Hill fever

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on August 15, 2019 Published on August 15, 2019

We’re spending a week in the hills, Bins and I. This morning, the power’s off. It’s raining and the misty light of day barely extends past the windowsill. The water flows down one sloping roof onto another sloping roof, dripping tunefully. Like a watery xylophone.

Some distance away, a male black partridge stakes out his territory by calling from each corner of his estate. “Paan-beedi! Cigarette!” he shrieks, every 20 seconds. Even further away, on a neighbouring hill, a man is roaring intermittently. “Aaargh!” he snarls, “HUUaaah!” as he patrols the orchard and fields, chasing away marauding langurs, deer and pigs. Meanwhile, right outside our door, a cat begins tuning her private violin. “Mrrraaa-oo!” she calls, “Maooo! Ooo!”

She’s a small female, white with tabby patches, whom we met for the first time three days ago. Bins pronounces right away that she’s about to go on heat. Sure enough, a day later, a handsome tabby turns up. He’s a broad-cheeked tom who usually avoids human company. He neither runs away nor looks directly at us. Now he’s lurking in plain sight, serenading our lady friend with loud croaking yowls.

The following morning, we’re in a sheltered verandah with a view of mist-laden hill ridges, the snowy peaks hidden behind a curtain of white. I am ploughing through an 800-page Russian novel, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman. It was written in the 1960s, but the USSR government believed it to be so damaging to the prestige of the nation that they tried to suppress it altogether. Nevertheless it was smuggled out and published to great acclaim. Sadly, the author died without knowing of its success.

Set during World War II, it’s like a documentary filmed from inside the minds and hearts of dozens of characters. From within their homes, muddy bunkers and crowded detention camps, they struggle to express their humanity. What makes it especially powerful is the knowledge that such scenes are being played out to this day, from Syria to Kashmir, from the borders of Mexico to the suburbs of London. For a while, I’m quartered inside a single building outside Stalingrad, where a handful of Russian soldiers are holding out against the surging German troops.

Beside me, the little cat fidgets on a cushioned stool. She’s writhing as if in pain, speaking in soft grunts and contralto growls. Suddenly she sits up, ears pricked. Yes! The male is calling. She leaps up and speeds off. For the rest of that day we see no more of her. We admire the flowers, the clouds, the rain, eat lemon cake at tea time and watch the BBC version of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy late into the evening.

Today’s our second last morning. “Why’re you still in bed?” Bins wants to know. “There’s a love-sick kitty yowling outside my door,” I explain. “Black partridge screaming in the grass. Rain pattering overhead. And Russian troops positioned on the banks of the Volga.” I’m too blissed out to move.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on August 15, 2019
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