They had been driving for hours, and the city still hadn’t loosened its grimy hold. Now there were bungalows and shops that clung to both sides of the highway; roadside tea stalls with corrugated roofs, where truck drivers stopped to stretch their legs; bustling townships that only a few years ago had been villages of mud huts, their walls covered with circular cowpats; new tollbooths, petrol bunks, and hotels promising hot water and clean rooms. It wasn’t until the family in the car saw the first wisp of cloud hanging over the hillside that they felt they had finally broken free.
The father switched off the air conditioner and rolled down his window. He had recently bought a white Maruti Zen. The fingertips of his left hand guided the steering wheel, exerting the mildest pressure, letting the car do the rest. At 39 years old, he had recently been promoted to bank-branch manager. The past three summers, around the time when the heat in the city grew fangs, he’d taken his family to Crown Resorts, nestled in the tea plantations of Kodaikanal, a hill station some 500 kilometers outside Bangalore.
The mother, sitting next to him, drummed her fingers on her thighs. The first sight of the hills always agitated her, their peaks swaddled in gray-and-purple shadow. The vegetation on the slopes looked darker than the shrubs and trees dotting the plains. Idly, illogically, she wondered why. Wasn’t it closer to the sun up there?
In the back seat, their daughter was trying to read. She hated car journeys, though she looked forward to being at the resort, where, she knew from previous visits, there would be table tennis, long walks, and a sweet white rabbit in a hutch. A Walkman lay on the seat next to her. The tangled cord of its earphones shivered with the motion of the car. She was 11 years old and had started bleeding for the first time that morning. Her mother had steered her by the shoulders into the bathroom, where the mirror was still fogged from whoever had last taken a bath.
She made her daughter sit on the toilet. She removed a Kotex pack from the cabinet and explained how to affix the thick pad to her underwear. The girl had found walking with the pad uncomfortable but said nothing. Now she reached beneath her book and pressed the new thickness. Streaks of pain were shooting low in her belly, but she did not want to bring it up in the car. The fact of the pad, the intimacy of being alone with her mother inside the bathroom, all of it had created a new distance from her father. Where she was sitting, she could see his smooth cheek. His mustache obscured his upper lip, his left ear.
Suddenly there were hairpin turns, signaled by yellow signs with curved black arrows. Each time they navigated one, the father would list theatrically to the side. “Hoooold on!” he would yell, while the mother and daughter remained silent. Later, when they got higher and the roads got narrower, he fell silent, too. From time to time, a tourist bus speeding downhill would block nearly the entire road. The father would have to yank the wheel sharply to avoid it.
The hillside loomed on their right, a dark-red wall. The daughter suddenly had the impression of it collapsing and burying the car under a million tons of dirt. She dropped her head to her chest as if to avoid the colossal weight.
On another hairpin turn, her stomach heaved.
“Stop,” she said quietly. But her father was concentrating on driving and her mother had her eyes closed. “Stop,” she repeated.
Her mother looked around. When she saw the daughter’s face, she became alert. “Stop the car.”
“I can’t,” said the father. “It’s a blind turn.”
“Stop!” cried the daughter.
The father jammed the brakes. The girl flung the door open, leaned out, and threw up her breakfast. The taste was so vile that she threw up again.
Her mother moved to open her door.
“Don’t get out!” snapped the father.
“I’ll get the water bottle from the back.”
“You’re going to get hit by a car.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.”
“Do you not see how narrow the road is?”
“She’s throwing up.”
He looked at his daughter with his hands still on the wheel. “Baby, are you okay?”
The daughter nodded.
“She’s fine. Just stay in the car,” the father told the mother. To his daughter, he said, “Close the door, baby. You can drink water as soon as we reach the resort.”
The mother said nothing. The daughter shut the door and the father released the hand brake. The car slid back a foot and all three of them felt a simultaneous burst of terror.
Then the tires caught, and they started uphill again.
The mother spotted the resort first. “There,” she said: a series of red brick buildings peeking through the trees. The father felt like honking but didn’t, because his daughter had fallen asleep.
They remained quiet as they turned off the highway at a handwritten sign that said Crown Group 15 KM. The dirt road twisted past hamlets, where men in sleeveless sweaters watched them from small yards. A woman hanging laundry paused with a pair of green shorts in her hands. A toddler wandered behind some knock-kneed goats, who, at the sound of the car, bumped against one another. The bells around their necks woke the daughter up.
A boy no older than 12, dressed in a baggy blue uniform, showed them to their red brick cottage. He wore black shoes many sizes too large for him and tripped on the steps. The father placed a hand on his shoulder and said, “Be careful.”
He remembered how, in the hospital, when they put his baby in his arms and told him it was a girl, he had felt the briefest whisper of disappointment. Mortified, he banished the feeling, though he was sure his newborn daughter had sensed it. Her tiny, crumpled face had closed like a bud.
Now, as they entered the cottage, he put his arm around his daughter. The daughter’s bones shifted under her T-shirt. She remained still for a few seconds, then wriggled free from his embrace.
The mother looked around. She saw a room with a plywood cupboard and a double bed with white sheets. Beside it was an extra cot, an ugly orange love seat, and a low coffee table. The door to the bathroom stood ajar, exposing a strip of tile. Next to the bathroom was a dressing table with a cloudy mirror in which she glimpsed the three of them, their bodies strange and elongated.
She turned away. “It’s fine,” she said.
The father tried to sound jolly. “It’s a palace!”
The boy remained in the room. The father took out his wallet and gave him five rupees. He took it, shot a glance at the daughter, who was rinsing her mouth in the bathroom, and then raced out.
The daughter lay down on her cot, pushing aside her Walkman and book. The sheets felt cool and papery on her skin. She wished her father would go away so that she could take her shirt off.
The mother sat at the edge of the double bed and picked up the resort telephone.
“What are you doing?” the father asked.
“Why don’t we have it in the clubhouse?” he said. “We can look around, see what changes they’ve made since last year.”
She was already dialing.
“Room service? I’m calling from cottage number—” She looked at her husband.
“Cottage number five,” the mother said into the phone. “We need three cups of tea, please. Make it piping hot, understand? Hot. So hot that it burns my tongue.”
She hung up. In a low voice the father said, “Three cups?” He nodded in the direction of the daughter, who pretended not to hear.
“Why not?” The mother shrugged. “She can’t drink milk forever.”
While they waited, the daughter went to take a shower. She found that morning’s newspaper sticking out of her mother’s handbag and took it into the bathroom. With scientific interest, she examined the rusty, blackened blotch on the pad in her underwear. She peeled the pad off, wrapped it in the front page of the newspaper, and threw it away. In the shower, a little blood ran down her left thigh, blushing the tiles.
When she came out, a thermos of tea had arrived and her mother and father sat side by side on the love seat. The daughter perched cross-legged on her cot as her mother poured the steaming liquid into three cups. Then she added milk from a steel pitcher, and a spoonful of sugar for each.
The daughter sipped her tea. It was sweet, but she felt a corrosive bite at the back of her throat, which she knew came from the tea leaves.
The father tilted his cup to admire its contents. “Now this is the genuine thing.” He’d said something similar last year. “Grown right over there.” He pointed to the rows of bushes outside the window. “No comparison to the stuff we drink in the city. None whatsoever.”
“They could have made it hotter,” said the mother.
The daughter sipped hers again, trying to decide whether or not she liked it.
“Better than Brooke Bond Red Label,” said the father. “Better than Lipton. Best tea in the world. Brought to you by Kodaikanal Hill Station!” He made it into a jingle. “Hill Station Tea! The tea for you, and the tea for me!” His voice was a supple tenor.
“How are you feeling?” the mother asked the daughter, who had begun to smile at her father’s song. At her mother’s question, she stopped smiling. “I’m fine.”
“What happened?” asked the father. “Do you still feel sick from before?”
“No,” said the daughter.
“Poor baby,” he said. “You’re like me. I used to get sick when I was a child, too. Not in a car, mind you. My parents never had a car. We traveled by bus. But they always made sure I sat near the driver. I would tell him if I felt sick, and he would stop the bus to let me out. Back then,” the father said, “you could do those kinds of things.”
Soon the sun would set. The moon was already up over the hills, motionless in a drifting haze. The father started putting on his shoes, the pair of Nike sneakers he had purchased especially for this trip from the outlet shops in Marathahalli.
“Who wants to go for a walk?” he asked.
“Can we play with the rabbit?” asked the daughter.
“On the way back.” He looked at the mother.
“I think I’ll order another cup of tea,” she said.
The daughter and the father left the resort gates and walked up the dirt driveway that came to a fork. “You choose,” he said. “Which way?”
The daughter considered. Going left would take them to the paved road by which they’d arrived. The path on the right swooped down out of sight to some unknown place. She could see the sinuous curves of bicycle tires in the dirt.
“Right,” the daughter said.
“That goes to the local village.” He’d been hoping she’d say left. He wanted a view of the entire plantation from the ridge as the sun went down. It was the scene he’d envisioned most often as he sat at his desk in the bank. But he’d asked her and she’d said right.
The descent was steeper than it looked. He leaned back to keep from breaking into a trot. His daughter ran in bursts, sprinting for a few yards and then stopping herself.
“Be careful,” the father said.
“I smell cows,” she said, ignoring him.
“Cow dung,” he said.
“There wouldn’t be cow dung without cows.”
The statement struck him as clever.
The village was as he remembered: a motley collection of buildings, cubes of brick painted in bright colors. A chemist and a barbershop and a ration shop. One building boasted a painted sign reading PRETTY WOMAN HAIR SALOON. A nearby tree had a metal garbage can lashed to its trunk, but still there was garbage everywhere—flattened juice cartons, crumpled newspapers, empty chip packets, and vegetable scraps.
On a bench, a tall young man in a lungi sat reading a Tamil newspaper. One bare foot was stretched out, the other tucked beneath him. He rustled the paper every few seconds and kept glancing up at them.
“Good evening,” said the father.
The man looked up and back down quickly. He hid his face behind the paper.
“Hello,” the father said again.
The young man lowered the paper. “You are guests from Crown?”
“Yes,” said the father. “But we’re not really guests. We’ve been coming for about five or six years.” He hoped his daughter wouldn’t correct him. He only meant to prove that they were not strangers to the place.
The man nodded. “Have they told you about the tiger?”
The father thought the man must mean the local circus. “What tiger?”
“My uncle found two of his goats. Dead. Over there.” He raised his hand and gestured. “It’s as big as a buffalo. A male tiger.”
The daughter’s stomach clenched with excitement. She felt a few hot drops of blood trickle out. She was terrified until she remembered the pad.
“How do you know it was a tiger? Did your uncle actually see it?” asked the father sharply. He noticed that his daughter had gone stiff.
After a pause, the man tapped his own chest.
“You saw it?” the father pressed. “You saw the tiger with your own eyes?”
The man stared. Then, of all things, a long, wet-sounding fart escaped him. He giggled and again shook his newspaper, which, the father suddenly noticed, was old and yellowed. The father relaxed. The man was obviously unwell.
The father leaned toward his daughter and whispered, “It’s okay. Don’t be scared, baby.”
“I’m not,” she said. And he had to admit that she didn’t look it.
The father thought then of a peon at his bank, an undernourished boy whose job it was to distribute tiny paper cups of coffee all day long. A few months before, the boy had come to work in tears. He told everyone how he had gone on safari at Bannerghatta Park with his uncle. A tiger had dragged a young girl out of a jeep and proceeded to eat her in front of everyone. The father remembered reading about the incident in the newspaper, and from then on, he would give the boy a rupee every few days to tidy his desk or empty his dustbin. Each time he pressed a coin into his small palm, the boy smiled gratefully.
Now the father scolded the man. “Listen, I don’t know what you’re doing, but you shouldn’t tell stories like that in front of small children.”
The daughter wanted to stay and hear more about the tiger, but her father began to pull her away. She tugged her hand free and dawdled, watching him huff up the path. He was a petite man clearly unused to exertion. With his regular office clothes, the Nikes looked ridiculous. Suddenly she could no longer bear it, and she started to run, overtaking him quickly. She heard him shout her name, but she didn’t stop. When she arrived, panting, at cottage five, her mother was already asleep.
The next morning, a buffet was laid out in the courtyard. The mother took one look at the food and said to the nearest waiter, “Tea. Make sure it’s hot. Understand?”
“You have to eat,” said the father. He’d woken before anyone else and had crept outside to watch the sunrise over the hills. At first, the rows of tea leaves looked like they’d been soaked in ink, but as the sun got higher, they released a green shimmer. He’d gone back inside and laid down next to his wife, somehow glad that he had been the only one to witness it.
“I’m not hungry,” said the mother.
“If you collapse on the hike, don’t blame me,” said the father. He’d taken a little bit of everything: the poori-chana, the baked beans, the eggs. He cleaned his plate and then ate two slices of toast and a bowl of cornflakes. A few cubes of watermelon. His appetite was never this healthy in the city.
The daughter picked at her food. Cramps had attacked her in the middle of the night, and she had tossed for an hour before they subsided. She could have simply woken her mother and asked for some Crocin, but at the time, listening to the distant hush of the hills, it had felt right to bear the pain alone.
The father looked at both of them. “Neither one is eating,” he remarked to the air. “Must be on a diet.”
In the afternoon, they picked up sandwiches from the resort kitchen and set off. The daughter wore shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. The mother wore a salwar kurta and old Keds, and carried a bag with food and water. The father hung a camera around his neck. They turned left at the gate and walked up the dirt road. Each time a vehicle passed, they walked in single file.
“I think we should turn off now,” the father said.
The path he pointed to split from the road, plunging down through the trees. They followed it for 20 minutes as it inscribed a wide, meandering curve. Then it lost itself abruptly in a tangle of wild grass and skinny trees. The mother and daughter stopped. The father stepped over a branch shaped like a stretching dog. “This way,” he said. As if to reward him, the path burst into view again. He felt a quiet vindication at not having led his family astray.
“What trees are these?” the daughter asked, looking up. They had smooth gray bark, and their branches were thin and very high.
The mother spoke after a silence. “Tea trees.”
The daughter watched her glance at her husband.
“No, they’re not,” the daughter said. “They’re not tea trees.”
“Why not?” asked her mother. “We’re on a tea plantation, aren’t we? Everything around here is tea-something. Ask your father if you don’t believe me.”
The father hated when his wife made remarks like that. He often suspected they were intended to prove to him something unflattering about himself, though he couldn’t have explained what it was. He waited for his daughter to ask him about the trees, but she didn’t.
The path began to climb. The family fell into the rhythm of walking. For a long time, there was no sound except the snapping of twigs and the subdued conference of leaves. The path shot down, ambled through a clearing, and extinguished itself near a pretty brook.
The father squatted by the bank and splashed his face with water.
“Cows do number two in that water,” said the daughter. She pointed to the evidence: a fresh cowpat right at the edge of the stream, gently lapped by water.
“Bloody hell!” The father stood and backed away quickly.
The mother had seated herself on a rock. The daughter went over and rummaged in her bag for the bottle of water. The father came toward them.
“Give me the bottle after you’ve finished, baby,” he said.
The daughter threw her head back and drank. The water fell in a silver stream that never touched her lips. She handed the bottle to her father, who poured water into his cupped palm and scrubbed his face. The bottle was almost empty when he had finished.
The daughter’s cramps returned, and with them a pervasive exhaustion. She fell behind her parents as they walked. She thought about her bed in cottage five, its sheets pulled tight as violin strings, and the fan beating above her. She wanted to weep.
Her mother, with uncanny perception, turned. “Pain again?”
“Want to go back?” The mother’s tone was indifferent, neutral.
The father stopped, too. “Is she getting cranky?” he asked the mother.
“I’m not cranky,” the daughter said. “I’m just not feeling well.”
“You didn’t eat breakfast,” the father said. “I told you to eat, didn’t I? Do you want something now? Should we stop and have lunch?”
“I just want to lie down,” the daughter whimpered.
“I’ll take her back,” the mother said. “You keep hiking.”
Suddenly, the father wanted to slap his wife. In 13 years of marriage, he had never raised a hand to her, but now he wanted to hit her as hard as he could. The week before their wedding, which had been arranged through a series of relatives, he’d torn a sheet from a notepad and made a numbered list. 1. Provide financial stability to family unit. 2. Be mentor/inspiration to children. 3. Respect individual preferences of spouse.
“No, you stay,” the father said on impulse. “I’ll take her back.”
The mother looked surprised for a moment, then shrugged. “If you want to.”
“Go on, keep hiking. Enjoy yourself. Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine. Take your time.”
“The Crocin is in the suitcase,” the mother told the daughter. “Take one tablet, then sleep.”
She brushed her daughter’s forehead. The girl startled at the touch, which was gentle but somehow lifeless. She was nearly glad to be walking away with her father. His new Nikes were already stained with dirt and grass. The mother stood looking after them, her hip cocked at an angle to support the bag.
Now the mother was alone. This was what she had wanted, wasn’t it? She had wished and wished for it, the words drumming in her head since they’d started walking, since her eyes had opened that morning: I would like to be alone. I would like to be alone.
And here she was. Alone.
She continued uphill, in the direction they’d been going earlier as a family. The light changed on the forest floor, filtered through the high branches. She thought about what she’d said to her daughter. Tea trees. Ask your father. She’d noticed the embarrassment in her husband’s expression, and she regretted it a little now. But at the time she’d felt nothing but a mild curiosity about how he would respond.
She was almost sure there were no such things as tea trees.
The forest thinned as she approached a ridge. She saw a solid bank of light up ahead where the tree line ended. The sounds of women’s voices reached her, like snatches of a song. Her pace quickened. She steadied the bag and stepped out, and, yes, the hill stretched down and away from her at her feet, exactly as she’d thought it would—covered with long, seemingly endless rows of tea.
The rows pleased her with their precision. The space in between them as narrow and strict as a school corridor. The bag on her shoulder filled now with books, pencils. Her black shoes polished that morning by her father on their veranda, bare-chested, lungi wrapped around his waist. Objects from a wooden box spread around him. Two brushes: one for black shoes, one for brown. A rag. Tin of polish. A glossy shoehorn. He puts his hand into her shoe, wearing it like a glove. He nestles it in his lap and makes it shine, even the thin strap that crosses the top of her foot. A perfect job every time.
Women were visible on the slopes, among the tea bushes, with baskets strapped to their backs. The mother could see them scattered: tiny colorful figures stuck between the rows like scraps of bright cloth caught in a dark-green mesh.
Her husband was always encouraging her to find friends. He had suggested she take a cooking class, join a women’s badminton team. Once, he even brought home a racket and a barrel of glue-stiff shuttles—but she never touched them. In the end, it was their daughter who’d been enrolled in badminton coaching. Otherwise, he came home from work and told her about his colleagues’ wives, how they planned to attend a handloom-handicraft exhibition at the palace grounds. Maybe she should join them, buy herself a new sari. He was secure at work; they could afford a little indulgence every now and then.
Pamper yourself. That was his phrase. He’d grown up poor. So had she.
One of the tea pickers was walking toward her. With each step, the woman’s hands shot out in either direction, neatly plucking the tender, topmost leaves of the bushes and flinging them over her shoulder into the basket on her back, which, the mother noticed now, was actually secured to her head. A yellow cloth strap passed across her forehead like a bridle.
When the woman reached the end of the row, she stopped.
“Hello,” the mother said, suddenly shy.
The tea picker emerged and stood on the path. She was dressed in a man’s plaid shirt, buttoned up to the throat, and a checkered lungi down to her ankles. Her chin was lifted in a way that looked haughty, but that was because she had to hold her neck rigid to counter the basket’s weight. The mother noticed that the tea picker had small hands with fine, almost childlike, fingers.
Tea hands, she thought. Tea hands, tea trees. Why not?
There had been a time when the mother had known how to talk to women like this one. For one glorious year after college, before her father called to say he’d found someone for her, she’d worked for an NGO. She’d travel by train or bus from village to village, giving presentations on family planning, the use of birth control, sexually transmitted diseases. She’d watch hardened, work-worn women struggle through stages of shame and suspicion until, finally, she was rewarded with a deluge of curiosity. They’d ask endless questions once they had determined she was to be trusted. What if my husband never washes down there; will I get an infection? I’ve heard that if you lie in a certain way during the act, then your baby will be a boy; is that true? With what ease she’d discussed these things, with what intensity they’d listened, these strangers becoming, in a sense, her sisters and aunts and cousins and nieces. They’d feed and fuss over her, insisting that she stay overnight, and she often did, accepting with alacrity the coir cot she was given. Then the talk would go on for hours more. Other women would join after the day’s work had ended, after they’d cooked and cleaned and put their families to bed, and she would look around at these women, who’d known poverty and death and physical labor beyond anything she could imagine, giggling and squealing like girls, and her heart would swell with love.
That morning, she had stood looking down at her daughter in their steamy bathroom, the child’s face shiny with fear and embarrassment at the changes in her body, and she had felt nothing.
It should have been the other way around: with the women, cool professionalism; with her daughter, the hot urgency of maternal love. But it had turned out not to be so. The least she could do was offer assistance. Here, she had said in the bathroom, taking the pack of Kotex pads from the cabinet. This is how you do it.
“Lookout Point?” said the tea picker abruptly.
“Lookout Point.” The tea picker pointed with a slender finger. “Go that way and you will see a board. All guests from the resort go there. It is a high place with a nice view.”
“Ah,” said the mother. “Thank you.”
The tea picker nodded and then stepped back into the next row. The mother watched her move off, noticing the way the bushes shivered after she’d touched them.
Just as the tea picker had said, there was a board. Shaky white letters on a piece of wood, an arrow pointing directly up. The path was steep, more like stairs, really, a near-vertical ascent with depressions in the dirt where she could secure her footing. She hefted the bag, feeling its contents jostle. She would probably be able to manage, but the climb would be easier without the burden.
She pulled out a sandwich, slipped it into the pocket of her kurta, and looked around for a place to set the bag. Then she remembered having passed a tree whose roots had broken through the dirt. She turned back, her stride full of fresh purpose. Sure enough, two of the roots had joined to form a scaly chamber. She knelt and pushed the bag deep inside.
She returned to the sign and began to climb. Leaning into the slope, she tried to make herself as compact as possible, staying close to the earth. Those old principles of gravity and equilibrium. Her body had always known them, even if her mind hadn’t. Her father on the veranda, inspecting her failed physics and math papers, eyebrows raised at each incorrect answer. And so: home economics. The losses and gains of vegetables, the partial return of chores. College, a year at the NGO, then marriage.
Her body amazed her. It did not falter. She got to the top, panting. Her husband would have insisted on going up first to test the route. She would have had to climb with his face peering down at her with anxious encouragement, his hand stretched out imploringly. She looked down. Twenty feet at least. If she had fallen, no one would have caught her. A sprained ankle. A broken finger. A dislocated shoulder. She would have made her way in spite of it. She would have limped or crawled. Maybe a couple of the tea pickers would have come upon her, taken her back to their home. She would have leaned on one woman’s shoulder and hobbled along, her body knotted with pain, blazingly aware of that slim, strong tea hand wrapped around her waist.
Lookout Point was a bar of dirt overlooking a valley, with a low metal guardrail that did not extend fully to either side. There was a wooden bench, peeling and splintered beyond use. A white car was parked next to it, and for a second, she thought her husband had come to find her. Then she saw a young couple standing together at the guardrail.
The mother stopped. She had bargained on being alone, and she was tempted to duck and hide, but the man caught sight of her. “Hi there!” he called. “Isn’t this fantastic?”
The woman saw her too, and waved. “It was overcast when we got here,” she said cheerfully, “but it’s clearing up now.” They both had accents. American-born.
They were the same height and built along the same proportions: slender hips, narrow shoulders. They spoke with enthusiasm, as if they had been expecting her. But how could that be? She herself had not been expecting to be here.
“Where’d you come from?” the man asked. “You kind of popped up out of nowhere. Meena thought it was a wild animal.”
“I came from there,” the mother said, pointing. “There is a path.”
The young woman laughed. “I’m a bit jumpy. We met this guy near our resort. He was crazy. Or drunk. I couldn’t tell. Anyway, he went on and on about this tiger that killed a kid somewhere here.”
“A kid?” the mother echoed.
“Oops,” the woman said. “Not a child. I meant a baby goat. Sorry.” She laughed. “Anyway, we asked at the resort, and it’s all nonsense. Apparently, he’s been telling the same story for years.”
“Mentally unstable,” said the man.
“A nutjob,” said the woman.
The mother came over and stood beside them. After a moment of mutual inspection, the three of them looked out over the valley. The hills were blurred with clouds. A sparkling plate of water, a lake, lay at the bottom. The wind was coming up.
She could feel their curiosity. A woman walking alone in the hills, no family, no explanation. She was a mystery to them. She was a story they would tell when they went back home. We met a strange woman, walking alone. She felt a sudden pride in that idea.
“Do you think you’d be able to take a picture of us?” the man said.
The camera he was holding out to her was compact and silver, nothing like her husband’s chunky Nikon. It sat snug in his palm like a deck of cards. She nodded, and they beamed.
The couple posed in front of the guardrail, which reached only as high as their calves.
“See if you can get that really tall hill in the background,” called the man.
“Just let her take it, Akash,” the woman said. “He always has to control everything.”
The man laughed, but the mother noticed his embarrassment. These small humiliations, she wanted to tell them, they will become the score of your life. The offhand remark, the neglected compliment, the forgotten item, the mixed-up ticket, the late arrival. They will be the things you pay attention to, and there will be no time for anything else.
She held up the camera. “Move back a little,” she said.
They kept their arms around each other’s waists while they shuffled back obediently. As if I’m holding a gun, the mother thought. “A little more,” she said.
“I’m only getting your faces,” she said. “Can you move back a little more?”
Their legs were now touching the guardrail. The mother felt the button of the camera hard under her finger. “A little more,” she said.
“We’ll fall,” the woman said with a nervous laugh.
“Why don’t you move back yourself?” The man spoke with slight aggression. “Then you can get more of the background.”
Of course. The obvious solution. The mother stared at the couple. Her heart was beating inexplicably fast. She retreated and the entire valley leapt into the screen of the camera. She clicked.
“Thank you,” the man said. He came forward and took the camera from her.
The woman was friendly again, smiling.
“It is so peaceful here,” she said. “I wish we could stay longer, but we have to see my relatives in Kerala. Akash only has a couple weeks off from work.”
“We’re at Crown Resorts,” said the man. “How about you?”
The mother considered her answer. “No,” she said at last.
“No?” The man seemed to find her newly interesting. “I thought that was the only resort around here. Where are you staying?”
She paused. “In a village,” she said. “I also have relatives.”
They looked a bit puzzled but seemed to accept this. The woman, Meena, turned and gazed at the view one more time. “Beautiful,” she said. Then, “We should get back.”
“Yes,” the man agreed. “Bye,” he said to the mother.
“It’ll be a gorgeous sunset,” the woman added.
“Yes,” the mother said. “I came to watch the sunset.”
That was all it took, the simple statement of a purpose. They relaxed perceptibly. She was less of a mystery to them now. She was a woman who had come to watch the sunset. She wished she hadn’t said anything. She wished she’d left them to wonder.
They got into their white car. The man reversed, then drove off in the direction of the resort. It seemed a very long time before they were fully out of sight.
The young woman was wrong. It was not a gorgeous sunset. There were no fiery pinks and oranges. There was only an insipid flare before the sun dropped behind the hills.
The mother swung her legs over the guardrail and sat on the edge. She took the sandwich from her pocket, a shapeless mess of bread and cheese. Unwrapping it from the thin plastic, she coaxed off a corner. She thought of the resort, the dining room, where there would be a menu and a waiter and a husband and a daughter and a thousand collisions to brace for. She chewed the bread slowly. The cheese was tart and made her teeth hurt. She swallowed and wished she had some water to wash it down. No matter. Her mouth filled slowly with saliva. Her body had always known what to do.
I must go back, she thought. I must go back. But she remained where she was.
Two hours later, the daughter woke up in cottage five. The day had grown dark. Her sheets were wet. Her underwear was wet. Had she urinated? Then she remembered her period. She jumped out of bed with a gasp and snatched at the sheet, which had a large, dark stain like a screaming mouth. She dragged the sheet to the bathroom and slammed the door. She filled a bucket with hot water and stuffed the bloodstained sheet into it. She tore off her shorts and underwear and stuffed those in, too. She squatted on the cold tiles, shivering, until she’d recovered herself, then she tiptoed out to get fresh clothes and a new pad, hoping that no one would come in.
After she’d cleaned the evidence as best as she could, she went to find her father. He was sitting in the restaurant, watching a TV mounted on the wall. There was an empty glass in front of him, and a plate with the remnants of peanuts and shredded onions.
“You’re awake,” he said. “Feeling better?”
“Where’s Amma?” the daughter asked.
“Do you want a Pepsi?” he asked.
“No. Where’s Amma?” she asked again.
“Walking,” her father said. He seemed very tired. “She’s still walking.”
“Appa,” she said urgently. “What about the tiger?”
Her father blinked.
“The tiger,” she repeated. “That man told us about it, remember? What if Amma—”
She broke off, unable to finish the thought.
Her father’s face constricted with fear, then slackened. “Don’t be silly, baby. That man didn’t know what he was saying. There’s no tiger.”
“But what if—”
“You should be having fun,” he said in a complaining way. “That’s what this holiday is for. Why don’t you go and play table tennis, hm? Or go find the rabbit?”
“But, Appa, what if—”
All at once, he lurched to his feet. “Fine!” he shouted. “You want me to go look for her? Is that what you want? You want me to bring her back? Okay, I’ll go.”
“She doesn’t even have a torch,” the daughter whispered, starting to feel ashamed of her outburst. She imagined her mother in their cottage later, sipping a cup of steaming tea, listening to the saga. You were afraid I’d been attacked by a tiger. And you thought your father would be able to save me—how exactly? By fighting it off with his bare hands?
“Doesn’t matter,” her father said illogically. “Torch or no torch, I’ll find her.”
They made their way to the resort gates.
“Stay here,” he ordered. “I don’t want you falling sick again.”
He walked away up the road, more or less steady on his feet. At the fork, the daughter saw him pause. His head swiveled one way, then the other.
Not knowing what else to do, she wandered over to the clubhouse. In the table-tennis room, the net had collapsed, and two paddles, their rubber surfaces peeling off, were lying one on top of the other. No balls were in sight. The room had the stripped air of a banquet hall after a feast has been cleared away. She walked to the far side and examined the unpainted cement walls.
Then she heard a sound and spun to see the boy in the blue uniform, the one who had shown them to their cottage. He was holding a paddle in each hand, and he was looking at her.
“Want to play?” he asked.
“They’re bald,” she pointed out, meaning the paddles. “And there’s no ball.”
“Okay.” He dropped the paddles onto the table with a clatter that made her wince. “What are you doing here if you don’t want to play?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Nothing. What are you doing here?”
“I’m off duty,” he said, and the phrase impressed her with its adult implications. “Where are your mother and father?” he asked.
“In the cottage,” she said quickly. Young as she was, she knew how to be discreet. Then, to change the subject, she said, “Is the rabbit still here?”
“Yes,” the boy answered quickly. “Want to go and play with it?”
Her goal had been mere diversion, but she found that she suddenly did want to see the rabbit. She wanted to hold its soft body against her chest, to stroke its long ears.
They left the clubhouse and crossed the garden to the hutch, which was simply a large, square enclosure of wire with a floor of hay.
The daughter peered in. A white shape lay on the ground.
“Is it the same one from last year?”
“Yes,” the boy said. “Why?”
“It looks different.”
“It’s the same one.” He unlatched the gate. “Let’s go inside.”
She wanted to refuse, but it was too late. She followed him into the hutch. Her foot knocked against a metal water bowl, in which floated several dead insects. Some water splashed out and she had to suppress a yelp of revulsion.
They stood there together, looking down.
“Aren’t you going to pick it up?” the boy asked.
“The rabbit. You wanted to play with it. Aren’t you going to pick it up?”
He watched her, arms crossed. There was no way to avoid it. She felt a surge of anger so great that she was sure she could kill him, if she only had a weapon.
The rabbit looked wrong to her. It looked ugly.
She bent and slipped her hands beneath its body. “Shh,” she said, trying to seem capable and comforting. She lifted it onto her chest, turning her face away from the hot stink of its fur.
As though it had sensed her unwillingness, the rabbit began to squirm.
“What are you doing?” The boy took a step toward her. “You’re holding it wrong.”
“No,” she said. “I’ve got it. It’s fine.”
He looked like he wanted to disagree, but he stopped where he was.
“Shh,” the daughter told the rabbit. “Don’t worry. Shh. It’s okay.”
But the animal kept scrabbling, tremors of fear rippling across its fur. She tightened her arms around its rib cage, which only intensified its struggle.
“You’re hurting it,” the boy repeated. He took another step. This time he sounded angry.
“No!” she cried. “It’s fine. Stay there.”
But it was as though she hadn’t spoken; he kept coming.
Just then, pain barbed through her hand. She looked down in amazement to find a bead of blood where the rabbit’s teeth had sunk in.
The boy was so close. Any moment, his fingers would land on her skin.
So she did the only thing she could think of, which was, in truth, all she had wanted to do from the beginning. She took a step back and threw the rabbit as hard as she could at him. For a second, she stood there, incredulous, watching it fly, watching the boy raising his arms, though whether to save the animal or to save himself, she could not tell.
Then she ran.