Veronica Cecil


Veronica Cecil

IT’S STILL THERE; the little hill station we visited every summer; before my roots were ripped out and transplanted to cold, cruel England, which the grownups called ‘home’. Now, I’ve come back for the first time in almost half a century to make some radio programmes. Memories, which I’d wiped, are seeping back. 

Nathiagali has changed. It was bound to. There’s now a road up from the bazaar to the actual hill station – in the olden days we had to park our car and walk – but the village green, where the men used to play cricket and the women sat on deck chairs pretending to watch, is still intact. So is the club house; and, joy of joys, the little toy-town church, painted white with black beams and a witch’s cap. At Sunday school, we’d sung ‘I am H A P P Y’ which seemed a silly song because you can’t just be something because you say so. But it’s true. I was happy. 

Veronica Cecil

A young man, in designer jeans and a trendy T-shirt stops to talk to me.  He says he’s a professor of architecture at Karachi University and is renting a house along with some of his students.     

‘I used to visit Nathiagali every summer’ I tell them. ‘In the time of the British.’  

‘Oh gosh’ the architect exclaims. “Oh golly gosh.’ And I then, as if that’s not enough.  ‘My God how extraordinary.’   His students stare at me as if I am a fossilized relic from the age of the dinosaurs. 

‘A photo’ one of them cries out.   ‘We must have a photo.’   They crowd round me taking turns. 

I pose with the students and, while the cameras click away, my eyes travel up the hill immediately beside us.  At the top, there’s a humble little summer chalet built of wood with a steep tin roof. 

“That’s my house” I exclaim excitedly.  My house, my beloved house is still here.

Ours was the highest in the district and, whenever we went out, it meant a tough climb to get home. ‘But it’s worth it for the view’ my mother would say. Behind the house was a wood where we picked wild strawberries and peopled it with characters from fairy stories. Once we found a huge red toadstool with white spots put there by a witch. 

There’s a road up the hill to my house now but, instead of taking it, I clamber up through the pinewoods. Every stone, every protruding root feels familiar. It runs immediately below my house and the lawn, where my parents drank dainty tea from bone-china, has been sliced in half to make room for it. The wild strawberry wood now sprouts little square villas instead of mushrooms. But my house, the old-fashioned wooden chalet has survived.  

An old man appears and asks me in halting English what I’m doing. 

‘I used to live here,’ I tell him. ‘When I was a chota bacha, a small child, in the British time.’ 

‘Achaar’ he exclaims. ‘I remember those days.’ 

I hold out my hand but he doesn’t take it. Instead, he offers me a skinny wrist.

‘I was a young man when the British left. They gave me a pension. Those were good days.’ I cringe. ‘Now I am old. I have no money.’ Is he, could he be asking for baksheesh? 

Not knowing how to deal with this, I ask if it might be possible to look round the house. 

‘I will show you,’ he says. 

‘Won’t the owners mind?’  

‘Inspection Bungalow belongs to the C & W.   These people are only visitors’ he says dismissively. Inspection Bungalow? It was never that. The house was called Kirkstone, after my mother’s favourite pass in the Lake District.    

The doors onto the veranda are flung open and a man in a western suit and dark glasses comes out with a suitcase. Inside I glimpse a young woman, in a diaphanous rainbow-coloured salwar kameez. In her arms is a fine baby dressed in pink frills with two fat legs about to burst out of their skin like sausages. I introduce myself and explain why I am here. The wife offers to show me round while her husband packs up the car. 

The house has the desolate feel of a shell through which summer visitors pass leaving nothing of themselves behind. The pine walls are still glossed white and the Gothic-style windows, with their lattice panes, have been painted so often, and so carelessly, that the little diamond shaped pieces of glass have got smaller and smaller. The room my mother grandly called the drawing room, where she read us stories about King Arthur, is tiny. The fire place with its Victorian wrought iron surround has shrunk. Even tinier is the cubby hole, topped with a pointed roof, where my mother sat painting the wild flowers we collected on our mountain walks. It’s crammed with discarded pieces of wood and a broken deck chair.    

‘Is this where you slept?’ the young woman asks in a lovely lilting accent as she opens another door.    

‘I think so.’ I’m having difficulty tying up the past and the present, I picture a zinc tub on the Persian rug. ‘There was no bathroom, no gussel khana in those days’ I tell her ‘The servants had to bring huge jugs of boiling water into the house.’  

“Achaar?”   She seems amused at my quaint vision.   

But what is elbowing back into my memory isn’t a quaint vision. It’s a smell. His smell. Sweet and sickly. ‘I kiss you goodnight’ he says. 

Back on the front veranda we meet up with the husband.   

“Reliving old memories?” he says cheerfully.   

I smile politely.

This vista is more than memory. It’s part of my soul. 

The visitors leave but I linger on.  The old man, the mali, the gardener pulls out a chair and I sit on the veranda. Other people have come to share my mother’s passion for the view. Right beside us, they’ve started building the foundations of a mansion. But what hasn’t changed  are the fir trees. They still march perilously down the khud-side with the mountains stretching away-and-away to an infinite beyond. Nanga Parbat, my mother’s ‘naked lady’ sticks up slightly higher than the rest; a mere bump, but to me she was a giantess. This vista is more than memory. It’s part of my soul. 

The mali comes up to me with a bunch of flowers he’s picked from the garden.   Dahlias … roses … snapdragons … honeysuckle; all the English flowers from my childhood. I thank him and hand him some coins, baksheesh.  

‘Mehrbani. (Thank you).’ he says formally, putting his hands up in the gesture of a prayer. I have done the right thing.   

‘I will come back and stay in my old house’ I tell him. 

‘You will come with your husband?’

‘No.’ He looks surprised.         

‘Do you not have a family?’

‘Oh yes I have a family.’

‘I do not understand. The English. Why do they like to live alone?’ 


It was a good question. Why do we like to live alone. It’s not so much like, I could have told him, but necessity. Our main home was in the plains of the North West Frontier Province and the first eight years in India were the only time in my growing-up that I had a proper family. Beside a mother and father and two brothers, there were the servants. Two of them, my father’s bearer, the man servant Jani Qail, and the khansaman Dundle Shah, the cook, were a permanent part. They came up to Nathia Gali with us for the summer. The rest of the servants belonged to whichever house we were living in.

I didn’t see much of Jani Qail, the bearer. His job was to bring my father burra pegs of whiskey when he came home from his office in the evening and look after him when he went camping. I didn’t like him. His hairy tummy bulged over his kurta and he thought he was superior. Dundle Shah was different. The kitchen with its greasy walls and smells of curry, was my haven. There he magic-ed up delicious dahl and potato cakes spiced with coriander. On my seventh birthday he constructed a fairy tale castle out of icing sugar. Dundle Shah knew how to treat children and, I wonder now if he had any of his own. He lived in the servants’ quarters behind the banyan tree at the back of the house, which was out of bounds. If he had I’d have been jealous. He was my father. 

Veronica Cecil

‘What are we having for pudding’ I’d plead, and he’d laugh and say ‘wait-and-see pudding’. When my mother gave her orders, he’d put his head to one side and waggle it as if to say ‘you know best’. But I knew perfectly well that it was only because my mother was the memsahib. She didn’t know about food. 

My mother prided herself on being ‘modern’. Other mothers in the military cantonment imported English nannies, but she was determined to bring us up herself. ‘Nanny’s’ children’ she’d scoff. This meant that the ayahs she hired to look after us when she went out, were mere child minders. They didn’t come up with us to Nathia, so they changed twice a year. But that didn’t stop them being my best friends.

Because my mother had read someone called Freud, she believed in telling us all about sex; only I couldn’t remember what was what. ‘Mummy she’s forgotten again’ my older brother would yell. The only part I was really interested in was the end product. 

‘How old do I have to be to make a baby? I asked one ayah. ‘Twelve’ she answered. She wore a white sari and dangly earrings and smelt of flowers, and I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. ‘Why haven’t you got a baby then?’ She couldn’t have been more than eighteen. She giggled embarrassed. ‘Only when I get married’ she said ‘then I will break all my bangles.’ ‘No!’ It seemed such a waste. She wore a tube of the most beautiful iridescent glass bracelets up her arm. ‘Can’t I have them instead?’ 

My brother, being a boy, was fascinated by the part his sou-sou played. There was a sugar can field beside our house and one day he said he had something special to show me. We’d climbed over the wall before to steal sugar cane, but this time, he took me to a watch tower which stood up like a brick pepper pot in the middle of the field. It was empty during the day, but soldiers went up there at night to defend us against the wicked tribesmen, who lived nearby in the Tribal Territories. 

Although my mother treated my father like a raja because she thought boys were more important than girls, I knew that underneath she didn’t really love him.

We had to climb lots of steps to get up to the top of the tower, but when we did I saw, to my surprise, all my brother’s little Indian friends, the sergeants’ sons, lined up against the round wall. I knew them because my brother had joined their gang. They would bicycle up and down the road in front of our house and throw stones at one another. They’d taught my brother rude Urdu words, which he used to make the servants laugh. None of the boys said anything but, one after the other, they solemnly pulled down their pants to show me their sou-sous. They were all the same; little pink thumbs. I couldn’t imagine them putting them into a girl’s baby hole, which is what my mother said they did.

Although my mother treated my father like a raja because she thought boys were more important than girls, I knew that underneath she didn’t really love him. After lunch on Sundays my father would stand up and say: ‘Come along Betty time for a lie down.’ Even though she took a rest in the afternoon, I could see that she didn’t really want to ‘lie down’. But she went with father because that was what she had to do. 

There were all sorts of things girls had to do. They weren’t allowed to be clever and they had to sleep in curlers because their main job in life was to look beautiful and find a husband. ‘I don’t really want to kiss daddy goodnight’ I said to my mother when I was five years old. His kisses weren’t like other people’s. They were wet and horrid. ‘Don’t be silly’ she said. It was what I had to do because I was a girl. Once, though, I broke the rule.

Every morning my mother used to have tea in bed and we were allowed to climb into bed with her for a treat and drink milky tea with sugar. One day my father came into the bedroom while I was still there. ‘Get out’ he ordered. ‘No’ I answered. It was the first time I’d said no to my father. He told me again to get out and again I refused. I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t felt my mother behind me willing me on. It made me feel powerful. In the end my father lost his temper and, dragging me out of bed, he took me downstairs to his study and beat me with the back of his clothes brush. Afterwards I got into the clothes cupboard and snivelled. I didn’t come out till the ayah arrived. ‘Your father shouldn’t have done that’ she said. And I knew that the servants had discussed the beating, and they were Dundle Shah’s words.


I didn’t go back to Nathia, not for another six weeks. The summer season was over and I asked a friend to book the cottage for me. 

This time the taxi drives up the new road and drops me at the wicker gate.  Amazingly, the mali is standing on the strip of grass in front of the house as if he’s been waiting for me all along.

‘I’ve come back’ I shout.

He tilts his head to the side and lifts his hands to his heart. 

The driver carries my bags up the steps and puts them down on the veranda. The mali flings open the door to the bedroom and carries my luggage inside. 

Whether it’s the autumn sunshine on the orange candlewick, the smell of resin or the caw of a mountain crows, I have a flip in time. I’m back in this room, a little girl again with freckles and skinny legs. The thought of waking up in the morning in my own bed with the sun pouring in through the windows, the smell of pine needles and a whole day to do nothing else but relive my childhood, fills me with euphoria. 

I’m just beginning to unpack when a man with a ratty face appears. ‘Why are you here?’ He asks me in Urdu. But I only half understand because, although it was my second language, it’s still evading me. He produces an exercise book with a whole lot of squiggles. He tells me grandly that my name is not among them. ‘Then I’ll book now’ I say equally imperiously. But he is adamant that he can’t do that. He doesn’t even have a telephone number for the C & W who own the house.

The whole scene is being watched by the workmen working on the building site beside us. The mali is getting flustered. ‘The dufta, office of the C & W is down in the bazaar’ he says. I stride down the hill, fully confident that I can sort everything out. 

There are very few people about in the bazaar which appears to have shut down for the winter. Although I find the man in charge of the C & W office. He is lying on a slope, dozing in the winter sunshine. He takes me into the dufta but, apart from a solitary black Bakelite telephone which isn’t connected, the office is bare. I ask another man if he knows of a telephone and he takes me to a seedy café called the ‘Blue Heaven’. The proprietor, a friendly fellow with a large tummy and an equally large grin, is only too keen to lend me his telephone. The problem is that there is no directory and directory enquiries doesn’t exist. He offers me a cup of tea instead and I tell him my story. He is deeply sympathetic.

‘But you come and stay here’ he says triumphantly. ‘I give you a special room cheap cheap.’ He has solved my problem to both our advantages.  I shake my head and thank him. How can I explain that the Blue Heaven is no substitute for home?

The climb back up the hill is a hard slog. No wonder we’d complained as children. By the time I get to the top I’m tired and fed up. The ratty-faced man has gone.

‘You telephone the dufta’ the mali asks. 

‘I couldn’t find the number.’ 

The mali shakes his head.

It must be the sympathy because unexpectedly I burst into tears. And once I’ve started I can’t stop. I’ve been recording people and travelling by myself for two months. The mali is distressed by my distress. ‘You tired’ he says, ‘You too much walking.’ But I still can’t stop. He sits me down on a wickerwork chair and starts to massage my legs. ‘Why you sad’ he keeps asking. ‘Why you crying?’

I wish I knew I want to say.

A young man comes over from the building site. He tells us he is the khansaman. ‘You like roti’ the mali translates, and I nod gratefully. I haven’t eaten for nearly twenty four hours. 

The young man comes back with a roti and a plate of elegantly spiced dahl. It’s the best I’ve ever tasted. He stands watching me eat. ‘He ask why you sad’ the mali translates,

‘Because this was once my home.’ I am aware of the young man’s leather brown eyes gazing at me. They remind me of Dundle Shah’s. 

‘Where is your father?’ the mali asks when I have finished eating. 


‘Your husband?’

‘He’s dead too?’

‘You have no son?’

‘Oh yes, but he’s in England.’

The mali looks at me with undisguised pity and shakes his head. ‘You too many troubles. You too old.’

This brings me promptly back to myself. It’s like a cold flannel. I’m not old. I’m fifty-eight. Not as old as he is. 

‘I will go and stay somewhere else’ I say, trying to regain a morsel of dignity. The mali looks relieved. He tells me I can come at any time and sit in my garden.

There’s a guest house just up the road. It has the same view as my house and is more luxurious. I go there, book a room and order a  cup of tea. Outside in the garden I get into conversation with a honey-moon couple who have just got married. I’m back at work. Theirs was an arranged marriage.

The next morning, I decide to take up the mali’s offer to sit in my own garden. With a novel and a notebook, I walk down to the house. As I pass the building site, I hear a shout.

‘Kya hal heh?’ How are you. It’s the young khansaman who brought me dahl the day before.

‘Teek takh’ Okay I shout back. I feel remarkably silly about the scene he witnessed. But it seems none of the men working on the site care. In fact, they like me for it. They, too, shout greetings.

As I climb up the steps to  my house, I bump into four men and realise, with chagrin, that the ratty-faced man was trying to tell me that the house was already let. Three of the young men are young, in their mid-twenties, the fourth is probably the same age but he looks older because he is overweight.

‘Are you the lady who used to live in this house?’ one of them, whose name I later discover is Faizal asks. I nod. He speaks good English and he explains that they are engineers from Peshawar. ‘The workmen told us about you and we tried to find you last night. We went up to Greens Hotel to look for you.’

‘Why?’ I am touched by his concern.

‘We came to ask you to be our guest …’

‘That was very kind.’

‘… To invite you to sleep in your house.’ Red lights start flashing. Staying with strange men is not on in anyone’s culture.

‘I am very happy in my guest house’ I say ‘and it is close by. But I would very much like to take dinner with you’ I add seeing Faizal’s face drop with disappointment.


‘Tomorrow evening.’

‘I will fetch you from your guest house.’ Faizal shakes my hand. I am surprised because men are not supposed to touch a woman’s hand. It was why, the first time I met him, the mali offered me his wrist. Two of the others two follow suit. The fourth man, the fat one, refuses to acknowledge me.

The young men remember their date. The next evening Faizal knocks at my door. But, to my surprise, he leads me not to Greens Hotel but along the veranda outside to another room in the guest house. All the young men are crammed into it with extra camp beds. There are clothes piled on the floor and there is an acrid smell of young male sweat. In a corner, there is a television. Although the sound is turned down, I can feel the faint thrum of Indian music and see a flickering picture of women dancing. I feel uneasy. I know I should leave, but all through this trip I’ve had to break rules in order to get the material I need. One of the young men offers me a cocoa cola and I sit down on the bed.

‘Do you mind if I ask you some questions about your country?’ Faizel produces an exercise book from his pocket.

‘Of course not.’ I relax. This is going to be useful material. I, in turn, can ask them about Pakistan.

‘You must excuse my English. It is not very good’ Faizal says.

‘It’s excellent.’

There is a pause while Faizal opens his note book.

‘What do the men in your country do about frustration? Faizal reads. I feel a beat of apprehension.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I am talking about sexual frustration.’

I freeze. There’s a thick silence. The fat man turns up the television and I am aware of the wail of the music and semi-naked damsels dancing.

‘It’s not the sort of thing we usually discuss’ I say primly, resisting the urge to bolt. 

‘You see it is very hard for us’ Faizal goes on. ‘We are all Pathan boys and we have to marry who we are told.’ I allow my guard down a fraction.

‘But that is your custom.’

‘I must marry my cousin. I have known her since I was a child and I do not love her.’

Three of the men crowd round me to find out what I’m going to say. The fourth, the fat one, turns his back. 

‘Perhaps when you are married …’ I’d assumed it was always the women who were forced into arranged marriages. 

‘She is ugly. I am in love with another girl.’ 

‘Then you should talk to your parents.’

‘He is a bad boy.’ the fat one breaks in. I had not realised he understood English. His tummy bulges out of his pyjama pants and his hairy ankles stick out underneath.

‘My parents are uneducated. But I have been to university. I am an engineer.’ His voice is breaking. ‘They do not care what is best for me. And my uncle is very angry. If I refuse to marry his daughter he will kill me.’


‘A bad Muslim’ the fat man mutters. But Faizal is determined to go on.

‘We have rivage. By Pathan laws my uncle must … how do you say?’


‘Avenge his daughter. It is his issat, his honour. What can I do?’ There is genuine despair in Faizal’s voice.

The fat man belches deliberately. I can feel the waves of antagonism crossing the testosterone-infested room. I am trapped like a rabbit in headlights.

‘You must get out.’ His story is turning into a bad movie.

‘Where can I go?’

‘Somewhere abroad.’ I have visions of Faizal in London being pursued by the Pathan mafia.

‘I cannot get a visa …’

‘I am truly sorry’ I say lamely. Everyone I’ve talked to wants a visa.

The fat man turns up the sound on the television even more and sprawls himself in front of the machine like a walrus. An Indian sex goddess in see-through material is cupping her breasts and swaying suggestively. He is feeding on her flesh. His presence disgusts me.

‘I think I should go now’ I say.

‘But you have not eaten.’ Faizal’s tone is both urgent and aggrieved. ‘The dinner will be coming soon.’

I realise that we’re not going out to Greens hotel at all. But if I leave I am breaking the Pathan rules of hospitality. At the same time, I know I’m breaking them already just by being here. The fat man heaves himself to his feet and goes into the bathroom. I hear the sound of hawking and spitting. 

‘It is not right for me to be here’ I say ‘and I am offending your friend.’ 

It’s all my fault that I’m in this situation and I can’t help feeling guilty.

‘He does not matter. He is married to a woman he does not love.’

One of the others, a doe-ey-eyed young man, giggles. 

‘Are you married?’ I ask the young man with doe-ey eyes, hoping to change the subject and remembering, too late, that that’s the one question you must not ask a Pathan male.

‘Yes, he is married’ Faizal says. ‘He has a beautiful young wife.’ The young man giggles. ‘But he is ashamed of her.’


‘All Pathan men are ashamed to be seen with a woman, even their wife.’ Faizal goes on to tell me how they bumped into him unexpectedly in a hotel and he was so ashamed he kept his wife the bedroom and left the hotel the next day without telling them. 

I feel safe with stories and eventually, salvation comes in the form of two young men whom I recognise as servants working at the hotel. They’re carrying two large trays. As they put them down they glance at me. I know precisely what they’re thinking. 

We get through the meal somehow.

The fat man, who is shovelling fist loads of food into his mouth, is more intent on that than me and I feel relieved. As soon as I decently can I get up to leave.

‘Please you stay,’ Faizal pleads.

‘I am very tired’ I say.

The men look at one another.

That summer I cut a fringe.

‘I will walk with you to your room’ Faizal says. And I accept out of courtesy.

Outside on the veranda the air is bracingly cold and there is a soft misty rain. I put my key in my door and open it. 

‘Can I come in?’ For a moment I feel paralysed. I’d been afraid of the fat man but I hadn’t expected Faizal to proposition me. He can’t yet be thirty. It’s ridiculous.

‘I’m sorry I say. ‘I’m not like that.’ Then an inbuilt guilt kicks in. ‘But you are a good man.’ He must be very desperate.

Even though I know I’m perfectly safe now, I can’t sleep. My mind worries, like a tongue over a damaged tooth. 

‘I kiss you goodnight’ he says. I hate him with all my heart; hate the way his hairy tummy bulges over his kurta; hate the fact that he burps and spits; hate the way he kisses me. He climbs on top of me and starts to move his body up and down. I can feel his sou-sou. It starts to grow. I know it’s got something to do with the thing men have. But when my mummy told me she made it sound quite ordinary.  Up and down … up and down … I should remember … The thing is growing and growing … bigger and harder.  It’s pushing … It’s got its own power.   ‘Shh … shh …’ he says holding his hand over my mouth.   Up and down, up and down, faster and faster.  I know it wants to get into my baby hole, and I hold my legs tight together because, whatever my brother says, I do know. I know that if it goes into that hole it’ll make a baby and that babies grow from the seed like trees from an apple pip. I hold on because I know that in time it’ll run out of steam … that Jani Qail will go “Ahh” and then … and then … it’ll all be over. 

That summer I cut a fringe. I’d thought about it for some time. Needed to do it. One day I got my mother’s scissors out of her sewing bag and, standing in front of the little mirror nailed to the wooden wall, I combed the front of my hair down over my forehead. Then started. I could feel the crunch as the scissors went through my hair. It fell down in hanks; my golden hair which my mother washed and rinsed in rainwater so that it would shine. ‘Queen Queen Caroline’ she’d sung ‘washed her hair in turpentine.’

When it was finished I looked at myself in the mirror. Two frightened black orbs stared back at me. Frantically, I tried to make it look better. I pulled it to the side but even with a clip it wouldn’t stay. I went out into the garden where my mother and father were drinking tea. 

The table was covered, as usual with a lacy cloth. There was a silver tray on top, laid with a silver tea set, and bone-china cups and saucers.

‘Good God’ my mother exclaimed. ‘What has the child done to her hair?’ 

It was all my fault. Everything that happened was my fault. And I knew then that I was unspeakably ugly.


‘What are you going to do on your last day’ my friend Huma asks. We’d met and bonded up in the mountains where I was doing a programme about schools. Now she’s come to breakfast to say goodbye.

‘I’d like to go back to Nathia.’

‘Why don’t you? I’ve never known you not do what you’ve decided.’

‘But it’s mid-winter.’ Although I’m flattered by her faith in me, it’s impossible.

‘You could always try.’ She laughs. ‘Do you know I’m a little bit envious of you. You can do things I could never do.’

So, I go out onto the streets of Rawalpindi and ask a cab driver to take me up to the old hill station and, to my amazement, he agrees.

At the same time, I think of how the dirt in the heap of snow is necessary; how it has provided food for later on; how Nanga Parbat has been my salvation. 

There’s very little traffic and, once we get beyond Murree, there’s none. The fir trees now plunge down through thick snow, and the road, which must have been salted, has frozen. As we slew round sharp bends, higher and higher, with the winter sun catching the facets of ice on the trees, it gets increasingly hazardous. Any moment we could skid off  and tumble to our snowy graves.

‘Will we make it?’ I ask the cab driver.


‘Inshallah.’ As God wills. It’s a word I’ve taken to using more and more.

Nanga Parbat

He drives on up, through the bazaar to the little old hill station. It’s covered with snow and looks like a Victorian Christmas card with little girls in long knickerbockers.  There’s no way the car can make it up the steep hill to my house, so he parks and I set off alone on foot. The air is cold and bracing. The climb is easy in this weather.

When I get to the top I hear a shout. ‘Kya hal he?’ It’s the young khansaman who came to my rescue in my hour of despair.

‘Teek takh’ I shout back. 

He comes pounding down the hill in his thick choga, scarf flying. He hugs me. He is my son, brother, father rolled into one, and I love him.

‘I chokidar (in charge) now’ he says proudly producing a large key.

The furniture is all stacked up inside the house; the spiders and beetles and woodlice have taken repossession. He pulls a table and chair out of the heap and carries them out onto the veranda. ‘I’m not staying’ I try and tell him, but he sits me down and disappears.

I’ve never seen Nathia like this before, but I have imagined it. Once when we came up for the summer there was a mound of snow left behind in the corner of the garden. It looked beautiful from far away, but close up, it was dirty with dead pine needles inside and water dribbling out of holes like tears. Now the world is pristine; the mountains a symphony in white with Nanga Parbat sticking up higher than the rest. 

As a child, I’d made the ‘naked lady’ into a goddess ruling over her white kingdom. A Never Never land of perfection where it was happy-ever-after.  At the same time, I think of how the dirt in the heap of snow is necessary; how it has provided food for later on; how Nanga Parbat has been my salvation. 

I start to worry about the taxi driver sitting in his cab. I have a plane to catch this evening. But I can’t just abandon my friend the khansaman, now chokidar. Eventually, he reappears carrying a tray. No silver tea pot or dainty porcelain but thick white cups and a plate of home-made biscuits.

‘Memsahib’ he says.


The khansaman starts to pour and steam billows out, warm and fat, into the ice-tight air. 

APRIL 2023 Veronica Cecil MONK


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1 thought on “HOME

  1. Enjoyed this beautiful narrative by Veronica who I met in the Andaman Islands. She’s a great story-teller with fantastic memories of the Raj era.


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