One freezing winter morning a dead body is found in the backyard of the Dharma family’s house. It’s the body of Anu Krishnan.
For Anu, a writer seeking a secluded retreat from the city, the Dharmas’ “back-house” in the sleepy mountain town of Merrit’s Point was the ideal spot to take a year off and begin writing. She had found the Dharmas’ rental through a happy coincidence. A friend from university who had kept tabs on everyone in their graduating year – including the quiet and reserved Vikram Dharma and his first wife, Helen – sent her the listing. Anu vaguely remembered Vikram but had a strong recollection of Helen, a beautiful, vivacious, social and charming woman.
But now Vikram had a new wife, a marriage hastily arranged in India after Helen was killed in a car accident. Suman Dharma, a stark contrast to Helen, is quiet and timid. She arrived from the bustling warmth of India full of the promise of her new life – a new home, a new country and a daughter from Vikram’s first marriage. But her husband’s suspicious, controlling and angry tirades become almost a daily ritual, resigning Suman to a desolate future entangled in a marriage of fear and despair.
Suman is isolated both by the landscape and the culture, and her fortunes begin to change only when Anu arrives. A friendship begins to form between the two women as Anu becomes a frequent visitor to the house. While the children, Varsha and Hemant, are at school, Anu, Vikram’s mother, Akka, and Suman spend time sharing tea and stories.
But Anu’s arrival will change the balance of the Dharma household. Young Varsha, deeply affected by her mother’s death and desperate to keep her new family together, becomes increasingly suspicious of Anu’s relationship with her stepmother. Varsha’s singular attention to keeping her family together, and the secrets that emerge as Anu and Suman become friends, create cracks in the Dharma family that can only spell certain disaster.
One of the searchers spotted two ravens yanking at something and walked over to investigate. I watched as he squatted and peered down at the ground, raised his arm and waved the others over. They had found her.
The birds, they told us later, were tugging at her red and gold earring that was glinting up at them. We also heard she’d taken her jacket off even though it was thirty below that night. Sounds like a crazy thing to do, but I know it’s true. It’s what happens before you die from hypothermia, the blood vessels near the surface of your skin suddenly dilate making you think you are on fire and so you tear off your clothes to cool down. It’s quite a paradox really: the body starts to feel too hot before it dies of cold.
But by that time your brain is hallucinating, creating images of longed-for warmth, making you believe all kinds of weird things. I think it would be right to assume she died happy, believing she was in the tropics, warm as toast.
She was lying not too far from our door, past the spot where in a few months, when all the snow has melted, five rose bushes with bright pink flowers and giant thorns will mark the boundary between our land and old Mrs. Cooper’s. Several years ago, before she went off to live with her son in Vancouver, Mrs. Cooper sold her house to some developers who planned to turn it into a set of holiday homes, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s shuttered and falling apart and I know ghosts live in it. I used to like hanging out in that whispering house, but some of the dumb boys from school discovered it and decided it was the perfect place to drink beer, smoke pot and giggle like fools and ruined it for me.
“Why on earth did she have to go out in such horrible weather?” my stepmother Suman asked for the nth time since the discovery of the body. She was stationed at the dining room window which provides almost as good a view as the one Hem and I had from the living room.
“Didn’t she know how dangerous cold can be? Hanh? Do you know why she did such a thing?”
She looked stricken. That’s the word for it, the exact one. As if a giant hand had smacked the joy out of her. Not that she’s a very cheerful person to begin with, but for a while this summer she’d gone back to being the way she was when she first came to Merrit’s Point—young and happy. I almost feel sorry for her.
I shook my head. “We were asleep, Mama,” I said gently, again. “I’ve no idea why she had to go out. If I was awake maybe I could have stopped her.”
Beside me Hem pushed his small, warm body closer. I hugged him hard. Hemant is my half-brother, Suman’s son, but entirely mine. I love him more than anything and anybody, more even than air and water and food, and just a bit more than Papa.
Out there things were winding down, the searchers loading the wrapped body onto a stretcher. We watched them carry it carefully to the waiting ambulance. An ambulance seemed kind of pointless since she was already dead, but people always hope for the best. Not me. I know that disaster lurks around every corner.The ambulance churned away in a spray of snow and
beside me Hem began to sob.
“Stop crying, you wuss,” I whispered, poking his cheek with my finger. He worries me sometimes. He is too much like Suman—no backbone, all emotion and weak. I have to make sure he doesn’t remain that way. For now, though, I can take it—he is only seven years old after all.
“I’m scared,” Hemant said. “I wish Akka was here.”
“Well she isn’t, is she?” I said, even though I too miss our grandmother. She’s in the hospital and not coming home. She’s too old and too sick.
“What will happen now?” Hem whispered.
“Nothing. They’ll take her to the morgue and a doctor will sign a certificate saying she’s dead, then Papa will notify her family. That’s all.” For the first time it occurred to me that she also had family. Just like us. A mother and brother and two nephews and a sister-in-law and cousins and aunts and uncles and maybe a grandma like Akka.
“What if they ask us questions?” Hem’s breath made a patch of mist on the windowpane.
“What if they do? We were asleep, how are we supposed to know what happened, you noodle? Now stop crying all over me, I’m here, nothing will happen to you.”
He pressed closer to me, wrapped both his arms around my waist and held me tight. I love the smell of him—milky and sweet. I am not a sentimental sort of girl, but with Hem I turn into everything I do not wish to be. “Will you always be here with me, Vashi?” He gazed up at me with his big brown eyes that unfortunately always remind me of Suman. Like a puppy begging for love, for approval, soft and silly.
“Of course, where else would I be?”
“When you’re grown up also?”
“Well, I do plan to go away to university, Hem. But that isn’t for five whole years.”
“What if I feel like talking to someone when you’re away at university?” Hem asked anxiously.
“You’ll be a big boy by then—you won’t need me around so much,” I said.
“But I might still feel like talking to someone, then what?”
“You can always call me.”
“If you aren’t there?”
I knelt and wrapped my arms around him. “Talk to Tree, that’ll help, won’t it?” I felt his heart jumping against mine, in sync—thump-thump-thump—almost one.
“Tree will always be here, Hem. It’s ours and it will never tell on us.”
I am Varsha Dharma, granddaughter of Mr. J.K. Dharma, late, and his wife Bhagirathi otherwise known as Akka. Daughter of Vikram and Harini (or Helen as my mother preferred to be called—she liked disguises). Stepdaughter to Suman, and sister to Hemant.
I am thirteen years old, almost fourteen. I love reading. I love my family. I prefer to have no friends. I plan to go to university. When I grow up I will be a lawyer. Maybe a writer. A scientist even. I can be anything I set my mind to be. I am super smart. Even Miss Frederick the English teacher who takes us for art as well and who is not fond of me concedes I am precocious beyond my years. She and the other teachers also feel I have an attitude issue—of course I do—and anger issues, according to reports they send to Papa citing complaints from the town mothers and their stupid children.
“Gene problem,” Akka says. “Like your father and his father. I am telling you, Varsha, learn to control that temper. Don’t turn into your Papa. Don’t turn bad like him.”
And I come from a long line of dead people. I know everyone in this world does, but our family tree is knotty with folk who died in odd ways, almost all of them on my grandfather’s side of the family.
“We all die quietly in our own beds of old age or boredom,” Akka claims. “But Mr. J.K. Dharma’s people— ho, you won’t believe how some of them died. I tell you, enough to fill a book!” Then she counts off her favourite deaths on her fingers. “First there was your grandfather’s oldest cousin Ranjini the Raving Beauty, she who got bitten by a rabid dog before her wedding, didn’t tell anyone, showed up at the marriage hall in all her finery, foaming at the mouth, had a seizure, fell into the sacred fire and terrified the groom so thoroughly that he ran out of there and never got married. And since he was an only son, his parents died without grandchildren, calling down curses on the head of Ranjini the Raving Beauty.
“Then there was that other cousin on your grandfather’s side again—the one who finished a satisfying and forbidden dinner of mutton biryani at the military hotel in the Muslim area of the town in which he lived, was crossing the road to finish things off with a betel leaf stuffed with sugar beads and betel nut shavings and a touch of opium, when he stepped right into an open manhole and drowned in filth. And your grandfather Mr. J.K. Dharma, small man with a big ego, froze into a pillar of ice right outside our front door when he was forty-seven years old. He forgot his keys, came home really late, really drunk one winter night, couldn’t wake me and turned into an ice sculpture. He deserved what he got, the drunken lout. He brought me nothing but tears.”
He was too young to die, Akka adds quickly of her frozen husband. But I can tell she’s not sorry about it. He was a blot on the family name.
Last but not least is my own traitor mother Harini, who called herself Helen and hated living here with me and Papa and Akka, so she just took off without explanation one fine morning.
I don’t think Papa has forgiven my mother for leaving him even after all these years. She was a bad wife and a wicked mother, he said after she was gone. She deserved her death.
“You were a bad husband,” Akka shouted at him.
“She didn’t deserve the misery you brought her and she certainly didn’t deserve her death.” She held me close to her and glared at Papa, who looked like he wanted to hit her the way he did my mother and sometimes me too when I am naughty.
My father controlled himself then, but he had torn up all of my mother’s photographs and burned them in the fireplace. He told me I was to forget her absolutely. I was never to talk about her. Ever. She was a traitor. She had abandoned us. She was a bad wife and a wicked mother. She was an Unmentionable. We’ve not forgiven her, Papa and me.
But it’s hard to forget. And she refused to leave me. She was everywhere in the house. I would wake up at night sometimes, sure she was sitting in a corner of my room—a loud and strong and beautiful ghost. I tried to hate her but I couldn’t. I wanted to reach out and hold her tight, I wanted to rub my face against her belly, and kiss her and feel her softness. And then I’d remember that she’d left me without a backward glance, and the rage would come rushing in. I’d push her away. Not needed here, she is not. Go away monster mother, leave us alone, I’d yell, we’ve found somebody else to love, a new mother who will always be here, for as long as ever.
“It was your father’s temper that chased your poor mother away,” Akka said once. “And if he doesn’t watch out, your stepmother might leave as well.” She paused for a bit and then added, “Poor thing. Poor thing. She must be cursing the gods for bringing her here to this Jehannum.”
I always became anxious when Akka talked like this about Suman running away. When Suman first came here, she tried so hard to fit into the space my real mother left behind, but failed every single time. That made Papa mad. And that made me worry—what if she too went away like Akka said she might. Would she take us with her? Or would she leave us behind with Papa? What if she left me and took only Hemant? After all, he is her son, I’m nothing more than her stepdaughter. Then I’d tell myself she would never do such a thing: she loves me. She is mine. Papa brought her for me all the way from India. I am grateful to her for giving me my brother and for keeping the house clean and for cooking yummy food. I try hard to make sure she has no reason to leave—I am good as gold, I help her with chores, and I hug her every morning and at night before bed. I try, I do try to make her feel loved. It is my job to tie her to me tight so that she will never ever leave.
So that’s it—our family—Akka, Papa, me, Hemant, and Suman—three generations of us, crammed together, typical Indian-style, in a small house built by my grandfather on five acres of land on the edge of a rotten little town called Merrit’s Point. It’s in the middle of nowhere and is full of gossips and bores and kids with snotty names like Celia and Mason. If land in our town is cheap now, Akka says that when Grandfather bought it about forty-five years ago it cost less than a handful of dirt. He was dead before I was born and Akka says she has no idea why he moved all the way up here into this back of beyond. He didn’t even leave a record of his thoughts—I know because I looked everywhere—just a few words scratched with purple ink in an empty little notebook: “This is all mine. Silence at last.—J.K. Dharma.” What was he claiming? I asked Akka. But she couldn’t tell me.
“Who knows, and why should I care?” she said. She never wanted to speak of him anyway, the frozen husband who’d robbed her of her happiness. So I have to imagine it. I imagine him living in a crowded place in India—I haven’t been there yet, but I read in one of Papa’s books that there are millions and millions of people there. Maybe Grandfather was tired of all those people. Maybe it didn’t matter to him that he was in a place where hardly anybody else wanted to live unless they had to—like the people in town who came here to mine copper and then to work in the lumber mill. I think what mattered was that he owned this piece of the earth, paid for by him with his first savings, and when he opened a window he could hear the wind instead of a thousand chattering voices, he could see the starry sky instead of dust, and all around him his eyes landed only on quiet mountains and giant trees standing in silent clusters, bearing in their wooden hearts the secrets of all the creatures that live here.
“We are cursed,” Akka wailed. “We are cursed with the family we have, and the family we have lost, we are cursed because we have to live in this town. We are cursed because we are who we are.”
“If you hate it so much, why did you come here?”
I demanded. Sometimes my grandmother confuses me with her contradictions. She loves my father, but she blames him for my mother leaving. She is fiercely protective about our family and hates “prying eyes,” as she calls them, but she says my grandfather was a demon and my Papa is one too. She shoots a fist up in the direction of the sky. “It’s their fault, those fancy-dress monkeys up there, those gods your silly father loves so much these days! They’re blind and deaf all of them.”
But even though Akka says these things about Papa and Grandfather, it is only in private, to me or to Suman. She’d never let our family down in public. Neither would I or Hem or Papa. Tight as a fist, we are, and as hard if you get in our way. Suman is the only weakness, the little finger, but Papa and I knew right away we’d have to hold her hard in our grasp. That way she wouldn’t have a chance to do anything silly.
That’s how we were until Anu Krishnan moved into our lives. Then everything changed.
ANITA RAU BADAMI's first novel was the bestseller Tamarind Mem. Her bestselling second novel, The Hero's Walk, won the Regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize and Italy's Premio Berto, was named a Washington Post Best Book, was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize. Her third novel, Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?, was released in 2006 to great acclaim, longlisted for the IMPAC Award, and a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award. The recipient of the Marian Engel Award for a woman writer in mid-career, Badami is also a visual artist. She lives in Montreal.close this panel
SHORTLISTED 2012 – Quebec Writers’ Federation Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction
LONGLISTED 2013 – IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
FINALIST 2013 – OLA Evergreen Award
“She has an amazing knack for hauling together the beauty, mess, joy and folly of ordinary people’s lives.”
—The Hamilton Spectator
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"Part literary whodunit, part psychological drama, Tell It to the Trees is all about solitude and secrets--and how the two can combine to hold a family together; and, at the same time, tear it apart."