Part II: Raka Comes to Carignano
Raka’s name means “moon” but the child appears nothing like that, Nanda Kaul thinks, surprised. She looks like an insect—a cricket—and has a despairing look in her eyes. She is thin with a large head, bony like her great-grandmother.
Nanda Kaul utters that she looks so ill, and Raka sees her great-grandmother as no different than the pine trees and rocks behind her—all bare, all still. To Nanda Kaul, Raka is “an intruder, an outsider, a mosquito flown up from the plains to tease and worry” (40).
Raka is like a newly caged wild creature as she explores her room. She runs her fingers across surfaces and sags on the bed. She looks out the window down onto the cliff and into the ravine, where there is the pelt of an animal. Climbing out of the window, she hops down and walks over to the railing to look down.
The ravine is full of detritus, rocks, branches, and charred tree trunks. She sees the corrugated iron roofs of other structures and servants’ quarters. In the distance is a factory with chimneys bellowing out smoke. This surprises her, as her father and grandmother always spoke of the beauty of the Himalayas, not factories. The factory seems like a “square dragon” (42).
Raka goes to the kitchen to see if Rama Lal is there to tell her more, but he is not. She finds him sleeping and leaves him be, climbing up the knoll that rises above the kitchen. She sits, leans against a tree, and sees another space she’d heard about: the club. It is quiet now; it is as if all Kasauli were asleep except for the cicadas.
When Raka hears Ram Lal making tea, she joins him. She asks about the factory and he tells her it is the Pasteur Institute, where doctors make serums. They test animals there and kill rabid dogs. He then tells her the chutes “empty the bones and ashes of dead animals down into the ravine” and “it’s a bad place” (44) to which she cannot go. Jackals go there to chew the bones and then bite dogs. Ghosts also haunt it. Nanda Kaul watches Raka as she listens to Ram Lal. She wonders what the child will do with herself, noticing how restless Raka is on her stool. She chooses not to verbalize her question.
Nanda Kaul does not know what Raka does, but Raka certainly does something. She disappears for hours out of the blue, occasionally visible scrambling up the hillside or wandering along the roads before vanishing behind boulders. She returns dirty and scratched up but does not care.
Nanda Kaul resents that “she should once again be drawn into a position where it was necessary to take an interest in another’s activities and be responsible for their effect and outcome” (46). She ought to make it clear to Raka, who was perceptive, that Raka is not part of Nanda Kaul’s life.
The two form a silent routine in which they avoid each other, but they discover “it was not so simple to exist and yet appear not to exist” (47). Nanda Kaul wonders often where the child goes, but she reproaches herself for her speculation. Raka ignores her so completely that Nanda Kaul is breathless and apprehensive.
At one point, Nanda Kaul comes to see the child as “the finished, perfected model of what Nanda Kaul herself was merely a brave, flawed experiment” (47). Raka makes no demands and seemingly has no needs. She is a “recluse by nature, by instinct” (48), whereas Nanda Kaul came to reclusiveness after many years. To her surprise, she starts to admire the girl.
The ravine is hot and dusty, but Raka goes lower and lower into it, looking for agave. She sees the grotesque refuse in the gorge and is fascinated by it. Once, she sees a thick yellow snake. Near the factory, she smells serum, chloroform, scared animals, and dogs’ brains. She sweats and dust runs down her in rivulets.
As she moves heavily uphill, she disturbs the crickets and soil and gravel. She licks the blood from a scratch. Finally, she ends up in the Kasauli club’s backyard. Afraid for a moment, she sees it is deserted and feels relief. She heads back up to Carignano.
Ram Lal is preparing the hamam for Raka's bath. Raka appears out of nowhere like a bird falling out of a nest. She talks to him about what she sees each day, telling him today about the snake. He tells her it is a rat snake. She mentions the ravine and he says not to go there. She wants to see a jackal, she tells him, but he warns her it is dangerous and that she ought to go to the club instead and play with children and have an ayah. Raka listens to him out of politeness, not curiosity. She knows of this life from Delhi, Manila, and Madrid, but it is not hers.
Ram Lal calls out suddenly that a dust storm is coming. It swirls up, blots out the villages and mountains, and sweeps over the cliff. Ram Lal carries Raka into the house, where she sits by the window and watches. The sun appears and disappears in the “splendid bonfire that burned in the heart of the yellow clouds. The whole world was livid, inflamed” (53).
Ram Lal is worried the hamam will fall over and set the mountain on fire. He tells Raka fretfully that there are often forest fires here and some have come as close to their house as their railing. There are water shortages in Kasauli. Raka recalls a burned hut she saw on the hill; Ram Lal tells her it used to be a beautiful English cottage and the Mem was burnt in the fire when she went to save her cat.
Thankfully, the dust and wind are subsiding and cool air returns. The hamam is fine, Ram Lal is pleased to see, and he readies it for Raka’s bath. Nanda Kaul watches at them, slapping two bumbling flies on the windowpane.
When Raka makes to go for her evening walk, Nanda Kaul surprises her by saying she will come along. The older woman does not know that Raka never gets enough to eat at the tea-table and forages for food on these evening rambles. She is very disappointed, feeling like a chained dog. She is at least pleased that Nanda Kaul suggests going all the way to Monkey Point.
The two make an awkward pair. Nanda Kaul occasionally points out things, such as the burnt house with the old lady who went mad, a cottage where doctors from Pasteur live, and the Garden House where the army stays now. She rues that the army is everywhere, and she scoffs at their ugly instrument on the hill. She wishes things were as they once were—a haven of sorts.
Suddenly, she laughs and points over to a grove of chestnut trees where langurs are jumping and crashing through branches. Raka laughs too, seeing an infant and others who clown and gambol.
After they leave the langurs, feeling refreshed, Nanda Kaul asks her great-granddaughter if she might want to go to school at Kasauli. Raka is shocked and shakes her head, “rejecting outright the thought of school. Of hostels, of discipline, order and obedience” (59). She takes off past Nanda Kaul, then waits for her at the bottom of the hill. Nanda Kaul is irritated “by the child’s abrupt and total rejection of what had been an invitation—a unique invitation, did she only know it–to stay on in these hills, with Nanda Kaul, and make them her home” (59).
At the foot of Monkey Point is a small grove of crepe myrtles with a few benches. Nanda Kaul sits down and tells Raka she’s not up for the climb but the girl can go ahead. Raka bounds away and comes to the top of the point. She did not want to be here with her great-grandmother and had been reveling in the secrecy of her plan to come here. She did not want anyone else to know, as if she were an explorer.
She seems to be higher than the eagles and all the other hills. She stares out over the endless plain, the five rivers of Punjab, and the lake of Chandigarh. It all seems like a scroll for her to read. She dreams she is shipwrecked, feeling the roar of the waves and wind in her ears.
Finally, she comes down, and Nanda Kaul feels relief since she’d been gone for so long. They return to Carignano, now dark, the lights of the villages and towns “so many lighted ships out at sea” (62).
Nanda Kaul does not suggest another walk; she reads while Raka goes off on her adventures. Raka walks the Upper and Lower Mall occasionally but slips off of them as soon as she can. She avoids people and comes to know a Kasauli “neither summer visitors nor upright citizens of the town ever knew” (63).
Nanda Kaul does not want to impose herself on the child but has a hard time leaving her alone. Once, she asks Raka why she does not go down to the club, and if her parents ever took her to any clubs or parties. Raka remembers painful times when her father tried to get her out of her shell; she much preferred when she was sick and her mother read to her.
When Raka replies quizzically that her great-grandmother does not go to the club either, Nanda Kaul actually snorts laughter and tells the girl that she is more like her than any of her children or grandchildren. Raka is privately dismayed at this bold comment and evinces disgust. Nanda Kaul is embarrassed and tries to regain her authority. They turn away from each other.
Raka watches the hoopoe’s nest. The mother has been busy with the apricots recently, and Raka is nervous that the longer they stay out on the veranda, the more the mother will stay away from her babies. She cries out that they need to go away and Nanda Kaul tells her to run off for her walk.
Raka decides to go to the club one evening when the big party of the summer season is happening. She hears of it from Ram Lal, who waxes poetic about the old days and complains that things are different and degraded now.
When Raka hears the band strike up, she puts a sweater over her pajamas and ventures out into the night. She scrambles up the knoll, down the hillside, past the busy kitchen, and to the back of the clubhouse. She sees gawky, gangly young men playing pool and finds their movements alarming.
Scooting back into the darkness, she sees she will have to cross the garden to get to the ballroom on the other side. She almost turns back, but she remembers Ram Lal’s stories of fancy dress balls with princes and ladies. She winds through clumps of people with her head down and no one notices her. Finally, she hides between pots of geraniums and wine racks on the veranda attached to the ballroom and draws the curtains aside to peer in.
Raka is not what Nanda Kaul expects: instead of being a needy child who requires entertainment, emotional support, and indulgence of whims, she is absolutely fine being on her own; indeed, she fundamentally desires to be on her own, scrambling into the ravine, climbing hills, observing animals, and remaining ensconced within her interior world. Because Desai only gives us rare looks into Raka’s past and psyche, we do not know too much about Raka as a character; Francine E. Krishna sums it up by noting that “We do not know what she thinks; we only know what she does,” and Chelva Kanaganayakam calls her a “figure of ambivalence and fluidity that is acknowledged in the narrative itself.”
Nevertheless, we know she has a monstrous home life with a drunken, abusive father and a weak mother, and we know that she has never really felt like she fit in anywhere. Ruth K. Rosenwasser suggests that she is reclusive because of “her reaction to patriarchal values that insist on her mother’s remaining with her husband even though she is mistreated”; though she is a child and dependent on her elders, “she seeks refuge from their authority in the deserted areas of the mountainside. The uncivilized landscape of the mountain mirrors the damaged emotional landscape of her childhood.”
Ashley Batts gives more context for the situation of Raka’s mother, Tara, and why it might be detrimental for Raka to observe (even if she can’t fully comprehend it yet): “Literary scholars Premila Paul and R. Padmanabhan Nair write that ‘Life for a woman is a series of obligations and commitments. Tara gets ill-treated by her husband, but the woman has to yield always. Woman often becomes woman’s enemy. Asha attributed Tara’s domestic misfortune to her inability to understand men and also her inability to be a successful diplomat’s wife,’ which only reiterates the treatment women such as Tara sometimes receive from other women, but also what expectations Indian society puts on women in abusive situations.”
All of the characters and much of the imagery of Fire on the Mountain are identified with the natural world. In terms of Raka, her great-grandmother thinks she resembles an insect, not the moon that her name would suggest. She acts like an animal when she first arrives at Carignano—“she walked about as the newly caged, the newly tamed wild ones do” (40-41). She appears and disappears like an animal, silent and mysterious. She wants to pursue “her own secret life amongst the rocks and pines of Kasauli” (48) and balks at any mention of playmates, school, or society in general. Her senses are important to her, with Desai writing that she “sniffed the air,” “licked her dry lips,” and “shaded her eyes to look up” (49). And it is not just the beautiful, serene scenes that beckon and intrigue Raka: she also loves the clotted gorge, the violent dust storms and ominous forest fires, and the exhilaration of being “higher than the eagles” (61) on Monkey Point.
Krishna explains that the images of the story “are generally not static, but are metamorphosized by what happens to the characters. In fact, much of the action is revealed in the transformation of these images as they reflect the changes within the characters.” Nanda Kaul will come to see Raka as more like a twig than an insect after she experiences the trauma of the party at the club. The langurs are charming, silly creatures before the party but screaming, threatening bandits afterward. The cuckoos that were domestic birds for Nanda Kaul at the beginning of the novel are later “the demented birds that raved and beckoned Raka on to a land where there was no sound, only silence, no light, only shade, and skeletons kept in beds of ash on which the footprints of jackals flowered in gray” (90).