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Shadows in the Snow - Chapter 7
by Swapna Dutta

Continued from Chapter - 6

I always think of Nibbler’s first week with us as the week when things happened! He might be just a two month old pup but he certainly managed to turn our Villa Alpina upside down! He was perpetually thinking of some new mischief. For a place that used to be as quiet as a hospital during off season it was really quite a feat.

There was the time when he chewed up Madam’s expensive fur slippers. And the time he nibbled and mauled two of her best cushions to bits. The day he knocked down her favourite crystal vase and put in a dead mouse in the middle of her bed! Frankly speaking, none of us were able to predict what he’d be up to next. Because he managed to do something fresh every time! Madam grumbled and scolded (each and every time it happened) ; Miss Milli laughed and teased her and kept telling her not to be ‘old-maid-ish’ for goodness’ sake, while Saila, Jethi and I spent all our time clearing up some mess or the other for which Nibbler was responsible. But I didn’t seem to mind a bit. Nibbler’s coming had brought something new into our house which it had sadly lacked before. He had brought with him life and warmth, spreading over the entire place, and I have already been thinking of him as ‘mine’.

I can’t recall when exactly things settled down and Nibbler became a part of things – a piece in the settled routine, mischief and all. Saila, Jethi, Joseph and I adored him and Madam learnt to tolerate him.

“He is good for you, Pem pem,” Miss Milli kept saying, “at last you are learning to be more like other people and not a piece of Victorian anachronism (whatever that means!).”

Madam has now stopped talking of sending him away. But I can’t help feeling anxious about what will happen when Miss Milli leaves.

I had taken Nibbler to the rose garden with me one afternoon when Kancha had come to take the roses.

“He is a swell dog, Van,” Kancha had said looking at him, “I wish he were mine.”

“You can share him with me if you like,” I had replied, “after all, I share a great many of your things.”

“What things?” asked Kancha, surprised.

“All the things you tell me about school,” I reminded him, “and some of your interesting lessons. You don’t know how much I enjoy hearing them.”

“That’s nothing,” Kancha had said. But he looked pleased as he filled up his basket with roses.

“By the way, you are forgetting something. Didn’t you promise to tell me about the Eskimos today?” I asked him , “and did you remember to bring me the picture of an igloo?”

“Yes, I did,” said Kancha fishing a piece of paper from his pocket and handing it to me, “you are a queer fish, Van! Always wanting to know about lessons!”

“I can’t help it. Geography and botany and the things you talk about are so interesting! I only wish I knew more.”

“But Madam gives you lessons,” said Kancha, “you told me so yourself.”

“Yes, but only in English grammar and arithmetic and keeping accounts and patchwork and darning” I replied, “she doesn’t let me read anything else.”

“But what about handwriting?” asked Kancha, “you told me she makes you write pages and pages. Where do you copy them from? Not grammar books surely?”

“From old newspapers and I find them deadly dull” I had told him.

I think that is when Kancha realized the state of things – to some extent.

“Poor you!” he had said in a voice full of sympathy, “I wish I could lend you my books. I know you’d like all the supplementary readers which are retold classics and some others too. In fact, I could very well give you my old books. I’ve no use for them and neither Shoomi nor Neema are likely to touch them. My mum will only sell them to the junkman along with old newspapers and magazines.”

“I’d love to have them but I can’t, I’m afraid. Madam has always told me not to borrow things, and I guess that includes books, even old ones you have no use for,” I said. I remember she was quite cross with Joseph when he gave me some, although I never brought them home.

“Need she know about the books?” Kancha had asked, “surely you don’t need to tell her? Don’t tell me she’s going to come and look for them in your room, for I simply won’t believe it!”

“Perhaps not,” I said reluctantly, “but I know she’ll think that I’m being sly and underhand. And I know she is right. One should not take favours from people when one cannot return them.”

“Really Van, you do have the queerest notions!” Kancha had said in a cross voice, “friends are different from ordinary people and I thought we were friends.”

“Oh you are!” I said eagerly, “but please don’t insist on my taking things. It will make me feel queer to hide things from Madam, even if I’m not doing anything wrong.”

Time was running out. It would soon be time for my evening duties.

“At least you could tell me about Greenland and the Eskimos,” I had told Kancha. He shrugged and was soon telling me about them, describing their houses made of ice and their life in the icy land. I drank in every word that seemed as good as a story. And I wished for the millionth time that I could go to school!

I heard the clock chime four. It was time to go and prepare the tea trays.

“Did I tell you that Shoomi and Neema are going to a new and posh school in Darjeeling? Can’t you ask Madam to let you go to school?” Kancha said for the hundredth time.

“I have already told you that I can’t” I replied feeling peeved, “schools cost money and I don’t have any.”

“You need not go to a posh one. The local school is a free one” said Kancha.

“I don’t have time. I must work for my living as you very well know. Please don’t keep on and on about it.”

Normally Kancha would shut up after an outburst like this. But he didn’t this time.

“Couldn’t you ask Madam to pay for your education and pay her back later?” he insisted.

“How could I pay her back, silly? I don’t know how to earn money” I had replied.

“But you will when you are educated,” he said, “you could become a teacher.”

“Like my mother was,” I said.

“Oh was she?” Kancha was all eagerness.

“I think so. I don’t know for certain.”

“Tell me about her,” Kancha had said.

“I can’t. I don’t remember much” I had replied.

Just then I heard Saila shouting from the house.

“Vandana! Vandana, hurry up, for goodness’ sake! Nibbler has knocked down the flower vase in the parlour and there’s glass everywhere.”

“Coming!” I shouted back. Kancha was already out of the gate with his basket of roses. As I watched him run up the steep path leading to Hotel Snowflakes I realized that he was the only friend I had – a friend of my own age, that is. I know that he comes here because he has to take the roses and because no one else has the time to do it. But perhaps he comes for my sake as well? It certainly feels good to have a friend, one who can see things from my point of view. But he too will be off to high school in Darjeeling before long and will only be home for the holidays. Would he bother to come and pick up the roses then?

I walked back to the house. I cleared up the glass and went to Madam’s room with her tea. Miss Milli was sewing by the window. Miss milli’s coming had relaxed the atmosphere of the Villa Alpina beyond recognition. We no longer felt like stiff, prim little puppets, bound to speak and behave in a particular manner. And Miss Milli had also changed something else. She had fully succeeded in bullying Saila to cook delicious mo-mos, hot samosas, crisp wan-tans and spicy noodles and ever so many things I never tasted before.

To Madam’s utter disgust and disapproval Miss Milli has also been wearing the traditional colourful Nepalese dress and all her glittering beads, chains and nose-rings!

“You look so…so… so… native, Milli”,” Madam had protested the first time.

“So I am!” Miss Milli had said defiantly, “native to this land. I refuse to dress the English way in my own country.”

“Oh dear!” Madam had said, eyeing her dress with acute disfavour.

“I’ll get you a lovely boku from Darjeeling when I go there next,” said Miss Milli, with laughing eyes.

“Oh no no!” Madam had cried horrified, “I haven’t worn bokus since I was a little girl. They don’t suit me.”

“Then stick to your deadly dull grey skirts” said Miss Milli impatiently, “and for heaven’s sake, take off that bonnet, Pem pem! No one wears them these days, even in England.”

“I don’t care,” said Madam in a stiff voice, “I am a widow and I believe in dressing properly – whether people in England do or not! And anyway, things must have come to a dreadful pass if they don’t.”

“Very well, if you insist on being a period piece,” said Miss Milli with an air of resignation.

Madam and Miss Milli always bicker like this about English and non-English ways but they are really fond of each other, there’s no doubt about that. I keep wondering how Madam would feel when Miss Milli leaves next week. I hate the thought of it too. It is so jolly to have her here with us, I do wish she’d stay back altogether. Especially because she too has no family to return to.

“Vandana,” said Miss Milli laying down her empty tea cup on the table, “didn’t you tell me that you often hunt for begonias when you go out?”

“Yes, Miss Milli,” I answered, “they grow by the waterfall. I look for them whenever I go that way.”

“I remember,” said Miss Milli, “in my childhood they grew in the crevices – tiny pink flowers with petals like crisp, pink shells and thick heavy leaves.

“You’ll still find them there,” I told her, “they grow in masses under the boulders and under the dripping water of the falls.”

“Let’s go and get some,” said Miss Milli getting up, “Coming, Pem pem? Please do.”

“I’ve a thousand and one things to do” said Madam who hated going out at all times, “and it will be damp there, Milli.”

“Who cares?” said Miss Milli laughing, “I know Vandana doesn’t. And Nibbler doesn’t either! Come on, old boy, walk, WALK!”

“He’ll miss you,” I said as we stepped out into the open.

“He’ll have you,” said Miss Milli patting my shoulder, “he knows that he belongs to you now.”

I don’t know why her words brought tears into my eyes. I blinked quickly as I put on my rubbers.

Continued to Chapter 8

17-Dec-2016
 
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