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Stories. 
Shadows in the Snow - Chapter 8
by Swapna Dutta

Continued from Chapter - 7

It is the month of October. The tourist season is upon us with a swing. The snow range is almost a constant sight, glittering and sparkling in the sun. Our little out of the way shelf has turned colourful too with pampas grass as high as my waist and hundreds of cosmos flowers all over the place, blooming in masses of pink and magenta, crimson, mauve and white. The moon flowers are out too – big, white flowers shaped like a trumpet. The little houses nearby are thick with marigolds and zinnias, roses and yellow daisies. The roofs are covered with pumpkin vines and yellow pumpkins ripening under the sun. Now that there’s no more rain coming down in bucketfuls the waterfall has narrowed down. The water of its stream is no longer grey but a clear icy-blue.

Every single room in our Villa Alpina was booked from the last fortnight. The place has been packed to capacity, much to Nibbler’s displeasure, who has to remain locked in the room most of the time. A temporary cook has been hired to help Saila and Jethi has been bringing her sister Maili to help with the cleaning and washing. And as for me, I haven’t a moment to spare. I am constantly on my toes running endless errands and rushing about from one room to another. I feel really bad to hear Nibbler barking in the box room and scratching the door with short yelps of anger. I can’t even go and comfort him or take him for a run because Madam simply won’t allow it. She is sure the guests would be upset. I’m sure there must be some among them who like dogs but it’s no use arguing with Madam. Besides, I haven’t the time. There are too many chores to complete. Poor little Nibbler! If only Miss Milli were here!

I don’t mind the errands. It is so nice to have the place full of people enjoying themselves. It is fun watching them clamouring to rush to the balcony for a glimpse of the snow range and their delight if they are seeing it for the first time. It is nice to see them going out for walks, fun to watch them gazing fascinated at the tea gardens way down below and shuddering at the sheer drop. It also fun to answer their eager questions about the water fall, the prayer wheels stuck in the stream, the Buddhist temple and the little shops selling curios and of course about the bus route to Darjeeling where everyone goes during his or her stay.

Some of the guests ask me to come with them sometimes – to show them a particular place or view. But I don’t usually go and make excuses because Madam doesn’t like it. And of course I can hardly spare the time – there’s so much to do! Some of the guests are nice and speak to me normally:

“Vandana, could I have a cup of tea right away, if it isn’t too much trouble?” or

“Vandana, could you have some hot water sent up? The geyser isn’t working” or

“Vandana, could you tell me where I could get such and such item cheap?”

I love to help if I can.

But there are others who treat me as though I have no feelings or behave as though I am a nameless object. “You there, get me this” or “here, you, do that and fast.” And they blame me for things that are not my fault:

“Why is the bath water tepid, you lazybones?”

“What do you mean by getting such rotten tea that hasn’t any flavour at all? and this place is supposed to be in the shadows of Darjeeling!”

“Why can’t you make my bed first thing in the morning instead of leaving it until midday? What do you think you are paid for?”

I used to get very upset about these outbursts when I was younger. I remember running to Joseph, crying my eyes out, when a lady threw her shoe at me because it was not polished to her satisfaction. Joseph had dried my tears, patted me kindly and asked me not to think about it. He had said that there were all kinds of people in the world and some of them couldn’t help being nasty to others. The only thing to do was not take any notice of them.

“But why do they behave like that?” I had asked him again, “You don’t and I don’t and Madam doesn’t either. She has never thrown anything at me even when she is angry.”

“Forget it, little one,” Joseph had said, “I’ll tell you a story this afternoon. The story of Elijah and Elisha. Do you know it?”

“No,” I had replied, cheering up at once.

That was long ago. I am older now and I think I know why some people talk like that to me. It is because I work for Madam. They think of my kind of work as degrading. So they feel I am inferior to the others.

Fortunately I don’t believe it myself. Uncle Aneesh had told me that there was nothing to be ashamed of in working and that all honest work was good. He had also told me that people who think otherwise do so because they are ignorant. Just as people in the olden days believed that the earth was flat.

“Keep your chin up, Vandana,” Uncle Aneesh had told me before he left, “hold up your head high. I believe that sincere work brings its own reward. You must try and believe it too.”

So I try to be as sincere as I can when I am working. And I also try to do my best. Only, I don’t know if I’ll ever get any reward for it. And I start doubting the truth of Uncle Aneesh’s words when I am feeling low. I do wish he would come back. I miss him and Miss Milli. Miss Milli has gone back to Canada. She may not be home for years!

A voice shattered my reverie. Madam was calling me.

“Yes Madam?” I asked her running up the steps, “did you call me?”

“Yes, I did. Get me six air mail envelopes from the post office, will you?” And she handed me the money. I felt surprised. I had got her six air mail envelopes only two days ago. Had she lost or misplaced them? Was she writing to Miss Milli twice a day? Anyway, it is none of my business, I told myself as I got ready to go out. Our one-and-only shop at the corner doubles up for a post office too, selling postcards, stamps and air-mails as well as grocery, vegetables and other things.

Madam called me once again just as I was about to step out.

She seemed to hesitate for a moment or two.

“Vandana,” she said, giving me a straight look, “Mrs. Mehra was here just now. She told me that you were rude to her. What happened?”

“Rude to her?” I replied, feeling really puzzled, “I am never rude to any of the guests, Madam. Nor to any of our regular boarders.”

“So I thought,” said Madam, “but Mrs. Mehra was very angry. She told me you had answered her back rudely and refused to work for her.”

I suddenly realized what she was referring to.

“It was not quite that,” I said to her , “Mrs. Mehra threw her shoes at me and told me to clean and polish them then and there. I told her that I would do them later, after I had finished my routine chores which had to be attended to before anything else.”

“You are sure that was all?”

“No. she told me to wash her clothes as well.”

“Well?”

“I said that I didn’t wash clothes and that it was Jethi who was supposed to do that.”

“And then?”

“She said I’d better do it and fast because she could not wait for Jethi.”

I suddenly stopped short, feeling I could not tell her any more.

“Go on,” said Madam.

“She told me that I had to do it and added that since Jethi and I were both paid servants it did not matter which of us did the job. Especially because both of us would be clamouring for tips when her visit ended.”

“And what did you say to that?” Madam persists.

“Nothing,” I replied, “I ….I… just left the room.”

For a moment there was total silence in the room. I wondered if I should go to the shop after all when Madam asked, “Do you mind washing clothes as much as that?” Her voice was sarcastic, “and have you never polished shoes for a guest before, Vandana? How much time would it have taken? Was it worthwhile to fight over it?”

“I have often polished Uncle Aneesh’s shoes and I have washed Miss Milli’s clothes. It wasn’t that Madam,” I replied haltingly.

“What was it then? I am afraid I don’t understand.” Madam really sounded puzzled.

“Her saying it like that,” I told her, “I’d willingly do anything for anyone ….. if only they asked me properly. I have some self-respect too.”

“Indeed! And you feel you are the one to decide what is proper and what is not?” Madam sounded really angry this time, “a chit like you!”

“I am not a child any more, Madam,” I managed to say, looking her in the eyes, “perhaps that is why I feel things now that I’d not have felt earlier.”

“I am sorry to hear it, Vandana,” said Madam, “charity girls cannot afford to be so touchy … or so choosy either.”

I kept quiet but my heartbeats sounded as loud as the ticking of the clock. I did not know what to say. Or what I ought to say either. Madam started speaking again.

“You say you are no longer a child, Vandana. Very well then. I’ll talk to you like a grown-up,” she remarked. “Have you ever thought about what your future is going to be?”

“My future, Madam?” I asked, a sudden cold fear clutching at my heart.

“Yes. You have to stand on your own feet sooner or later. You don’t expect me to support you all my life, do you?”

Her words struck me with the intensity of a bullet. I suddenly felt the world spinning all round me and then throwing me into a void. I felt as though I were drowning … drowning into a bottomless pit. The Villa Alpina and all it stood for had been my world for nine years or more. My only world, in fact. Where else could I go? And what else could I do? I had no one to turn to. No one at all! I felt as though my world were crumbling about me without my being able to do anything to stop it.

“Sit down, Vandana,” I heard Madam say. Her voice sounded unusually gentle. “I did not mean to speak of it just yet” she said softly, “but perhaps it is better that I do and not leave you in the dark.”

I looked at her expecting some terrible news. My hands felt like blocks of ice. Madam sat down opposite me.

“Vandana,” she said, “I am leaving this place. I am going abroad as I have always planned to do. I may not come back for years. Or I may not come back at all.”

“Leaving this place?” I asked in a bewildered voice, “Leaving Villa Alpina?”

I repeated the words over and over again, trying to take it in. I could not believe my ears!

“Yes,” replied Madam, “I have been making plans to go for a long time, even before Milli’s visit, in fact. But it has been a long and difficult process. The paperwork has been cleared at last, at both ends. I had Milli’s letter this morning telling me all’s well.”

“Oh?” I stammered, not knowing what else to say.

“You are the only problem,” said Madam giving me a straight look, “Mr. Lama, Kancha’s father has promised to employ Joseph. He had asked me often enough before and I expect he would want to employ Saila too. And Jethi won’t have any problem finding a new job either. If only I knew what to do with you!”

Tears pricked my eyelids like thorns. But I blinked hard and refused to let them fall. So I am back to square one, facing the same problem all over again. The problem of finding someone on whom I can dump myself and become someone else’s charity girl. Just because I have no one and nowhere to go!

“I wish I knew what to do with you,” Madam said once again, “now that my first plan for your future seems to have gone awry.”

I wondered what it had been and why it had gone awry. Mr. Lama wouldn’t want me, of course. He has plenty of help already. And Shoomi and Neema might not want me there either.

“Isn’t there anyone who’d have me? Anywhere I could go? You know I’m willing to work really hard if it is something I am able to do” I asked, feeling smaller than I’d ever done, “of course I wouldn’t want to upset all your plans, Madam. Not after all that you’ve done for me already. I want you to go and live with Miss Milli, if that’s what you want to do.”

Madam got up and walked to the open window.

“I meant to ask Mrs. Mehra to take you with her. She had asked me for a maid as soon as she arrived. She is fabulously rich and has several people helping her. I wish you hadn’t been rude to her. That would have certainly solved my problem.”

“I don’t want to work for her, Madam,” I said getting up from the chair, “I’d rather starve and sleep in the open. She does not treat people like human beings.”

“It’s all very well to talk,” said Madam in a cross voice, “but I have a sense of responsibility. I can’t just leave you stranded and go off abroad. I’ll have to postpone my journey until I am able to fix up something for you, that’s all.”

“If only Uncle Aneesh were here!” I said to myself. But Madam heard me.

“So do I,” she said in a somewhat bitter voice, “he had shown so much interest in you that I was sure he would do something to help. But I haven’t had a word from him since. Only shows how gullible I am even at my age! I was foolish to take him seriously when he was just amusing himself by asking questions about you. His concern for you was just a show.”

“Oh no Madam,” I cried, “If you haven’t heard from him it is either because he has been too busy to bother about me or has more important things to do. It can’t be because he has forgotten. And he wouldn’t do things for show. Uncle Aneesh wasn’t the kind to say things he didn’t mean.”

“You are only a child, Vandana. You have no idea what the world is like or how ruthless it can be.”

“Madam,” I said remembering something Kancha had told me, “could you please lend me some money so that I may go to school? I promise to pay you back the moment I am able to earn a living.” Madam laughed at my earnestness.

“You are crazy, Vandana. Even if I had the money to spare, which I haven’t, by the way, which school would take you? You are almost thirteen and know virtually nothing! Besides, where would you stay and what would you live on? I can’t put you in an orphanage either because there would be too many questions about why I didn’t put you in one as soon as your mother died and no one claimed you. No, I certainly don’t want to get into all that now. However, I guess something will turn up. So don’t worry too much. You must know that I won’t leave you to face the world alone. And now there’s that wretched dog as well! Oh bother!”

I ran out of the room, tears pouring down my cheeks. I couldn’t help it. Why did I have to be a burden on everyone? Everyone I knew had a family of sorts. Was it my fault that I didn’t have any? Nibbler licked my cheek, surprised by its salty taste.

“I have no right to make things difficult for Madam, Nibbler” I whispered, “I can’t be ungrateful.”

“Woof!” said Nibbler.

“Let’s run away, Nibbler,” I said to him, “it’s the only thing we can do. Then Madam can go abroad in peace.”

“Woof, woof!” said Nibbler, agreeing with me.

I heard the prayer drums beating in the Buddhist temple by the waterfall. Was it a kind of omen?

Continued to Shadows in the Snow Chapter - 9

22-Jan-2017
 
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