In the fourteenth century, the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta described the foot-post during his visit to the Sultanate of Delhi as “quicker that the horse post.” But at the dawn of the twentieth century, in 1908, the foot-post wasn’t as swift as steam locomotive. Still, the foot-post delivered mail to remote corners of British Raj India just as it had when Battuta visited five centuries before.
Work was mostly straightforward for Karamchand, the last man of the foot-post, the dawa, in the Kumaon Himalayas, tucked into a nook between Western Nepal and Tibet. In the back of the nook, headwaters of the Ganges River flowed from sacred glaciers and peaks through isolated valleys. From his thatched-roof postal hut overlooking the Saryu River, he waited for the penultimate foot-post runner to arrive. As arguably the most remote hirkara in India, Karamchand was accustomed to waiting, sometimes for days. In the village, he was regarded as patient by many and lazy by some. Nevertheless, his gangly legs were prepared to run wherever the letters needed delivery, and he ignored the more unkind judgments.
He repaired the coiled rope soles of his worn canvas shoes and listened to the birds singing and the river flowing below the terraced fields. He gazed at the meandering river and its water-hewn boulders with his hazel eyes, waiting for the mail or a villager to invite him into his hut for chai. He liked it spiced with the cardamom that his niece Kalapini picked for him as she sang and danced through the forests with her friends.
Often Kalapini would sit with him outside the hut watching the world express itself. Like him, she enjoyed observing and understanding the world around her, often asking questions such as, “What is that, uncle?” Typically, he would reply with a story that captivated Kalapini from beginning to end, while she wiggled the gold ring in her right nostril with her finger.
While bathing in the icy Saryu River, Kalapini spotted an immense golden mahaseer. When she told Karamchand, he sipped his tea, leaving a creamy residue on the moustache that served as a bushy nest for his aquiline nose. At last, he replied with a story in their native Kumaoni language. “The first ancestor of the golden mahaseer lived a long time ago in the mouth of the Ganges River. She knew every part of the river’s mouth and had many friends. But one day, a fish arrived from up-river. He told her magnificent stories. She grew curious. And fell in love. ‘Let’s follow the river,’ she said. So they swam and they swam, past the ghats of Varanasi. Then…” Karamchand stopped. Both of them listened intently through the sounds of birds and the river: bells.
“A letter is coming,” he exclaimed. “I must prepare.” Karamchand girded his loins, firmly adjusting his dhoti so its fabric wouldn’t interfere with his legs and exposing the sinewy muscles and his protruding knee caps. His left hand wrapped around his signature copper bell-topped rod, “two cubits in length” just as Battuta had described it. He shook the rod, jingling the bells, as if rousing his mind for the journey.
Kalapini nodded and took his cardamom tea into her other hand. “I’ll tend the fire and make more tea while you are gone.”
“Also remember the fish!” Karamchand said, stepping outside the hut. “I am still not finished with my story.”
The sound of bells sang through the valley more clearly now, approaching up the dirt cart path. “Namaste, Karamchand, Namaste!” Postman Ketu sang to the sound of the bells as he ran out of the forest into the terraced fields.
“Letter from the Bageshwar Tehsildar,” he said between heavy breaths, “and Allahabad.” He handed the mail bag to Karamchand. “Your newspaper and sweets are in there too.”
“Allahabad!” Karamchand sifted through the mail bag, forgetting to be grateful to Ketu. “Chandra Devi,” he whispered the intended recipient’s name penned in Hindi with a masculine flourish. In the upper right corner of the letter was a one anna stamp bearing King Edward’s sideways bust in red ink. He felt the envelope and burgundy wax government seal between his fingers. As a child, he’d been on the interminable voyage to Allahabad with his father, and he imagined the lengthy journey the letter had taken.
Once the United Provinces administrator affixed his seal and the envelope postmarked at Allahabad Post Office, the letter to Chandra Devi traveled via steam locomotive along the Ganges Plain to the edge of the foothills at Kathgodam. Rugged topography halted the railway there. But the dawa ensured the envelope would reach Chandra Devi’s hands. One hirkara at a time, India Post ran its relay. The letter skirted the lakes of Bhimtaal. And at regular intervals, the letter bag passed from one hirkara to the next, always accompanied by the sound of copper bells dangling from their rods. The letter’s journey paused for puja at a shrine in the Chir pine forests, only to continue up and down increasingly lofty ridges. At night, the runners persisted, accompanied by torchbearers, and at dawn, the letter reached a perched village with a backdrop of the ineffable Himalayas. By evening, the letter bag passed between two couriers and descended through a maze of terraced fields into the Saryu River Valley, eventually reaching the administrative town of Bageshwar, where the Tehsildar mailed his letter to the local Sarpanch.
A letter from the Tehsildar is always a bad omen, Karamchand thought. He wondered how many more forests would be cut to satisfy the tax collector and his English supervisor. Since the railroad extension was built to Kathgodam, the forests had not fared well. He recalled the devastating landslides from four years ago, not only a stern message from the spirit world that forests were sacred and not a commodity, but also devastating for Karamchand: on their way back from Bageshwar, his wife and two children were buried under a landslide that year. With these thoughts, he felt grief return to his heart.
From Bageshwar, the mail bag passed from postman to postman along the Saryu River until several hours later it became Karamchand’s responsibility. As the last of the foot-post, Karamchand delivered letters to the upper Saryu and Pindar valleys up to the foot of the Himalayan glaciers. But the Sarpanch’s home was only ten minutes away in the center of Karamchand’s village. Still, Karamchand was sweating from the noonday sun when he arrived. “Namaskar Ji. Letter. For you. Urgent from Bageshwar.”
“Accha, accha, Karamchand.” The Sarpanch reached for the letter. While the village leader read, Karamchand studied his face and felt certain that this letter was more important than most. That face of authority, with serious lips and eyebrows and stern eyes belied a worried nature. His brow raised and his forehead furrowed ever so slightly. Once finished reading, he looked at Karamchand and frowned. No words were exchanged after that, leaving Karamchand to guess that more forests would be cut.
Back at the hut, Ketu waited for him with fermented millet. “Karamchand, your tabla is out of tune with your sitar! You are still thinking about the letter aren’t you?” said Ketu, sipping the sherab.
“Yes, today’s letter was important. I’m worried.”
“You cannot change the content of these letters. You’re only distracting yourself by trying to guess what they say. We are here to deliver them only. Here, drink.”
“But these letters affect our village. I don’t trust the Tehsildar.” He gulped some sherab. “I want to know.”
“Your curiosity is dangerous, Karamchand.”
“I know, my good friend, but it burns inside me.”
“Does it still burn for Chandra Devi too?”
“Yes,” He looked at her letter. “But it’s hopeless. I’m just a postman.”
Karamchand sipped his sherab and imagined her alluring bow-shaped red lips, expressive eyebrows, and eyes that skillfully averted his gaze. How she’d grown up since he first saw her a decade ago, an angry sixteen-year old fresh from the Malabar Coast! Falling in love with an exiled princess was the last thing he imagined. It could only lead to suffering, he knew.
He’d heard her story from Ketu, who received the tale from the postman before him, and so on all the way to the freight train cadres in Kathgodam. Along the dawa stories, rumors, and gossip were told over glasses of sherab, weaving India together with tales from afar. Whether they were true or false or something in between, Karamchand knew not. What Karamchand knew about Chandra Devi was this:
A British bullet pierced through the center of her father’s heart. She vowed revenge. She mastered tactics, strategy, horsemanship, bow and arrow, and the curved sword. She memorized the 64 vital points of the body that, when struck correctly, were lethal. But her weapon of choice was the newly-issued Lee-Enfield. Two years later, she led an uprising, but the Angrez captured the thwarted heroine and banished her to the Pindar Valley.
High up in the rhododendron forests of the Himalayas, Karamchand reached the crest of the first ridge and looked back at his village, only slightly visible in the dissipating morning mists. The mists foretold the monsoon rains. For a moment, he looked into his mail bag at the letter to Chandra Devi. Each time he journeyed to the Pindar Valley, at least one of the letters was for her. Since last year, he noticed something shift: when he delivered the letters, he felt a current of what he thought was love, as if the letter was an electrical conductor bringing them together as it passed between their hands.
He so yearned to touch her hand, without a letter in between them. He pictured her courting with him in the high summer pastures, her teasing and tempting him, hiding behind rocks, singing him songs. Him following her, pursuing, chasing, and finally reaching for her hand that she offered once he had won the chase. Only once again she released him, making him follow her allure.
Around the bend, Karamchand reached a shrine to Shiva. He looked at the flickering flame of an oil lamp at the foot of the Shiva linga. I just missed him, Karamchand thought. He lit incense from the flame and placed them before the altar. A gentle breeze cooled his skin and swirled the incense into the sky.
“Om Namah Shivaya. Lord Shiva, bless me and grant me safe passage through your mountains and forests. I prostrate before you and supplicate, asking humbly that my wife and children are safe with you and do not roam the lands as ghosts. May I attain liberation with your blessings, inspiration, and guidance. Om Namah Shivaya.” His hands pressed his rudraksha beads as he repeated the mantra.
This was the first time he walked into the Pindar Valley without a duddugiwalla. The protective drummer had pleaded to come—“Karamchand, you cannot go alone: it is too dangerous.” Karamchand knew the drumming would keep the tigers at bay. But the seasons were changing and he insisted that the drummer harvest and replant his fields before it was too late. For now, he felt safe amongst the blooms of dense rhododendrons.
Peace filled Karamchand’s heart. He enjoyed the slower pace of delivering letters in the Pindar Valley. Here, he didn’t have to run in the foot-post’s musical relay. Instead, he walked alone, at his own pace. The mellifluous scent of rhododendron nectar filled the misty wind and swirled into Karamchand’s mind, igniting visions of his many spring forays into the forests.
Behind him he felt a presence and turned to see a man in a burgundy robe with long black beard with speckles of grey and matted hair in locks flowing like the tributaries of the Ganges River down his shoulders. The elder’s intense eyes pulled his into contact. “Babaji! Namaskar,”
“Please do not rise,” Baba Baboudnath urged. Still Karamchand was compelled and reverently touched the sadhu’s bare weathered feet. “Please give me your blessing, Babaji.” In a skillful upward stroke of his thumb, Babaji painted a vermillion tikka onto Karamchand’s forehead, who felt the coolness of the wet kumkum powder guide his consciousness to his third eye chakra.
“So happy you have come here, Karamchand, my son.”
My son! A spark shot through Karamchand’s body. The day his father left the village to wander as a sannyasin was etched in Karamchand’s memory. Since that day over ten years ago, his father had never called him son. Babaji left Karamchand and two elder daughters, once all were happily married. His wife had died after delivering Karamchand. To Karamchand, Babaji was to be respected as a holy man. But he would always be his father, the foot-post runner for whom he made tea and from whom he learned the joy of telling stories.
Babaji lit his chillum and inhaled. “Bom Shiva.”
He passed the pipe to Karamchand, who cupped the chillum in his hands and inhaled, coughing uncontrollably. His father laughed kindly. Karamchand felt his head lighten and joined his father in laughter, knowing the hashish concoction had possessed him.
The laughter recalled his first ceremonial smoke of the chillum pipe many years ago. The flames of their fireplace reflected in the eyes of his father, and his trimmed black beard shone as he gesticulated and recounted an ancient story from the Ramayana.
When the last glow of the charas turned to ash, Karamchand returned to the present and Babaji spoke again: “We must go now—the sun is moving higher in the sky.”
“I can go alone, Babaji.”
“This time I must go with you. The Dhaka tree has three leaves only.”
Karamchand did not disagree with the baba; he was happy to have the company of his father once again. Yet he worried. The Dhaka tree has three leaves only! Why would Babaji utter that proverb now? What was inevitable? No matter how much rain fell, no matter how fertile the soil, the sacred Dhaka tree had three leaves only, symbolizing birth, life, and death. Karamchand didn’t dare ask him those questions, and they rose to follow the trail down the crest and into the next river valley.
Two Lammergeier vultures soared in the noonday thermals as Babaji and Karamchand rested below a monolithic cliff of limestone in the shade of a rhododendron tree. After eating and smoking a chillum, Babaji and Karamchand walked down a steep sinuous trail, watching a flock of Himalayan quail feed in the grassy shrublands. Below, a large forest carpeted the Pindar Valley with a deep gorge carved through its heart. Karamchand slipped on a rock, sending it cascading thousands of feet down the steep slope. Limestone spires rose around the forest on both sides of the valley, creating the impression of a natural temple.
Hours later, they entered the forest. “Be aware now,” Babaji said. Karamchand felt the humidity and coolness and smelled the rich humus and organic growth. Oaks, walnuts, and maples draped with mosses and ferns unraveling their fiddleheads filled his eyes with fresh green. Karamchand felt a strange mixture of peace and uneasiness being in these wild forests, so life-giving and rich yet so dark and unknown.
The afternoon sun slid through the canopy, casting a subtle yet growing yellow glow onto spots of ferns, vines, and dense understory herbs. The light appeared to darken the shadows, which grew as the sun descended towards the western limestone spires. Barbets and parakeets called noisily from the canopy above them.
“We are being followed,” said Babaji as chills rose through Karamchand’s spine. “Stay behind that tree.” Karamchand hesitated, as Babaji stood still in the middle of the path. The tigress struck the calm, motionless Babaji, drawing her paws around his body and biting his neck with relentless strength. Karamchand watched in horror, helpless. The tigress growled at Karamchand, and he backed away.
Karamchand listened to the tigress devouring his father’s body in the distance. In revulsion, he walked away and also thought of his dead wife and children. At last, he yelled. “Shiva, why?”
That night, Karamchand’s mind churned. My beautiful wife, he thought. My Parvati, my love. I honor you, I love you. My children, you were my delights and gave me reason to live. Babaji, my father, my guide, you are gone too. Why? Why am I so cursed with suffering? He hugged his sack tightly into his chest, weeping. The darkness beyond his flickering fire encroached as the wood fire transformed to glowing coals. The light of the fire felt constricting, like living in a sphere of light in a sea of dark ink. He heard a growl in the distance and mumbled a prayer. The tigress may be satiated, but there could be more tigers, he thought.
Karamchand walked at dawn through a misty forest. If he walked all day, he’d be able to reach the remote mountain village before dark. He thought of Babaji’s death. He did not want to be alone another night.
Each step was suffering, and he looked forward to that comforting moment when a plate of rice and daal with chutney and pickle and cardamom chai would be served with good company. He pictured laughing and singing and imagined the warmth of the tea soothing his sore throat.
When the sun reached midheaven, Karamchand saw the first signs of human settlement: cardamom in full bloom. Planted along the trail under the forest canopy, the cardamom pods would be within easy access for harvest after the monsoon rainy season. The familiar tricolor yellow, white, and blue flowers comforted him and he felt a temporary feeling of peace.
The Dhaka tree has three leaves only. Karamchand pictured Babaji saying this. So Babaji knew, he thought. It was fated. He breathed the Kumaon expression several times— “daka ka tina pata!”—into the forest around him.
“Namaskar Karamchand-ji!” the children called as he walked the path through the newly-planted barley fields. They ran from the fields and joined him on the path. He stopped and folded sweets into their hands. Together, Karamchand and the children entered the gate and passed under Shiva’s trident. Villagers greeted him with smiles and he handed out letters and quarter anna post cards. To the north, the Himalayan peaks and glaciers glittered above the high summer pastures, where the village shepherds had just moved their herds and tents.
During a few cups of tea with his friends and puja and prayers at the Shiva temple, Karamchand only thought of loss—his losses—that he had nothing left of his family, of his heart. He feared he had nothing more to give. Frozen by thoughts, he feared desire itself, knowing that its object, too, will disappear. .
Karamchand delivered three letters to the Pindari Sarpanch who read the official letters, wrote a reply to one. He dripped hot burgundy wax onto the closed letter and affixed his seal. He placed it on a pile of letters. Karamchand placed the letters in his bag next to the undelivered letter to Chandra Devi.
The sun set behind a mountain on the other side of the river. With the villagers, he danced and sang. “The Kumaon mountains are beautiful diamonds surrounding Nanda Devi. The forests are like emeralds. The rivers are strong. The land is rich.” Just before falling asleep on his cot, he thought of Chandra Devi. Why didn’t she come tonight? She knows I am here. I must deliver her letter.
In the morning, he walked the trail through the barley fields to her solitary house and knocked. She opened the door. “Namaskaaram, Karamchand,” she said with a Malabar accent.
She continued with their lingua franca, English. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Those words broke through his grief and fear. He reached into his mail bag, took out the letter, and focused his energy on sending love through the letter that passed between their hands. She reached for the letter gently, looking at him with her sparkling brown eyes. For that second they were connected, and Karamchand felt that she also wanted to linger there, until she looked at the envelope and opened it.
Karamchand watched her for a moment, noticing her lips, her long black hair draped with a purple veil, and her eyes moving as they read the letter. She finished and glanced at him. Aware that he’d been staring, he looked down.
“Chai?” She smiled. Karamchand felt too embarrassed to reply, and in the way she asked again with a certain tenderness, he imagined she understood. “Would you like chai? I have a pot ready, spiced with cardamom and pepper.”
He froze. I am not allowed to enter her house without her family’s permission, he thought. Tradition. How bound he was to tradition. But tradition was an easy excuse, hiding the hole in his heart behind convenient formalities and protocol. He wanted to cast it aside in this moment.
“I can wait here while you write a reply,” he spoke in the best English he could muster. She always wrote a reply. And he always waited outside. But she’d never invited him for tea before. His heart hurt as though punctured with hot knives.
They stood in the silence, looking away from one another. He feared she was annoyed. “That won’t do. There will be no reply this time,” she said. “Time moves to a drawn-out rhythm here in the Himalayas, like the longest raag. I’ve been patient.”
“Patient?” Karamchand asked.
“Yes, patient” She raised her eyebrows. “I heard about Babaji, your father, and offer him my greatest respects. Several times, I visited him asking for his blessings. He truly was full of Shiva’s spirit. The ants get wings before their deaths, don’t you agree Karamchand?”
Karamchand held back his sadness. Mourning a sannyasin was unacceptable. The Dhaka tree has three leaves only. It was fate. It was the way things were supposed to be, and somehow that lightened his grief somewhat.
“Do one thing. Join me for chai.” she repeated, as if she knew he was struggling with something in his head.
“Ok. One cup only. Then I must return home, before it’s too late.” He thought of the tigress and cringed. If he waited too long, she’d be hungry again.
He entered her home, a simple cottage that belied her other life as a princess, or so Karamchand thought. She motioned for him to sit. He watched her walk into the kitchen, her sari draped closely around her. The villagers will gossip about us, he thought.
She brought the pot of chai and two cups to a table, filling them with frothy milk tea. “For ten years, I’ve been patient,” she said. Karamchand noticed her eyes glisten. How a decade passed so quickly! He knew her, he felt, despite hardly speaking more than formal words together.
“They say I’m no longer a threat to British interests,” she showed him the letter. “But I’m forbidden to return to Malabar.” All she had to do was to show the official letter to the local Sarpanch…
And walk away.
“You don’t want to fight the English anymore?” Karamchand asked.
“Not anymore,” she began her explanation, not at all seeming surprised that Karamchand knew her story and not timid with her words. While she spoke, Karamchand visualized her story, perhaps embellishing the details as he tended to do. Raj soldiers periodically visited her in exile, she explained, to ensure she was complying with the terms of her sentence. Last year, they came seeking something more, forcing her to slaughter her best egg-laying chickens and pour intoxicating sherab for them. Bones fell one by one on the floor from gluttonous mouths. Splashes of clear barley spirit darkened the oak table. She stood near the doorway to the kitchen, as far away as she could without leaving the room, as they would not let her leave except to get more sherab.
During jokes, card games, war stories, and jovial conversation, she felt their sherab-laden eyes moving along her body’s graceful contours. Their eyes easily betrayed the loneliness and lust that accompanied long tours of duty in the remote Himalayas, and her beauty was their pleasure. She guessed what they wanted to do with her and what they had already done many times in their imagination. Thinking of this, she felt the fury of Kali.
She fingered a kitchen knife and visualized how she could kill them one by one to avenge her father and to destroy their lust and gluttony.
“I was prepared to kill them,” she continued telling the story to Karamchand. “But at that moment, a soldier began talking about Malabar. He was one of my people.”
She dropped the knife, she recounted.
After that day, her rage dissipated. Exile became a solace. She walked through the pastures and breathed in Parvati’s flowers and endured Shiva’s bitter winters in solitude. She watched the monsoon come and go with the mists and the rain, then the cool nights of October and the snows of March and the rhododendron blooms in May, once again. She looked at the stars and constellations and the waxing and waning moon and the planets wandering between them. She noticed these cycles and how they just happened naturally: how the flowers blossomed and withered to become fruit and seed, how the fruit sacrificed itself so that the seed could germinate, how Nature had done the same with the thoughts in her mind and heart. Now she sought peace, she sought the wisdom of Babaji, and she sought redemption and reconciliation for her father instead of revenge: the revenge of her youth had disappeared.
“But I still want us to be free,” she said in the end.
Karamchand looked at her and believed he understood the madness of love and loss and birth and life and death—the three leaves of the Dhaka tree. He heard her yearning for freedom from the English and shared that yearning. And just then, when he heard her say that she wanted us to be free, he understood that in their desire for control, the British had unwittingly united Malabar and Kumaon, princess and mailman into an us. In that moment, all his timidity and all his traditions and his worries and fears melted so that these words tumbled out:
“Will you come with me back to my village?” Karamchand sipped the last of his tea, marking his moustache with a fresh tideline of cream.
“Why not?” She smiled, approaching him with a tissue. She wiped his moustache. She giggled. He laughed, and his hand extended until it found hers, without a letter in the way.
Lloyd Raleigh asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work