An excerpt from my unfinished novel ‘The Secret Doctrine of Clouds’, the story of a young Indian girl born into poverty in Delhi, and who discovered she could read life from the clouds and talk to plants. Her story of struggle, truth against adversity, is the core of the story.
‘No shallower a man be,
Than the depth of his understanding,
Save his ego taking flight
In the world of gratification.
No deeper a man be,
Than the openness of his soul to the truth,
Save his ability to recognize it.
Sight is one-third anatomical,
And two-thirds speculation,
Save the improbable view of reality,
Boasted often but seldom afforded.’
Della had risen at dawn as always, and after helping her mother cook a simple meal, saw her parents off to work and then went straight down to the river to wash some clothing. It was nearing summer, and even early in the morning, the sun was already blistering. Dry dust swept up by an intermittent breeze clouded the streets in a soft brown haze, in contrast to the endless blue sky above. She leaned intently over the wash stone and kneaded her mother’s favorite sari in her hands, the river water lapping on and off the smooth stone beneath her. As she worked the garment, she suddenly felt a presence and immediately turned to find Indra crouched down only a few meters away.
‘What are you looking at?’ she said sternly.
‘It’s a free country.’
‘That is a matter of opinion.’
‘Why are you so cranky all the time?’ asked Indra.
‘I’ve no time for boys. I have far too much to do.’
‘Always too much to do, Della; you must learn to have fun.’
‘Fun does not get this washing done,’ Della replied, slapping the sari against the stone.
She leaned back and brushed a dark coil of hair back from her tiny face.
‘Anyway, what could you possibly offer me?’
‘Ah,’ said Indra, another thought at work. ‘You’ll have to come with me and see.’
Della sighed and rolled her eyes, then stood up. ‘You boys are all the same.’ She picked up the basket of washing and placed it on her head and with one hand for support, walked off past Indra with her nose stuck up conspicuously.
‘I was just joking, Della.’ Della ignored his plea and continued her way, with perhaps a little more sway in her step than before. Indra huffed, then crouched down and picked up a pebble, casting it angrily into the river.
When Della arrived home Mr. Patwe was waiting for her, impatiently pacing up and down outside her family home.
‘Where have you been girl? Your father told me you would be here this morning.’
‘I’m so sorry Mr. Patwe. I just had to wash these…’
‘None of your excuses, Della, you have been promised to help Mrs. Patwe with Devi. You know how bad her back is.’
‘Yes, of course I will. Let me hang these clothes and I will be right over, Mr. Patwe.’
‘Make it quick girl! Mrs. Patwe hasn’t got all day!’
Mr. Patwe stormed off and Della quickly hung her mother’s sari out to dry. Wiping her hands on her clothing, she shut the door and left for the Patwes’. The Patwe’s home was luxurious compared to the hovel in which Della lived. It was a stone house and some rooms even had doors and glass windows. Mrs. Patwe was a curt, rather large woman of higher caste, a fact that she wielded like an iron mace, satisfied the world as a whole was in her employ.
When Della knocked lightly on the front door, Mrs. Patwe flung it open rashly, and stormed back inside bellowing, ‘You’re late girl! You know I can’t do this alone.’
‘I’m so sorry Mrs. Patwe, I had to do some washing first.’
‘I don’t want to hear it Della, just grab Devi’s leg,’ she spat, grunting with strain as she tried to maneuver the boy’s shoulders. Della grabbed the leg, which hung over the side of the metal bathtub like a huge dark-brown weight, the whites of his soles and splayed toes dwarfed by the shear mass of his calf.
Devi was having a wonderful time, noisily clapping the palms of his hands together and giggling convulsively with each attempt by his washers. He was like a dark beached whale in rapturous hysteria, soapy water gushing out in spurts from the few spaces between him and the sides of the overfilled tub.
‘You’ll be the death of me, boy!’ cried Mrs. Patwe, her beautifully pinned hair now a mass of wet ringlets and frizz.
‘Devi, you must stop this now,’ said Della, in a calming voice.
‘Is fun!’ he replied, followed by a few claps.
‘Come on now, Devi. Let me put this leg in so we can clean it.’
‘Do it for Della. Calm down for Della,’ she said, running her slender fingers through his hair.
His black pool-like eyes looked up soulfully. ‘No play?’
‘Della help Mama wash first, and then play?’
‘Play, yes,’ he said, sitting up and drawing his massive leg into the bath.
‘Thank Krishna! …And you Della. You always did have a way with him.’
Mrs. Patwe scrubbed Devi’s back with a big brush, while Della talked to him calmly, to insure his continued cooperation. He sat there mesmerized by her siren-like voice and listened intently as she told him a fable about animals that one of the local priests had told her. When she was finished, Devi clapped with approval and laughed his unique laugh, as his mother awkwardly dragged him to his feet.
Devi was two years older than Della, and three times her weight. Attending to Devi’s needs by herself was all but impossible for Mrs. Patwe, and Della had proved to be a Godsend. Mr. Patwe… well, he was simply too busy with his business to help, or want to.
Della took Devi, in his clean clothes, down by the Yamuna River and sat with him on a soft patch of grass under the shade of a Banyan tree. He sat crossed legged, his rolls of fat amassing over his legs, almost covering them. A constant smile radiated from his bloated face, and his eyes, as innocent as a two-year-old’s, peered wistfully into the radiations of branches above him.
‘It is beautiful, Devi…this sacred tree,’ she whispered.
Devi nearly fell backward, straining his neck to see to the top of the leafy canopy. ‘Huh,’ he said, as Della caught him and with difficulty, pushed him upright.
‘We are all alive, Devi. You, me, this wonderful tree and each drop of water. Look, it’s an ocean of life,’ she explained, looking out over the river.
Devi looked at her and smiled a gummy smile- an innocuous, essentially vacant expression. Della grinned, realizing that living the experience needed no understanding for Devi. His sweet innocence seemed to deliver him to the peace that all of these Hindus were working so tirelessly to achieve during their lifetime. With a knowing smile, Della picked up several small pebbles from the edge of the river and then sat opposite Devi. She looked down pensively at the stones, so smooth and round. She placed them on the ground and then one by one, tried to pick them up, throw them in the air and catch them on the back of her hand. The first one landed successfully and Devi’s eye’s lit up.
‘Yes!’ he cheered, clapping his hands frantically.
It was now his turn, and so he picked up one of the stones and threw it up so high that he squinted, trying to see where it had gone. Sure enough it landed squarely on his head with a ‘clunk!’
They both burst out laughing, Della giving Devi a good rub on his black mop of a head.
‘Look, Buddha sits by the water,’ a voice gibed.
Della turned to see Indra and a few of his friends, snickering.
‘Leave him alone, Indra. You don’t know this boy. He’s harmless.’
‘Brainless, you mean,’ added one of the others, bravely standing behind Indra, all the boys now laughing.
Della rose to her feet and with both hands on her hips, set on them. ‘You idiots, mocking someone like Devi, who wouldn’t harm a fly. Why don’t you do something with yourselves, instead of picking on poor Devi?’
‘So this is why you reject me, Della. You’re going to marry Devi, aren’t you?’ suggested Indra, his eyes hardening.
‘You bastard. Damn you Indra!’ she cried, picking up a stick, and launching an attack.
The boys scattered in all directions, wildly laughing as they made good their escape. After she’d set a frantic pace for these fleeing misfits, Della eased back, angrily threw down the stick and returned to Devi, who was more than confused.
She sat down, still brooding.
‘Who’s Buddha?’ he asked, not understanding what had happened.
‘Don’t you worry, Devi. Perhaps it’s time to go home anyway. I have so much to do,’ she said, helping him to his feet.
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