Nanda Kaul reveals her elegance and upbringing now. She has Raka tell Ram Lal to take away the tea and asks Ila Das how she has been getting on. The lychee trees, sweetness, and memories fade; every minute, Ila Das is left “drier, dustier and more desperate” (123).
Nanda Kaul knows all about Ila Das and her life. When she came to the university as a lecturer in Home Science, the luxurious years of her life were over. The father was dead, the mother was an invalid, and three drunken sons squandered the family fortune. The sons went away to foreign universities and did nothing of value. The sisters and mother were pestered and driven out into rented rooms and boarding houses.
The sisters, both ugly and handicapped, showed their true worth. Rima gave piano lessons and Ila Das came to the university at Nanda Kaul’s request to her husband. This was a secure and blessed time for Ila Das with her job, her room, and her friends.
Ila Das sighs that she should not have been so hotheaded in her position, but Nanda Kaul crisply reminds her that she should have been made Principal when Mrs. Chatterji retired, but the old Vie-Chancellor was dead and the new one wanted to show his own ways. Ila Das cries that that was indeed why she resigned; it was the only honorable thing to have done, but things are so hard for her now.
Nanda Kaul nods, knowing this as well. Younger girls are always first to be hired, not the older ones like Ila Das. Her sister had kept her for a time, and then she got the Government job as a social worker, coming to work among peasants, laborers, and goatherds. She'd come back to Kasauli where Nanda Kaul ruled, but she'd found that Nanda Kaul “had retired” (123).
Nanda Kaul asks Ila Das how she is really doing and if she can get by. Ila Das squeaks that it is very hard because Rima’s troubles are so bad. As Raka watches the old woman, she is reminded of the grotesque people in the club, jerking about like puppets on strings.
Ila Das prattles on about trying to get a column in a paper about home science and how maybe then she could get by. She reflected aloud that the way she and Nanda Kaul were raised did nothing to equip them for life. Nanda Kaul listens, knowing she should invite Ila Das to stay with her—but she cannot bring herself to do it.
Ila Das squeals that she is ashamed of herself and that she sees people who are so terribly badly off every day in her work. She is glad she does not have to endure that kind of degradation. She struggles with their lack of Christianity, though, and with how they worship their little idols. There is a priest who makes her life troublesome and who contributed to the death of a child because he would not advocate that the boy be seen for the tetanus he had developed after cutting his foot on a rusty nail. She goes on about what she sees as a welfare officer: conjunctivitis, trachoma, and the child marriages that she is desperately trying to stop. The priest follows her and undoes what she does even when she tries to do her job and enforce the laws of the land.
Nanda Kaul grows nervous listening to this even as Ila Das cackles. She wants her old friend to be careful, but Ila Das laughs it off and says the man does not frighten her even though he is wicked and sets the young men of the village against her. There is a family that is going to marry their seven-year-old to an old man because he owns land and goats; she has argued with the mother and tried talking to the father, Preet Singh, but he is sullen and mean and will not listen.
Ram Lal nears, getting Raka’s bath ready. The ladies change their conversation to the weather. No one notices Raka, who sits under the pine trees, looking out over the hills and blurring the scene until it is as if she were on a boat, alone. She watches the old women walk down to the gate together. While Ram Lal is busy, she suddenly gets up and dashes back down to the kitchen. She finds a box of matches in the kitchen and pockets it, casually emerging. No one sees her. She drops down into the ravine and vanishes.
Before she leaves, Ila Das tearfully tells Nada Kaul how lovely it is for her to have invited her here and how it has been like the past coming alive. Nanda Kaul grimaces slightly, but Ila Das does not notice; she shakes her friend’s hands and says it was nice to meet her great-grandchild, though she was a little secretive like a wild bird.
Nanda Kaul watches Ila Das waddle away, thinking about how she brought with her a horror that hovered around her. She was doomed, menaced; her existence was precarious. Nanda Kaul knows that she should protect Ila Das, for she is strong and upright and can take on some of her battles. If even one child bothers her, she will swoop down.
The road is deserted, though, and Nanda Kaul relaxes. A feeling of danger subsides. It is the third, the first being when Ila Das mentioned badminton and second when she felt she ought to invite Ila Das to stay.
She wishes Raka would appear. She walks to the lily and sees a praying mantis lift itself onto the flower. It seems afraid of Nanda Kaul, so she shakes it off into the leaves to keep it safe from birds.
Ila Das does not go straight home. She is in a good mood, so she decides to visit the bazaar. A couple of boys taunt her, but she barely notices. She passes the Pasteur Institute and wonders about getting a job there. A jeep drives by and covers her with dust and a few schoolgirls laugh, lessening her cheerfulness a bit.
Down in the bazaar, people run into her often, but she grips her umbrella tightly and keeps going. The grain seller is kind to her, but she cannot afford his wares today. When he asks if she is going home now, she replies that she is, and he tells her that she ought not to go so late. She laughs that she is always alone and never afraid. He does not say anything else. As she walks away, he thinks of Preet Singh and how that man had spat and cursed Ila Das. He is uneasy, for it is dark now.
Ila Das is conscious of the dark and angry at herself for going shopping with no money. She walks along the Lower Mall, wondering why she was afraid, or of whom she is afraid. She hears more mocking children and thinks of how she is scared of them and the langurs. Yes, she decides, the grain seller was right: there are hazards out here. She starts walking more quickly down the path that would lead to her village.
It is almost night. There are fewer edifices now, and the light is leaving. She sees an eagle drifting through the sky until it seems like a scrap of paper on the wind. A chill permeates the air. Ila Das is sad that she must be out here alone and old, and she wonders how much more she can endure.
There are no signs of life out here. She wishes she’d begged Nanda Kaul to let her stay, but her upbringing, her father, her past made her refuse to do so.
She finally comes to the last fold of hill and is almost home. She can see the hamlet below her and thinks of lighting her hut. At that moment, though, a dark shape springs out at her from behind a rock and attacks her. It is Preet Singh; he tightens his fingers around her neck and rapes her. She is crushed, broken, and still.
Nanda Kaul hears the telephone ring, startling her. Ram Lal answers it and says it is for her, and she is deeply annoyed. This afternoon had been so terrible, she thinks, and she wishes only for quiet.
The voice says it is P.K. Shukla from the police, and he asks if she knows Ila Das. When she replies that she does, he asks her to come and identify her body. She was found by the villagers, strangled and raped.
Nanda Kaul cannot listen anymore. It must be a lie, just like the other lies: her father had never been to Tibet; they did not have animals in their home; her husband had a lifelong affair with Miss David and never loved her; her children were alien to her nature and she did not understand them or love them; she came here alone not by choice but because it was what she was forced to do. She lied to Raka, and Ila Das lied. She wants to cry but cannot.
Raka scratches at the window near the lily bed and whispers to her great-grandmother that she has set the forest on fire. In the ravine, flames crackle and smoke starts to come up over the mountain.
In just a few short chapters, Fire on the Mountain disabuses readers of certain assumptions about characters, presents a shocking act of violence, and upends our expectations about how Nanda Kaul and Raka’s lives at Carignano will proceed.
First, we learn that Nanda Kaul did not exactly come to Carignano fully of her own volition: after her husband’s death, her children more or less made her withdraw here. We also learn of her husband’s affair with Miss David, her lack of love for and interest in her children, and the various lies she told Raka to soothe herself and interest the child. It is clear, especially because of how Nanda Kaul came to love Raka and want to insinuate herself into the child’s life, that she was not entirely desirous of solitude when she came to Carignano. All the same, it would be wrong to conclude that Nanda Kaul did not desire it to a degree and that she has since found it refreshing, natural, and worthy of holding onto.
Ila Das’s fate is certainly more tragic than Nanda’s, however. Though her job as a social worker would seem to promise autonomy and independence, she continually confronts prejudice, hostility, and violence. She uses her voice, which is invoked over and over again, to call attention to the problematic modalities of life in the village, such as the eschewing of medical treatment and, most significantly, patriarchal power and violence. Though Desai sympathizes with Ila Das’s goals, she does not allow her to pursue them safely, suggesting that Indian society was not comfortable with Ila Das’s speech—both in its content and in the mere audacity of its being used at all. Ashley Batts notes that Preet Singh rapes and kills Ila Das because he needs to “prove his point that men rule women,” and that Ila Das “is powerless in the face of the father, like so many other mothers and mother figures. Ila’s long turbulent life comes to an end there, her lying face down in the dirt, exposed and defiled.”
As for Raka, the clues that Desai has subtly embedded in the text regarding the child’s cracking come to fruition with the understated but terrifying line of, “Look, Nani, I have set the forest on fire. Look, Nani—look—the forest is on fire” (145). There are numerous interpretations as to why Raka does this. Gurpreet Kaur suggests, “While the fire is evidently her revenge against the adult world, Raka also symbolically destroys the local space which was the scene of the violence, failure, and death of females before her.” Ruth K. Rossenwasser alludes to Raka’s trauma of memory and inability to know herself, suggesting, “Raka, the crazy one, marginalized, so that her protest is unheard and unseen, cannot find a signifying self and can only protest through violence by setting fire to the mountain.” Geena Ramanathan connects Ila Das’s voice and its eventual silencing, along with Nanda Kaul’s alternating strangled speech and muteness, to Raka actually vocalizing what she has done: “Although Kaul and Das are silenced, Raka sets the forest on fire. Her voice is a whisper when she tells her Nani what she has done. Raka burns the master’s world in the name of the mother.” Francine E. Krishna focuses on the symbolism of fire, writing that “Raka’s final act to set fire to the mountain…is not merely an act of violence, but also an act of purification as if she might burn away the lies and deceit of Nanda’s portrayal of her childhood as well as the violence of her own.” Dr. B. Brahmananda Chary agrees, saying the fire is “it is a means of escape for her. By the act of setting fire to the forest, she saves her ideal self from being totally destroyed.”
Finally, Alka Saxena focuses on what Raka’s act might mean specifically in regard to Nanda Kaul: “The setting of the forest-fire by Raka symbolizes the burning of a life of pretention and escape. The fire brings Nanda Kaul face to face with the realities of the world.” Anita Desai herself said in an interview, “I don’t think anybody’s exile from society can solve any problem. I think basically the problem in how to exist in society and yet maintain one’s individuality rather than suffering from a lack of society and lack of belonging, that is why exile has never been my theme.”