Tear down the temple,
Tear down the mosque,
Tear down whatever you can,
But don’t tear down anyone’s heart
For that is where God lives.
– Bulleh Shah, Sufi Poet
When Ruth finally returned to Mussoorie, it was late August, late monsoon, late in the day. Mist was rolling up from the valley like a brooding spirit, seeping into the hollows between hills, crawling over boulders, drowning trees. From her open window on the bus she felt it slip over her arm, smelling of damp earth and wood smoke.
Ahead, the town lay splattered across the ridge like the contents of an upended rubbish bin. It was bigger now than in her time and even more crowded. Buildings shouldered each other along the steep slivers of road – restaurants and trinket shops, grey hovels and multi-storey concrete blocks – all bound together by a tangle of wires, washing lines and battered signs. Amongst them, the colonial bungalows hunkered under their rusting roofs as if trying to shut out the coarseness of the modern age, while Victorian frontages sat forlorn and streaked with damp. Even the newer hotels, with their giant billboards and balcony rooms, seemed tired from the holiday makers and the relentless rain.
She got off the bus at Paramount Picture House, which was the same as ever with sodden film posters peeling off the walls and the ticket window broken. It looked as though someone had preserved it for her in formaldehyde, like the specimens in the Bio lab at school squeezed into their watery yellow graves: a shrew, a cobra, a heart. They’d made her skin crawl, as had the cases of beetles stabbed into place, and the stuffed pheasant, gathering dust and losing feathers. She’d flunked her Bio O level and been forced to stand before her father in his office as he read out all her results and asked what in heaven’s name she thought she was doing at school. Little did he know, and little would she tell him.
He himself had been at the same place in the ‘30s and ‘40s, faring much better in biology and donating those very beetles when he left. Ruth wondered if they were still there, casting their disapproving eyes over the current crop of failures. It would be easy to discover, for Oaklands School lay just a few miles away on the neighbouring ridge.
An old coolie approached her with a gnarled hand and an uncertain smile, revealing one brown tooth. At her nod, he stuffed her backpack into his basket and followed her silently up through the bazaar. She felt like a ghost, a wraith trespassing from another world, a specimen once pinned up for example, now crawling back.
It was disturbing how the place had gone on without her, lending a feeling of callous indifference, betrayal even. As if her sudden departure hadn’t mattered to anybody here; that the loss was all hers and not theirs. Things had clearly carried on, apparently much the same. The row of shawl shops, the Tibetan stalls, the Hotel Hill Queen. Even the tin shacks at the side of the road were still perched on their stilts like a row of rusting herons that had lost the will to migrate.
But some things were different. The hole-in-the wall booths that used to offer STD calls now included internet access and mobile top-up; alongside the garish postcards of gods and Bollywood film stars a new pantheon of American celebrities jostled for space; and the racks of walking-sticks and macramé pot-hangers were replaced with microwaves, televisions and cappuccino machines. Ruth wasn’t sure what felt worse: the things that were exactly as she had left them, or the ones that had changed.
As she passed the Clock Tower, she saw a satellite dish jutting above Mrs Chatterji’s Antique Shop and a goat tied at the door. Inside, the gloomy cavern was crammed to the ceiling with the debris of the raj: china plates, snuff boxes and umbrella stands slumbering together under layers of dust. The first time Ruth had been here she must have been about six, brought by her father, though she couldn’t remember why. He’d stood for a long time staring at a mounted buck’s head on the wall while she played with a prayer mat, pretending it was a flying carpet. Then he’d got snappy and they’d had to leave. It was one of the many things he would never explain.
Next door, The World Famous Sex Specialist was closed. He always had been. The signage showed a robust couple squaring off in their underpants – his blue, hers red – and though the paintwork was faded, the contact details for Haldiram Panday and Sons were still clearly legible in English, Hindi and Urdu. In Ruth’s Class of ’85 yearbook there was a picture of Abishek posing next to the sign in slicked hair and sleazy grin. Underneath he’d scrawled, “It takes one to know one. Love always, A. PS Stay in touch!” He was just trying to be funny, to make light of things, but it had cut her. She’d blacked out his words with a marker pen and cried. And she had not stayed in touch.
Further along the street, she saw Godiwala Plastics, still bristling with buckets and brooms and a comprehensive selection of soap dishes. On the front step lay a blue basin, exactly like the one from the foot-washing scene in The Gospel of Jyoti. It made her stop. At the back of the store, the elderly proprietor sat on a low stool, sipping a glass of tea, spectacles thick and fogged with steam. Mr Godiwala looked as ancient as always. Whenever her mother used to ask how he was, his face would crinkle with smiles. “Evergreen!” he would say, tilting his head at the wonder of it. “Evergreen!”
Ellen had come up from Kanpur every June to visit Ruth and Hannah. She took them out of boarding for the month, usually staying in Fairview Guesthouse or renting a musty cottage that had been shut up for the winter. It was an ancient migration pattern of many of the missionaries with children at Oaklands, repairing to the hills for the month that was hottest in the plains and busiest at the school, though by the eighties missionary numbers were declining and their traditions dying out. Ellen had sometimes managed another visit in October but this was always short and never promised. When it happened, Ruth clung to those few days like a life ring, returning to the dorm at the end with a tin of peanut butter fudge and a face full of tears.
Ahead, where the road was so narrow that a car could barely squeeze through, she hesitated at Baba’s Sweet Shop. It was bathed in a greasy yellow light, its laddus and barfi piled in precisely the same formation as before. A man was coiling jalebis into a vat of sizzling oil and she wondered about getting some as an arrival gift, but when he glanced up she turned away. They were all the same, the shopkeepers, and she recognised them, still sitting behind their glass counters as if they hadn’t moved in all this time. But when they looked at her keenly, trying to see behind the sunglasses, she walked on. She was not ready to be remembered yet.
On the curve past the Hindu temple the monkeys were ravaging the offerings on the front steps. They squabbled and cuffed each other, shrieked, scampered up the electricity poles and over window frames, leaving rice and flowers spilled across the road and into the gutters. The streets smelled dank. For two months the rain had soaked into the rubbish and dung, the blackened fruit, the roadside mud. The place was swollen with it. Buildings sagged, their signboards curling, doors jamming, breathing out mould.
It was like every August always had been when she came back to boarding after the summer vacation and a bleak spirit made its home in her soul.
Behind her, a car braked and blasted its horn as it nearly collided with a Land Rover coming in the opposite direction. Ruth was forced off the road and into a doorway. The Land Rover was a heaving, snorting thing covered in rust; the car a sleek Jaguar with black windows. A dark pane slid down, releasing a barrage of rock music and a swearing head, and though the other driver swore just as fiercely, money triumphed and the Land Rover had to back up fifty feet while the car swished past. Ruth caught a glimpse of a man in the back seat in sports jacket and sunglasses. Delhi Spik, she thought and screwed up her face as her nose filled with fumes.
Climbing higher and higher, she reached the top of the bazaar at Mullingar Hotel and motioned for her coolie to stop. He lowered himself onto the steps of a corner store, grunting as he eased the basket strap from his head and tugged off his dirty cap. From his waistcoat he pulled out a bidi and matches. Beside him on a rack of newspapers, Ruth noticed a headline. Hindus Clash With Christians in Orissa Frenzy! Photos of a bellowing mob, a burning church, a man with blood on his hands.
Out of breath and feeling the sweat on her back starting to cool, she untied the sweatshirt round her waist, tugged it over her head and then dug in her bum bag for her own cigarettes. Lighting up, she looked across at Mullingar Hotel. Why it was called that she didn’t know, for it was a slum and had been for as long as she’d known it. A labyrinth of tin shacks and lean-tos huddled around the original buildings, some of which now teetered four floors above the cliff. Make-shift stairs and banisters were hammered onto the sloping verandas, and the roof was a patchwork of tin sheets, fringed with broken guttering. The space above the dirt courtyard was webbed with Tibetan prayer flags and strings of washing. A faded Chicago Bulls T-shirt lifted to the air along with Om Mane Padme Hum. Crusty socks beneath The Jewel of Heaven. A bed sheet for The Tara Goddess.
There was no sign of the Momo Hut.
In front of Mullingar the road forked. To the west, it continued up the ridge in a series of tight switch-backs to the chakkar, the circular road at the top of the hill. To the east, it levelled out and became Tehri Road, the long ribbon that traversed the Garwhal hills all the way to Tehri city and beyond.
Ruth walked along it to the spot where the view opened and she could see Oaklands. The school roofs were red as apples in the forest, the playgrounds small swept clearings. It was like a scene from a fairy-tale with woodchoppers, witches and wandering maidens. She stood looking at it for a long time. It was twenty-four years since she’d seen it last; since she – no maiden – had left this place, this mountain, this life.
Now she was forty-one and supposed to be grown up.
She pulled deep on her cigarette and blew hard, momentarily blotting the school in a cloud of smoke. She’d been expelled.
The word sounded like a swift and violent ridding of something venomous; a spitting out of the poison apple. That must have been how the school saw things. But for her it had been far worse. More like a severing, a hacking off from one’s tree; being made out-caste, not just from Oaklands, but from family, home and, worse still, history. Three generations of proud missionary heritage broken by her dramatic fall.
Eventually, the expulsion had become a self-imposed exile. She’d made no conscious decision to stay away, but as more time had passed and she was less and less the sort of person they would welcome here, the prospect of return had become impossible.
Until now. Till he was dying and she had to come back.
Ruth flicked her stub onto the muddy road and ground it with her shoe. In clipped sing-song English she gave the coolie directions to Shanti Niwas and pointed up a small path that climbed between the two roads.
“Please take my bag there and tell to them I will come soon, yeh?” she said, and kicked herself that her childhood Hindi lay sleeping like a dog. She wanted to kick it– the lazy cur – hurl stones at it, beat it with sticks till it rose and did her bidding instead of leaving her shackled to this mute gesturing, this silly broken English. But then she sighed. Its dormancy was not sloth but neglect. She’d not fed the thing since she left here. She hoped it wasn’t dead.
Once the coolie had set off, his plastic shoes squeaking with his tread, Ruth turned in the opposite direction and took the left road to the top of the hill.