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Stories. 
Shadows in the Snow - Chapter 2
by Swapna Dutta

Continued from "Shadows in the Snow" - Chapter 1

Madam is not really English but she insists on living like one. Her husband, to whom the house once belonged, had been an English tea planter. It was he who had named it Villa Alpina. But he died years and years ago leaving her the house and the garden. And an enormous photo in a golden frame that stands on the mantle piece. As far back as I can remember, it has always stood there. There is a queer sort of smile lurking about his lips, which seems to suggest that he is keeping an eye on everything. In fact I can't imagine the house without the photo. Nor, I am sure, can anyone else. Madam turned the Villa Alpina into a boarding house after he died and that’s what it has been ever since. Not a fashionable one, by any means, nor very modern. But some people seem to like it, perhaps because it is neat and clean and comparatively cheap. So it is hardly ever empty. We have a few regular boarders. We call the casual ones “guests”. The guests just come and go. Some return and some others don’t.

I do all the dusting in Madam's apartment. But even I am not allowed to touch the photo. Madam dusts it herself every morning.

"The master was so particular about cleanliness," she says whenever she dusts it. She always refers to him as the 'master'. And all of us have to call her 'Madam'.

"It's the English way," she tells us. "I am English, you, know."

She says it to whoever comes to see her. And to all our boarders and guests. But when they stare at her slit eyes, snub nose and fair but obviously Asian looks, she hastily adds,

"Oh well, I am English by marriage. It's very much the same thing!"

I guess most people find her words amusing. I've often seen them nudge and grin at each other when Madam goes on and on about her being English. We in the house don't dare to question her, of course. In any case, I don't see how it matters as to what she chooses to call herself. But I remember our new sweeper addressing her Mataji and the way Madam threw a fit. She nearly dismissed him on the spot! And Saila all but lost his job when he announced that he couldn't make waffles and didn’t care. He had no wish to learn it either. Had people not been so scarce she'd have thrown out both of them. Jethi, who lives in a cottage on the shelf above us and comes in every day to sweep and mop the place, is called the "charwoman". And I am the "parlour maid".

"But we no longer have any parlour maids in England," said Mrs. Barlow, an English tourist who had come to India to take photographs of Buddhist caves, "and no parlours either! Space is a real problem these days. The modern apartments have just living rooms."

I don't think Madam believed her. She was merely annoyed and told us that Mrs. Barlow who had been living in Italy most of her life and spent her time doing crazy things like taking photographs of dark and dingy caves could hardly be expected to remember what was truly British. Of course there were parlour maids! Didn’t the English novels say so? And so our parlour (the boarders call it the drawing room or the lounge) continues to be the “parlour” and I am still the “parlour maid”.

Madam really has what Kancha’s father calls “green thumbs”. Or perhaps it was her husband who had it and passed it on to her. Ours is really the best garden hereabouts, especially our rose garden. I don't know what the common rose colours are. Here they bloom in every shade of the rainbow - big, bright and sweet smelling. Every one loves them. Many of the tourists who come this way buy them because there are no flower shops nearby. Just wild roses in bushes and the climbing roses. Those are neither so large nor so pretty.

There is Charmer, the big flower shop in Darjeeling where Madam sends a regular supply of roses. Darjeeling is just fifteen kilometers from where we live. But our garden is on a rather out of the way shelf, cut off from the main road except for a steep and rugged path. There is just one rackety little bus which touches our shelf and that too not regularly. Joseph the gardener, who has been here since Madam's husband's time, cycles there and back whenever he misses the bus. Which is quite often.

Kancha's father Mr. Lama owns Hotel Snowflakes on the Darjeeling Road. He buys our roses regularly. Then there are the tea planters and the people who work for them. And all the tourists who flock here in summer. There is a great demand for flowers while they are around. That’s the time we get double orders from the Charmer. Some of the tourists even land up here. It pleases Madam very much when they do. She has special bouquets made for them. She also asks them in for tea sometimes. Some of them decline politely. But at times when the mist looms up suddenly as if from nowhere and it starts raining they come in without being asked. Madam welcomes them and switches on the room heaters. The parlour has a fire-place where they once had real logs put in and lit a proper fire. But now with everyone talking of preserving trees she doesn't do it any more. I am glad. I hate the thought of people burning up trees.

Madam always asks Saila to make hot scones when she has people for tea. Saila makes them like ordinary tea cakes but Madam insists on calling them scones or muffins and apologizes profusely because they aren't made the way they are done at 'home'.

"Where's home?" I had asked her a long time ago.

"How stupid you are, child!" she had answered, "England, of course!"

"But how could England be your home?" I had asked amazed, "you've never been there, have you?"

"Don't ask foolish questions. The master was English. Don't you know that? So my home is where his was. It hardly matters whether I’ve been there or not."

I had wondered if her words sounded touching or merely crazy!

Everyone in the house jokes about Madam. Specially the boarders. I've heard them say that she lives in the India of the British Raj and knows nothing about the present. But it suits them so long as she doesn't keep up with current rates of payment! So they listen politely when she tells them that cooks are a trial. And that the days of British courtesy are over and done with, what with prince-regents and princesses marrying commoners or divorcees and....so on, until whoever is listening starts yawning and demands tea or dinner!

Madam always calls our night meal supper. Our boarders don't always understand it.

"You mean dinner, don't you?" asked Mr. Rao blinking his eyes. He had come here the previous night and that too for the first time.

"No I don't," said Madam glaring at him. "When I say supper, I mean supper, not dinner."

"But surely the night meal is called dinner in English?" he had asked in a puzzled voice.

"Obviously you are not at home with English terms," said Madam in a superior voice, “the Oxford dictionary defines dinner as 'the main meal of the day'. Look it up if you don't believe me."

"Just as you like," Mr. Rao had retorted, unwilling to get into an argument, "I don't suppose it matters what you call it so long as it is a good one!"

"Of course it matters," said Madam indignantly, "I believe in calling things by their proper names. It's what my late husband always did. And he, I assure you, was English.”

"Oh, quite," Mr. Rao had replied and made for his room hastily before Madam could say any more.

There are two kinds of boarders in this house. The permanent ones who have jobs nearby but don't want to have the bother of running a place of their own. And the temporary ones who are more frequent in number though they never stay more than a day or two. They are the ones whom Kancha's father sends here when he cannot put them up at Hotel Snowflakes. Either because it is already full or because they are the kind who cannot afford to stay there. They are mostly salesmen and medical representatives going up to or returning from Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong or one of those better known places. Sometimes we have poor school teachers eager for a holiday in the hills or unexpected travellers stranded because of a landslide or a thick fog. Once in a way we also have artists or students who are out to study life in the Himalayas or a jolly family party out to explore uncommon places. They are the nicest of the lot.

The ones I really remember and liked better than anyone else are Itsy, Bitsy and Teeni. They suddenly landed up last summer with their old grandmother and stayed for a whole fortnight. Itsy and Bitsy are twins and are of my age. Teeni is a year younger. They have no father and their mother acts in soap operas and other television serials. She had to go to Darjeeling to shoot for one of them and there was no place for Itsy, Bitsy and Teeni at the hotel she was booked in. So she sent them to stay here along with her mother.

We have no television here because Madam does not approve of it. She feels they are bad for our morals and do no good except encourage laziness. Most of our boarders complain because there isn’t one even in the parlour, let alone in their individual bedrooms. But Madam ignores their comments and tells them that they are welcome to go and stay elsewhere if they miss the TV so much.

Even Mr. Lama tried to get her to buy one, at least for her own bedroom, so that she could keep abreast with the news.

“Well, I don’t need to know any more news than I do from the radio, Mr. Lama,” she had replied frostily, “and if I had money to spare I’d choose to fling them on better things.”

“You might have found the soap operas entertaining during the long rainy evenings when you have nothing to do,” Mr. Lama had had said, his eyes twinkling. He loved to get Madam’s back up when he had the chance.

“I can’t think of a single evening when I’ve remained idle!” said Madam indignantly, “I’ve no time for stupid soap operas. If my boarders feel that they cannot exist without them, they are welcome to check into your hotel.”

“Ah that reminds me, I must remind Swingers to send me half a dozen small television sets for the new wing,” said Mr. Lama as he made a move towards the door. And he had winked at me when Madam’s head was turned. I have seen television just a few times when I had to carry a message to Hotel Snowflakes because Joseph was ill. But I had not been able to stay for more than a few minutes. Even then I had thought the moving pictures on the screen simply wonderful.

That fortnight when Itsy and her sisters stayed with us was the happiest in my life. The girls, around the same age as me, were so jolly and friendly! I'd never met anyone like them before. Madam did not like my spending so much time with them. She said they were sure to have a bad influence on me with their fast and reckless ways. But their grandma insisted on my taking them for walks and picnics because she didn't want them to get lost. And Madam had to give in. They seemed to have any amount of money and didn’t mind paying lavishly for extras. So Madam did not care to displease them. She was afraid that they’d go off to Hotel Snowflakes if she did!

What fun we had! And how I enjoyed their stories and the kind of life they talked of! Their school and friends, the parties they went to, their shopping and picnics and so many things I hadn’t even heard of! They seemed to belong to a different world altogether.

“I suppose you watch television whenever you feel like?” I had asked them wistfully.

“I loathe telly,” Itsy had said, “so does Bitsy. Teeni is the Telly addict. Can’t seem to get enough of it!”

“But surely you watch your mother’s shows?” I had asked, surprised.

“Itsy and I don’t. They are horribly soppy and stupid and boring!” said Bitsy shaking her head, “grandma does, of course. She and Teeni watch all the soaps they can. We’ve better things to do.”

“But don’t you want to watch your own mother on screen? It must be so thrilling!” I had remarked.

“Oh well, it’s nice to see her, of course and she does look lovely on screen,” said Itsy, “but the stories are terribly stupid and boring. Her directors say she looks wonderful in tragic roles so they ply her with tear-jerkers.”

I couldn’t imagine what a boring story would be like. To me every story seems fascinating! The stories Teeni had told me of the serials and films had seemed quite wonderful to me.

“What are tear-jerkers and why are they boring?” I had asked, not knowing what the term meant.

“Oh, mum is perpetually playing roles where either her mother-in-law tortures her or her husband runs away with another woman or she falls in love with the wrong man or is being bashed up by a drunken husband. You know, the sort of stuff people like to watch,” said Bitsy, “I merely find them stupid.”

“Oh,” was all I could say.

“Come on, darling, don’t say you don’t know that there are such things in the world,” said Itsy crinkling up her eyes, “you couldn’t be such an ignoramus, even though you live like a recluse here.”

For a while I had not known what to say. I can’t but know how bad and unkind people can be. After all, I hear Jethi and Saila talking all the time. Most often they are not even aware that I am there too. I know how Saila’s daughter was dumped by her husband with a little baby while he found another wife. I also know how badly Jethi’s daughter was treated by her husband’s people because they hadn’t given her enough dowry. I’ve seen Jethi herself come in with a black eye because her husband had bashed her up in a drunken fit. But I simply couldn’t imagine people actually enjoying watching such things on television! Besides, I had always thought it only happened to poor people! I couldn’t imagine the rich and the famous having to deal with such things.

“Come on, Van, forget telly serials and take us to that water fall you spoke of,” said Teeny, “you know, the one where people stick prayer wheels in the water.”

“And begonias grow under the stones,” added Itsy.

“Come on then. This way,” I said. The rest of the day ended up in a glorious picnic although Madam was quite displeased at our staying out so late and was very stiff with me. I really felt miserable when Itsy, Bitsy, Teeni and their grandma left the next morning. Everything seemed twice as bad. But they have promised to come again this summer. It is certainly something I can look forward to.

Except for those three, the other boarders, permanent or temporary, do not notice me at all. To them I am merely one of the servants. Just someone to carry out orders. I suppose they are right. Only I don't get wages like the others do. Madam keeps telling me that my keep costs her far more than I am worth. Anyone else, she tells me, would have turned me out years ago and let me fend for myself. But she could not, because she is too soft hearted for words. Something she had “caught on” from her English husband.

Usually I don't think about it. Or the fact that I have nobody in the world. I have so much work to do all day that there is hardly any time for thinking. But sometimes when the long winter evenings drag on endlessly and Madam dozes by her cosy fire, Saila goes off to the movies and Joseph troops off to the church... I just listen to the wind howling through the pines and wonder if I shall ever be able to get away from here.

Continued to "Shadows in the Snow" - Chapter 3
 

05-Mar-2016
 
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