- Books, Literature, and Writing»
- Books & Novels
Excerpt 2 - The Secret Doctrine of Clouds
Excerpt 2 – The Secret Doctrine of Clouds
By Tony DeLorger © 2011
‘Ah, good girl Della, I see you have worked hard today,’ said Mala, Della’s mother, as she crouched down to wash. Pouring water from a large jug into a pottery bowl in the corner, she splashed her face and sighed.
‘Such a hot day. Did you help Mrs. Patwe this morning?’
‘Good. I know she can be difficult, but she is Vaishya and respected in our little village.’
‘I don’t mind Mama; I like to look after Devi. He is a special boy.’
‘I suppose you could say that,’ replied her mother.
Mala was an attractive woman with beautiful rich caramel skin and kind dark eyes. The room lit up when she smiled and her bright red ‘Bindi’ glowed against her dark skin.
Vikram, Della’s father was stretching his stiffened back, the day having worn him out. ‘I have some good news Della. I must go to Chandigar to discuss some labour issues with the union there. I thought that perhaps you might like to come?’
Della turned toward her father excitedly. ‘Really?’
‘It would be for two days, and it’s a long train ride,’ explained Vikram.
She rushed to her father’s arms and launched herself at him with great enthusiasm.
‘You don’t have to go if you don’t want to, Della,’ said her mother with a grin.
‘Oh, thank you. Thank you so much,’ said Della, giving her father an enthusiastic squeeze around his neck.
‘Ok, that’s settled,’ said Vikram.
‘What do I take, and what do I wear? Will it be cold? What time do we leave?’
‘Whooh Della! Tomorrow will come soon enough. You can pack in the morning. Now let’s eat, I’m starving!’
Della tried to calm herself and began to peel the garlic and onions. She then watched her mother make dahl and cook rice and vegetables as well as prepare a yoghurt raita. She had lit the fire moments before her parents arrived and the iron plate was now ready. While Mala braised the vegetables in ghee with haldi, elaichi, chillies and lassun, Della kneaded the atta dough ready to make parathas.
The dough was cut into several pieces each one rolled up into a small ball. They were then rolled out flat on a stone with a heavy roller. Della cooked them in a flat pan with a little ghee, until they were brown and crispy.
Meanwhile, Vikram stood outside their home enjoying a cigarette. He was a slender but muscular man, tall with almost black skin. He had laboured for many years and was finally promoted to a supervisory position in the textile factory where he and Mala worked. His pay increase was only slight, but the new position had gained him respect, and to him that was everything.
The family sat on the floor, each member with a banana leaf covered with portions of curry, rice, and raita, some of Mala’s mango chutney and a paratha.
‘They say Della, the gardens and the rainforest up near the mountains are beautiful. Perhaps we could take a bus when I’m finished with my meeting,’ said Vikram.
‘Oh, that would be wonderful, Papa.’
‘I see you have started a garden of your own,’ said Mala, looking up to the tiny plant on the windowsill.
‘It wants to live, Mama, and I am going to make sure that it does. Can you give it some water tomorrow when I’m away with Papa?’
‘Of course, when I get home from the factory.’
After their meal and the pots cleaned, Della took a cup of water and gently poured it into the tin can. The shoot had grown almost twice its original size, one leafy side almost two inches longer with small tendrils curling out from the stalk.
‘Ah, you are a vine, little one,’ whispered Della, caressing its leaves. She then carefully removed her precious hair comb and placed it next to the shoot on the windowsill.
As was their nightly ritual, Mala stood behind Della and brushed her long straight hair, lifting it up in sections and running the brush down the entire length. It was more than three feet long and was as glossy as a raven’s wing. After all the knots were removed, Mala plaited it masterfully into one long perfect plait.
‘Good night then, my girl,’ she said, kissing her lovingly on her forehead.
‘Good night Mama. Good night Papa, she said, jumping into her bed in the corner.
‘Sweet dreams, Della,’ said Papa, crouching down to give her a kiss. ‘And we have to wake up early; the train leaves a 6.30am.’
Their house was one large open area. On the rear wall, which was made from bricks, sat the open fire and hotplate for cooking, with a small window above that acted as a flue. Next to that, several pottery containers held foodstuffs and spices with three different metal cooking-pots with lids and stirring spoons. In the front left corner sat Della’s bed and in the opposite corner was her parents bedding, obscured from view by a threefold carved screen. Several cane baskets held clothing and other belongings, with one medium-sized chest, which housed the beginnings of Della’s dowry, completed the inventory. Their home was simple, but it was home.
Della closed her eyes, excited about her unexpected journey, but it was hard to sleep. She kept looking up at the shoot in the window, the soft evening light silhouetting this tiny plant, struggling to be a part of life. How resilient it was to have survived on a dusty path, and now how it was thriving in a tin can on a windowsill. As Della’s thoughts began to drift of their own accord, she eventually fell fast asleep.
Above her on the windowsill, tiny tendrils from the shoot slowly opened, reaching yearningly into the dry air. Moonlight dusted each leaf and tendril, seemingly giving the plant more energy and encouragement.
‘Wake up Della, we’ve overslept,’ said Papa, gently shaking her.
Della sat bolt upright, wiping the sleep from her eyes. She leapt out from under her bed covers and poured some water into a bowl, splashing her face.
‘She’s already left for work.’
Taking a few belongings and a wrap in case it got cold, Della followed her father into the edge of the city and on to the train station.
There were huge crowds of commuters waiting to board the train, amassed around the entrances to each carriage, the steam engine spewing out copious amounts of smoke and steam, the hiss of the engine ringing in their ears.
The conductor, who was standing on the rear of the engine, suddenly waved a red flag and the crowd surged forward into the doorways of the carriages. Vikram picked Della up and forced his way through the crowd until he reached the steps of one of the carriages.
People were climbing on top of each carriage, and sitting in clusters on the flat boards that ran across the top. Vikram climbed the metal steps and pushed through, grabbing the first empty seat that he saw and plonking Della down next to him.
The train was soon filled to the brim. People were standing in the isles and entranceways, the top of the train a twisted mass of entangled bodies, all holding on to the side rails and one another for support.
The whistle sounded with a huge rush of steam and they were off, the clatter of wheels against track slowly gaining intensity until the sound blurred into a rhythmic, metallic canter.
Della sat half out of the window, waving to passers-by and admiring the change of scenery as they slowly headed north away from the city, toward Chandigar.
As the surrounds became more rural, the population decreased and Della watched as brick, wood and sheet metal shanties were replaced with quaint little farmhouses. Workers bent at the waist in their fields tended crops, some were herding goats, others ploughing fields with giant water buffalo straining to carve the hard dry earth.
Della was infatuated with the course of life and with the wind in her hair, was taking in everything she saw with great delight.
For Della, the trip went quickly, and after a short bus drive from the station at Chandigar, her father began his meeting while Della waited patiently outside the rather run down union building.
Several children were playing in the street, and when their ball rolled over to Della, she picked it up and walked toward the children.
‘Do you want to play?’ said a small girl of about seven.
‘No thank you. I am waiting for my father. He is an important man, having a meeting in the union hall,’ she explained.
‘My father is a farmer and my mother too. Where are you from?’ asked the girl.
‘Our village is on the outskirts of Delhi, by the river.’
‘It must be nice to be near the water. We just have a well.’
Della smiled and the child grabbed her hand and led her over to the other children. ‘What is your name?”
‘This is Della; she is from Delhi, near the holy river. Della from Delhi,’ she giggled. ‘I am Moola and this is my brother Suresh, and his friend Kailash.’
Suresh took the ball from Della and dropped it, kicking it forward, with Kailash on his heels.
‘Come on Della, they’re not as good as they think they are,’ said Moola. Della smiled and dashed after the boys.
They played in the dusty streets for more than two hours, until Vikram emerged from the union hall. He shook hands with several men and then walked over to Della, a smile radiating from his dark face.
‘Della, I see you have found some new friends,’ he said, down on his haunches.
‘This is Moola, Suresh and Kailash.’
‘Hello children. So who won boys or girls?’ he said with a grin.
‘Boys! Girls!’ they shouted in unison.
‘Say goodbye then, we have to go back into town,’ said Vikram.
Della turned to Moola. ‘Perhaps we will meet again.’
‘I hope so,’ she replied, giving Della a sisterly hug.
‘Goodbye boys. Keep practicing!’ she added.
The boys scoffed and were off with the ball, goals still to score.
Vikram and Della made their way back to the bus-stop. Two people stood there waiting, one old man carrying a bamboo cage in which several cramped chickens clucked raucously, and a woman nervously holding on to her shopping basket.
After a short and silent wait, a rickety yellow bus approached, the gears crunching loudly as the driver pushed it to its limit to get up the incline to the bus-stop. It screeched to a halt and several locals got out, the old motor turning over with a syncopated rhythm.
‘At least we get a seat,’ said Vikram, as he helped Della up the step into the bus.
The seats were torn and dirty, but it was better to sit during the rough ride back to town. Vikram and Della sat close to each other, bouncing about in the bus that followed a dirt trail down the side of a hill and on to the lowland of the township.
‘If you like Della, we could take another bus and go to the foothills today. I know you would like to see the rainforest. ‘
‘Yes, we have time. I have another meeting in town at 4.30 with Mohinda Singh, who is putting us up for the night; as long as we’re back before that.’
‘Will we see tigers, Papa?’ asked Della, excitedly.
‘I hope not, little one.’
Vikram made the arrangements and after a quick lunch of samosa and lassi in a local teahouse, the travellers made their way into the foothills, north-east of Chandigar.
From the bus, they hiked up the gentle green slopes toward the leafy terrain beyond. Della’s eyes lit up as she drew nearer, the lush tropical rainforest vegetation so vibrant and plentiful seemed to be calling her.
‘Ah, these bones are getting weary, Della. I’ll just sit here and enjoy the view. You have a look around, but don’t go too far.’
Vikram sat down on a sandstone boulder near the edge of the forest and took a cigarette from his pocket. He lit it with his plastic lighter and drew in a deep breath, the soft blue smoke pouring out from his flared dark nostrils.
Meanwhile Della walked into the edge of the rainforest. Huge glossy palms littered the forest floor with many different vines and moulds growing around the massive tree trunks that drifted upward to the vast dense canopy above. Shards of light splayed out from their tiny entrance points and permeated the mulch-covered floor like tiny spotlights.
The air was moist and droplets of moisture glistened on every leaf and surface, deep green mosses covering fallen trunks, while step-like fungi climbed the trunks like stairways to the clouds. Della was overwhelmed. She had never seen anything like this before, in this abundance.
She crouched down and picked up a handful of decaying barks and leaves, and absorbed their musty scent. She inspected the tiny creatures that foraged among it, each with a life and purpose. Della began to feel a warm sense of belonging, the life surging through her as if these plants and trees were sharing their energy with her. Closing her eyes, she tilted her head back and breathed in deeply.
‘Come closer,’ a tiny voice squeaked.
Della opened her eyes, having been wrenched back from her blissful moment, and looked around to see who was there. She was alone.
‘Closer, little girl,’ said the voice.
A cold shudder swept through her, from the tip of her head all the way down her spine to the ends of her toes.
‘Who’s there?’ she demanded, turning around, now a little unnerved.
‘We wish to be with you, that is all.’
‘Who is saying that?’ she shouted, fear now taking over.
Della, wide eyed, looked down and saw a slender green vine wrapped around the tree trunk next to her. The stalk had coiled tendrils that took hold to anything that could support it.
‘We wish to be with you,’ repeated the voice.
Della was suddenly intrigued. Her fear was miraculously dissipating, and she found herself staring at this vibrant green vine. Before her eyes, several coiled tendrils unrolled themselves and reached out and then wrapped around Della’s dainty foot. She was stunned.
‘You can feel us, can’t you?’ said the voice.
Della was unable to speak. The tendrils gently stroked her ankles and feet, curling around and then releasing so softly that she could barely feel it. Then, as if the reality suddenly hit her, a wave of fear exploded in her head. Not knowing why, she screamed out loud and then dashed frantically out of the vegetation. She found herself standing in the open grasses, panting, her father facing her, with a terrified expression on his face.
He grabbed her and thrust her behind him, looking frantically into the rainforest. ‘Was it a tiger?’ he shouted.
‘It’s all right, Papa. I think maybe…my imagination,’ she said, her voice frail and unconvincing.
‘We will go then,’ he said, his eyes darting nervously back and forth across the dense vegetation. ‘Let’s get away from here,’ said Vikram, taking Della quickly down the incline and away from the forest. He kept looking over his shoulder, expecting some ferocious animal to appear. But nothing did.
ON the bus back to Chandigar Vikram kept asking what had happened but Della tried to explain that she’d just scared herself, and nothing more. He knew there was something else but she was safe, so in the end, he chose to forget about it and focused on his afternoon meeting.
Della remained in a daze and the rest of her sojourn with her father seemed a blur. They slept the night with Mohinda and early the next morning left for home.
The entire trip home, Della sat staring vacantly out of the window of the train; the passing countryside hardly even realised. She remained lost in her own thoughts, and plagued by her own wild imaginings. She suddenly felt that she might have lost her mind. All her questioning and the openness of her thinking had given birth to a plethora of ideas and beliefs, but now she didn’t know what to think. Either she was crazy or her far-reaching thoughts had somehow manifested into reality. The whole experience was simply too much to absorb, so she let it pass, let it loose to free herself from the fear of it.
As they wearily trudged home from the station, Della found solace in her little village, the colour and familiarity comforting.
When they arrived home, it was too early for her mother to have returned from work, so Della crouched down and found what her mother had put aside for their evening meal. As she sorted what needed doing, she remembered her plant on the sill and rushed over to see how it was growing.
To her delight its stalk had grown another three inches and now draped down over the side of the can and onto the sill. It leant to the left side, its probing tendrils outstretched and covering her Grandmother’s hair comb. As she picked it up, she realised that some of the tendrils had wound around it. Gently releasing them, she held the comb in her hand and looked pensively at the plant. She didn’t understand why this would happen but felt an unexpected cold chill.
‘Are you trying to tell me something?’ she whispered, trying to make light of it.
Picking up a pencil from her bed, Della drew a smile with two dot eyes on the can. ‘You are a happy vine, aren’t you? Now you can show everyone how happy you are.’
With that, she poured a small cup of water into the can and placed the abalone shell comb on the right side of the sill, away from the plant. She then tried to forget about what had happened.
Sweeping the floor was never much fun, with dry red dust clouding up inside their tiny house, but the job had to be done. While she was cleaning, Della found a piece of paper that her father had dropped on the floor.
Della had never been able to go to school. She was female and the prohibitive cost had prevented any participation. But she had always been interested in learning to read, something that Rampal had insisted on and committed to teach her.
At the age of twelve she could read basic language, but had never told her parents. Her secret studies had to remain secret for now.
Holding the note, Della tried to read the writing but it was scribbled down quickly and the letterforms eluded her. Amid trying to read, she suddenly thought of her experience in the rainforest, and looked up to the vine on the windowsill.
‘Are you trying to tell me something?’ she asked, this time with more conviction. An idea suddenly struck her. If plants could somehow communicate with her, then this little vine could prove it.
Della found a piece of paper and tore two small square pieces from it. On one she wrote ‘Yes’ as neatly as she could, and on the other ‘No’. She then placed the ‘No’ piece in front of the tin can and ‘Yes’ to the right of the can, each with a small pebble to keep the paper in place.
If this were to be proven, then the little plant would have to move. She stood in front of the vine and looked squarely at it.
‘Are you trying to talk to me?’ she asked slowly, in a clear and concise voice. ‘If you are, you will have to point to the ‘Yes.’
‘Oh,’ she suddenly realised. ‘If you’re not, you still have to move to the ‘No.’ Either way, I suppose it doesn’t matter,’ she giggled.
Della was a little confused with her own plan, but for the moment that was what she was to do, and she’d just see what happened.
Not expecting anything and still with reservations about her own experience in the rainforest, she went about her work until her mother returned home. Unlike the usual bombardment of stories and experiences that Della would impart, she said little to her mother, other than she had enjoyed the trip. Mala thought it strange, but left Della alone after Vikram explained her fright in the forest.
At midday the following day it was time to meet Rampal at the temple. As always he was waiting for her in the lane. She quickly made her way inside to the private prayer room and sat down opposite him as she had always done.
Rampal studied her concerned expression and not understanding what he was in for, posed the question.
‘What’s wrong, my child? Is something worrying you?’
‘Rampal. Have you seen the lepers in the streets, the ones that have gone mad? What do you think they are thinking?’ she asked in a soft, sincere voice.
Rampal frowned, knowing that this was not really the question she wanted answered. But nonetheless, he thought about it for some time before answering.
‘I think that people can sometimes become lost. Perhaps they have exceeded their capacity to cope and choose to live in another realm, one more sympathetic to them and their frail state.’
‘But how would you know if you had become one of those poor souls?’
Rampal smiled warmly. ‘You are thinking perhaps the world has faded from you, having lost all connection with it?’ he said with humour and a touch of sarcasm.
Della blushed. ‘Rampal, I think I have heard voices where there were no voices.’
‘Della, please tell me what happened? You know you can tell me anything.’
Della looked down thoughtfully and fidgeted a little, obviously uncomfortable. ‘When I was with my father in Chandigar, we went up to the edge of the rainforest; you know how I love all the plants and trees.’
Rampal nodded, his hands resting calmly in his lap.
‘I began to hear voices, and each time that I looked around there was no-one there, no-one there at all- just me and the rainforest trees and plants.’
‘But what did these voices say?’ asked Rampal, bewildered.
‘That is the thing Rampal. Somehow I knew that whatever it was, it was talking to me . The voice said it wanted to be close to me, something like that.’
For some reason, Della felt a surge of emotion rise from within her. Unexpected tears welled in her dark eyes and then slowly edged down her cheeks.
‘I am frightened Rampal, but then I am not. I don’t know what to think or do,’ she said, leaning into Rampal’s shoulder and sobbing quietly.
‘It’s all right Della. There is nothing for you to fear, you are simply open to so many things, and at such a young age. I don’t know what else to say to you except that your life is special- I’ve known that from the beginning,’ he explained, gently running his fingers through her hair.
‘What you see, nobody sees, but that does not mean what you see is not there or wrong. Your gift is sight, a sight far beyond most people. This gift is to be understood and nurtured and used for good. You heart has always been special to me and I have enjoyed teaching you what I can. But in the end it will be you who teach me. Remember we are all teachers and pupils. The real task is to understand when and why we should be either.
Della, if nature reaches out to you for some reason, you must respond and be open to any possibility. We think that we are in control, that man is king on earth. But we know so little and we are at the mercy of life, each blessed breathe a gift in itself. Do not be afraid, Della; this is simply your path.’
Della listened to Rampal’s words of encouragement and although she did not see what he saw, she could try to stem this fear within her and try to accept, however bizarre it appeared.
‘I’m sorry Rampal, I am not much company today,’ she said with a forced grin.
Rampal kissed her gently on her forehead and she wiped the tears from her eyes. ‘Shall we then?’ he asked.
Della nodded and Rampal picked up and opened the holy text next to him, the area of today’s discussion already marked.
Della stayed for another hour and then, feeling tired, returned home to finish her daily chores. As she worked she remembered what Rampal had said and tried to temper the emotional turmoil within her. Fear, self-doubt and apprehension hovered over her like some bird of prey, ready to pounce at any moment. She felt its presence and tried to be brave, but reality, if indeed that’s what it was, would be harder to accept than her own madness, should it come to that.
After analysing herself to the point of exhaustion, Della finally gave up.
It wasn’t until the following morning that everything became clearer. She woke from a sound sleep and all bleary-eyed looked toward her tiny vine on the windowsill. She rubbed her eyes, trying to clear her vision, trying to verify what she saw.
Not only had the vine grown over to the ‘Yes’ sign, but the tendrils had surrounded it and lifted it up, as if to say ‘Well?’