rocks at the mountainsides’ foot that at some turns the water crashes into before moving on downstream. Sometimes a path of boulders and dry earth goes down from the tarred jeep road and if you peer outside the window and you are sitting at the right window you see the little path descend almost to the water’s surface, and then a bridge of three unbelievably long tree trunks placed side by side and stones over it to steady your step as you cross, and on the opposite bank you see a path of boulders and dry earth snake off up around a hill to rice fields and two or three houses. Then the jeep road starts descending and you know you will come soon to a valley where there is a little town with jeeps waiting to ferry passengers and a check-post marking the end of a forest division and the beginning of another and the machhli signs start appearing again on the item lists of the eating-houses.
With a milestone indicating that Munsyari is still 50 km away the road turns away from the river onto an adjoining mountainside and from then on apart from tiny strips of bright green fields of rice on the rare gentle stretch of slope the mountains are dry and brown then overgrown and green but either way they are steep and there are no houses and no villages and no people except for the migrant workers sleeping in the shade by the side of the road and a giant mud-red road-roller with ‘INGERSOLL-RAND’ printed on its side parked further up. Two hours later the circular signboards indicating the altitude have gone from 2122 M above MSL to 2240 to 2473 to 2700, and at the turn to the sign saying 2700 a tea-shop appears and the jeep stops and the jeep-driver gets down and it is all out of the blue.
When the road reaches the top of the mountainside and begins to climb down to the valley below you see a milestone that says MUNSYARI 5, and you realize that the valley is Munsyari and that there are a larger number of shops and houses and buildings than you expected there to be this far away. This is the town to which the boys of the villages north of the valley all the way up to the border with China must come to if they choose to continue into Higher Secondary School, and the villagers come down to every two weeks with big empty rucksacks that they fill with rice and dal and oil bought from the market shops because Munsyari is the last town where everything is guaranteed to be sold at M.R.P. They then wear the filled rucksacks on their shoulders and walk up the stony paths backs bent from the weight back to their village returning the same day if they are close enough or the next day if they are not. In Munsyari there are two internet browsing centres with dial-up connections and there are boys milling outside but the lines are down right from Almora two hundred mountain kilometres south and until the lines go back up again the boys who will or will not go to Higher Secondary this coming academic year do not know either way.
When you go down to Selapani in the adjoining valley where the jeep road ends you go past bridges and check-posts belonging to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, and the jeep driver and the man you meet at Selapani at the head of the trail are talking in whispered tones of the possibility of becoming instantly rich from finding a certain kind of grass rumoured to grow wild further up near the border that is smuggled across into China to be used to make sex-medicine and sells for 4 lakhs a kilo or 6 lakhs a kilo depending on which man’s word you take. From Selapani when you start walking the rest of the way up to Milam with the river by your side, what you hadn’t realized until you’d looked at the rusting iron map fixed at the trail-head is that you have taken so many turns away from the Ramganga at Thal that now the river down below is the Goriganga a full three inches parallel from the Ramganga on your folding-map, and it is the Goriganga whose path you will follow upstream to its snout at the Milam Glacier where the ITBP and men wearing caps that say Indian Army from Haryana and Maharashtra and as far south as Namakkal are patrolling constantly where the summer has begun to melt the ice making the Goriganga at Selapani the light brown colour of milk chocolate.