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In New York Times bestselling author Alka Joshi’s intriguing new novel, henna artist Lakshmi arranges for her protégé, Malik, to intern at the Jaipur Palace in this tale rich in character, atmosphere, and lavish storytelling.
Shimla, State of Himachal Pradesh, India
I stop walking to look at the mountains rising from their sleep. Winter in Shimla is coming to an end. The men and women wrap themselves in two, sometimes three, pashmina shawls, but the hills are casting off their blankets. I hear the plunk, plunk, plunk of melting snow hitting the hard ground as I make my way carefully to Lakshmi Kumar’s house.
Yesterday, I saw the first pink anemones in the valley below us, brazenly pushing their noses through the thin air. In the distant hills to the north, I imagine my tribe herding their goats and sheep through the Kangra Valley to the village of Bramour, in the upper Himalayas, as I would be doing were my husband Dev still alive. It is hard to believe it’s been a year since he’s been gone. My daughter Rekha would be running beside her father, waving her tiny arms in an effort to help him shepherd the goats and sheep, while I carried our baby Chullu on my back. We would be accompanied by the other families of our tribe who had wintered in the lower Himalayas to secure food for their herds. As soon as the snows started melting in early spring, we always made our way back up the mountains to start cultivating our fields with the sheep manure that had matured into rich fertilizer over the winter months.
I haven’t seen my family since I left my tribe last spring after Dev’s fatal accident. They don’t come down south as far as Shimla, but not a day goes by that I don’t think fondly about them.
As we walked, Old Suresh used to tell us jokes. Did you hear the one about the flatulent goat and the shepherd without a nose? No, tell us that one, we would laugh.
Grandmother Sushila, toothless, gray whiskers poking out of the triangular tattoo on her chin, would begin one of the folktales told to her by her grandmother. So the King commanded the Queen to weave a blanket for him from the finest wool, which he knew would take her the better part of ten years. We all knew the story by heart and would finish the final sentence for her, at which point she would look at us with a frown. Oh, you know that one already?
Having sold the wool from our sheep in the lower Himalayas, we would be flush with our winter purchases: a factory-made sky-blue sweater, a Philips transistor radio, a squawking chicken bought at a hill station market. A few families may have picked up a handsome spotted house goat or a young black bull we would all admire. My sister-in-law would be showing off a new winnowing tray; my older brother walking proudly by her side with his sons. We would wag our heads and agree that the tray could separate the husks from the rice grains much more quickly.
I smile now as I think about those treks through the Himalayan mountains. I feel happy, almost. What would make it complete is a letter from Malik, even if I have to share it with someone else, especially if that someone is Lakshmi. If only I could have attended school, I would not be subjected to the humiliation of having his letters to me sent to her to be read to me.
My goatskin boots make a satisfying squelching sound on the mushy gravel as I conjure ways I would like to stomp Lakshmi Kumar out from my life.
The day Lakshmi first came into my life. I was not in my right mind. I had been so delirious with fever and grief that I was not even aware of my son Chullu coming into this world, two months before his time. Earlier that same day, my husband Dev had tried to drag a young male goat, drunk on rhododendron leaves, back onto the narrow mountain trail. We’d been on our way to our summer homes in the upper Himalayas. Dev lost his footing, and both he and the goat hurtled hundreds of feet into a ravine. We all saw it happen, but there was nothing any of us could do. We have always known the Himalayas to be the home of the Gods—Shiva, Ram, and Kamla—all of whom are much more powerful than we are. If they want to take someone from us, that is their right, their privilege. Still, I was not ready to let my husband go. Over and over I cried, Wasn’t the goat we sacrificed at the start of our trip enough to protect us? Or was it an evil nazar? That our sheep had produced so much wool the winter before may have aroused someone’s jealousy.
I grabbed the shoulders of those near me, screeching into their startled faces, Tell me you didn’t give Dev the evil eye! I screamed at Lord Shiva. I beat my fists on my distended belly, promising to give Shivaji the baby if he would just bring Dev back. My father-in-law and my brother had to pull my arms away from my stomach to keep me from hurting the life within. The women rubbed my temples, hands, and feet with warm mustard oil until I finally sank into a stupor. Almost a week later, when I awakened as if from a long sleep, I saw little Rekha’s face, pinched with worry, hovering at the edge of my bed and called my daughter to me. She was just three and didn’t understand yet that she might never see her father again. It was then that my father-in-law told me about the doctor and doctrini who had come from Shimla to tend to me; my body had needed medicines stronger than our tribe carried. My husband’s father spoke to me through a curtain that the women had erected to keep nursing mothers isolated for the eleven days after a baby’s birth. I looked down and noticed for the first time a sleeping baby boy in the crook of my arm, his head slung away from my leaking breast, his rose-colored mouth drooling pale blue milk.
How could I ever have wished this baby away? In him Shiva had given me Dev’s fine nostrils and wide forehead, the slight curl in his hair. I asked Rekha to climb onto the blanket with us and say hello to her brother Chullu.
The next time I met Lakshmi Kumar was also the day I met Malik, last June. I was selling flowers along the main walkway in Shimla. Rekha was three, a serious girl, and I had asked her to watch her three-month-old baby brother. That morning in the Shimla woods, I had picked roses, daises and buttercups for tourists and perennial visitors, and for the discerning buyer: peonies, yarrow and foxglove. Living as I had with my tribe, I knew how certain flowers could cure aches and coughs, ease monthly bleeding, lull fretful bodies to sleep.
At my stall, I removed the flowers from the large shallow basket I’d woven with fairy grass and arranged them on a horsehair blanket on the ground. When Chullu began fussing, I reached into my blouse, extracting a small rag from my leaking breasts to give to him. He began sucking on it and quieted down. Soon he would begin to teeth, and eventually I would have to stop suckling him, but for now I enjoyed feeling his warmth—Dev’s warmth—next to my body.
The last thing I always unpacked was the silver statue of Shiva. I set it to one side after offering a silent prayer to Him, to thank him for my Chullu. Then I put both my children in the empty basket. Like my mother before me and her mother before her, I had learned to tether my babies when I was busy boiling goat milk for the cheese, sewing a coat, or gathering dung for the fire. Chullu watched as I tied the cloth rope around his wrist. When I kissed his cheeks, he squirmed to one side and rocked his head back. Rekha played with his hair. No sooner had she braided his curls than he shook his head and giggled, tossing the braid off, and she had to start over again.
I knew I looked different from the other vendors along the walkway, and this I saw as an advantage, particularly with tourists—honeymooning Indians, elders on spiritual retreats, Europeans fascinated by our tribal ways. Like other women of my tribe, I wore my flowered skirt in bright yellow cotton over my green salwar kameez. A silver medallion sat like a small cap on my hair, crowning the orange chunni draped over my head and around my shoulders. A rope made of sheep wool, boiled and dyed black, was tied twenty times around my waist. Then there were the telltale dots—three of them tattooed in a triangle onto my chin when I came of age—that always made visitors to Shimla stare. The only thing I’d stopped wearing was the elaborate nose ring—as large as a bracelet—given to me at my wedding; I realized it made me not just a curiosity but almost a side show, with visitors pointing it out to one another. They thought they were being discreet, but I found the fascination in their faces disturbing.
When Dev died in the gorge a year ago, I was adamant that my children would never suffer the same fate, the migrating back and forth with the tribe through the mountains, toes lost to frostbite, the threat of death always only a few paces away. I asked my father-in-law to let me stay in Shimla. He would have liked me to marry another bachelor from our tribe, but he was grieving over his son’s death, too, and agreed, reluctantly, on the condition that I would have to make my own way. His parting gift to me was a large supply of dried meat and all the silver jewelry from my dowry. As a woman, I had no right to property, not even a sheep or a goat, but I knew I could sell my jewelry if we fell on hard times.
To the left of my stall on the Shimla Mall, a balloon seller was squeezing his air sausages into the shapes of elephants and camels. My children watched, fascinated. Chullu reached for one, but Rekha gently pulled his arm down. To my right was a Coca-Cola stand whose owner had not yet arrived. It was a little early in the day for people to ask for a cool drink. By afternoon, visitors would be lining up for its exotic taste.
The clock at Christ Church struck eight times. On spring mornings, early risers hiked to pray at the temples on Jakhu Hill, Sankat Mochan or Tara Devi. The mildly religious slept in late; there was no need for them to hurry about their day.
I spotted a young man and a woman in the distance walking purposefully in my direction. The woman wore a maroon sari and a matching wool cloak, embroidered at the edges with white flowers. She walked quickly, taking short strides. Her hair was pinned neatly to the top of her head in a twist. The young man was lean, a head taller than the woman, but his walk was looser, as if he had all the time in the world. Still, he easily kept pace with her. When they were closer to my stall, I noticed that she was old enough to be his mother. Fine lines crisscrossed her forehead and the corners of her mouth. The man looked to be no more than twenty, perhaps a few years younger than me. He was dressed in a white shirt, blue jumper and dark gray slacks. The woman’s eyes were focused on my flowers, while his, bouncing with amusement, were watching my children in the basket.
The woman reached for the peonies. “Where did you find these?” she asked.
I had to wrest my eyes away from the young man; he reminded me so much of my late husband. Dev’s eyes, gentle and sharp-edged at the same time, much like this man’s, had wooed me, loved me, made me feel safe.
When I turned to the woman, I was startled by her eyes as well. She was a handsome woman made beautiful by those blue orbs, the color of the mountain sky after a night’s rain. “In a ravine about a mile from here,” I told her. “It plunges sharply from the cliff. There is a grove of them at the bottom.” Revealing my find did not concern me. I was used to scaling steep slopes, and I was confident that no one so refined would follow me there. When our tribal elders called each other “old goats,” they were referring to the way we trotted so easily up mountains alongside our herds.
Chullu cried out and the woman’s attention fell on him. Her eyes flickered and her mouth opened slightly. I rubbed a finger along Chullu’s aching gums to soothe him. The woman’s face broke into a wondrous smile. “I see he has grown.”
Did I know her? If I had met her before, I didn’t remember her. She saw my confusion and nodded her chin toward Chullu. “Dr. Kumar and I helped you with his birth a few months ago.” She glanced at the top of the ridge. “Several miles on the other side of that peak.”
So this was the doctrini who had attended to me! She was responsible for saving my Chullu; I owed her a great deal. I brought my hands together and reached down to touch her feet. “Thank you, Doctor. If not for you—”
She bent to stop me, covering my hands with hers. That was when I noticed the finest henna work I had ever seen on a woman’s hands. It looked like the elegant bead-and-sequin work on a wedding chunni—almost as if she were wearing gloves made of an intricately patterned chiffon fabric. It was with an effort that I tore my eyes away from her hands. She was speaking again.
“It is my husband, Dr. Kumar, you have to thank. Up at Lady Reading Hospital,” she said. “I’m not a doctor. I work with him to help ease the pain during and after childbirth. I’m glad to see you and the baby so healthy.”
I noticed that she made no mention of my husband, for which I was grateful. The intense pain I had felt upon first losing Dev had narrowed now into a trickle of hurt, only perceptible at certain moments—like when my eyes fell upon the amulet of Shivaji that Dev used to wear around his neck and that I now draped around the statue of the God in my home.
Turning away from the woman and my thoughts of Dev, I began wrapping peonies in old newspaper. I heard the young man ask my children which creature they would like the balloon vendor to make for them. I glanced at him, crouched in front of the children’s basket. Chullu stared, mesmerized.
“Please…it is not necessary,” I said.
The man with my husband’s eyes turned to me and said. “No, it is not necessary.” He kept smiling at me until I had to turn away, my face flushed with heat.
I busied myself with the flowers. When the woman tried to pay me, I waved her money away. “I could never repay you enough, Ji.”
But the woman pressed money into my palm anyway and said, “You can repay me by feeding them well,” pointing at the children, who were now playing with the elephant balloon the young man had bought for them.
The doctrini asked, “Will you make sure you have some peonies for me tomorrow as well? And I should take some yarrow while I’m here.”
As the couple began walking away with their purchases, I called after them, “MemSahib, may I know your name?”
Without breaking her stride, the woman with the blue eyes turned her head and grinned at me. “Mrs. Kumar. Lakshmi Kumar. And yours?”
She pointed to the young man, who had turned to face me and was now walking backward to keep pace with her. “This is Malik—Abbas Malik—who will pick up a regular order of flowers from you every few days.”
Malik stopped to salaam me, grinned, and ran to catch up with her.