Excerpted from Red Earth and Pouring Rain
by Vikram Chandra

        'Namaste, ji,' I said, folding my hands in greeting, for it was a thin, wiry, dark-skinned woman, dressed in bark, seated cross-legged on a deerskin, head bent over so that her shaggy black hair hung down to brush her shins. She was peering, unblinking, into her cupped hands.
       'Namaste, ji,' I repeated, with no response forthcoming. I knelt down and saw that she was staring, with a wild intensity, into a little water that she held in the bowl made by her palms. Her face was emaciated. I looked around and noticed the grass growing over the edges of the deerskin, the dead leaves caught in the dark hair and the fingernails that had grown till they curled around, twisted and fantastic. Remembering, then, our first poet, who too had stared in a mystery in cupped hands and found poetry, I resolved to stay in the clearing and serve this woman who meditated upon water, probably seeing things I could not imagine. For a long time, I do not know how long, I attended to her needs, picking the twigs out of her hair and carefully cutting her nails with a sharp knife, while she sat like a statue, never once blinking or looking away from the secret in her hands. Every day I laid wild fruit and a cup of fresh water by her side. About once a week, I woke to find the rough earthen cup empty and the fruit gone. I suppose I should have felt fear, but looking at her face, weathered and lined, not young or beautiful, I could feel only warmth. I could not imagine that she would do me any harm; I was, after all, her shishya, her disciple. One day, I knew, she would look up at me and smile.
       The seasons passed, and still I stayed, and soon I grew so used to the routine of foraging, cutting grass and cleaning up that I expected nothing from her, no explanations, no gratitude, no smiles. In that clearing, in that world of sunlight and rain and night sounds, I felt that I should pass the rest of my days, perhaps the rest of time, serving my silent mistress. The wind moaned through the branches, and I felt as if we had both vanished into the light and dark of the forest, melting away until we were nothing but two particles in the huge surge of life that swirled around us, ebbing and flowing according to the rising of the sun and the rhythm of the rain.
       So, one morning I came back to the clearing with a handful of ripe tamarind and two chikus. Putting the fruit on the deerskin, I picked up the cup and was about to walk away when I heard:
       'Thank you.'

Copyright © 1995 by Vikram Chandra. First published in hardcover by Little, Brown, and Company.