Umi Sinha’s research for her new novel takes her to India

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Nanpara is just 25 miles from the Nepalese border, and my father’s ancestral home, originally on the edge of the village opposite a Shiva Temple, was a traditional house enclosed in a large walled courtyard with an open air kitchen, a well, and a large vegetable garden in which my grandfather spent many hours wearing his dhoti and my father’s naval issue solar topee. The compound was divided into different units as it was joint family property shared by both the brothers’ families, but grandfather had the largest part.

There’s a story about the way the land was acquired. My great-grandfather was Chief of Police to the Rajah of Nanpara, and it was rumoured that the land was given to him as reward for helping to conceal from his British superiors that the Rajah had walled up alive his favourite dancing girl for running off with one of his stewards. My father said the rumour was rife when he was a child and he once asked his grandfather if it were true, but his grandfather denied it. But then, as Mandy Rice Davies put it, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

When I visited my grandparents’ house as a child, there was no electricity or running water and the toilets were open air cement channels in which three people could squat companionably side by side. A bucket of ash stood nearby to be sprinkled over the ‘kaka’, which was scooped out with shovels through holes in the courtyard wall by the Dalits, or “Untouchables”, as they were known then. Showers were taken by the well, under the mango tree, and I enjoyed pulling up the buckets and washing our clothes there too, much to my grandmother’s astonishment.

By the time I returned there in my late twenties, there was flickering  electricity and some noisy ceiling fans, and running water but no drains, which resulted in the town becoming ankle deep in sewage in the monsoon. The cow was gone, but there was still my grandmother’s strong ginger-infused morning tea, which was the best thing to wake up to, followed by supple chapattis tasting of butter and ash, and crisp lightly cooked vegetables from the garden. She would send me off to fetch a chilli or lemon or onion, which entailed a hunt through the house as for some reason she placed them randomly on windowsills in different rooms. My grandfather had a hookah, which he and my father would smoke together. When they had finished, my grandmother would go off into a corner and squat there with her sari pulled right over her head and puffs of smoke emerging from under it, as though she was on fire. She was a countrywoman, uneducated and illiterate, and spoke a rough local dialect, whereas my grandfather spoke Hindi, Urdu and Persian, and read Sanskrit, but they seemed to live in harmony.  She had no children of her own and seemed genuinely fond of Dad, but he never felt close to her. When we talked about his life when he was in his eighties and I asked him how he felt about her he said, “Well… neutral really.”

After Independence, his career took off. He was promoted rapidly and could only visit his parents once a year. As they got older, my grandfather, who was governor of a school, began to take in the sons of farmers and to pay for their education in return for their help around the house and garden.  The last of these boys, Shobha, was with them for years, living with them into adulthood. He became like a son to them and when my grandmother was too old to cope his mother came to live with them and look after them. With my father’s agreement my grandfather left Shobha the house. It was his family that India, my daughter, and I were going to visit. It would be the first time she would see the house where her grandfather was born.

Before we arrived, Shobha’s son, Shishir, reminded me of the time that my father and I took ten year old Shobha to the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. We’d arrived by train at the station after a long journey, and used the wind up telephone to ring the reserve to send a jeep to collect us. We rang and rang but there was no reply. Eventually the stationmaster suggested we ride in the steam engine through the forest and the train driver could drop us off near the Reserve.

As we walked through the forest, I said to my father, “What if a tiger comes along?” He laughed. “Don’t be stupid. It’s rare to see a tiger and, anyway, it would be more afraid of us than we are of it.” When we arrived at the Reserve, it was apparent from the general gadbad (disarray) that something had happened. A guard came rushing out to meet us and demanded: “What are you doing walking through the forest? Don’t you know there’s a man-eater out there?”

It turned out that the night before one of the guards had gone to do his business in the forest (apparently there were no toilets in their quarters) and while crouching had been mistaken for an animal by the tiger, which carried him off. The guards had been looking for him all morning and had eventually found his lota (washing pot) on the other side of the ditch that separated the quarters from the forest. That morning the postman, cycling to the Reserve, had been charged by a tiger and knocked off his bicycle. Fortunately the tiger attacked the bicycle and the postman was able to climb a tree. The guards seemed angrier with their unfortunate colleague than with the tiger. “God knows why he crossed the ditch,” the guard said. “Stupid bastard! Now we’ll have to kill that tiger, because once they’ve tasted human blood they get a taste for it.”

The next morning we went out on elephant back, sticking to the path, and were lucky enough to see, not one, but two tigers. One was walking through the long grass, almost perfectly camouflaged. The other was lying by the side of the track. He allowed us to approach within ten feet of him before lazily getting to his feet and ambling away. Clearly not so afraid of humans then.

This is an edited version of an entry in Umi Sinha’s blog where she is writing about her research trips, in Italy and India, for her new novel, The Fallen.