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The Flute Player

2006-07-13 23:43

  Down the main road passed big yellow buses, cars, pony-drawn tongas, motorcycles and bullock-carts. This steady flow of traffic seemed, somehow, to form a barrier between the city on one side of trunk road, and the distant sleepy villages on the other. It seemed to cut India in half - the India Kamla knew slightly, and the India she had never seen.

  Kamla's Grandmother lived on the outskirts of the city of Jaipur, and just across the road from the house there were fields and villages stretching away for hundreds of miles. But Kamla had never been across the main road. This separated the busy city from the flat green plains stretching endlessly towards the horizon.

  Kamla was used to city life. In England, it was London and Manchester. In India, it was Delhi and Jaipur. Rainy Manchester was, of course, different in many ways from sun-drenched Jaipur, and Indian cities had stronger smells and more vibrant colours than their English counterparts. Nevertheless, they had much in common: busy people always on the move, money constantly changing hands, buses to catch, schools to attend, parties to go to, TV to watch. Kamla had seen very little of the English countryside, even less of India outside the cities.

  Her parents lived in Manchester, where her father was a doctor in a large hospital. She went to school in England. But this year, during the summer holidays, she had come to India to stay with her Grandmother. Apart from a maidservant and a grizzled old night watchman, Grandmother lived quite alone, in a small house on the outskirts of Jaipur. During the winter months, Jaipur's climate was cool and bracing; but in the summer, a fierce sun poured down upon the city from a cloudless sky.

  None of the other city children ventured across the main road into the field of millet, wheat and cotton, but Kamla was determined to visit the fields before she returned to England. From the flat roof of the house she could see them stretching away for miles, the ripening wheat swaying in the hot wind. Finally, when there were only two days left before she went to Delhi to board a plane for London, she made up her mind and crossed the main road.

  She did in this afternoon, when Grandmother was a sleep and the maidservant was in the bazaar. She slipped out of the back door, and her slippers kicked up the dust as she ran down the path to the main road. A bus roared past, and more dust rose from the road and swirled about her. Kamla ran through the dust, past the jacaranda trees that lined the road, and into the fields.

  Suddenly the world became an enormous place, bigger and more varied than it had seemed from the air, also mysterious and exciting - and just a little frightening.

  The sea of wheat stretched away till it merged with the hot blinding blue of the sky. Far to her left were a few trees and the low white huts of a village. To her right lay hollow pits of red dust and a blackened chimney, where bricks used to be made. In front, some distant away, Kamla could see a camel moving round a well, drawing up water for the fields. She sat out in the direction of the camel.

  Her Grandmother had told her not to wander off on her own in the city; but this wasn't the city, and as far as she knew, camels did not attack people.

  It took her a long time to get to the camel. It was about half a mile away, though it seemed much nearer. And when Kamla reached it, she was surprised to find that there was no one else in sight. The camel was turning the wheel by itself, moving round and round the well, while the water kept gushing up in little trays to run down the channels into the fields. The camel took no notice of Kamla, did not look at her even once, just carried on about its business.

  There must be someone here, thought Kamla, walking towards a mango tree that grew a few yards away. Ripe mangoes dangled like globules of gold from its branches. Under the tree, fast asleep, was a boy.

  All he wore was a pair of dusty white shorts. His body had been burnt dark by the sun; his hair was tousled, his feet chalky with dust. In the palm of his outstretched hand was a flute. He was a thin boy, with long bony legs, but Kamla felt that he was strong too, for his body was hard and wiry.

  Kamla came nearer to the sleeping boy, peering at him with some curiosity, for she had not seen a village boy before. Her shadow fell across his face. The coming of the shadow woke the boy. He opened his eyes and stared at Kamla. When she did not say anything, he sat up, his head a little to one side, his hands clasping his knees. and stared at her.

  'Who are you?' he asked a little gruffly. He was not used to waking up and finding a strange girl staring at him.

  'I'm Kamla. I've come from England, but I'm really from India. I mean I've come home to India, but I'm really from England.' This was getting to be rather confusing, so she countered with an abrupt: 'Who are you?'

  'I'm the strongest boy in the village,' said the boy, deciding to assert himself without any more ado. 'My name is Romi. I can wrestle and swim and climb any tree.'

  'And do you sleep a lot?' asked Kamla innocently.

  Romi scratched his head and grinned.

  'I must look after the camel,' he said. 'It is no use staying awake for the camel. It keeps on going round the well until it is tired, and then it stops. When it has rested, it starts going round again. It can carry on like that all day. But it eats a lot.'

  Mention of the camel's food reminded Romi that he was hungry. He was growing fast these days, and was nearly always hungry. There were some mangoes lying besides him, and he offered one to Kamla. They were silent for a few minutes. One can not suck mangoes and talk at the same time. After they had finished, they washed their hands in the water from one of the trays.

  'There are parrots in the tree,' said Kamla, noticing three or four parrots conducting a noisy meeting in the topmost branches. They reminded her a bit of a pop group she had seen and heard at home.

  'They spoil most of the mangoes,' said Romi.

  He flung a stone at them. It missed the target, but the birds look off with squawks of protest, flashes of green and gold wheeling in the sunshine.

  'Where do you swim?' asked Kamla. 'Down in the well?'

  'Of course not. I'm not a frog. There is a canal not far from here. Come, I will show you!'

  as they crossed the fields, a pair of blue-jays flew out of a bush, rockets of bright blue that dipped and swerved, rising and falling as they chased each other.

  Remembering a story that Grandmother had told her, Kamla said, 'They are sacred birds, aren't they? Because of their blue throats.' She told him the story of God Shiva having a blue throat because he had swallowed the poison that would have destroyed the world; He had kept the poison in his throat and would not let it go further. 'And so his throat is blue, like the blue-jay's.'

  Romi liked the story. His respect for Kamla was greatly increased. But he was not to be outdone, and when a small grey squirrel dashed across the path he told her that squirrels, too, were sacred. Krishna, the God who was born into a Yadav's family like Romi's had been fond of squirrels and would take them in his arms and stroke them.

  'That is why squirrels have four dark lines down their backs,' said Romi. 'Krishna was very dark as I am, and the strips are the marks of his fingers.'

  'Can you catch a squirrels?' asked Kamla.

  'No, they are too quick. But I caught a snake once. I caught it by tail and dropped it in the old well. That well is full of snakes. Whenever we catch one, instead of killing it, we drop it in the well. They can't get out.'

  Kamla shuddered at the thought of all those snakes swimming and wriggling about at the bottom of the deep well. She wasn't sure that she wanted to return to the well with him. But she forgot about the snakes when they reached the canal.

  It was small canal, about ten metres wide, and only waist-deep in the middle, but it was very muddy at the bottom. She had never seen such a muddy stream in her life.

  'Would you like to get in?' asked Romi.

  'No,' said Kamla. 'You get in.'

  Romi was only too ready to show off his tricks in the water. His toes took a firm hold on the grassy bank, the muscles of his calves tensed, and he dived into the water with a loud splash, landing rather awkwardly on his belly. It was a poor dive, but Kamla was impressed.

  Romi swam across to the opposite bank and then back again. When he climbed out of the water, he was covered with mud. It made him look quite fierce. 'Come on in,' he invited Kamla. 'It's not deep.'

  'It's dirty,' said Kamla, but felt tempted all the same. 'It's only mud,' said Romi. 'There's nothing wrong with mud. Camels like mud. Buffaloes love mud.'

  “I'm neither a camel nor a buffalo.'

  'All right. You don't have to go right in. Just walk along the sides of the channel.'

  After a moment's hesitation, Kamla slipped her feet out of her slippers, and crept cautiously down the slope till her feet were in the water. She went no further, but even so, some of the muddy water splashed on to her clean white skirt. What would she tell Grandmother? Her feet sank into the soft mud, and she gave a little squeal as the water reached her knees. It was with some difficulty that she got her feet out of the sticky mud.

  Romi took her by the hand, and they went stumbling along the side of the channel while little fishes swam in and out of their legs, and a heron, one foot raised, waited until they had passed before snapping a fish out of the water. The little fish glistened in the sun before it disappeared down the heron's throat.

  Romi gave a sudden exclamation and came to a stop. Kamla held on to him for support.

  'What is it?' she asked, a little nervously.

  'It's a tortoise,' said Romi. 'Can you see it?'

  He pointed to the bank of the canal, and there, lying quite still was a small tortoise. Romi scrambled up the bank and, before Kamla could stop him. had picked up the tortoise. As soon as he touched it, the animal's head and legs disappeared into its shell. Romi turned it over, but from behind the breast - plate only the head and a spiky tail were visible.

  'Look!' exclaimed Kamla, pointing to the ground where the tortoise had been lying. 'What's in the hole?'

  They peered into the hole. It was about half a metre deep, and at the bottom were five or six white eggs, a little smaller than a hen's eggs.

  'Put it back,' said Kamla. 'It was sitting on its eggs.'

  Romi shrugged and dropped the tortoise back on its hole. It peeped out from behind its shell, saw the children were still present, and retreated into its shell again.

  'I must go,' said Kamla. 'It's getting late. Granny will wonder where I have gone.'

  They walked back to the mango tree, and washed their hands and feet in the cool clear water from the well; but only after Romi had assured Kamla that there weren't any snakes in that well. He had been talking about an old discarded well on the far side of the village. Kamla told Romi she would take him to her house one day, but it would have to be next year, or perhaps the year after, when she came to India again.

  'Is it very far, where you are going>' asked Romi.

  'Yes, England is across the seas. I have t go back to my parents. And my school is there, too. But I will take the plane from Delhi. have you ever been to Delhi?'

  'I have not been further than Jaipur,; said Romi. 'What is England like? Are there canals to swim in?'

  'You can swim in the sea. Lots of people go swimming in the sea. But it's too cold most of the year. Where I live, there are shops and cinemas and places where you can eat anything you like. And people from all over the world come to live there. You can see red faces, brown faces, black faces, white faces!'

  'I saw a red face once,' said Romi. 'He came to the village to take pictures. He took one of me sitting on the camel. He said he would send me the picture, but it never came.'

  Kamla noticed a flute lying on the grass.

  'Is it your flute?' she asked.

  'Yes,' said Romi. 'It is an old flute. But the old ones are best. I found it lying in a field last year. Perhaps it was God Krishna's! He was always playing the flute.'

  'And who taught you to play it?'

  'Nobody. I learnt by myself. Shell I play it for you?'

  Kamla nodded, and they sat down on the grass, leaning against the trunk of the mango tree, and Romi put the flute to his lips and began to play.

  It was a slow, sweet tune, a little sad, a little happy, and the notes were taken up by the breeze and carried across the fields. There was no one to hear the music except the birds and the camel and Kamla. Whether the camel liked it or not, we shall never know; it just kept going round and round the well, drawing up water for the fields. And whether the birds liked it or not, we cannot say, although it is true that they were all suddenly silent when Romi began to play. But Kamla was charmed by the music, and she watched Romi while he played, and the boy smiled at her with his eyes and ran his fingers along the flute. When he stopped playing, everything was still, everything silent, except for the soft wind sighing in the wheat field and the gurgle of water coming up from the well.

  Kamla stood up to leave.

  'When will you come again?' asked Romi.

  'I will try to come next year,' replied Kamla.

  'That is a long time. By then you will be quite old. You may not want to come.'

  'I will come,' said Kamla.

  'Promise?'

  'Promise.'

  Romi put the flute in her hands and said, You kept it. I can get another one.'

  'But I don't know how to play it,' said Kamla.

  'It will play by itself,' said Romi.

  She took the flute and put it to her lips and blew on it, producing a squeaky little note that started a lone parrot out of the mango tree. Romi laughed, and while he was laughing, Kamla turned and ran down the path through the fields. And when she had gone some distance she turned and waved to Romi with the flute. he stood near the well and waved back to her.

  Cupping his hands to his mouth, he shouted across the fields: 'Don't forget to come next year!'

  And Kamla called back, 'I won't forget.' But her voice was faint, and the breeze blew the words away and Romi did not hear them.

  'Was England home?' wondered Kamla. Or was this Indian city home? Or was her true home in that other India, across the busy trunk road? Perhaps she would find out one day.

  Romi watched her until she was just a speck in the distance, and then he turned and shouted at the camel, telling it to move faster. But the camel did not even glance at him, it just carried on as before, as India had carried on for thousands of years, round and round and round the well, while the water gurgled and splashed over the smooth stones.

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