“The borders don’t even matter,” Kartik said. “The British just made them up.”
Das BootThe Diary of Anne Frank
The Little Princess. Kim. The Secret Garden.
Man Eaters of Kumaon.
Man Eaters of Kumaon .
Their parents escaped to the tennis courts in the morning. Kartik, left unsupervised, resumed reading at the table. Shanta sometimes watched him, waiting for the upending of a bowl, a rag always in hand.
No longer consumed only by World War II, Kartik began sketching maps of South Asia. He charted the big cat population across the Himalayas and wrote the numbers across decades—a steady dwindling to near disappearance. I studied the labels printed within the thin borders. Squinting, I could see the word Nepal, condensed to fit within its country’s size.
“Do you think Shanta’s ever seen a tiger?” I asked Tara.
“She’d run the other way if she did,” Tara said.
Sometimes we let the family’s Bichon Frise loose in the kitchen and laughed from the doorway as Shanta pressed her body against the counter in fear. She was twenty-two years old, Tara’s mother had told us. Twice our age. The fact of her adulthood made the situation more absurd.
Britain invaded Nepal in the nineteenth century, sewing Nepali immigration into the tapestry of India’s colonial history. Britain’s army was defeated by soldiers whose fortitude so impressed them that, shortly after, they recruited mercenaries from the area then called Gorkha. In 1814, a British officer wrote of the Gurkha soldiers, “I never saw more bravery or steadiness exhibited in my life. Run they would not, and of death they seemed to have no fear, although their comrades were falling thick about them.”
The Gurkhas served under the British Army during the Sepoy Mutiny that saw Corbett’s uncle burnt to death. They bolstered the Allies in World Wars I and II. Their ranks included the celebrated Lachhiman Gurung, who single-handedly blocked the advance of Japanese troops into Burma, killing thirty-one, even as a hand and arm were shattered in combat.
Despite the recognition later conferred on them, the Gurkhas remained comically exotic in the white imagination. In 1964, Australian war correspondent Richard Hughes shared his findings: “All are basically Mongoloid, averaging five feet three inches in height, stocky, beardless, high cheek-boned. All are gently homicidal, warm-hearted and hot-blooded. They find it almost impossible to lie.”
Just as Hughes studied the Gurkha soldiers in battle, Tara and I studied Shanta in the kitchen. We arrived at a similar and disappointing discovery that she could not lie.
“Why can’t we take two chocolates?” Tara asked.
“Mummy says only one,” Shanta said.
“She won’t know,” I pressed.
“Please, ma,” Shanta said, pleading. In the absence of other adults, Shanta was the nominal head, and the one to be blamed if we broke a rule. Still, we outranked her. We could take another chocolate if we wanted.
“Do you think she even counts the chocolate?” I later asked Tara. She was doubtful.
That night, when the house was quiet, we slipped to the kitchen where Shanta lay, sleeping, on her mat. We stepped over her and opened the cabinets to mountains of Toblerone, Cadbury Heroes, Ritter Sport filled with marzipan.
On Kartik’s map, I traced the ridged border that separated Nepal from India and China, studying its proximity to the place where my parents were born.
“The borders don’t even matter,” Kartik said. “The British just made them up.”
Despite the arbitrariness of this divide, the word Nepali had a pejorative sound. It connoted a woman who was afraid of the family dog and cowered in the corner when he was given free rein. Who washed her hair on Saturdays only, so that by the end of the week it hung limply down her back. Who slept every night on the kitchen floor, wearing the same kurta that she soaked in a tub only on hair-washing day.
Some nights, we could hear her crying on the kitchen floor. Tara explained: “She misses her mom.”
It was further proof of her idiocy. What kind of adult missed her mother? What Tara and I wouldn’t have given to leave our own mothers behind. We waited for the muffled hiccups to stop, then walked downstairs, stepping over her sleeping body to the cabinets and returning with our hands full.
In the 1970s, the consular office of Madras was an easy hurdle for our fathers, the sons of men whose service to the British government financed their children’s private education. Applicants needed only to prove that they had been admitted to American universities, were fluent in English, and could afford their own travel and education. In the 1980s, all of the Indians I knew came through this same well-oiled corridor through which my father’s generation of immigrants traveled—widened by an American need for doctors and engineers from abroad.
Some time in the 1990s, other Indians appeared in New Jersey’s strip malls and grocery stores. White gas station attendants were replaced by turbaned men. The women wore salwar kameez. They called across the aisles of Patel Brothers in languages I didn’t understand, holding baskets of okra, sandalwood talc, and Vaseline for the winters when brown skin turned ashen from the cold.
The Indian mothers that I knew wore slacks and cardigans. They didn’t purchase their toiletries from Patel Brothers, but visited the Clinique counters at the mall, bringing home samples of lipstick ill-suited for our skin and thin glass bullets of perfume.
In my mind, I demarcated a border between myself and these new Indians, but the students of New Jersey looked in my direction as they imitated their accents. Check of the oil? Vindshield? I convinced myself that their words were stray bullets. Dodging them became the dance of my school year, the ten months of Kartik and Tara’s absence.
One afternoon in late summer, Shanta washed Kartik’s sneakers, grass-stained from our rounds of Escape. She scrubbed them with soap and beat them against a rock until they were dry but withered, and the rubber folded into itself.
What kind of adult missed her mother? What Tara and I wouldn’t have given to leave our own mothers behind.
“What kind of idiot does that?” their mother asked Shanta that night. She spoke in English, too rapidly for Shanta to respond, and her voice pounded through the walls.
In the morning, I expected Shanta to have disappeared. Instead, she stood in the kitchen when we came downstairs. Her bedding was folded and stored in its usual corner, and the table was set with our breakfast.
Before the arrival of the British, the Rajas of the Mughal Empire practiced a method of hunting that relied on the service of soldiers. These soldiers formed a wide crescent around the animal, then drove it towards the hunter as he stood in position with his Matchlock rifle cocked.
To the British, this practice reflected the lawlessness of the terrain they had conquered, and they derided the cheapness of the Mughal shot even as they stalked the jungle with their superior weaponry—Lee-Enfield, Martini-Henry—allowing them a distance that the Indian Matchlock could never have crossed. Corbett himself had carried a Martini-Henry, a rifle that he wrote, “atoned for its vicious kick by being dead accurate—up to any range.”
Though game hunting reaches into India’s pre-colonial past, the British elevated the numbers to near extinction and the practice to a gentleman’s game. They were repulsed by the Rajas’ habit of eating their spoils, the primitive belief that the consumption of tiger meat would transfer the strength of the animal into their own bodies and their political hold.
The British introduced hunting codes, prohibiting the practice during breeding season and imposing a fine for the killing of females. With a stoic adherence to system and order, they recorded the size and method of the more impressive hunts in big game registers housed in officers’ clubs. The meat was left to rot. Skins were shipped to England where British taxidermists rendered the animals lifelike for display.
After his bullet struck down the Champawat Tiger, Corbett pried open her mouth and discovered the reason for her pursuit of the villagers. She had been shot in the mouth. The upper and lower canine teeth on her right side had been shattered and could not tear through the tougher flesh of her natural prey.
Before they returned to India, the beginning of the interminable school year again within reach, Kartik and Tara’s mother told us that Shanta would not come back.
“What kind of idiot?” she asked again, this time speaking in our direction. Kartik’s new shoes sat unopened in the box, waiting to be packed for the trip. “These women,” she told my mother later. “They just stand there when you yell at them, like a bunch of bloody statues.”
I turned eleven that summer. Though the birthday party was a family occasion, I invited one friend, a gentle white girl from my class. She stood in the doorway after her mother left, watching the ribbon of brown cousins circle endlessly past her.
Shanta, assuming the role of ayah, took my friend’s hand to lead her inside. But the sight of Shanta, in her braids and kurta, reduced the girl to tears. Her mother picked her up before the party ended and glared at us briefly—a foreign woman and a foreign child—before comforting her daughter on the steps of my family’s house.
Shanta then spoke directly to me. It was an occurrence so rare that it was unsettling. “Sorry, ma,” she said.
I could have assured Shanta that this wasn’t her fault. I could have confronted the friend as you do an aggressor, or consoled her as you do a guest. But by then, I had become accustomed to a certain silence—one that served me in later years as the volume of epithets rose. I had learned something from those summers of Escape. You play the side you are assigned. You move quietly enough to avoid notice.