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Authors: Robin Mukherjee

Hillstation

HILLSTATION

Dreaming of escape from his remote village in the Himalayan foothills, Rabindra entreats the gods to send him an English bride. When a saucy English dance troupe arrives on the run from a Bombay crime boss, Rabindra believes that his prayers have been answered. Except that they have no interest in marrying anyone. As the village begins to unravel in the presence of these scandalous foreigners, surprising secrets emerge from the depths of its past.

A story of true love, coincidence, causality and sacrifice. In some ways it is a love-poem to a glorious, intriguing and sometimes frustrating culture still alive in the far corners of a great continent, but slowly fading to the onslaught of the technological age.

About the Author

Robin Mukherjee was born in London to German-Indian parents. During the 1960s his family home became a meeting place for Indian dancers and musicians performing in the UK, from which he developed a life-long love of the Indian classical arts. Later, he worked for the Sanskritik Festival of Arts of India presenting dance and music at the South Bank, and on tour throughout the country. After forming a theatre company to produce his plays, he received his first commission from the BBC, and has subsequently written extensively for television and radio. His first feature film, set in India, won the Audience Prize at the London Film Festival. His most recent film,
Lore
, has won numerous awards world-wide. He was nominated for a BAFTA for his original series,
Combat Kids
, for CBBC. He lives in Winchester with his wife and son.

Thanks are due to many for the genesis and fruition of this book. So, a bow to Ion Mills, Claire Watts and Clare Quinlivan at Oldcastle Books, and to Kesh Naidoo my editor – without you this wouldn't be. I must also thank Tony Dinner who taught me about writing, and Harry Quinton who taught me about life. Thanks also to Neil Taylor who believed in
Hillstation
from the start, and to my family here for all their support. Finally, my thanks to all the great souls from Charu Rekha, and their families, who gave me sweets, hugs, and a place to call home. This book is for all of you.

1

In the village where I
grew up everybody was either a god or a goddess. Rama, The Omnipotent Face of Cosmic Consciousness, ran the tobacco kiosk. Across the road, Brahma, The Supreme Creator Of All Beings, shoes peppered with crimson spittle, did a roaring trade in betel leaves. Saraswati, The Goddess of Wisdom, swept the dust of our houses from one room to the other, while Divine Lakshmi, Consort of the Heavens, made yak's wool hats that itched your head and never quite lost the smell of yak however much you beat them. But the greatest of all deities was Mahadev, meaning ‘The Greatest Of All Deities'. He was a Doctor and had been to England. I called him Dev, an omission of syllables for which our father used to clip my ear over supper. Dev himself never seemed to mind. And me? Well, I was Rabindra, the Sun-god. Rabin for short. I blazed in the heavens and did as I was told.

Mahadev was the pride of our family since there's not a lot in this world to be more proud of than having a son who has been to England and is a Doctor. Although Father never missed an opportunity to mention it, Dev was a little more diffident, shrugging modestly whenever so introduced.Still, he practised his art with an assiduousness that did credit to his training. His white coat, freshly ironed by my sisters at the beginning of each day, would come back crumpled and stained by the end of it, sometimes from the various liquids used for his private research into the application of alcohol for sterilisation purposes, and sometimes by the practice, which he assured me was a peculiarly English affectation, of wiping his nose on his sleeve.

I must admit that sometimes I wished it had been me who'd gone to England and become a Doctor, except that a family like ours could only afford the one ticket, plus I was too stupid. And so, however much I might have dreamed of personal glories in that little bit of the heart where personal glories are dreamed of, Dev was the Number One Son and the Number One Son goes to England. The Number Two Son cleans up after him and speaks when he's spoken to.

Pol used to laugh at me. Pol was my closest friend in the sense that I didn't have any others. He'd catch me sometimes wondering how it might have been if I'd been the Number One Son or if Dev had simply never existed.

‘What sort of a universe would it be,' he'd tease, ‘without The Greatest Of All Gods? A directionless potage of meaningless nonsense jostling about for no good purpose.'

‘But at least I'd have gone to England.'

‘This is mere fancy!' he'd retort. ‘For the very existence of a universe implies the pre-existence of its impelling cause, in the absence of which there would be no England for you to go to, even if you existed which you wouldn't, at least in a tangibly manifest form.'

‘Sometimes,' I said once, ‘we can take our names too seriously.' And he had stopped laughing for a while.

Pol was among the very few in our village who wasn't named after a god, the others being his two brothers and four – or was it five? – sisters. Pol's father was not only low-born but a self-declared atheist, which made him even lower than low-born. He was also the richest man in the village, a fact regarded as further proof, if it were needed, of his spiritual degeneracy.

Sometimes the snow-capped mountains glistening in the afternoon sun felt like a prison. Even their lilting streams trickling down the green foothills seemed to laugh at me as I kicked at their stones. In the winter, with its cold fog seeping through the clammy hollowness of my heart, they felt like a grave.

Pol and I would often sneak up to the pastures after work. We had long agreed that leaving home was the only way to find ultimate happiness if, indeed, it was ultimate happiness that we sought. I thought an aeroplane would do the trick. We could see their silver beads circling the sky above us, a trail of pale feathers thinning in the blue air behind them. And though we knew there was an airstrip somewhere on the plains below, we also knew we could never muster the bus fare, never mind a ticket to England. Pol thought a credible alternative was to spiritually transcend our personal identifications and unite with the Absolute Being that was both nowhere and everywhere. It annoyed me sometimes that he tried to resolve any discomfort, mental or physical, with metaphysics. I kept telling him that as a low-born he had no business with all that. He'd reply that he was making a start and, in a thousand lives or so, would have earned his thread, the sacred symbol of Brahminical purity that tickled my chest, and which I used to get told off for sucking. He'd poke at mine and say if I wasn't careful, in a thousand lives or so I'd end up like him or worse. ‘What could be worse?' I'd say. ‘My father,' he'd answer. And we'd both laugh

On other days those daunting peaks, each a reminder that our little twitch of life was hardly a snow-flake on the timeless folds of their mighty flanks, offered a kind of solace. We'd gaze from scented banks of wild flowers at a sky that could have been anywhere. Then we'd chase each other round the trees, our laughter bouncing across the mountains in fading jolts like the final arguments of a dying advocate. And perhaps that is what Pol meant by transcendence. Forgetting who you are and to whom you belong; a momentary ease of the sweet, sharp ache for a life you would never live.

In winter it was harder to get up there. Even our seasoned wood collectors could stray in the fog, their weeping families waiting for Spring when they could shoo the crows from an eyeless face gazing darkly back at a scuff mark on some precipitous ledge.

So far as my father was concerned, Pol was forbidden company. He would rail over supper sometimes if he suspected I'd met him somehow. I was never sure what gave me away, a smile on my face perhaps. Even Dev, though he was incapable of being cross for very long, felt obliged to chide me when I crept in late.

‘Pol is not of our caste,' he'd intone, solemnly. ‘And if you consort with him again I shall be obliged to inform our revered Pater.'

To be honest, I quite liked it when Dev told me off, his already-polished accent growing so sharp you could slice a mango with it, while his voice, deepened after the English manner, would plummet another five keys, breathy vowels pouncing softly on the trembling air.

‘Talk to me of England,' I would say sometimes, lounging on his bed, at the end of a long day, Dev glancing round from the text-books on his desk.

His room, I thought, must be the grandest bedroom in all of Pushkara. Not only was it the largest room in our house but Dev had made it a shrine to all things English, with fabulous posters of red buses, policemen with blue temples on their heads and the secret underground city, connected with coloured tunnels, that lies beneath the London most people know. Sometimes I'd pick through his display of Limited Edition Kings and Queens of England Egg Cups or his Isle of Sheppey Summer Festival Souvenir Mugs. Most striking was the great flag pinned over his door with its dizzy stripes flashing in all directions like an accidental sniff of Entonox. This was the gaudy emblem of the United Kingdom, also known as Great Britain, The British Isles, The Yookay, or simply ‘England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland'. He tried to explain it all to me once but I could never make sense of it.

‘Rabin,' he'd sigh, ‘have I not already told you all there is to tell?'

‘Tell me again,' I'd plead, ‘about the University of Oxford Street and the River Thames on foggy mornings, of Sherlock Holmes who knew a Lemon Tree when he saw one, the bridge that splits in half, the market where cockneys flog their petticoats half to death, and the rhyming slang you learnt from an orphaned pick-pocket in the back-alleys of a rat-infested slum.'

And he would smile wistfully, eyes turned to the distant rhapsody of remembered lands.

And once I said, ‘Tell me about English girls.'

Over supper that evening, Father's mood seemed especially severe. Had I seen Pol that day, yesterday or, for that matter, any other day within the past twelve months? When? Where? And what did we get up to?

I told him we'd met by chance after clinic and wandered up to the hills to chase rabbits.

‘And your chores?' he demanded. ‘Neglected, obviously, or you wouldn't have time to associate with untouchables while your sisters toil their finger to its bone and your beloved brother, bless his sacred name, keeps the village alive with unyielding diligence.'

‘They were done,' I replied.

‘Sloppily, no doubt,' grunted Father. ‘I know your sort. Idly doing as little as you can, wishing you'd done what you had to do when you had the chance to do it, but too late, you did that which you should not have done and now you pay the price!'

‘Please, Father,' I said, mopping water from the table where he'd thumped it, ‘I can assure you that everything is clean and tidy for tomorrow.'

Father looked at Dev for confirmation but Dev was picking his teeth, brows furrowed with concentration.

‘I know what is meant by “clean and tidy”,' Father growled. ‘Everything heaped into drawers after a cursory wipe from some grubby cloth you washed the floors with. Has no instruction dawned in that obstinate darkness you call a brain? Microbes and filth. That is the enemy.' Father stared at me. ‘Or are you a friend now to microbes and filth? Do you run off to frolic in the hills with microbes and filth? Well?'

My sisters gazed at their plates.

‘Dev has often explained to me the importance of clinical hygiene,' I said.

‘
Maha
dev,' said Father, lifting his hand.

‘If the tools are not properly sterilised…' I continued.

‘Instruments,' sighed Dev, looking up now. ‘Really, Rabindra, they are more properly called instruments. Carpenters use tools. Doctors use instruments.'

‘Anyway,' said Father, impatiently now, ‘never mind tools and instruments. What's this about girls?'

My sisters gasped.

‘Girls?' I said.

Father laid his fishbone beside his plate with a deliberation that rarely signalled impending levity. ‘You asked Mahadev about girls,' he said.

One of my sisters started sobbing so loudly she had to leave the table.

‘Um, I don't know,' I said. ‘We were talking about various things, anything really, and the question sort of popped out.'

‘Sort of?' he spluttered. ‘What is this “sort of”? Is it a word? A phrase? Does it have anything to do with even the minimum standards of linguistic dignity expected in this household? Hnn?'

It was probably something I'd heard Pol use. Pol would have got it from his father who might have heard it on the plains where he went to do business. But you didn't mention the city on the plains in good company, certainly not over supper and never in the same breath as any reference, whatever the context, to Pol's father, so I said nothing.

‘If you are interested in girls,' said Father, ‘we shall find you one. After all, you are twenty now. That's almost a man.'

‘Twenty two,' I corrected.

‘It is more than years that maketh us', he snarled, quoting, I supposed, some ancient phrase the context of which was long forgotten.

Mother didn't say anything because she was dead. But I wondered what she might have said if she hadn't been. Once, in her last year, she had gripped my hand, whispering in the breathless voice she had towards the end, ‘Rabin my sweet, if you do one sensible thing in your life, marry the person you love, not some insufferable idiot who farts at night.' And I'd noticed a tear in her eye, which I brushed away because she no longer had the strength to do it herself.

I don't know why Dev had told Father that I'd asked about girls. I expect he was just trying to do the right thing, although Father might have instructed him to mention it the moment I gave any indication of a readiness for matrimony. It was village wisdom that marrying too early could result in the failure to procreate while marrying too late bred only resentment. Just a few years ago, one of the Gupta sons had been wedded before he'd properly understood why men and women get together at night. She became a regular visitor to the clinic where Dev performed every test he could think of but still couldn't fathom why she hadn't conceived. I personally took her temperature once a week for three months, carefully noting the results which Dev would cross-reference with fluctuations in her blood pressure. Nothing was out of the ordinary. A couple of times he asked me to measure her ankles just in case. I remember the embarrassment as she lifted her sari.

‘I am so sorry,' I said, trying to apply the tape-measure without touching her, ‘but this is a critical and most instructive test by which, I am sure, my brother will finally establish the cause of your failure to reproduce.'

At which she cried pitifully.

Her husband was furious when he found out that Dev had let me perform the tests, turning up with his mother, father, brother, sisters, uncles, aunts and other assorted members of the family who huffed indignantly behind him on the doorstep while he declared that he'd paid for a Doctor not the Clinic Skivvy and had therefore been swindled. Dev pointed out that under his expert tutelage I was now qualified to carry out a wide variety of examinations and that he alone had been responsible for their interpretation.

In fact Dev was allowing me to do more and more in the clinic these days, my duties extending to lancing boils, ear-examinations, eye-examinations, skin-scrapes and the holding of urine samples up to the light to see if there was anything odd about them. He even allowed me to choose the medication if I thought someone looked pale, sweaty or not quite themselves today. It made me a lot busier but allowed him to use his time more profitably, as he put it, furthering his important research.

In the end, it was that year's holy man who had sorted the Guptas out. We'd get holy men turning up every few years after a sign-post on the plains had fallen over and been incorrectly resurrected. They'd arrive in search of some hallowed shrine on the other side of the hills, demanding their promised abode by the sacred well. When their mistake was pointed out they usually declared that destiny had led them here until, after a month or so, they'd realise that it hadn't.

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