Fire on the Mountain

Fire on the Mountain Summary and Analysis of Part I


Part I: Nanda Kaul at Carignano

Chapter 1

Nanda Kaul is standing on the ridge near her house, Carignano, in Kasauli. She is watching the postman toil his way up the hill, resenting the fact that he might bring her a letter and disrupt her solitude.

Nanda Kaul is tall, thin, and elegant, with grey hair. She loves Carignano for its barrenness and starkness—its pines, rocks, sweeping views of mountains and plains, and eagles flying through the air. Her home is plain, with white walls and open windows. A few apricot trees grew close to the house as well as irises, but she does not care much for them.

She climbs to the top of the knoll by her garden and bitterly watches the postman plod along towards Carignano. An idle schoolboy bops along next to him.

Nanda Kaul turns away. She at least feels pleasure in her home and thinks, “How could it have ever belonged to anyone else?” (5.)

Chapter 2

The postman actually does know who owned it before Nanda Kaul. It was built in 1843 by Colonel Macdougall for his wife, who wanted to save her sickly children from the heat. All seven of them, along with Colonel Macdougall and Alice, died and were buried in the cemetery over the hills. The house stood empty and began to disintegrate. Once, a thunderstorm took a piece of corrugated iron and threw it down the hill, where it struck off the head of a coolie.

The roof was replaced and the house was taken by the pastor of Kasauli’s church. He planted the three apricot trees and bought a birdbath, where he enjoyed watching the bul-buls and hoopoes drink. His wife hated him and attempted to murder him almost every day. He lived on but she fell down the hill and died.

The next occupant was Miss Appleby, who swore she could smell the tobacco of the pastor lingering ghostlike in the home. She was the first of many English maidens who lived there, all of whom had legends attached to them. The Misses Hughes brought in fancy furniture and planted yellow rose creeper, which bloomed extravagantly every April. Miss Jane Shrewsbury brewed and concocted treatments and cures, but stabbed her cook in the neck to relieve him of choking on a mutton bone. During the war years, other Misses came, frolicked, and played.

In 1947, the war ended and English maiden ladies were supposedly not safe anymore, so they were sent back to England. When Carignano went back on the market, Nanda Kaul bought it; “the little town went native” (10).

Chapter 3

Coming the same way as the postman is Ram Lal, the Carignano cook, carrying foodstuffs. He joins the postman and they wearily trudge, bent-back, up the steep path. This annoys Nanda Kaul, who always walks ramrod-straight.

The postman asks teasingly if there are any visitors yet, and Ram Lal says firmly that there are not. When they make it to the top, Ram Lal disappears into the kitchen, and the postman hands Nanda Kaul a letter.

She walks back up her path, holding the letter and ruing having to open it. She is resolved to say “no” to whatever it asks.

Chapter 4

Nanda Kaul sits in the old cane chair on the shady veranda and admires the comfortable view, but she does not feel comforted. The handwriting on the letter is Asha’s, her most exasperating and least-loved daughter. Asha was and is beautiful, and she has little time to devote to her daughter Tara. Tara is married to a diplomat who is a heavy drinker, an abuser, and a philanderer. Asha recently persuaded Tara to give him another chance, but there is also the problem of Tara's daughter, Raka, who’d recently had a bout of typhoid.

Nanda Kaul is reluctant to open the letter but finally does so. In it, Asha complains about “disasters and tragedies” (14) and says she’s persuaded Tara to go to Geneva. She complains that Tara has let herself go and cannot do anything anymore but read to Raka. Finally, Asha says the issue is Raka, for she cannot help with the child since she has to travel to Bombay to be with her other daughter, Vina, during her confinement. Raka is weak and cannot be in the heat and humidity of Bombay, so, Asha writes, she and Tara have decided to send the child to her great-grandmother at Carignano. Tara will send for her once she is set up in Geneva. Raka will be brought to Carignano by her father’s brother as far as Kalka and then take a taxi.

Nanda Kaul reads and then folds up the papers primly. She is having a difficult time suppressing her anger about her daughter’s meddling, her sickly great-granddaughter, and the imminent disruption of her stillness and calm.

Chapter 5

Nanda Kaul stands up and gazes down into the gorge. She wonders why she cannot have the nothing she so desperately wants. The messy, cluttered gorge reminds her of her formerly messy, cluttered life.

She was the wife of the Vice-Chancellor and they lived in the university town in Punjab, where she presided over the household in a stately and elegant manner. She managed everything and entertained the wives of lecturers and professors. The women openly admired her but it did nothing for her. She remembers the house (which was always her husband’s and not hers), its smells, its sounds, and how she was finally freed from them all. She does not want the noose around her neck anymore and thinks that it seems hard and unfair.

She watches an eagle swooping in the air and wishes to be like it. She then hears the cuckoo calling her in her own garden. It is time for lunch, and she goes to tell Ram Lal about her great-granddaughter.

Chapter 6

The telephone rings, which is a rare thing. It seems ominous. Nanda Kaul reaches for it with a terrible look on her face that no one has ever seen. The voice on the other end belongs to Ila Das, and it is shrill and strident.

Ila Das babbles on in her monstrous tone, saying she’s been so busy at the village and has been lunching at the sanitarium with her friend. She wants to come to see Nanda Kaul, and she gets even more excited when Nada Kaul reluctantly sighs that her great-granddaughter is coming to visit. Nanda Kaul’s face is furrowed, about to crack. She tells Ila Das she can come when things gave settled down.

After Nanda Kaul hangs up, Ila Das wonders why it seems like there is a total lack of joy in her friend’s voice when she spoke of her great-granddaughter.

Chapter 7

In the hot, languorous afternoon, the flies buzz sluggishly and Nanda Kaul lies down. Until the first cool breeze touches her, she will stay like this and “imitate death, like a lizard” (23). She has been practicing this daily hour of stillness for years, even in the days when she had people trying to impose themselves on her. Everyone in the house knew, though, that she was not to be disturbed; only after the hour had passed would she sigh, stir, and let them come get her, life eddying and whirling on.

One evening, she’d walked out under the moonlight to the lawn and the badminton court, waiting to hear her husband’s car. When he pulled up, she watched him get out and cross the veranda into the small bedroom where she’d moved his bed. A lapwing croaked in an agitated tone; it was a “fearful bird, distracted and disturbing” (26). She felt herself a grey cat, a night prowler. It was “one time she had been alone: a moment of private triumph, cold and proud” (26).

Chapter 8

Nada Kaul is trying to read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon on the veranda in the late afternoon. She reads “When a Woman Lives Alone,” which speaks of how a woman who lives alone should have a dilapidated house with an overgrown garden, not a clean and neat place.

Nanda Kaul stands and walks into the garden, wishing that she could invite an English watercolorist here to paint the scene, or maybe an etcher. As the sun sets, tiny pricks of light pop up on the hamlets and hulls. She reads more of the book and smiles that her home with its “sparseness, its cleanness and austerity would please the Japanese lady of a thousand years ago as it pleased her” (29). She thinks of the old university house, which was intense, busy, full of people—too many servants, too many trees and parrots, too many guests, too many meals, and too many children. She hated the excess and disorder and was glad when it was over. She wonders if Raka’s coming would bring all that back, and she moans that she’s discharged her duties already.

Chapter 9

Nanda Kaul had always taken up the care of others like it was a religious calling but soon realized it was a fake one. When her sons and daughters helped her move out of the Vice-Chancellor’s house after his death and come to Carignano, she felt relief when they set her up and left. She felt a proprietorship over the house, which felt right.

She cannot picture a child here, just as she cannot picture roses or a fountain amid her sparse garden. Seeing Ram Lal in the kitchen, she tells him nervously her great-granddaughter is coming tomorrow. She frets about what the girl will eat and he asks what he should make. Suddenly, he says that children like potato chips and ketchup, so they agree this will be good.

Ram Lal watches her as she walks away, noting that she is old and he is old.

Chapter 10

Nanda Kaul sends Ram Lal to the taxi-stand to meet Raka even though she knows she should be the one to go. She gets the guest room ready. At one point, she bumps her leg and groans in pain. She knows that in an hour she will no longer have privacy and will not be able to groan out loud again.

To distract herself, she tries to remember Raka, but “now all the babies in her life ran together in one rainbow muddle” (34). There were so many and they all seemed alike, and “she could not summon Raka out of the common blur” (35).

It frustrates her greatly that she will have to see the child to bed, make her eat her food, and find her an individual and a dependent. She will never be able to sleep with someone in her house. And what if the child needs to be entertained, she wonders? She does not know how to do that, nor where to find other children for Raka to play with. She only knows Ila Das from the past, but the thought of that woman coming makes Nanda Kaul upset.

Ram Lal leaves to procure Raka. The wind ruffles the pines and a cuckoo sings.


The first part of the novel is aptly named, for “Nanda Kaul at Carignano” is precisely what this is about. Nanda Kaul is an older woman: elegant, reserved, and not at all interested in engaging with wider society. She enjoys her isolation and her ability to control her life in a way she once could not. She “wanted no one and nothing else” (3) beside her house on the hill in the mountainous region of Kasauli. She possesses a “cold and piercing stare” (3) and a sharp, critical mind, though her good breeding does not allow her to let the few others she comes into contact with fully bear the brunt of her disapprobation. She is a widow and a mother, but she does not seem inclined toward stereotypical motherly affection. She seems inordinately glad to be away from her children (now grown, some with children of their own) and characterizes her former life as a “noose…round her neck” (19) and “an eddy, a whirlpool of which she was the still, fixed eye in the centre” (24). She was “so glad when it was over” and felt she’d “discharged all [her] duties” (30). Her former life of commotion, self-abnegation, and lack of autonomy was left behind in the plains “like a great, heavy, difficult book that she had read through and was not required to read again” (30)—except, unfortunately for Nanda Kaul, it seems she is going to have to read that book again with her great-granddaughter’s imminent and unwanted arrival. It is hard not to sympathize with her disinclination to lose all privacy, solitude, and control.

Desai is engaging in a dialogue with the patriarchal Indian society that relegated women to the roles of wives, mothers, and other forms of caregivers (Ila Das as a social worker, for example). The text presents Indian society, K.J. Phillips explains, “caught between two worlds and times: between a tradition where women are expected only to nurture others, and a more westernized, modern vision whereby women have a right to lives of their own.” Nanda Kaul is not a feminist trailblazer, and the novel’s revelation that she was mostly forced to come out to Carignano by her children complicates her professed desire for autonomy; even so, she is a woman who is categorically unenthused, to say the least, at the idea of having her life be entirely devoted to caring for others. She refuses to mourn her separation from her former life: “The care of others was a habit Nanda Kaul had mislaid. It had been a religious calling she had believed in till she found it fake. It had been a vocation that one day went dull and drought-struck as though its life-spring had dried up” (30). Even though she is very different from the English maiden memsahibs who occupied Carignano before her (see below), she does have one thing in common with them, as Geetha Ramanathan points out: “The history of the house itself signifies women’s desire for separation from domesticity and for control over the space of the house.”

The place that Nanda Kaul so ardently cherishes is Carignano, Desai’s finely-drawn picture of barren beauty in the Himalayas. Nanda Kaul’s house is high above the plains, with a view of the mountains, pine trees, a ragged gorge, and the valley. It is characterized by starkness and wildness, with only a slight nod to domesticated flora and fauna in the garden (though the apricot trees and yellow roses were not planted by Nanda Kaul but rather by former residents). Nanda Kaul loved “the sound of the cicadas and the pines, the sight of this gorge plunging, blood-red, down to the silver plain” (19). This stands in sharp contrast to her former life as the Vice-Chancellor’s wife, which was full of “too many servants…too many guests coming and going…so many children…friends, all of different ages and sizes and families” (29-30). S.P. Swain writes, “Symbolically, the seclusion and serenity of Carignano defines the stillness and freedom Nanda has been able to achieve in her old age. Carignano is Nanda and Nanda is Carignano.”

Despite Nanda Kaul’s unfettered affection for Carignano, its past is not particularly peaceful. The house is a remnant of British colonialism, built by a Colonel for his wife and their children. All members of the family eventually died, and death and violence stalked the rest of the inhabitants until Nanda Kaul came to it. In a symbol of the violence of the British colonial presence, part of the roof breaks off in the wind and takes off a coolie’s head. The wife of a pastor who takes the house next tries to kill her husband but dies herself. The next few maiden English ladies who occupy it have their own legends attached to them, including one who stabbed her cook in the neck thinking it would release a bone he was choking on, only to have him die of the stabbing instead. Chelva Kanaganayakam identifies this past as exemplary of the Gothic, noting that Carignano “has a colonial past, but its colonial legacy and attendant assumptions of cultural superiority and hierarchy are questioned by the Gothic framework within which the past is couched…the Gothic thus displaces both the mimetic and the hierarchal to problematize the colonial past.”