St Hilda’s is not really a convent, but since people think of convents as places where their children will be taught good English, that is what the church which owned it had decided to call it. The children would come to learn English, they reasoned, and would be taught a little bit about Jesus, which they could keep or cast aside as they pleased.
Charu had been one of my students. She was twelve when we met, and came to school pig-tailed, face shining, hair reeking of mustard oil, in navy and white, scrubbed clean, exercise book and pencil in hand – and she daydreamed in class all day. She barely learned to write even the alphabet. Many days of the week, she simply did not come. Later, walking home in the afternoon I would spot her grazing her grandmother’s cows. Or I would hear her high voice from across a hill, calling one of them, “Gouri! Goureeeeee-ooo!” In the summer months I could be sure of spotting her navy skirt halfway up a kafal tree and if I called at the tree, “Why weren’t you at school?” she would clamber down, thrust at me a handful of red, just-plucked kafals, and vanish into the forest.
One late afternoon in my first year in Ranikhet, I saw Charu’s grandmother sitting outside their house, sunning herself on a mat. She was a bony woman with hollow cheeks, her skin raisined by years of hard labour in the sun. Her eyes had a quiverful of lines at their corners. Everyone called her “Ama” and she was renowned for having been the most beautiful woman of Ranikhet. She was not afraid of anything or anyone, and had thrown Charu’s father, her younger son, out of her house for being drunk every day and beating his wife to death in a drunken fit. She would bring up her grandchild alone, she had said, they did not need a man around the house if it was a man like him. He still visited, a weedy fellow with a ravaged face, and a beedi tucked behind each ear. He sat glumly in the courtyard and smoked while his mother scolded him about keeping a mistress and demanded money for his daughter’s upkeep. Meanwhile somehow she fed and housed yet poorer relatives who arrived without warning from remote villages and stayed for days, sometimes weeks.
Whenever she sighted me, her eyes, already creased from years of battling sun and wind and cold, creased up more, and she smiled a mouthful of stained, brown teeth and shouted, “Namaste, Teacher ni!” That is what she called me, tongue-in-cheek: Teacher-ni. Everyone else called me Maya Mam.
“Why do you pay the fees if you can’t make Charu come to school?” I had asked her that afternoon. “Why not send her to the government school? It’s free.”
“I can put grass before the cow,” she said. “Can I make it eat? But it is still my cow, so I have to feed it, don’t I?”
“Charu is hardly a cow,” I said. “She is your granddaughter. And I am not fodder.”
The old woman laughed loud and long. “I know who Charu is,” she said. “Now you tell me, what can I do? I get her ready every day, I send her off, and then – where she goes – how can I stop her? Should I chase her with a stick all the way to the school? She will learn when the time comes. A girl learns what she needs to know.”
I gave up on Charu after a while, and stopped scolding her about her truancy. She did not altogether stop coming: on the days when she felt her uniform needed an airing or she wanted to see her friends, she would turn up, smile angelically at me, settle down at her place on a bench, and draw five-petalled flowers throughout the class. On some evenings she came to my veranda, which had a smooth red floor, to play gitti, her pebble game. Often she brought with her two girls, Beena and Mitu, twins who lived down the hill: neither of them could speak or hear, but we managed. They had shy smiles, light-brown hair, and improbable blue eyes: Ama said their mother, Lati, also deaf and mute, had slept with a wandering firanghi who had eyes as blue, and here was God’s punishment: two girls. “Deaf and mute as well!”
Charu taught me her game: it involved five pebbles that you had to do dexterous things with, throwing up one, scooping up the others, then catching the one in flight before it hit the ground. I was new to the town, I hardly knew anyone, and had nothing very much to do apart from the school. Many evenings she and I sat with the twins, playing with the stones, watching evening fires being lit outside nearby hutments as the neighbourhood dogs were called back from creeks and bushes before leopards slunk out from the shadowed forests to feed.
I could have chosen differently. I could have found a better-paid job elsewhere. I could have returned to my own family. It had been a source of bewilderment to my mother why I did not go back to my old life at home after Michael’s death. The edge of my father’s anger was blunted now that Michael had left my life. All I had to do was to tell him that I had been wrong and misguided, and beg him to trust me again. My mother was tearful and imploring. I did not need to teach in a school, so far away, hard up, all by myself. We could be together again as before.
My mother died two years after Michael, uncomprehending to the end about my stubborn refusal. In one of her reproachful letters, she accused me of being as unforgiving as my father: how could a girl punish her parents and reject her home this way?
But I was at home. I had got used to thinking of Charu, her grandmother, her half-witted uncle Sanki Puran, and my landlord Diwan Sahib as my family now. I could no longer imagine living anywhere else. Though I cannot know precisely when it happened, a time had come when I became a hill-person who was only at peace where the earth rose and fell in waves like the sea.
Anuradha Roy won the Economist Crossword Prize for Fiction for her novel, ‘The Folded Earth’, which won and was nominated for several other prizes including the Man Asia and the Hindu Literary Award. Her first novel, ‘An Atlas of Impossible Longing’, has been translated into 15 languages across the world.
*This extract has been excerpted from ‘The Folded Earth’ (MacLehose Press, 2011), reprinted with permission of the publisher.