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DEATH ON THE MOUNTAIN

*

‘Hello! Hello!’ the voice shouted, ‘hello! Hello! Hello-o-o-o!

An outstretched arm held an outstretched hand that clasped mine in a grip of steel.

‘Welcome to Mathwad!’

He shook it and took it and wouldn’t let go, dragging me bodily across the courtyard and onto his porch. I had no idea who he was.

‘Guest is God!’ he shouted over his shoulder.

I didn’t believe a word of it. In India the more grovel and scrape, the more cause for suspicion. I knew he was on a secret mission. The mission was definitely Dogster.

The Maharana of Mathwad was a likeable rogue; entertaining, if a little overwhelming; a sprightly chap in his late sixties with fine grey hair and piercing eyes. Unfortunately, the Rana looked a great deal more intelligent than he was. Whippet-thin and rather small, he made up for his size with volume.

‘I’m sure we’ll be very good friends,’ Rana roared, ‘we’ll have great adventures, lots of fun, jolly japes and wheezes…’

He appointed himself my personal guide and would-be merchant banker, shamelessly attached himself to me and the prospect of my millions then flattered, faffed and fawned relentlessly, all in a feeble attempt to separate this fool from his imaginary money. He’d convinced himself, on no evidence at all, that I was here for a greater purpose – destiny had delivered Dogster to Mathwad.

I would make his dreams come true.

The front porch was huge, an explosion of dead relatives. His father and his father’s father hung crooked on the wall, their portraits in a state of progressive decay. His father was mouldy, his grand-pa had worms – by the time we got to his father’s father’s father there was more decay than progression; his poor father’s father’s father’s Dad was just a broken, empty frame.

Everything was crumbling, just like the Rana, gently subsiding back into the earth from whence it came. Paint peeled, mould grew, rust crawled lazily down the plumbing – vice-regal rack ran riot through the walls, hotly pursued by relentless, princely ruin.

The main entrance was dominated by the front half of a petrified tiger. It was a rather strange talisman. Not only had it been shot, stuffed and sliced in two, the poor old thing had been wrapped like a Christo installation, completely tied up in clear plastic, knots and string.

There seemed to be a goat in the bedroom. It wasn’t wearing high heels or anything strange but did appear to be very much at home. I felt compelled to record the moment but my host rapidly shut the door, kicked at a cluck of chickens and directed me to one of the more structurally sound of the chairs.

The Laxminivas Palace was built in the glory days by Rana Baght Singh Ji, ruler of Mathwad State, a tiny kingdom in the Vindhyachal mountain ranges of Madhya Pradesh. Once it was home to some of the thickest teak forests in India – now the Palace was all that was left. The Raj rolled through and logged the trees; the soil eroded – monsoon, heat and corruption did the rest. Rana’s legacy had blown away.

His ancestral land was summarily acquired by the forestry regeneration program decades ago – of course, they hadn’t planted a single tree. He was fighting in the courts for compensation – as he had been for the last fifteen years – they were waiting for him to shut up or die, whichever was quickest. Like the old tiger in his palace, he’d been long stuffed, long sliced; tied up with knots, plastic and string for years.

He sat beside me, much too close. This was, he told me enthusiastically, a heritage-hotel-to-be. Alas, as his heritage hotel had no bedrooms, staff, running water, kitchen or toilets it had no guests, either – he just needed a li-i-i-i-ittle investment.

One hand grasped my knee like a vice. He leant over, his face only inches from mine. I swear I felt his tongue slither in my ear. I couldn’t tell if he meant business or pleasure. Maybe he just thought that if he stuck his tongue in my ear I’d give him money. It’s worked in the past.

*

An hour later we were high in those same Vindhyachal Mountains, deep in Adivasi country, crunching our way up the side of a very steep hill. Rana Singh was determined to show me something on the top of it. I had no idea why.

‘All this was teak forests,’ he said wistfully, ‘all this was my land…’

Mukesh was silent, stoically negotiating the increasingly treacherous landscape. The vegetation fell away – just rocks, a rough road bumping up, up, up to the peak. Mukesh thought this is the edge of the world.

‘Go, go…’ waved the old man airily.

‘Yes, sir,’ he muttered. He was nervous.

The kid had gone very quiet – but then he didn’t have much option, Rana Singh hadn’t stopped talking since we left the palace. We’re grinding up, up the mountain, the road getting worse, further and further from safety. Mukesh is not happy. This isn’t a four wheel drive. We pass an abandoned green Vespa by the side of the road. That’ll be us, soon.

‘Ah-hah!’ yelped the ebullient Mr. Singh, ‘that’s my son!’

Evidently a religious youth, Singh Jr. spent his holidays bumping around on his bike from pilgrimage site to site. Some Indians do this. By a quirk of fate he was ahead of us, trudging up the hill to the unknown thing on the top.

We were very high now with just one more hurdle to overcome. A newly cut road led to the tip of the mountain. It was very steep indeed. On one side was a precipitous slope than ran uninterrupted to the valley a very long way below. If you went over you would roll and bounce forever, I thought, tumbling to Shiva – till the final crunch, the darkness and tinkle of grace.

‘Go, go!’ Mr. Singh hissed, ‘get some speed up!’

Mukesh hesitated.

‘Go, go!’

He’s between a rock and a Rana. How can he say no? Mukesh wasn’t the first young Indian to be urged into destruction by an old man in a hurry. He took a deep breath and rammed his foot on the accelerator. We gunned up the road.

*

About two thirds of the way to the top things went horribly wrong. Suddenly we slowed to a stop, surrounded by a growing cloud of dust instead of view. The wheels began to spin in the dirt, the brakes seemed to lock, useless against the soft, dry surface of the road. We were going nowhere with the force of gravity working hard against us. The wheels whipped up more dust but steadfastly refused to move, spinning more furiously, achieving nothing. We hovered there for a while churning up earth – then slowly, slowly, the car started to slide.

We were slipping backwards and slewing sideways. On my side was that unbroken slope to the valley floor, on the other a two-foot ditch where the road had been chopped into the hillside. None of us had any control. The car was going to go where the car was going to go; only swirling dust and destiny stood between us and the edge.

In slow motion the car bucked, shuddered and skewed diagonally across the road. Boof! We hit the hill then toppled gently backwards into the ditch – which, I guess, was the better of the two options. It was noon. We could not go up and we could not go down. One wheel hung spinning over the edge.

Dogster was too stupid to be scared. He left that till later.

The tiny shrine at the peak was completely undistinguished, scarcely worth a detour two and a half thousand feet up a cliff. I couldn’t quite see why I was here in the first place. Was this Hindi hovel the reason? It was pretty enough, nestled under a solitary old teak tree. Outside were a dozen or so pottery horses, inside a rounded lump of stone painted red, the usual oil stains and a pile of coconut shells; nothing very special to me. Two small Adivasi boys appeared from nowhere. They sat and looked at me, solemn, unblinking. I looked solemnly back.

Mr. Singh puffed up beside me.

‘My son is here!’ he gasped, ‘everything will be all right!’

I saw the desperate twinkle in those old foolish eyes.

‘Look!’ he waved his arm to divert me, ‘look, look! Narmada!’

There she was – a broad ribbon of brown far down below; the holy river created from a drop of Shiva sweat. I’ve always liked the Narmada. No time to linger on the view, Rana Singh was getting tactile again. I moved away. He followed. I could feel a tongue coming on.

‘I would like to build a hill-station here,’ he crooned, leaning over and clasping my shoulders, ‘a wonderful tourist resort…’

I had a flash of irritation – so this was why the old bugger had dragged me up here to death on the mountain.

‘Look at this view, my friend, just imagine what we could do. We just need a li-i-i-i-ittle investment…’

I told him gently and very firmly I wasn’t interested in investing in his heritage hotel, his hill-station or anything else. Not now, not ever and please, don’t do that tongue thing again. Perhaps I was a little direct.

He stopped pawing me and moved away abruptly, rather confused, exactly like a jilted lover. His scenario wasn’t going to plan. In his fantasy life, a rich man would arrive from heaven, see his heritage-hotel/hill-station-in-embryo, fall in love and immediately invest. Well, here I was and I wouldn’t. I don’t think he had a contingency plan for that.

His disappointment was so complete I couldn’t bring myself to be cruel.

‘I think we should invest our time, my friend, in getting ourselves out of here.’

‘Ah-h-h, yes, there are a few small problems there…’

He laughed just a little too loudly. I could see the fillings in his teeth – even they had eroded.

‘Don’t worry, everything will be absolutely fine.’

I knew he was lying, I could see it in his eyes.

‘So, what’s up with the car?’

If I didn’t bring the topic up nobody would.

‘Well, we can’t use the car,’ he giggled, ‘everything is too dangerous. Slippery, slidey…’

He waved his hands and pulled a face. I didn’t care for that giggle.

‘Did you call to get someone to pick up us up?

There was an unexpected pause. He cleared his throat, ever so slightly, braced himself and replied.

‘Well, of course, you know there’s no mobile signal up here.’

The situation had dramatically worsened – or become more ridiculous, depending on my current state of mind. It veered from one to the other. I could see a couple of houses way, way, wa-a-a-aay below.

‘Is there a village taxi?’

‘There is no village.’

‘A car?’

‘These are tribal people. Nobody has cars. There are no cars.’

‘A tractor?’

‘They are too poor for tractors.’

‘Maybe some men could come up and carry the car down.’

‘Tomorrow is bhagoria. Now everybody is drunk.’

‘Everybody?’

He nodded solemnly.

‘Can we walk?’

‘That would be very dangerous…’

‘Why?’

I already knew the answer.

‘Tribals…’

Down there in the valley was a whole other world. Isolated, in-bred and intense, clusters of Adivasi festered at the presence of strangers, eager for an enemy to embrace. If it wasn’t us it would have to be them. Tribal life was a succession of tiny explosions – they were necessary to pass the time. Locked in the darkness of the hills, family conflicts became feuds, long-running hatreds stretched over decades – it was a relief to have someone new to hate.

We had delivered ourselves, abandoned ourselves and sat like fat sheep for the slaughter. This was truly a bhagoria gift. I was probably the first foreigner they had seen in their area – now they could boil me up for dinner and pick their teeth with the car.

Of course, Rana didn’t tell me any of this – it wasn’t in his best interests. I was a tourist mushroom, to be fed shit and kept in the dark.

*

Now, if anyone could solve a problem in the district, it should be the local Rana.

Unfortunately, since the local Rana had created the problem, he was in no rush to ask for anybody’s help. Why? Because then everybody would know there had been a problem.

Everything was pride, potential loss of face for this old goat. Not only had he killed a car, he’d nearly killed a foreigner. His automotive disgrace was there on the hillside for all to see – with the sun glinting on the windshield it was a twinkling beacon of stupidity. Once people saw the rich man on top of the mountain they would know exactly what he was up to. My kindly, tactile Rana was trying to sell me someone else’s land.

Now he had no way out, no phone, no car. Conceit would not call the cavalry; he would rather we all just sat there and died. My guide and mentor stared into space, trying to look intelligent. His mind was a perfect, strangled blank.

So we all sat there respectfully while he wrestled with the obvious, sat there while he searched for a way out of the labyrinth he’d created for himself. There was absolutely nothing I could do about any of it other than stay sanguine, so I sat some more, simmered and looked at the view, trying to forgive him for bringing me here in the first place.

I had the feeling this was how Rana Singh spent a lot of his life – like the car, he’d become trapped on the dirt road. He couldn’t go forward and he couldn’t go back. He was blithely ineffectual in a crisis, a crumbling ruin about to collapse. All he had were dreams. They just need a li-i-ittle investment…

*

Singh Jr. was a university fellow, an ivy league, clean-living, quick-thinking, dependable Eagle Scout who, if he wasn’t such a nerd, would be a captain in the Army. He probably studied quantum physics and nuclear fission as well but, in the Indian manner, was still too scared to smoke a cigarette in front of his father.

He strode manfully up the hill with Mukesh and a gaggle of local children, having propped the car against further disaster. He was strangely full of beans.

‘Hopeless,’ Singh Jr. said with a broad smile, ‘everything is completely hopeless,’ then he laughed.

We shook hands and bonded; I was glad he was there – his father was off with the pixies, Mukesh still hovered in a state of post-traumatic shock – I was feeling kinda stranded. By now it was two p.m. Still, despite all evidence that had lost it, we must wait for the Rana to decide what to do. It was all getting a bit silly.

Reluctantly, after prolonged inaction and much counseling from his son, the old man allowed little boy emissaries to run to the closest village in search of help. They came back ninety interminable minutes later, offering nothing but contempt, only to snatch their baksheesh and run.

Now the tribals know there is trouble on the hill.

Now they know – there’ll be real trouble.

*

The increased urgency provoked a period of urgent inactivity from the Rana. He seemed to have imploded. For a while there I thought he’d nodded off. Time slowed as we all pondered the inevitable. Another thirty minutes went by in agonizing silence. It was obvious that respect for our elders had gone way too far. I sensed that the more the old man lost it, the more Singh Jr. was secretly delighted, as if eagerly waiting the final disintegration.

Four fifteen. By six it will be pitch black. The clock is ticking.

‘Chelo!’

Young Master Singh grasped the initiative. He stood up, beckoned to me then walked away without a word. Positively heroic – but too heroic to tell me what was going on. I waved at Mukesh to make myself feel better. He waved mutely back. Poor Mukesh.

My latest Singh and I strode off down the road in silence, our boots crunching loudly in the dirt. There was nothing; not another tree, not a bush, not a flower – just rocks, just road, just a young man and an old, lame Dog. After five minutes we rounded a bend.

Young Singh turned and smiled broadly.

‘Get on,’ he said.

Of course! The battered green Vespa.

You know those little high pitched sounds you make when you’re really scared? Those little ‘oh-h-h-h-h’ squeaking sounds? There were a lot of them from Mr. Dogster. My eyes stayed shut and I gasped a lot.

Now, I’ve never driven on an ancient motor-scooter down a steep dirt road on the side of a mountain before and I never will again but I didn’t want him to know that. I straddled the Vespa, encircled his waist in a grip of death, closed my eyes and tried not to scream with terror.

Bump, swerve, slide, slither, bump, out of control… down, down, gasp, swerve, slither, bump, ‘argh-h-h! God!’ just shut your eyes, bump, slither. Breathe, breathe, remember to breathe, if you don’t breathe you’ll die…

Of course I didn’t die. All that squeaking was in vain. Young Singh was an expert at downhill Vespa sliding, as hearty young men in Gujarat always are. I felt as safe as I possibly could while slithering over a dirt road down a mountain on a motor-scooter – which, come to think of it, wasn’t really very safe at all.

Now it was five p.m. His father and Mukesh were trapped. Everything rested on him and his heroic dash across enemy territory, the quivering Dogster sobbing on his shoulder. He couldn’t organize any help, anywhere he stopped – but then, it was in nobody’s interests to help him.

*

Mukesh saw the sun flow into the mountains, the candles lit in distant windows, the unsteady swing of a lantern down the hill. They seemed to be getting closer. Cruel laughter blew up in the air around him. He felt a bit alone.

A pair of sandals, his favorite pair of loose white pants and a t-shirt doesn’t cut the mustard at two thousand five hundred feet. Mukesh was cold, he was hungry, his spirits were falling; he knew exactly what an isolated community would make of this little windfall, delivered on the eve of Holi. He can see the lamps moving, grouping far below.

Mukesh knows – he’s a tribal boy. He is Garasia from the north; they are Adivasi from the south. He can expect no more mercy than the car. His boss’s pride and joy would be stripped clean to the dashboard by morning and rolled in flames down the hill. He just didn’t want the same thing to happen to him.

Those lanterns have moved a hundred yards closer.

‘E-e-e-e-e-yah!’ he heard, ‘e-e-e-e-e-yah!’

This was not a rescue party.

*

A trio of temple bells hung in the tree over the Rana’s head. This solitary old tree was the last remnant of the teak forest. It only survived the slaughter of the Raj because of that tiny temple in its roots, left alone to stand sentinel over a spirit. The tree stood there at the edge of the slope, refusing to die or topple. The soil was being blown out from under it, the roots were exposed. Soon the last teak tree would be gone.

The old man stood silent under his tree, a crumpled King Lear staring into the valley, frozen by confusion and pride. He was exquisitely, busily inert.

‘I am Rana,’ he whispered, ‘all this was mine.’

The tree understood. It was all alone too. The setting sun touched the tip of the mountains. A jagged shadow crept solemnly across the valley, ticking off their last moments of safety. A sudden gust of wind sent more dirt flying into space.

The tree knew what was coming – so did Mukesh. Only Rana seemed blind. They all stood silent on the brink of uncertainly, staring at the falling night.

Down below the villagers passed a bottle around. They looked up at the mountain.

‘E-e-e-eyah-h-h!’ one screamed in excitement.

Everyone waited patiently for the last tree to fall.

*

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