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Snowfed Waters

By Jane Wilson-Howarth

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The sun wasn’t that high in the sky but it was getting unpleasantly hot already. It was hard keeping up with Moti. I started to feel a little out of breath. I was so unfit. Moti must have sensed I was struggling, because she turned to allow me to catch up.

After a few moments, she asked me, ‘Memsahib is angrez?’

‘No—not angry at all!’ I replied. ‘But you seem angry. Have I offended you?’

Moti looked puzzled. She asked, ‘Memsahib is no angrez? From which country Memsahib is coming?’

‘England.’

‘I think Ing Lan. Angrez. Blighty. Joo-kay. All the same; that is my idea.’

‘Sorry, Moti?’

She spoke slower. ‘Ing Lan. Angrez. Blighty. Joo-kay.’

‘Oh! Yes, I see. I am from England—Ing Lan in the UK.

‘That was my home.’

I’d misinterpreted her look. She wasn’t cross; she seemed fine with me—thank God.

We walked on beneath scarlet-blossomed bottlebrush trees and past orange trumpet-shaped flowers, where sunshine-yellow birds hovered and sipped nectar. A man walked past, looked me up and down, looked at what I was looking at and back to me again. Actually every man seemed to size me up—or was this paranoia?

Rhythmic tapping noises drew my attention to an area where an army of ragged women squatted at their work. One had a terribly bruised face. The women used hammers and chisels to chip away at gravestone-shaped stone slabs. Perhaps a hundred gravestones.

What was going on? Had some epidemic struck Rajapur? Was it bird flu or plague?

Migrating wildfowl come through here, and there are outbreaks of real mediaeval bubonic plague in India from time to time…

I asked Moti, ‘Why so many gravestones?’

‘Grabestones? What is grabestones, Memsahib?’

‘To mark a place where someone is buried.’

She knitted her brows. ‘Berries, Memsahib? What kind of berries you like? We can eat mulberries?’

‘No, not berries. After death. You bury people. Dig a hole and put people in the ground. Then you mark the place with a stone block—like these.’

‘No, Memsahib. When Nepali peoples dies, we burn and throw hashes in the holy river.

‘Hashish?’

‘Truly, Memsahib. Hashes. Then, after some time, people are reborn.’

‘So what are these stones for?’

‘For making chutney.’

I felt so foolish. This was a kind of pestle and mortar factory. The stones were used to grind spices. We walked a while in silence until we came to a place where various traders had spread their wares on the ground. One man squatted beside a huge heap of old clothes. On top was a bra that was almost big enough to carry your shopping home in—or a couple of babies; there was also a pair of y-fronts that looked designed to fit a rhino. These must be things that people in wealthy countries had donated; I would never have expected them to be sold over here though.

A child came running by dragging an old cigarette packet on a string. How clever, to improvise a toy from rubbish! A thin old woman pulled a nice-looking jumper out of the pile of second-hand clothes, and started the long process of settling on a price. Trader and purchaser were both enjoying the exchange.

Lots of strange and colourful things were on sale in various shack-shops, including an unbelievable range of beautiful dress fabrics. I stood undecided about whether to venture inside when that Ram-person, Rekraj’s cousin, appeared from nowhere. He made me start. He said, ‘Madam, now you are coming to the most important building in Rajapur!’

I didn’t like him. I wanted to get away from him but at the same time I was ever so slightly intrigued, so I said, ‘Ah. Good. How interesting.’ What could the building be? Probably a temple. Definitely something very ancient.

He smiled in that chilling, predatory way of his. ‘I am delighted that I interest you, Son-i-ya. I shall enjoy having such an appreciative and attractive visitor in our unworthy village!’

Sickened, I tore my eyes away from his. I needed to change the subject to something neutral but my mind was blank. I felt the anxiety rising in me again.

We walked to a slightly more affluent-looking part of the village. Massive trees framed a dusty avenue. Before us was a small, low concrete building where a wizened man in stained khaki stood smoking at the gate. He held a rifle that looked like something from the First World War, but neither he nor his weapon looked at all menacing. Another ancient, apathetic- looking guard sat in the shade of the verandah with a similar beaten-up weapon across his knees. Nearby, a huddle of shiny black crows squabbled over a scrap of goat skin.

I turned to the Ram-person and asked, ‘Is this the most important building in Rajapur?’

‘Of course.’

‘What? The bank?’

‘Correct: the bank. You will need to change your dollars there also.’ I looked at him. He preened under my gaze. His moustache looked like a parasite that had flown onto his face and then stayed to grow fat on the slimy words that came from his mouth.

Then spookily, the letch melted away.

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