Fire on the Mountain

Fire on the Mountain Summary and Analysis of Part II Chapters 11-21


Chapter 11

Raka is shocked and disgusted by the sheer lunacy that she sees, and she wishes she could close her eyes to it. People are dressed strangely, as animals or insects. A woman wears a bucket on her head and laughs. A man in black has a skull-and-crossbones on his chest and uses a scythe against the woman. Her throat opens and she bubbles blood. A monkey kicks the bucket that fell off and a man sings “Take me out to the ballgame” along with the band.

A man with a bushy tail and black-and-white eyes creeps toward Raka and messily drinks a beer. A tall man wearing white with a stethoscope around his neck and pink rubber gloves lifts his hands aloft as if he would silence the whole affair. A walking maypole sways to the music. A caged bird walks in with a Pierrot, who takes off his mask to reveal pink eyes and sing.

As Raka watches in horror, a figure in a brown robe comes close to her as if it could see her, but it has no head—“only a shawl dipped in blood dripping about its neck” (71). Raka can no longer stand it and rushes away, blubbering. She sobs that she hates them, and it seems as if the monsters follow her.

Her mind is flooded with memories of her father coming home drunk from a party and beating her mother with filthy words and fists while Raka wet the bed in fright. She steps on her mother’s body, “squelching and quivering” (72), and does not know where to stand. Her mother is crying, then a jackal is crying in the ravine.

Raka is about to go into the ravine when she hears the jackal, so she goes into her room instead. Her heart beats so loudly that it blocks the music from the club.

Chapter 12

In the aftermath of the night visit to the club, Raka’s eyes are darker and she is more still, a twig rather than an insect. Nanda Kaul watches her and knows there is something different about her, but she does not know what it is. She also wonders why the child is so intrigued by the Pasteur Institute, which irks her with its belching smoke. When Raka returns, they look at the hydrangeas together. Nanda Kaul says it needs to rain or they will die.

Raka asks if the copper glow in the sky is the moon, and Nanda Kaul replies that it is a forest fire. It is the first forest fire Raka has seen and she is intrigued; it seems threatening and dreamlike even though they cannot hear it or smell it. Nanda Kaul comments that whole villages can burn in a fire that big, and she hopes the fire brigade can do something.

Raka watches the fire all night, going back and forth from her bed to the drawing-room window. She worries she can hear animals and birds burning in it, but when she removes her ear from the pane, there is nothing. The sky is too light and keeps her awake. She dozes on the sofa; when she wakes the next day, the fire is out but the sky is hazy and smoky. The wind brings the smell of cinders and a cloak of ashes.

Chapter 13

Nanda Kaul sees how Raka seeks out Ram Lal and talks with him every evening. He is interesting and provides safety, something children need. She herself cannot, or will not, provide both of those.

Ram Lal is telling Raka she should not have gone into the gorge because the churails are there, living among the dead and feasting off their flesh. Raka’s eyes are big and black, and she asks what churails are like. He replies that they are larger than men, wear black, and have red glowing eyes and backward-facing feet. If she sees one, he counsels, she should run rather than look at their feet.

A group of langurs disrupts them, thundering across the roof and screaming. They tear leaves off the trees, pick hydrangeas, and bare their teeth; “robbers, bandits, they never forgot to be clowns and stun their spectators with acrobatics out of a jungle dream” (78).

Ram Lal beats the hamam and the little herdboys join in with stones in their hands to shoo them away. Only one mother is left; Ram Lal picks up a stone to throw at her, but Raka begs him to desist. He grumbles and drops the stone but yells at the mother to run off. She ambles away slowly and aggressively.

Nanda Kaul, who has been watching this from her chair, is saddened that the child turned to Ram Lal and did not even call for her to come and see the animals.

Chapter 14

Nanda Kaul learns from Asha that Tara has had another breakdown and Asha is flying to be with her. It is ironic that Raka is more dependent on Nanda Kaul but does not know it in the slightest; she is autonomous and solitary as ever. She likes to be alone in almost all cases, and she even puts herself to bed at night.

Nanda Kaul starts wondering if she ought to leave Carignano to Raka, for it seems to belong to her as it does to no one else. She also thinks she might make a will, but she does not anyone to come here—nor anyone to leave, especially Raka.

Chapter 15

Raka is watching the parakeets when her great-grandmother calls her to tea after he nap. They watch the dark storm clouds rolling in; not long after, raindrops start to pound the roof. The drawing-room is lit with a lamp and very cozy, but Raka cannot sit still.

Finally, Raka sits and strokes a little gold Buddha statue on the table, and Nanda Kaul, in a high voice, tells her that her own father brought it back from Tibet. Raka, selective about her listening, tunes in. Nanda Kaul continues, telling of her father’s explorations and how the family accompanied him some way until he went further into Tibet for a few years. He went on horseback or on foot and had strange, wonderful experiences, such as expeditions, crocodile hunts, gold and salt dredging, perusing carpets and bronzes, and talking to sorcerers and lamas. He talked to men who could bring storms on a clear day or have darkness fall at midday.

Raka is intrigued and asks if he wrote a book. Nanda Kaul smiles and says no, he was not academic, but he brought stories and wonderful things home. All she has now is the Buddha.

Chapter 16

Nanda Kaul explains how her home on the plains was too crowded with all her parents’ things and her husband’s things, but she can see Raka is growing restless now that the talk is not about happenings.

The storm is slowing down. Nanda Kaul puts her book, The Travels of Marco Polo, away. The great-grandmother and girl go outside into the garden. There, Nanda Kaul recalls that Tara used to say that “rainy days are lily days!” (87.) Raka asks what that means and Nanda Kaul says she will see.

Chapter 17

In the morning, Raka sees what her mother must have meant: the lilies cover the hillside, having sprung up overnight. Raka asks her great-grandmother if Tara came here often; Nanda Kaul says she didn't because most of the children went to Simla. She cannot remember if Tara liked the lilies, as Raka asks.

Raka asks about the letter. Nanda Kaul tells her the truth, not knowing why she would lie. She wonders if this is wrong, though, for who could want the truth? Raka takes it quietly, perhaps even indifferently. Her mother has been ill her whole life, after all. She says she will go outside and Nanda Kaul says "okay," half disappointed and half relieved.

Chapter 18

Raka heads out quickly, planning to go to the burnt house on the hill. The roof is gone, the doors rotten and the windows askew. The room is scorched and Raka stands in it, looking around and listening to the “murmuring, sickening silence” (90).

On another knoll nearby are the stones that would have built a house had the owners not abandoned it for fear of forest fire. There, wild cuckoos shriek and scream.

Raka likes this hill with its abandoned structures and feels drawn to it like a sea current. It all seems so “illegitimate, uncompromising and lawless. The scene of devastation and failure somehow drew her, inspired her” (90). She does not care for nurseries and their smells of sickness, sadness, and tension. Carignano is much better; it is the best place she’s ever lived. It is confining, though, and she prefers the barren spaces of Kasauli more.

Raka stretches out tall as far as she can, then bounds away. The caretaker of the burnt house sees her running and grumbles about the crazy girl from Carignano.

Chapter 19

Nanda Kaul is telling Raka stories again. She tells of getting a houseboat for summers as a child, and of the wonderful times in Kashmir. There was an orchard that her father loved to experiment with, milky and green almonds that the children ate. Her father loved being outside, traveling, and exploring.

Although Nanda Kaul can see Raka chafing at this, she does not want to let go. She continues to tell her tales, speaking of how her father had a private zoo with a huge Himalayan bear that lost its fear of humans and drove the dogs crazy. There were leopard cats in cages who ate fish, Nanda Kaul says, but then she pulls back when she sees Raka does not want to imagine the fish being eaten. She is getting better at “giving the child a slide-show, coloured and erratic” (96). Instead, she mentions peacocks in the garden, sweet lorises that slept all day, and the beloved pangolin.

Nanda Kaul murmurs on and Raka grows restless, not understanding this new talkativeness. Nanda Kaul feels guilty for her transgression. Finally, the two pull apart, anger filling both.

Chapter 20

In the evening, Raka comes back up from the gorge, dismayed to see her great-grandmother in the garden. Nanda Kaul suggests waiting for the owls, not wanting to let the child slip away. With a high and false tone, she begins talking of having animals herself when she was a child. If she could see Raka’s face, though, she would see an expression of doubt and distrust.

The moon rises; Raka is disappointed because she hopes for another forest fire. She also hopes Ram Lal will come and save her from “this disagreeable intimacy” (100) and the sense of being “confined to the old lady’s fantasy world” (100). She yawns, bored. Nanda Kaul sadly remarks that Raka is tired.

Chapter 21

In the afternoon, Nanda Kaul pouts because Raka is not back for tea. She is then irritated to hear the telephone ring; of course, it is Ila Das. With her shrill, screaming voice, she says she wants to come and see Raka. Nanda Kaul sighs, relents, and suggests tomorrow; after initially demurring, Ila Das accepts this offer.

After she is off the phone, Nanda Kaul frets that Raka is not back. The child is so wild, she thinks, and needs nothing from anyone. Perhaps she will not leave Carignano to her but rather to Tara who needs shelter.

Her mind turns to the stories she made up to amuse Raka. She is fiercely glad she did not pollute Carignano with her falsehoods, keeping it clean and pure. It seems like she needs to be cleared from the house, not Raka.


Raka’s experience at the Club is one of pure Rabelaisian horror. The costumed figures are surreal manifestations of death, violence, and sex, and the way Desai lays out the scene makes it unrelentingly terrifying. Geetha Ramanathan notes that even though Raka is the one observing, she has no control. She becomes observed by the omniscient narration, who “deliberately maintains control and allows us no opportunity to rationalize the scene by invoking the subjectivity or point of view of the child.” The overwhelming sensation is one of loss of agency and control, and what Raka sees indelibly reminds her of her abusive father, impotent mother, and her own inability to control the situation in any possible way.

Raka unconsciously connects the suffering of her mother (and perhaps, by extension, herself) with the suffering of wild creatures. She mourns that the hoopoe will not be able to feed its babies if she and Nanda Kaul are sitting outside, prevents Ram Lal from throwing a stone at the mother langur, and evinces discontent about the part of Nanda Kaul’s story where the cats were eating fish. She is shocked (but, admittedly, intrigued) by Ram Lal’s stories of the poor dogs at the Pasteur Institute. Gurpreet Kaur explains that “Raka is shown to be upset at the distress of the animals around her or at the violence meted out to them. Through these incidences of animal abuse, Desai connects the issue of intertwined oppressions of animals and women, demonstrating that it is instructive to consider incidents of male-induced violence no matter where it is directed.” Thus, the violent, grotesque behavior of the men at the party is connected not just to Raka’s father but also to the violence carried out against both animals and women in general.

Desai makes it even more clear that Raka’s upbringing was profoundly deleterious for the child, and that Nanda Kaul does not really understand this. Elaine Yee Lin Ho writes, “the shocking violence in Raka’s transformation of the scene [at the Club] points to that hidden trauma which belies her apparent self-completion,” and that “memory is a madhouse and it can act to disfigure the present reality, and incorporate it—as it does in the ballroom scene—into past madness.” Raka’s independence and self-assurance “[are] an illusion of freedom…her wildness is the sign of a disordered self, the havoc wrought upon her in the madhouse of memory.”

As for Nanda Kaul, she is more and more interested in and somewhat emotionally dependent on her great-granddaughter, but she does not know how to fully understand or reach the child. She begins telling her elaborate, fanciful stories of her childhood and family that at first seem realistic and are certainly compelling, but which Raka comes to recognize are false: “if only [Nanda Kaul] had glanced down and met Raka’s eyes then, she would have been halted by something doubting in them, a lack of trust in that clouded look” (99). Nanda Kaul’s lies foreshadow the lies we learn she’s been telling herself ever since she was the Vice-Chancellor’s wife, a betrayal not just of Raka but of herself: Ho notes that “she…connives in putting herself back into a past where family obligation overrode all demands of truth to the self and others, and enforced upon her a life of having to put up with her husband’s infidelity and her marriage as a lie.”

In this section, there is a decent amount of foreshadowing, albeit obliquely, to Raka’s action at the end of the novel. Her face is more “flushed” and her eyes “darkened, as if with a secret she would not divulge” (72). She stares more and more at the factory, and she is entranced by the forest fire. The langurs that were once clowning and charming are now “bawdy, raucous, and marauding” (78) like the Club revelers. Raka shows no emotion at the news of her mother, as if the news makes sense given what she is coming to understand about men, women, and society in general. She is drawn more and more to the “ravaged, destroyed and barren spaces in Kasauli,” all of the “seared remains of the safe, cosy, civilized world in which Raka had no part and to which she owed no attachment” (91). Though the end of the novel is far from “obvious” at this point, Raka’s behavior is suggestive of something ominous.