It is 2016. I am an old man now and have returned, after thirty-one years, to what is left of my grandfather’s house in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Lord Krishna’s birth place.
I am sitting on a moss-covered stone slab that would have formed part of the grand stair before the house was gutted by fire and abandoned. There is much shade, many trees have grown where there were once rooms, but where I sit there is a patch of bright sunlight and it is warm.
Leaning back against a half-pillar, I shut my eyes and find myself thrown back thirty-one years to the mid-seventies when Ravi, my son, almost a year old, was taking his first unsteady steps.
It had been a hectic three days crammed with feasts, old friends and new faces. On the fourth, Sanya and I escaped the socializing and took a lift to Mathura, spent the day wandering through the market, sitting in chi shops, playing with Ravi, reading. Around tea time, wanting to eek out our time together, we decided to walk the few miles back to my parents’ house rather than take a taxi. Ravi, like many small creatures, loved being high up, and sat on my shoulders like a tiny grinning Buddha. A faint tingle brushes my neck like an echo – even now I can feel his chubby thighs bouncing and rocking cowboy-style in rhythm with my steps.
It was early spring; a green fuzz was forcing its way through the cold soil, but still it would be a few weeks before a tangle of wild flowers cloaked the hillsides. The track curved steeply at first, giving us a long view of the river as it rose gently towards the falls. We must have been walking an hour when Sanya twisted her ankle. Although it wasn’t a bad sprain – indeed, she could hobble reasonably well with the help of a short branch – but it was beginning to swell – it would not be strong enough to take her home. So we sat on the verge in the softening sunshine to wait for a lift. No cars came. The road petered out after my parents’ house – there was still a link to the main Delhi road but it was seldom used. We knew Ravi would soon be tired and once the sun dipped behind the mountain it would be cold. I decided to return to Mathura – if I met a car, well and good, if I didn’t I would be back with a taxi before dark.
Ravi waved the tiny fingers of one hand at me while he toyed with Sanya’s breast proprietorially, putting her nipple between his teeth like the butt of a cigarette, wagging his face from side to side so it tickled the inside of his lips. I kissed his forehead and ran. It was steep in places and stony – I can still recall the giddy feeling of almost catapulting head over heels, my legs unable to keep up with the building momentum.
I found a cab on the outskirts of the village. The driver was lounging across the bonnet, smoking a bide, and waved me away. He was waiting for a friend, he said, as he nodded towards a young blue-turbaned sheikh, carrying a food bag. After they’d eaten, he said, they were heading home to Delhi – couldn’t wait to leave what he described as ‘this hell-hole’. I pulled out my wallet and rifled through a wad of notes, taking out three times the normal fare. It wasn’t far, I said, and they could join the back road to Delhi without doubling back. He agreed and I climbed into the back seat.
Sanya was sitting on a rock. The sun had left this side of the mountain and she was cold, had been straining for engine sounds for the last ten minutes. As I opened the car door and received a wriggling and delighted Ravi into my arms, I noticed how the sheikh eyed up Sanya, saw the way he disapproved of the western bias of her dress.
At first we headed towards the house; then, with no warning, the driver swung a left into an old quarry, forced a gear-crunching three-point turn and roared back the way we’d come accelerating dangerously whilst barking at me to shut the hell up. As we swung down the Delhi road I turned around, hoping to see a car or truck to whom I might signal for help, but all I could see was the glare from the sun reflected in a blizzard of orange sand. After a few miles, he threw a left. I was very scared by now – I knew this track lead to a precipitous dead-end. I could feel Sanya shaking beside me and Ravi was beginning to whimper.
Then the road disappeared into vapour as the headlights beamed off into nothing. The sheikh slammed on the brakes, stopping just metres from the edge. Immediately he climbed from the car and sauntered to the door beside Sanya. I punched down the back locks and he pushed his face against the window to leer at Sanya. Ravi began to cry. Kicking the door in frustration he returned to the driver’s seat, reached bellow it and pulled out a bottle of whisky.
‘Shut the brat up, I’m warning you…’ He shouted, gulping back the liquor.
Sanya and I locked eyes – she was near to tears, her hands shaking out of control as she unfastened her blouse for Ravi to suckle. ‘What is it you want from us – money? Here take everything I’ve got.’ I held out my wallet. I hadn’t noticed before that the driver had small pointed ears and his long greasy hair had begun to unwind from the hard black knot on his head. He took my wallet, pushed his hair from his eyes with feminine affectation and counted the notes, slipping them into his pocket before tossing the empty wallet back over the bench seat. Then he lurched towards Sanya and made a grab for her blouse. I pushed him off, snatched up the stick that Sanya had used, and raised it to threaten him.
‘Steady up’. The man held up his hands as though offended – as though he hadn’t meant anything by it. Then he began to giggle, slapping one hand over his mouth, while the other rammed the bottle up against his friend’s chest. I was grateful that Sanya was bent over Ravi, unable to see the fear in the boy’s eyes, as he drank obediently.
‘Take us back; I’ll kill you if you hurt her – take us back and we’ll not say anything – the baby needs changing – come on, take the money, man – just take us home…’ I pleaded.
But the driver just laughed, snatched the bottle from his friend and drank some more. ‘Shut the brat up, I’m warning you.’ He mumbled taking several gulps. ‘Why you so boring? The night is young – you’ve already made us late – we will have the party together – just the five of us. Here!’ He thrust the bottle towards Sanya, but jerked it back, wagging his finger, tut tutting at her, laughing, drunk some more.
The turbaned cracked some lewd jokes – coaxing him to think of the women in Delhi he could buy with the money they had.
But his friend was having none of it. The drink had focused his frustration, he wanted the girl first – once he’d had the girl he’d go back. It was simple, and to make sure everyone understood he got out of the car, dancing and booing at all the windows before lifting the bonnet to remove something from the engine. After he’d settled himself behind the wheel, he grinned toothlessly at us all and turned the ignition. An impotent whirring filled the car.
There are some moments in one’s life, in most people’s lives, when its continuation hangs in the balance – I believe that this was one such moment. The boy who gets his arm caught between two rocks, or the climber who crashes through the ice and into the void – there are times when the odds seem too heavily stacked. I saw in that moment, my wife raped, my son smashed against a rock, and myself thrown into the abyss.
But the instinct to stay alive was strong. Words we didn’t think we knew bubbled up and soothed the madman. Or Ravi would stop crying and do something funny – the driver would throw his hands in the air to show us how crazy he was being, pat his friend on the back, kiss him, shrug his shoulders, beg our forgiveness and climb out of the car. Each time we held our breath as we pictured him replacing whatever he’d removed beneath the bonnet, but time after time he came back grinning, wagging his finger at us as though we’d nearly tricked him, as though he’d almost fallen for it. He would shake the back door, start boxing his friend who would whimper and silently fold into the corner of the passenger seat – god knows what horrors he’d witnessed this man commit before. And there were long moments when he cried and wept, either for himself or for us. Once he stretched out a hand to stroke Batuk… but Sanya recoiled, just a fraction; and he’d reared up and slapped her face, lunged to take Batuk from her until the turbaned one dragged him off. At times everyone was crying; at others some sort of intimacy emerged as if raw emotions swithering around would slip into anyone who’d give them expression for a while. And then, out of the blue, after a long exhaustive slumbering silence he announced he was taking us back. We sat up, wiped our filthy tear-stained faces as if preparing to meet someone important and watched, too tired for cynicism, too tired to really take it in, just a stirring of faint hope as we strained to see through the windscreen, building to a ripple of intoxicated expectation and childish eagerness as he got back behind the wheel and fired up. I gathered Ravi to my chest – the change of rhythm had woken him and I didn’t want him to cry.
But instead of backing up he slammed his foot on the accelerator.
In a shattered second I flicked off the lock, flung the door open, pulled Sanya after me and started to run, Ravi’s cries muffled against me. I didn’t look back, couldn’t look back – we just ran, ran for our lives up the black mountain – ran as though we had wings, ran forever…