A

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Matheran’s Red

by Am Veach

As an old man, a memory from Alistair’s childhood in India held tremendous pressure, like a chronic ache. The sound of his mother crying drifted back into his mind on sleepless nights.

Early morning light crept across the ceiling as he sat up in bed.  His beloved nanny’s eyes were red and swollen as she searched wildly about the room. His mother grabbed Aditi’s arm and yanked her towards the doorway.  It wasn’t the pale skin on the soles of Aditi’s bare feet, or the way her white sari ripped as she was dragged across the floor, but her total surrender to this humiliation as though her body could not physically carry itself. It was an image that tormented him and seared itself in his six-year old mind.

“Where is Aditi?” he asked his mother when she reappeared.

“Gone.”

His baby sister is the one that vanished as time went on. The coveted space next to his mother was his again. His tiny sister felt like a doll he had outgrown. Yet his beloved Aditi, he thought of her often at the most difficult times in his life.
As time went on, he returned to England and eventually married, but the memory was always there—Aditi’s eyes and the injustice of his mother’s actions.  It weighed on him early on as a steady drip, until years later, the anxiety and remorse had pooled into a reservoir. After eighty years, it was an ocean.

He never stopped to wonder what made his mother act so violently towards her. [ßthis line seems contradictory to the last paragraph. With an ocean of anxiety about this issue, I’d be sure that he’d have considered it. And if he didn’t, we need to know why he didn’t consider it amid all of this anxiety and remorse.] As the crows and vultures cawed incessantly outside the bedroom window, any worldview of right and wrong, of just or unjust crystallized in this moment.  [The second half of this sentence is unclear and a bit awkward.] There was injustice in how his mother had treated her.

That he knew.

But it seemed to be the beginning of a bigger change, a harbinger of what was to come. Besides being shipped to England for boarding school, as was the convention of the British Raj in those days, his mother was different. She rarely looked him in the eyes without tears pinched in the corners. When he brought a beloved storybook to his mother and set it on her lap, she didn’t smile like Aditi used to, she didn’t put her arm around him and brush her hands lightly on his knees. Many years later, after he became a father, he began to question whether his mother’s change towards him was because of Aditi, or if his mother was emotionally shoring herself up for his absence.

* * *

The train whistle blew a shrill wail. They’d been stopped for the last half hour waiting for the track to clear for their ascension. The monkeys on the tracks jumped onto the ladder and climbed through the train’s open windows.  Children screamed. Alistair shuddered and felt his pulse quicken. He watched an old man swing his arms to scatter the fearless beasts.


* * *
The train whistle blew a shrill wail. They’d been stopped for the last half hour waiting for the track to clear for their ascension. The monkeys on the tracks jumped onto the ladder and climbed through the train’s open windows.  Children screamed. Alistair shuddered and felt his pulse quicken. He watched an old man swing his arms to scatter the fearless beasts.

A mother monkey selectively picked through the chips tossed on the ground. As she crept forward, the baby hung from her abdomen like an overweight pendant.

The cell phone in his pocket vibrated. This technology had a mind of its own, dinging and beeping. A loud ringtone filled the bogey.

In the town where I was born
Lived a man who sailed to sea

His daughter had given him the phone before he had left and set the ringtone, so he would know it was her. He hit one button to answer the call, but ended up with the race scores and then an ad for incontinence. It flustered him.

“Darling. It’s early there,” he said, finally hitting the right button. Bombay was five and a half hours ahead of London.

“Yes, Damion, he’s not sleeping through the nights. I guess that’s a newborn,” she sighed.

“Are you well?” he asked.

“Fine.”

“And baby Damian?”

“He’s fine. How was the new airport?”

“Grand. More to see then? Isn’t there?”

There was a silence on the other end.

“I’m still not happy you’re there. You know I can’t travel with you this time, and you deliberately bought your tickets when I told you, no.” 

“Now, now. I’m headed to Matheran. On the toy train now. You remember Matheran, right?”

“Remember, you promised. No, horseback riding.“

“Right. Right. I’ll be in a rickshaw soon enough. Poor fellow will be carrying your ol’ da’ around.”

“And you’re staying at Lords?”

“Yes, dear.” He didn’t know when the roles reversed.

“It’s rotten of you to go now. You knew I was due in January. You’re not 50, you know. Dad you’re 80. “

“Now, now. I feel 27.  You know I’ve wanted to take this trip since I was a boy; don’t bother with me. Bother with you and Damian.”

The whistle sounded again and the stragglers taking photos of the monkeys hopped into their bogies. By some stroke of luck, he had the entire coach to himself. Normally, he’d be delighted by such fortune, but after talking to his daughter, he felt the emptiness of the worn down bogie. 

A British district collector discovered Matheran tucked between the small villages of Karjat and Neral in 1850. The views from the peaks, natural rock formations, and the lush hills of wild flowers appealed to his grandfather. He bid for a small plot along what would become the perimeter trail in 1919 and built a bungalow among the wooded trees and jungle. It was an escape from the locals, the hot humid summers in Bombay and, most importantly, it gave his grandfather the illusion that he was not in India, but somewhere in the English countryside. There was no worry of uprisings or madness found in the daily toils on the plains.

As a child, Alistair and his mother left their home in Bombay and traveled to Matheran during the summer months. His father would join them for a week or two, as his leave dictated, then return to his service often leaving his mother and Alistair for the remaining humid months at the bungalow. The Matheran hill station was a popular destination for other grass widows who, like his mother, were often separated from their husbands for months on end.

Alistair watched the red mist kicked up by passing horses. No vehicles were allowed beyond the Waterpipe station.  Travelers could walk the remaining distance, go by horseback or hire a hand-pulled rickshaw. Alistair always preferred to take the train to the top.

It filled him with excitement, the same anticipation he felt as a boy. The steam engine rattled to a thrusting start. There was a grinding squeal from the metal wheels; his vinyl seat vibrated, rattling the rusted metal bars of the open windows. It reminded him of the reason why he wanted to return.  It always struck Alistair how Matheran became his grandfather’s place to escape India.  To him, two generations later, it was the India he escaped to.

On the final stretch of track, an old woman jumped onto the open doorway and fastened herself to the outside of the carriage. Her green sari was as faded as the bun on her head.

Sahib. Let me take your bag for you. I’ll carry it to your hotel.” She motioned to his bag, her head tilting shoulder to shoulder.

He preferred a rickshaw where he could sit and hold his bag.

Nahee.

Sahib. This our livelihood. I carry them for you,” she persisted.

Nahee, nahee.

She pleaded more until he finally relented.

Achaa.”

He watched the grip of her fingers as she hefted his large suitcase from the train car. She rolled a scarf into a circle then placed it on her head. Then she lifted his suitcase off the ground, swinging it up and on top of the scarf.  As the train emptied, she darted ahead on the inclining trail.

Matheran’s iron rich dirt filled the air. Already, it had settled into the seams of his loafers. The red soil had a way of caking in the creases and fibers of leather, drifting to the cuffs of his dress pants, and giving his rucksack a dusting of rust color. It made the leaves and bushes a sepia tone, as though the roots sucked the oxide stain through the root system and permanently changed the color of the surface. Only in the tallest trees, meters above the trails, were the leaves a dark emerald green.

* * *

The day before Aditi was dragged away, he remembered crouching under the desk in the bedroom. His mother had instructed Aditi to dress him for Memsahib’s visit, but he managed to skulk off before any attention was focused on him. His good shirt was lying on the bed freshly delivered by the dhobiwalla.

The servant’s bangles made a tinny sound as she squat on the ground sweeping the jhadu to collect piles of rust-colored dirt.

Oh monkey!” Aditi playfully called as she stepped past the servant.

 Hertoes peeked out from under her white sari as she stopped next to the desk. He inhaled the scent of coconut as she gently coaxed him up.

“Tell me the story of Hanuman, the monkey god,” he pleaded as she unbuttoned his shirt.

“Shhhhhhh.” She put her finger to her lips and glanced over to the cradle where his sister, Rose, was sleeping. “I will tonight. I’ll tell you any story you want. Remember, only speak English with your mother and memsahib,” she whispered.

From the other room he heard tea being offered, laughter from a stranger, and his mother’s voice.

“Well, this hill station doesn’t feel as official. Matheran is hardly high society.” His mother laughed. “If you want fashionable, go to Mahabaleshwar. Now that’s where you’ll be in society.” His mother’s voice became louder as she walked to the bedroom.

“Alistair, stop following Aditi around. Come sit with us,” his mother called. He reluctantly stood, dragged his sandaled feet to the sofa and sat close to his mother.  

The woman was a friend of a friend and had secured a place for him at a London boarding school. She would be his contact in London his mother explained.

“England will be an adjustment for you,” his mother said to him.

England was more than an adjustment.

He was completely unprepared. He’d never learned to tie his shoes, as he always went barefoot or wore sandals. He’d never had fish and chips, Yorkshire pudding, or seen rain besides the monsoons. But it wasn’t just the weather, or the eliteness or isolation of the boarding school. Everyone looked the same with fair skin; they all ate the same bland foods and spoke the same incessant language. He concluded the British created class just to make themselves feel superior to each other to overcome the sameness.

He did not identify as British, nor did he want to when his grandfather declared, “You’re English!” His childhood and identity had been nurtured in the plains of Bombay and the jungles of Matheran. He felt more at ease in India than he ever did in England. It wasn’t as though he felt like an outsider, though he was. It was the way everyone coexisted that made being an outsider easier.

In India, each group kept to themselves, until they didn’t. 

He read about the Direct Action Day riots between the Muslims and Hindus in Calcutta in August of ‘46 while sitting under the desk lamp in the boarding school’s library. The photos in the news magazine showed images of mutilated bodies in the streets and vultures perched on the wall.

His father made it a point to send any clippings he could to discourage Alistair’s romanticism of India. But each clipping and headline only made his resolve to return grow stronger.

In the ten years he’d been away at boarding school, he never returned to India nor seen his parents. Even if his family could have afforded the exorbitant cost to visit, the war made it nearly impossible. His mother sent one-page letters folded in his father’s clippings with snippets of trite sayings and impersonal accounts. He wouldn’t know either one of them any more than a stranger he met at the market. So when his father wrote a brief note saying the end of Britain’s presence and role in India was inevitable and that he and his mother were returning, he had to reread the letter to process the magnitude of it. The name of their ship and their arrival date was written across the bottom.

When they returned for good, their travel chests loaded into the car, they didn’t even recognize him on the Heathrow platform.  His mother walked past him.

“Well, I do miss the coolies now,” she gasped. She wore a fur over her shoulders. Probably one she packed as a newlywed eighteen years ago before she realized India was in the tropics, he thought to himself.

“Do you see Alistair?” Her eyes followed the young boys running by.

How sad. Did she think he [I?] was still a six-year old boy?

His father was already climbing into the car.

“Come dear, he’s at the hotel. I’m sure. We’ll see him there.” He moved in quick, confidant steps. He seemed most unchanged. His receding hairline was combed back. There were wisps of white hair by his ears.

“Mother?”

She turned to him, startled, and stared.

“Well then, you are not at the hotel,” she said, with little intonation or emotion. It sounded like she’d have preferred he weren’t there. He almost regretted his one-on-one with the head master to request the time to meet with them.

They didn’t know whether to hug, shake hands or just stare at one another.

She had bags under her eyes.

“How was your journey?” he asked. It was odd to see her without a topi, a signature sun hat.[Just a note—why do we get a translation here but not with other terms?] He had vivid memories of her leaning out the window yelling to Aditi, “Hat! He should wear his hat!

“No topi?” he asked.

“I finally retired that retched thing,” she said.

He thought of Aditioften, even before his mother’s sudden death, but afterwards, it was as though every thought flowed in one direction. Where was she? What happened to her? Why did his mother send her away? 

The closest his mother came to saying anything about Aditi was, “I survived the mosquitoes, yellow fevers, snakes and dysentery. I even survived the servants.” Before her death, she admitted British help could not compare to an Indian servant. It struck him how stuck she was. She was emboldened that she had lived in India, but completely disconnected from the people or country. It was as though she could transplant her English violets and completely dismiss the mogra and chameli or the mali who tended to the garden and the bheesti who carried water to the garden after he supplied the bathrooms and kitchen.

Alistair knew he needed to return. When the viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, announced Britain’s new departure date and handover of power, his father was even more enraged by his declaration that he wanted to return after his graduation.

“What is it you are trying to do?” his father asked, bewildered. “Walk into the middle of a civil war? Why do you think Lord Mountbatten pushed the date up? No Englishman with any lick of common sense would go traipsing back. What do you propose to do, walk into the Indian Congress and ask Gandhi for a job? Why would they take a British man over their own? Every national is celebrating independence from you, the crown and 200 hundred years of colonial rule. You’re apt to be chased out by a nationalist with a machete.”

He didn’t want to see the world as his father did, an old man pining for an India he felt he must subordinate then tolerate out of pretense. 

 “I’d like to look up my old nanny, Aditi.”

His father scowled, accentuating his graying eyebrows. “The dirt on your mother’s grave is still wet and you start asking about Aditi. What’s done is done.” [I would think that Alistair would want to know what his father meant by this—what his father knows exactly about Aditi. Why wouldn’t Alistair press him for details here?]

But it wasn’t done. [What was done?] In his mind, it was only a brief respite. Time was holding still for him. He had grown up; he had been educated and followed in his father and grandfather’s path for him. Though they were civil servants and their jobs and roles vanished with India’s Independence, he did not expect India to serve him. He would be a servant to India.

To him, India was full of generosity and warmth. He missed the Hindu women in their colorful saris and bangles, Sikhs in turbans and long beards, or Muslims in long hijabs and caps. The Muslims’ call to prayer resonated with him as much as the bells on the bullock carts. There was the taste of water from the ceramic pot, boiled buffalo milk and the smell of burning wood at the hill stations. He preferred Matheran’s red soil to the English countryside. 

And, Aditi, he missed Aditi. In her presence, he felt a boyish urgency to stay close.

As he stood over his mother’s casket, Aditi was the mother he yearned for.

***

When he boarded the ship back to India, his newly framed diploma hung over his father’s desk in Edinburgh. He was now 6 feet tall; his leather Oxfords had been resoled. He’d chosen a set of china to bring as a gift for Aditiand spent as much time choosing the colorful bulldog wrapping paper as he did the china recalling her fondness of animals and bright colors. [Make it clear that this is not 80-year-old Alistair. I was confused about this. ]

The majestic arch and turrets of the Gateway of India seemed to glow in the sunlight as Alistair’s ship entered the Bombay harbor.  As the ship glided by, he inhaled the scent of ground spice and admired the intricate architecture of the beautiful Taj Mahal hotel. Everything was on the cusp of change; he breathed it in with salty swells of the ocean and felt invigorated.  Bombay itself buzzed in anticipation of India’s new Independence.  Corner stands sold independence paraphernalia and paper flags. Saffron, white and green saris lined the windows of the shops.  Humidity enveloped him. Sweat dripped from his forehead.

Aditi’s village was outside of Bombay. [How did he know where it was? Especially when he knew so little else about her? Ah—you answer this in the next paragraph, as she told stories of her home and village. ]

How many times had he imagined this reunion with her?  His childlike love had swelled into whirling dervishes of anticipation. There was her faint smile, her gentle voice, and the sing-song way she called him monkey.  Then there were the wonderful stories she told of her home and village. [Maybe say that’s how he knew where to look for her?] While away, he collected his own stories—antidotes from boarding school and of hiding in the unfinished tube station during the air raids in the war. Standing in her remote village he realized how removed he had been from her life. The searing image of her being dragged away had devastated him, but how did it change her? Had he created his own story and inserted her into it to placate his own gaping need? 

He stood, awkward, at the entrance of the small mud hut.

It worried him that she had never answered his letters. But now, he realized, she may have chosen not to write.

She was a caregiver, not his mother.  He so hungered for Aditi as one so hungers for their own mother.

The thatched roof seemed beaten with the heavy monsoon rains. A goat meandered past him. He saw a young woman on her hands and knees spreading Gobar, cow dung, on the outer wall. Of course, it would be an auspicious thing to do, he thought.  India’s Independence was a day away.

Independence from you, he could hear his father’s voice chastise him in his head.

She stood and gasped when she saw him.

Was this a daughter? Niece? Cousin? Neighbor? The drape of her blue sari slipped down on her arm for rising so quickly.

Sahib.”

 “I’m Alistair,“ he said. “I’m looking for Aditi. She was my ayah fromlong ago. I wanted to see her again.”

He shifted her gift to his other hand as the goat tried to chew on the wrapping paper. The china seemed overdone, pompous next to the poverty around him. 

“Aditi?” She frowned, shook her head and said something he didn’t understand.

She signaled for him to wait as she wiped her hands then covered the

remaining Gobar. She led him down the dusty trail past small huts. At the bend of the watering hole, a few women in the village were crouched between the tall grasses wringing out their clothes. Was Aditi here? Topless children played near the water. She eventually stopped at a bungalow near the main road. A toran, or beaded banner, hung in the doorway of the small house. An elderly gentleman opened the door. Alistair recognized the thin undergarment of a sudreh, worn by the Parsis. The woman said something deferentially to him then pointed to Alistair.

“She’s asked me to translate for you,” the man said in English. “I’m sorry, but the woman you are looking for is dead.”

Alistair gasped.

He had already buried his mother before coming back home, and now, his second mother was gone.

“What happened?” he wheezed.

The man stared at the gift in Allistor’s hand.

“She says she was hung.”

“Hung?”  Alistair tremored, wiping his eyes.

“Why?”

“For culpable homicide,” the man said.

 “Aditi? There must be some mistake,” he said. “I don’t understand.” He wept.

The old man translated for the woman.

“She says she knows one servant who worked briefly in your home many years ago,” he said.

Alistair nodded, still stunned. By the time the former servant arrived, the man’s family had gathered in the small living room. His wife brought out tea and his daughter a small platter of savory snacks. The man’s elderly mother sat in a wooden chair by the window.

“She was like a second mother to me,” he said to the old woman who nodded sympathetically.

He did not remember the former servant’s face.  Her black hair was pulled back. Her shoulders slumped forward. At the hill station, they traveled with at least 12 servants. Some he vaguely recalled like the bearer, the cook, the cook’s boy, the waiter and the sweeper, the bheesti who carried water, the messengers or chuprassis, and of course their ayah, Aditi.

She says your mother always collected the jharan, or duster, at the end of the day. She did not trust the servants enough to not take it.”

“What does she remember about Aditi? About what happened?”

“Nothing,” the man said.

Before leaving, she brought her hands together in a prayer gesture of Namaste.

Namaste” he whispered to the woman. He repeated it again to the man and his family before he left.

He scanned an old Times of India while waiting at the police station for details about Aditi’s case.

Birth of India’s Freedom. Nation Wakes to New Life. He imagined thousands of people surrounding the arches at the Red Fort in New Delhi, the new flag of India hoisted in the foreground of the arches.

He could hear his father scoffing in his head. What of the order that Britain has given to India? What of the railroads, roads, postal systems and law?

When the clerk finally signaled Alistair to approach him, it took everything in him to stand.

“About your ayah, she was indicted on exposure charges, negligence at first. The family wouldn’t let it rest there. It was pushed through as culpable homicide. Life in prison or death penalty as punishment,” he said.

“Who do they claim she––who died?” Alistair asked.

“Rose Attaway. A baby, a newborn. It’s body was found outside the family’s Matheran bungalow,” the clerk said.

* * *

 His daughter’s question, “Why now?” had a gnawing persistence. He was an old man. How do you explain to your pregnant daughter the sleepless nights he spent trying to reconcile those early days?

He had checked into Lord’s with enough sunlight for a walk. 

When he was a boy, cascading porcupine flowers created yellow carpets during the monsoon season. Then there were the waterfalls. Rushing streams, pounding sprays and lush greenery on the rock faces. He wondered if this, too, was like his memory, a fragment of perfection, all of it a nostalgic wonder he’d imagined and reimagined in the gray, rainy days in London.

Now, he saw empty chip bags, crushed Bisleri water bottles, shredded cardboard boxes and plastic shopping bags littering the trails. The smog was too thick to see the valley, or even see past sheer rock faces of Garbett point.

Alistair found his grandfather’s old bungalow overgrown with tentacle vines of the jungle. Green mold surrounded the peeling walls. The roof had collapsed on one side. He eased himself through a gate unmoored from the red dirt. The kadu jambhul tree had grown taller in the passing years. The branches were covered in dense, long leaves. Black plums filled the limbs. A lingering scent of turpentine filled the air.

He had a feeling of being watched.

Monkeys.

As his eyes adjusted to the shadows of the dense trees, he saw a troop of monkeys perched in the tallest branches.

He shivered. [I would like a small description here that suddenly this hidden memory was triggered. And why not previous monkey encounters? Why would they not jolt his memory? One idea is that you can incorporate flashes of this memory throughout earlier on, but it is fully triggered here.]

* * *

He remembered the small bedroom with a tiger skin rug. How his mother had come to say goodnight. The blue dress she wore.

“Close the windows. We don’t want the monkeys inside,” his mother said to him. She stood in the center of the room waiting for Aditi to change Rose’s nappy. “I know it’s customary for both children to have their own ayahs, but with Alistair in London, you’ll be able to focus primarily on Rose.”

When he tried to wrap his hands around his mother’s waist, she brushed him aside and put the baby to her chest.

“But mother, I don’t want to go to boarding school.”

“It’s not about wanting,” his mother said.  “We have the resources, we will use them.”

“But mother!”

“We are not discussing this any more.  Shut the window and go to sleep!” his mother snapped.

 Already his mother had replaced him.

He turned away from her and pretended to sleep when she leaned in and whispered, “Goodnight Alistair Attaway. England is my home. Now you can see where I come from.” He listened to the click of his mother’s shoes as she left the room.

The new baby slept in his old cradle.

He laid in the dark next to Aditi’s warm body.  She kept an old sari rolled underneath her head. He pulled at the tight edges, slowly loosening the corner of the roll as though this act alone would change what his mother had said.

“I don’t want to go,” he whispered.

“Sweetie, I know it is far away, but you must go.”

“I can go to school in India,” he pleaded.

“You do not need to convince me,” she said. “Now sleep. Tomorrow is another day.” She gently brushed his hair behind his ear.

He listened to the steady rocking of the cradle as Aditi sang, “So jaa raajkumari so jaa.” There was the tinny chime from her gold bangles, then a soft shuffle of her bare feet as she walked to the window and latched it shut before leaving the room for the night. 

A pounding from the metal roof startled him awake. The room was dark. He could hear Rose’s little tufts of breath. A wild, thumping adrenaline surged through him. He brushed past the mosquito netting and went to the window, releasing the latch. The crickets’ wistful creeing filled his head as he leaned over the ledge trying to see into the dense foliage. He listened to the rustle of the tamarind trees outside. There was nothing. He waited until his eyes could stay open no longer. He crept back to the floor by his bed. Small slivers of stars shredded the night sky.

When the window creaked, his eyes jerked open to see a figure moving in the darkness. He felt the lightness of two paws. A monkey brushed past him on the floor and climbed to the cradle where his sister slept. He stayed still. It was a criminal act, and he knew it.

The monkey had his sister. In the dark, elongated shadows of the room he watched the tail slip through the window with Aditi’s worn sari dragging over the ledge.

Trembling, he crept towards the blackness and swung the wooden frame towards him. He had not locked the window. It was a jolting shock, the punishment that awaited him. The switch, not just on the knuckles, but they would surely send him to England. Sweat dripped on the small of his back. He pulled the latch shut, locking it in place. 

Now as an old man, he sat under the shadow of the kadu jambhul tree.

His pocket vibrated. He pulled his cell phone out his pocket and set it on the dirt in front of him. It hopped and bounced on the dirt.

Why didn’t he speak or shout? Why didn’t he shut the window earlier? Rose and Aditi’s death could have been avoided had he said something. How many times did he imagine the other scenarios–- a lifetime of what could have been, of pining, of always feeling frozen in this jungle, in this moment? [How many times in the past? Or how many times currently? This is contradictory because up to this point, the memory was hidden from him.]

“The monkey has taken your cell phone,” a man said. Alistair looked at the stranger approaching along the trail, startled that he was no longer alone. The man pointed towards the limber creature as it climbed up the trunk.

“Oh my,” Alistair coughed. “I’m not paying attention.”

His daughter’s ringtone burst from the jungle canopy. 

In the town where I was born
Lived a man who sailed to sea
And he told us of his life
In the land of submarines

The monkey jumped up to a higher branch in the tree.

“The monkeys will take anything. Never keep something valuable out in the open,” the man said.

            “I know,” said Alistair.

 “Ahcha. Been here before?” the man asked.

“Yes. My family was part of the British Raj. I was sent to England when I was six, but I came back in August of ‘47, right before Independence.”

 “Why did you come back then?” the man asked.

 “I wanted peace,” he said, knowing peace could mean anything from the millions displaced after the partition to the hundred thousands or more who were murdered on both sides of the bloody division after the British left.

“How do you make peace?” the man asked.

Alistair shrugged. He thought of Gandhi. “Gandhi tried,” he said.

“Gandhi.” The man said dismissively. “You have better luck arguing with an atheist.”

It was not his homeland per say, it was his heart. Using Gandhi’s name was a vain attempt to cover up his own inferiorities. He never thought his British lineage gave him a birthright to this country. Nor did he now think that he must absolve for the sins of his father and grandfather. India, his India, would not be the same country as this man’s, nor of the coolie who carried his bags up the red hills. He thought of E.M. Forester’s description of India as “a hundred Indias.” It seemed to Alistair it was more than a hundred. There were so many faces, eyes and hands reaching for a collapsing and rising sun to call home. 

We all live in a yellow submarine.

He could hear his daughter’s voice somewhere in the canopy of the trees.

“The monkey must have answered my phone,” he said to the man who then nodded his head side to side in acknowledgment. The two men looked into the canopy. The phone was quiet.

He imagined his daughter attributing the silence to his ineptness with the new phone. He felt a tremendous amount of pity for her. He was thousands of miles away at a hill station, sitting under the shadow of the plum tree and preoccupied with a past he could never change.

All she wanted was her father to be present.

He suddenly recognized the primitive need she must feel. He thought of his mother.

The ringtone started again.

The two men followed the sound, deeper into the foliage stepping over roots of the Dinda trees.

The monkey was in clear view perched in the upper branches. More monkeys followed and sauntered along the lower branch stopping below the monkey with the phone.

“Give it back!” Alistair yelled up.

He looked at the snack bags littered around him. He picked one up that seemed to have something still in it. He waved it above his head.  The monkey turned away disinterested.

“Did you see that? What a stinker,” Alistair gasped.  “A monkey stole my baby sister from her own bed,” he said.

It had taken a lifetime for him to come back to it, to only tell a stranger. 

 “My ayah was falsely accused of her death.” For so many years he had wanted to say it. He never did in the police officer’s presence, to his mother or his father or to the other servants who worked with his family. He betrayed the truth to them all, to her. [And to himself!]

 “You must forgive the monkeys,” the man said.

There was chattering in the tree above.  Alistair looked up to see the monkey with his cell phone wrestling another monkey. The two somersaulted along the branch. He cringed with each tumble, keeping his eyes on the phone. They leaped to a larger tree climbing higher and farther over the cliff’s edge.

He saw his baby sister dropping into the gapping valley below.

We all live in a yellow submarine, rebounded loudly, yellow submarine, thengrew dimmer into a faint, yellow submarine.

There was a dull smack, then silence.

The finality of it struck him. He collapsed on the red soil.

His mother’s cry woke him that morning. Her anguish was one he’d never heard before or seen again. It was the sound, a primitive howl that rattled him, more so with age and time. Only as a parent could he begin to understand the source.

For so many years, he’d blamed his mother for Aditi’s death.  Her callousness, quick judgment and readiness to condemn, these were all a part of the injustice he held against her as a young boy and later when he returned, his suspicions and memory twisted it, turned it over and over into his mind until he didn’t know what was real and what was imagined.

But the truth of it, he realized now, was too painful.

 “Where is she?” Aditi whispered to him as he sat up in bed. His mother was shaking as she grabbed Aditi by the arm. She dragged Aditi over the threshold.

Aditi collapsed when she saw Rose’s flaccid body twisted in her stained sari.

***

On the troopship back home to England in ’48, he stood on the deck surrounded by the final remnants of the British Raj—­officers, public officials, civil servants, tea planters, missionaries, nurses, typists, and engineers.  

“Now, as we leave the East behind us and cross over into West. Bring out your topis!” the captain called. The crowd swelled. Sun helmets and hats of all varieties were lifted off heads: Khaki Cawnpore Tent Clubs and Solar Pith Hats. He thought of his mother’s sun helmet from the Army and Navy store. The rigid brim. She masked the utility of it with silk from London. His mother had forced the topi on him for fear of the tropical, Indian sun. How he loved Aditi for letting him take it off. 

“On the count of three!”

 The crowd chanted in giddy solidarity. “One, two, three!”

They released their topis, a spinning flurry of brims catching the wind.

 “So much for the Indian sun,” yelled a woman. Her arm lingered over the edge of the deck as though waving goodbye. He imagined his mother doing the same when she made the passage back home.

He watched the mass of topis rising and falling, carelessly in the Mediterranean. Then slowly, one by one, they disappeared.