Father, I have made the iron gate to our building spring open, I have slipped through the inner glass door. I have rung the caretaker’s bell and explained why I need to see the cellar and he has let me in. It’s as if I’ve climbed over the gate of Tala Zone before dawn and entered the tiger reserve alone, no jeep to protect me. The spotted deer stand watching, their breath rising in the predawn light, their ears pricked for the slightest twig crack, betraying the arrival of predator.
The track is sandy, glows in the moonlight. I bend down, can see fresh pugmarks, large and round: a male. I am going the right way. The forest guard is asleep in his hut. It is here that the ground slopes down, like these spiral steps. I look up, surprised to see a window at the top of the cellar. I’ve always dreamt there was a window. I am inside my dream.
But this time, you are alive, Father, able to breathe, thanks to the oxygen machine pumping in a corner of your room. Alive enough for me to have asked you for the number of our building in the Boulevard de Grenelle, where we lived together when I was a child. Even when I travel as far as India, you are with me and I am re-entering our cellar.
Take a deep breath, do that pursed lip breathing you must do. Watch your heart doesn’t race. The pump is exhaling, inhaling and I am walking, walking. No one is allowed inside the core of Bandhavgarh National Park after sunset. No one is allowed inside this cellar at the bottom of our building. But the caretaker has heard my story and unlocked the door. He told me not to stay long because there are rats down here and a bad smell from the poison.
I press the light switch at the top of the stairs and the moon comes out from behind a tree. Round and round I go, right down to the bottom, to the earth floor. I must not wake the monkeys: they must not bark a warning. Here is the smell. I recognise it as male tiger spray, and the stench of the remains of a carcass, just behind the lantana bushes. A rat snake slithers past on the path in front of me.
Why is the cellar forked, Father? Why does it grow narrower? My path is flanked by thorny bamboo, by evergreen sal trees. Why is everything coated in dust? How small must I become, to pass under the roof that bulges with electric cables like banyan vines? How do I know which are live? And why do the sal trees and the crocodile bark trees and the dhok trees look like rough doors that I must open? I don’t remember these doors from my recurring dream. I don’t remember this ticking, like a hundred clocks behind each door labelled with a numbered plaque. I think of other cellars, how going to the toilet in a restaurant always means going downstairs, deep into the musty Parisian underworld with its honeycomb of limestone crypts and shallow drains.
I’m in the cellar’s forest and the moon is shining. Between me and the moon there’s a man with a cloth over his face. Is it you, Father? I never thought it was you when I was six, but I’m grown-up now. It must be you, because who else would have sent me to the cellar, told me to count to a hundred but not to go down to the very end because a fire was there with tigers leaping out?
I open the door to the first electricity meter and you are there, Father, your fists held out, asking me to guess which one. I point to the left and you open it, saying, ‘Look! Precious gold.’ But what I see is an amber eyeball. Then you close your fist again and I can’t see you, or where the way back out is, everything is dark, and the moon has dipped behind the trees. Then I realise you’re holding the eye of a newborn tiger cub. That its other eye is in your other hand.
You are sitting on a child’s mattress, and you’re asking me to face you, so you can stitch up my eyelids and lips with bamboo thorns. You say I mustn’t cry. I should remember that the caretaker is upstairs, that the forest guard will hear me if I scream. But I don’t. There is only the cellar with a forest inside and a series of rough doors that I must open. I can still see through the thorns but everything is red and blurred. My nightdress is pulled up around my neck so I tug it down. I can’t open my mouth to scream, so the sound I make is strangled, as if I’m still asleep.
From now on I won’t speak to anyone. I will be a mute daughter, just like a newborn cub, or make only muffled squeaks.
I open the second door and find myself in a hide, high up in a mahua tree. I sit watching the Malabar pied hornbill bring figs to his mate. The female has walled herself up in a nest hole in the tree opposite, cemented herself in with a fruit paste, so no snake can eat her eggs. There’s a rush of air when the male lands with his huge wingbeats. I watch as he regurgitates his meal and pipes it through the great curved bill with its black-and-yellow casque down into the tip of hers through the slit of her cell. He arrives every hour and each time he feeds her I feel stronger.
I retrace my steps to where the cellar forks. Now I must go down the right fork. The roof is lower as if only made for children. Here too there are doors rough as tree bark and so many electric cables it’s like walking under the tails of langurs and leopards in a grandmother banyan. You are calling me, Father, from behind the first door. It opens and you show me your good-luck charm that you’ve carried since childhood, a leopard’s paw. Now the deer watching me from the end of the tunnel have multi-branched antlers, a ghost forest in the dusty predawn light and as I descend they get bigger, towering above me like forest gods. An elephant calf presses himself against me, cuddling me with his trunk. His eyes are brandy topazes. He too is a god.
The next door opens to a night black as bear fur, its muzzle bleeding after eating honey baited with explosives. I want to ask you how my teddy-bear mama’s face exploded, Father. Who would plant gunpowder inside honey? But you’re telling me to dance. You push a thin cane through my nose and sing and huff, sing and puff, while you jerk the cane, teaching your bear cub the steps. I have to remind myself that it is I who have brought the wonders of my grandmother’s jungles into the cellar. My Indian grandmother, who took care of me when I was a baby, whom I will return to soon. As I think of her, I start to dance backwards, out of the meter cupboard and down to the very end of the cellar.
I open the last door on the left of the right fork and there’s a peacock inside. I can hear Maman saying how vain you were, how you slept in, then spent every afternoon doing your toilette, before going out to your nightclubs. I’ve been into the jazz cellar in the rue de la Huchette, next door to the Hôtel Les Argonautes where you lived.But this peacock has a girl’s face. She is dressed in a wedding gown with a train made of peacock feathers and no one is here to give her away, there’s not even a groom. Her dress is sapphire-emerald as the Earth from space, and her train is erect, rustling like wind through dry grass. Her train surrounds her head in a halo of eyes, all watching me, like atolls in the Indian Ocean held up on waves of plumes. The stars have offered me their eyes, to bear witness. They know what you’ve done, Father.
I open the last door to the right of the right fork and find a man inside wearing a dust mask. He’s whittling a stick. Next to him is a tigress, her paw mangled in a trap. The meters behind her are ticking louder as she weakens. The masked man continues whittling his stick, whistling as he works. He stares through me and looks bored. The tree door is occupied by a jungle owlet, a monitor lizard and a sleepy langur mother with her baby. Spotted deer glance in, alerted by tiger moans.
When the tigress is too weak to hold her head up, the man jabs his stick through her mouth into her throat. She can no longer make tiger-music; the forest guard won’t hear her as the man batters her spine. He gets out his skinning knife and slits her down the front. Half an hour it takes him to flay her. Then he wipes his hands and sits on the ground to eat his breakfast on a teak leaf, before digging a hole to bury the flesh and tiger bones to retrieve later. He creeps out of the forest with her pelt.
Father, I have learnt to be quiet as a tree, so quiet even the monkeys come and sleep on me. I am a door no one can open. When I went to live with my grandmother, she told me stories about the jungle. I put all her creatures in the cellar, so I could fall asleep at night. Every time I was locked in, they were there waiting for me. Thirty-four years I survived with her animals’ help. Then you reappeared and I realised the animals were wounded, many dead, their skins ripped off, their bones pulled out and sold in the market.
By my fortieth birthday I was nothing but boneless meat buried in the ground. No one could piece me together.
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