So I think this might be my last South Downs story for a while....
The Whispering Chattri
Sunil struck a match and with it, he lit the incense stick that rested in the small glass vase in front of him. A warm sweet aroma swiftly began to diffuse into the thick cool air around him. The scented particles intertwined with the floating particles of music. As he sat on the stone steps of the Chattri, he watched the tiny columns of white smoke swirl upwards into the night sky from the glowing amber tip, he absorbed the faint melodic notes of an old Hindi folk song that resonated around him. The dark navy blue sky was adorned in crystal stars, the contours of the white dome gleamed brilliantly in the moonlight and a wind, a whispering wind, blew softly across the hills. He felt a warmth wash over him then, a calmness. He was home now. He was home.
Sunil repeated this ritual every once in a while when he was feeling particularly homesick. He would walk up the grassy hills from Patcham and settle on the steps of the Chattri where he would chant a prayer, play the same Hindi folk song on his old Nokia, light an incense stick and bask in the warmth. He was back where he belonged. He was back in his small rural village in faraway India.
Sunil stretched his legs out and lay down flat on the step. His head descended onto the icy stone and he gazed up at the dark sky, a weariness travelled through his body and settled within his heart. He hadn't slept much during the night, in fact he couldn't remember the last time he had. Sunil still couldn't get used to sleeping on a bed, he wasn't accustomed to it. His whole life he had slept on a charpai, a bedstead of hemp stretched on a wooden frame held up by its four legs. He couldn't get used to the sinking feeling he would get when he lay on the bed. He would lie awake for hours waiting for sleep to descend upon him, with only his restless thoughts for company. He would find himself wondering how he had arrived there, in that strange town in a foreign land. He would wonder what everyone was doing back home in his village- he could imagine his mum gathering the crops from the fields and his father and brother ploughing the land. He could picture them coming together at nightfall to share roti, salan and stories. Sometimes while he was lost in his thoughts, he would hear the laughter of his flatmates rise up from the lower levels, it offered him a lonely sort of comfort. A distant longing.
As a cool wind blew through him and a single starling flit across the sky, Sunil brought to mind all the images that had made up the day, all the moments. He had woken up at sunrise and walked by the seafront before going in to university to sit his lecture. Afterwards he spent a few hours in the library studying, then at dusk he started his evening shift at Bombay Spice where he worked as a waiter. His mum had called him just as he was about to leave. She didn't call him very often, maybe once a month and he always got that same inexplicable feeling when she did, when he heard her soft voice on the other end of the line. She asked him how he was doing and he dutifully responded that he was doing fine, better than fine, he was doing well. She told him she was cooking daal that evening, his favourite and he would cheerfully reminisce about her cooking and then she regaled him with the goings on in the village. He cherished the brief conversations he shared with her. They made him feel more connected to reality- to his reality and to a way of life that made sense to him.
Sunil felt his eyes well up as he remembered her final words. 'Beta, mujhe tumhari yaad bahut ati hai,' she had said with a deep maternal warmth. Son, I miss you very much. Sunil replied with a gruff, I miss you too mah, before putting the phone down quickly. He felt his sadness rise to the surface and knew his voice was on the verge of breaking. She would know. If he continued talking to her, she would know. She would hear it in his voice- the pain, the loss, the longing to be home again. The words were always on his lips, always. He could never say them. He could never voice the words- Mah, can I come back? Mah, main akela hoon. I am alone. He couldn't burden her with his heavy thoughts and abiding grief. He wouldn't, not after everything she had done for him- everything she had given him and given up for him. No, he would endure it. He would go on. He had to. Sunil slowly closed his eyes and pretended that he was back at home again, lying on his charpai outside under the Indian sky.
Sunil had found out about the Chattri three months ago. Early one morning he was walking by the seafront in Brighton when he came by an old Indian man, a guru named Sri Nagavanshi. He saw Sunil, he saw the troubled look that marred his face and so he called him over in Hindi and asked him questions, a whole series of questions. He asked him about his life and his family and his studies and what had brought him here- to that bright and colourful seaside town and Sunil told him, he told him everything.
He couldn't remember how long they had been there, time seemed to dissipate as they got lost in conversation, otherworldly conversation about the cosmos and the sun and the fields and the constellations. They shared stories and memories of India too- of the smell of gol gappas and sweet jalebis, the colours of the rainbow- reds and yellows and oranges and golds and the cacophony of sounds and the people. They talked a lot about the people- the rickshaw drivers and the shop keepers, the crooks and the beggars and the beautiful women. Sunil couldn't have been more grateful to be there, to have someone to talk to, to connect with. He couldn't have been more grateful to have someone to speak his language with. It was a great gift to be able to communicate in his mother-tongue. A gift he never appreciated till he arrived in England. Soon, as morning gave way to noon and before they parted ways, the wise old guru promised Sunil he would take him to the Chattri, a memorial dedicated to the Indian soldiers who fought and died in the First World War. They would say a prayer together. Sunil agreed, he would surely go. He missed his lecture that morning, it was the first and only lecture he had missed since beginning his degree programme at Brighton University.
A few days later, just before sunrise Sunil met Sri Nagavanshi at the foot of the hill in Patcham and they walked up together in silence. He couldn't describe the feeling he got when he set eyes upon the white dome in the middle of the open hills, in the soft light of dawn. He climbed up the steps behind the old guru and watched as he lit an incense stick and placed it in a small glass vase on the ground. They both performed the ritual chants and then sat down to watch the sunrise. Sunil remembered that morning well, he remembered everything Sri Nagavanshi had told him about the Chattri- the secrets it held, the whispers of his countrymen, the spirits that reigned the hills. He regaled Sunil with the history of the monument and the story of the fifty-three soldiers who were cremated on the hills nearly a hundred years ago. He told Sunil how it happened- how the mourners would gather together at the bottom and the bodies would be carried, they would chant as they crossed the downs. He told him about the rituals. Sunil was familiar with them, but so far removed they were from the land surrounding him, that he couldn't quite seem to picture it- the sprinkling of water on the concrete, the building up of the wood blocks for burning, the exposing of the face, honey and ghee passing though the deceased Indian's lips. Despite being so far from home, from their families and their relatives, they were cremated in the same way as their ancestors. It was a beautiful and comforting thing to know and as Sunil listened to the old man, he felt his connection to the Chattri grow.
Ever since that morning, the morning Sri Nagavanshi had taken him to the memorial, Sunil had felt a great affinity to the stone white Chattri and the fields that surrounded them. He felt an even greater affinity towards the Indian soldiers who were cremated there, the soldiers who had died in a land so far from home. He often went to the Chattri when he was feeling homesick. He would usually hike up at night, when the fields were still and absent and the holy moonlight would bathe the dome.
Sunil was still and calm under the sky. He cherished the moments he spent there resting. It was the only place he could rest. It was the only place he had discovered, since his arrival eighteen months ago, that he felt protected and safe. As he rested his body, he found his mind wonder, as it so often did. He thought about the soldiers that were cremated at the spot where he lay. He listened to them whispering in the wind, he felt their presence in the air and in the surrounding soil and he offered them a prayer. He spoke to them, as he often did. He asked them questions, a myriad of them. Why did you come here? Why did you leave India? Did you ever feel as lonely or displaced as I do now? Did you miss your family as much I miss mine? Did you miss your mothers' aloo paratha's? Did you miss your father's life lessons? Did you miss your country fellows? The warmth and familiarity of life at home?
Sunil did. More than anything else in the world, he missed the warmth and familiarity of his life at home, in his village. He missed the laughter he shared with his friends and family and neighbours, he missed mealtimes with the crowds. He missed sharing out food. He missed his mum's cooking. He missed the slow pace of life, the long mid-afternoon conversations, the connection he felt with his surroundings, with the land and the present. He missed cycling three miles to his school, early morning through the narrow lanes on the edge of the green green fields, he missed the yellow hues in the sky in the early morning. He missed greeting the cows and the horses as he went. He missed the birds. He missed the birdsong. It was different in England, the birds looked different and they spoke a different language- a language Sunil didn't understand. In fact everything was different, the grass and the sky and the buildings and the roads. It was a different world. A world he didn't feel part of it, a world he didn't feel he belonged to.
City life moved too fast for him- he couldn't keep up. When he jotted down orders at the restaurant or took out library books using a machine or when he walked down the high-street and streams of people flitted past him in a blur- he couldn't keep up with city life. He couldn't catch his breath and align himself with it- with this new reality. This lonely new reality, in which everything moved so fast and life was emptier than it should be, for him at least. He wasn't used to being alone. He wasn't used washing his own clothes and cooking his own food and sitting quietly in an empty room. He couldn't adjust to it.
He missed the simplicity of life back home. A simplicity that he resented growing up, a simplicity that stifled him. He missed wearing his plain dhoti- he missed feeling the light woven cotton against his skin. He missed his sandals too. Sunil suddenly opened his eyes and lifted his head to look across at the black loafers he was wearing. They didn't look or feel like they were his feet. They didn't belong to him. He felt like a different person in his work uniform, in his white starched shirt and black trousers. These weren't his clothes. This wasn't him. He lay his head back down and as he closed his eyes, he wondered if the soldiers felt comfortable wearing their uniforms. In the black and white pictures on the board they appeared stoic and it was hard to tell. Did you like wearing those clothes? Did you like speaking their language? Is it just me? Am I different?
A fierce wind danced around him, he heard the whispers, they comforted him, they told him he wasn't alone. For that moment he felt as though he was part of a fellowship, a unique fellowship of outsiders. He opened his eyes and looked up at the stars. He heard them more clearly then, the whispers of every soldier who was cremated on the hill. He listened to them, he felt their spirits glide across the hills, across the night sky and he felt like he was home- amongst his ancestors, amongst his people, amongst his family and his friends. He could feel them. They were close to him, they were present....
Sunil watched as the bright lights of a plane slowly moved across the dark sky. Back home, he would lie on the charpai for nights on end just counting the numbers of aircrafts passing over the village, over the endless fields and small mud houses. He remembered looking up at the planes flying by and thinking to himself, one day I'll get out of here. I'll be on one of those planes. I will discover a new world, a different world, a world in which I can be whoever I want to be. It was in his fate, he knew it, he would one day leave. He would get away from his family who were always there and that village in which nothing ever really happened. He would go west.
All his life, he dreamed of going to Britain to study. His dreams were the cause of his hard work, his steely focus, his determination. He would dream about what life would be on the outside, he dreamed of pretty girls running through fields of sunflowers like they did in the films. He dreamed of the friends he would make and the fun they would have, the knowledge he would gain, the places he would discover. It was everything he had worked towards since he was a child, this. This was it- his big dream, his great escape. Only he never imagined it would be so lonely- so different. He never imagined it would be so difficult.
He was nineteen years old, all the friends he had made in England, well if they could be called friends, for his idea of friendship seemed to be very different to theirs, were set. And it wasn't that he hated it, being there, he had learnt so much, he had met so many good people, but they weren't his people. He felt out of place most of the time. When he first arrived, he hoped that he would get used to it, but he didn't- the food, the culture, the way of life- it was all so alien to him still. He was lonely. That's what it came down to mostly. He didn't have anyone to talk to, about the things that mattered to him, about India. Right then, he thought back to one of his earliest exchanges...
'But in India, we eat together, always. It is custom,' he had said to his friend.
'For God's sake Sunil, you're not in India any more!' he had errupted. Sunil felt most alone amongst his Indian friends, they had embraced this new life, they loved it and he felt jealous that they did. But they were different, they were from wealthy families, they came from the cities, of course for them it wasn't so very different. For them home wasn't so far away, it wasn't a rare and brief and long-awaited conversation.
As the incense burned away and the fragrant smoke had subsided, Sunil remembered what Sri Nagavanshi had said, that before the bodies were burned, pictures were taken of the face of the deceased and they would be sent to relatives in faraway India.
Sunil's family had always supported him. They had shown him a love that only poor people knew or felt. It was a deep and comforting love. Perhaps they had shown him too much of it, because the outside world felt cold to him and he felt lost and isolated. Sunil thought of them often. They always did the best by him, made sure he could study at whatever cost. They didn't send him to work on the field like they did his older brother. He was different. He was special. He didn't fail them, Sunil was awarded a full scholarship in England as a result of years of hard work.
Sunil set his gaze upon the stars once more. He was afraid of disappointing people, he was afraid of disappointing his parents. He was afraid of disappointing himself. His course would end in another eighteen months and then he would have to go back to India, he would have to find a job with a top company in the city. He would have to carve out a life for himself, not a life he had chosen, but one that others wanted for him. Sunil wanted to live off the land, he wanted to stay in his village- he knew his village. Life made sense there. He felt the wind blow again, embracing him softly- reminding him that he wasn't alone. Was it as hard for you as it was me? Were you afraid, of going back? Of what the future might hold for you when you did? As the questions drifted through his mind, Sunil felt himself grow drowsy and soon, in between thoughts and with the wind and the spirits still blowing through him, still comforting his body and soul, fell asleep there on the steps of the Chattri...