Messages had been sidewinding their way to her till she could no longer ignore them. The old hill-bound boarding school was shutting down because of “an epidemic of snakes.” Local Hindu authorities, believing it was ancient Naga ground, would not allow any killing. They had proposed buying the premises for loose change to develop a temple complex. The longstanding Board of Trustees, which had replaced the school’s colonial British owners a few years after Independence, had accepted with the relief of a prisoner escaping a harsh sentence.
On the school’s Facebook page, familiar names shared nostalgia-drenched memories of precious childhoods. After they had all scattered across the world, she had remained in her separate orbit. Even now, the excited chatter and uploaded photos meant little.
In her present life, many dues were demanded: love, duty, responsibility, desire, ambition, compliance. They all grabbed at fragments of her constantly so that she never managed to gather herself whole together. Only in the midnight’s deep stillness, with the precision of a preying bird, she was able to claw out one careful recollection from her mind’s shattered mosaic.
The hedge-lined drive into the school was through immense wrought-iron gates, which dated back to 1858. Inside, a small, unpaved parking lot immediately to the left was kept clear for school visitors—mostly parents. Beyond it, a few single-story classrooms and two ball courts lay neatly side-by-side. On an ordinary weekday afternoon during term-time, this area was filled with bright blue interlacing streams of schoolgirls of various shapes and sizes: couples with arms linked; best friends sharing confidences; small groups huddling over some game.
To the right of the drive, on another large ball court, a group of girls was taking turns to ride the day-scholars’ bicycles. Further back, the hockey field was secured by the Seniors. They were playing net-less tennis or studying under the tall birches and larches, which allowed glints of blue, white, and gold sky to escape and dazzle their eyes.
Clear of all this busy sociability, the drive dipped down a gentle hill and elbowed sharply left past the main building with its redbrick offices, first floor classrooms, and green-roofed gymnasium. To the right of that elbow, one of the smaller Junior dormitories, also red-bricked and green-topped, sat primly in the cool shade. On its long porch, the dormitory aayahs gathered for a respite from the day’s work, squatting, and muttering in the regional patois. Some were rubbing tobacco in their palms, lips and mouths stained a red almost the same color as the loamy mud under their feet.
A long and steep stairway running down the center of the main building now met the drive crossways—some forty steps connecting the classrooms above to the kitchens and dining rooms below. This was the main thoroughfare during the monsoons as it had a galvanized metal roof. Before mealtimes, biryani and dal smells would often waft up along with the knocking noises of large metal pots and ladles.
The wide banisters flanking both sides of the lower stairway were of smooth ferroconcrete. During the free weekday hour after lunch, these were her solitary domain.
On this day, around one o’clock, she perched on a banister. This took a little arrangement, squirming and shifting to catch enough of the overhead sun while cradling a book in her lap at the requisite distance from her myopic eyes.
Kitchen sounds rose and fell symphonically as bearers and aayahs cleaned up the aftermath of six hundred lunches. The insistent calls of mynahs, bulbuls, yellow tits, black drongos, and starlings added polyphonic layers. A straggling and shifting traffic went by intermittently, leaving behind gurgling echoes of ebbing and flowing conversations.
A thick sheet of morning rain had brought the controlled wilderness around her pulsing alive with intense greens and pungent odors. Through the clouds, sunlight streamed thinly, its golden vapors barely reaching the cold hardness of her seat.
Head bent over her book, she had not noticed the onyx-black snake slither up—not till the sensuous touch on her bare shins, above her rolled-down socks. She had met its moonstone-blue eyes. Then it had molted, surged forward like a wave on sand, disappeared into the mottled shade, and left its stripy skin dead by her feet.
She could have screamed, called for someone. Instead, she had continued reading. Inside, a leaping thrill had risen, as if her entire being was a dancing fire. At the clanging of the bronze bell, still in her reading stupor, she had picked up the whispery ghost and folded it into her book’s pages like a blessing.
In that solitude, the world had offered itself to her, again and again, as a vast, translucent jewel. A need to go back rippled into shape inside her. She got breathless with confusion, forgetting what she was doing right in the middle of doing it. Sometimes, everything jiggled before her eyes, like when she held a finger on her iPhone and the icons wiggled with the X marks. Only, there were no icons or X marks here, simply a blurry, jerky vision caused by briny tears.
The woman she called snipped off her question like a dandelion in grass: she could visit only before Nag Panchami festival, when the lengthy consecration rituals would begin.
21 airless-international-flight hours and 2 rattling-local-taxi hours later, she stood at those gates again, drinking in the cool, moisture-heavy breeze. Walking down the empty drive, past the unoccupied main building, she came to her stairway. It felt smaller now, of course. Taking her spot, she folded her limbs with perfect recall.
The watchman gripped his bamboo staff with both hands, shook his bald head at the tall, graying woman in crumpled western clothes, and returned to the gates.
Freeing a book from her purse, she read. Sheltering alone in her domain, she restored.