An extract from The Snow Line, the new novel by Tessa McWatt, published by Scribe in July 2021
The only external sound is the whir of the fan above his bed, but inside him is a high-pitched rushing noise. He turns over on his side to listen. The wedding guests are asleep, but Jackson’s arteries are demanding his attention.
The guests span the ages, but he is the oldest. They have come from Delhi, Mumbai, London, and even North America, because the bride and groom are modern, wealthy and, he guesses, people who are hoping to maintain the status quo in next month’s Indian general election, rather than BJP voters. One of the young men, long hair to his shoulders, is different, out of place as he stands back and watches the others gather in a constant cocktail party.
‘Advani has the best ears,’ one guest in a sparkling sherwani, holding a small glass of liqueur, had said to a circle of men discussing political candidates after dinner. ‘He has the ears of Russia and America, one each side.’ The others laughed approvingly. ‘Too much fuss about politics at the moment,’ another said, and set off grumblings among a few who appeared to become old before Jackson’s eyes. One declared that he admired the Gujarat model of development. Others nodded. Congress supporters, their lives are comfortable, no reason to tip the scales further right to the BJP. Jackson knows they are the sort of young men that India is breeding now — who speak of mortgages, call centres and start-ups, of short holidays in hill stations. When he ’d lived here long ago, he thought he’d slowly begun to understand the culture — or at least the dominant culture — to see how gods and labour and animals were drawn together in paintings. Gods and labour and animals were the triumvirate, not unlike Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. And each had its place in the life of ordinary Hindus. Gods for stories, labour for good living, animals to worship. He thought he could make sense of things if he looked at them through this lens. But these new men are a puzzle.
The guests danced. They drank. They sang. Jackson watched in amazement.
I sit on my mother’s lap at the piano and want her to teach me how to do the things she does with her fingers and to make the … is this jazz? It is as new as snow and pancakes and mean boys. She pushes my fingers down on the keys — ‘Like this, Jackson,’ she says — and oh, my, this is something, and this is a feeling I want to keep.
Reema left him alone for most of the evening, thankfully. She is a young woman unaware of the force of her beauty, and he does not understand what it is about her that shames him. At the end of the night she accompanied him to his room. When she took his arm, he shook her off, but, Amelia, forgive him, he didn’t mean to offend.
As they reached his door, he told her that he knew very little about music; it was his wife who sang. Reema cocked her head at him like a sparrow at a whistle. She said maybe his wife would like it if he joined their group on Friday.
But what is there to like or to join at this point? He has recurring images of Indian rituals long outmoded. Sati was criminalised long ago, but his desire is for sati in reverse: when he scatters Amelia’s ashes, he will scatter himself too, throw himself upon them and dissolve in a pile of bone on bone, precious and disappeared.
He turns over and switches on the bedside lamp. A quick glance to check on the tea canister perched on his suitcase. He scrutinises the room, decorated to high standards, with a mix of European and Indian furnishings, and North Indian tapestries and carvings on the wall.
The owner of this retreat is a man whom Jackson envies. A good thirty years younger than he is, Mike is the kind of man with the courage to irrigate and plant, to fight off snakes and scorpions, to grow food, to build shade and make a patch of dry valley so beautiful that a couple ’s future could be launched here, two families joined. Later in the spring Mike will hold retreats for yoga groups from the States and Britain. With the help of people from the local settlements and drivers from Amritsar, whom he pays higher than the going rate, he organises the food and the outings that allow guests to feel like they have escaped the west. Mike is a bachelor, a man for many not one, and this is the one thing about him that Jackson does not envy.
After his first job in the Punjab ended in 1948, Jackson had wanted to stay on, even though the English had left, even though there was war over Kashmir. He was his own man, making his way without his parents or his brother, and he had wanted to make his mark. But he would soon have a wife, would have to be responsible. His father had moved the family around the world for oil, and Jackson would end up moving Amelia around the world for water; he would be a hydraulic engineer who would never plant anything in soil.
A sudden, dense thud lands on his roof. As sure as night it’s a body. Then a second, along with snarling and growling. The roof will collapse with the brawling of beasts on top of it. Jackson rises quickly, hand on his back to straighten up, and stares up at the ceiling. Good Lord in heaven. He hears doors open and slam in the room beside his, and a man shouting across the garden. Jackson stands still, concentrating on the tea canister as he follows the sounds. The man’s shouts get closer and there’s the sound of wood thunking above. The bodies tumble off and onto the gravel below. There’s dragging and scuffling, more growling, shouting. Then suddenly a lull.
At last the only sound in the room is the fan. He walks to the tea canister, picks it up, and oh, Amelia, you wouldn’t have been frightened, not you.
But it’s a new decade, why won’t you dance, she whispers to me, swaying, her hair all perfume and puff, the Andrews Sisters loud and out of step in Brunei, on the lawn of a friend of the Sultan’s, me with my hands in pockets, frowning, her mother and father watching from the far corner, no clue that the 1950s would bring a wedding but no babies, no matter how hard we tried, no babies.