Monday, April 27, 2015

The Ivory Charm

My short story on Kanchenjunga originally published in the Northeast Review journal.


A reticent, velvety darkness still loomed over when Mohanchandra Pradhan—fondly referred to as Vakilsahib or Pradhanji by loved ones—stepped out of his bungalow on a prematurely frozen October morning. The previous day’s snowstorm had cast a white blanket over the lofty Himalayan peaks guarding Rangpo, a secluded hill station in Sikkim.
            “Chotu,” Pradhanji called out to the servant boy, hurriedly stepping back in, his spine stiff from the fleeting exposure to cold. “Bete clean out the pavement quickly. I mustn’t be late.” He blew air in his cupped palms, rubbing them together to generate heat and placed the hands over his ears first, then his cheeks. It wiped out the tilak on his forehead from the early morning puja.
            The boy brought out plow and shovel and gingerly moved ice off the walkway, his face safeguarded in a monkey cap. Pradhanji stepped onto the hand-pulled rickshaw that had been waiting at the gate, his knees numb despite three woolen layers and a shawl, and directed him to the bus station. It was a twenty-minute ride through the town, naturally landscaped with the majestic, snow capped Kanchenjunga, alpine meadows, waterfalls, passes, valleys, perennial rivers and glaciers. Pradhanji had spent a lifetime here. Each solitary ride through it brought a sparkle to his eye.
            The rickshaw pulled up in front of the bus station terminal where Pradhanji boarded a bus to Siliguri. It was circa 1965. An old acquaintance of Pradhanji from Siliguri had organised a regional farming convention and had insisted Pradhanji attend. The convention was an outdoor one set up in an outsized farm with myriad tents filling up the space. Farmers and vendors had gathered from the state to sell a wide assortment of plants and plant-derived products. Pradhanji was overwhelmed, a little lost even, never having been to an event of this magnitude. His acquaintance took Pradhanji on a quick tour and dropped in at a corner tent where a farmer was assertively selling petite apple trees to onlookers. “My friend owns a lot of land in the north,” his acquaintance disclosed unwarranted information to the farmer, pointing at Pradhanji. The overenthusiastic farmer jumped at the opportunity, spoke in one breath and divulged all he knew about apple farming. Pradhanji felt framed by the two men. A bout of discomfort followed. He wanted to turn away.
            “These are specialty trees, dai. Wild apples, but not crabapples. Gooliyo. Mitho. They’re much sweeter.” The farmer badgered with his sales pitch. “They’re from Lachen. Our people say they’re so sweet because they’re ripened by the sunrays that Kanchenjunga reflects. I can guarantee that they would bear 140–150 kgs of fruit per year way before maturity.” He coaxed Pradhanji into trying a sample, his eyes bright and expectant.
            Reluctantly, Pradhanji acceded to the offer and picked up two freshly cut slices. “Badhiya!” He uttered, savoring them. “These are as sweet as Imarti.”
            “Told you, dai. These are specialty trees. You won’t find them easily.”
            Intrigued, Pradhanji bought fifteen apple trees and brought them back with him to Rangpo, buying extra tickets for the entire last row in the bus, stacking them against the back of the bus, constantly safeguarding them.
            Having recently inherited extensive farmland, Pradhanji was scouting for ideas to put it to good use. The living space he had more than sufficed his and his family’s needs. So he involved a cultivator friend and had all the pieces of land inspected. The friend handpicked the most fertile land for the apple trees and taught Pradhanji how to plant and care for them.
            Even though still young and not spread out enough, the apple trees bore fruits the next spring. The farmer evidently hadn’t overpromised. Within the first month of fruit bearing season, Pradhanji reaped about ten kgs of apple. They were the brightest ruby red, the color of pomegranate, juicy yet taut, delectable, just like the sample one he’d tasted before. The word spread rapidly across certain neighbourhoods in Rangpo. First came the neighbours, then the relatives, then his son’s classmates; it was an endless loop. Pradhanji was ecstatic. Motivated by the joy he could share via homegrown produce, he had several other fruit trees planted in his orchard.
                  One fateful morning when Pradhanji reached his orchard, the sight he was confronted with startled him. About half of the apple trees had gone missing. Pradhanji winced. Being in denial, he scurried through the endless strip of land to see if they been miraculously shifted spots. No such luck. Pradhanji sprinted back to their original spots, his face jerking in random directions, trying to fathom it all. Upon closer inspection, the trees seemed to have been carefully uprooted. In a town he considered his extended family it was hard to imagine anyone resorting to this lowly act. Crimes, big and small, were almost unheard of in Rangpo. 


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