Munia’s eighth birthday falls on the hottest day in June, with the smell of burning cane scenting the air. She forgets the heat in her excitement over the slice of cassata her father has brought all the way from Teetar Bani, the main town.

Chand had ordered the precious gift from the only shop in the town that possessed a freezer, and carefully packed it in a tin pail filled with jute sacking and ice purchased from Raju Golasharbatwala’s cart. The cassata melts, a puddle of bright colours. She eats it slowly, bending her head to the dented tin plate and lapping up the last delicious drops of strawberry. It is a rare taste, a flavour she has not encountered before. Her father asks, ‘One more slice?’

She nods, but halfway through, she holds out her plate to Chand, presses the spoon into his hand. ‘You also eat.One spoon for you, one for me.’ He takes tiny bites.

There is nothing Teetarpur is famous for. The older residents say proudly that their village is not known to have inspired a line in a film song or even a mithai, has never produced so much as a celebrity or a famous politician. They cherish its anonymity, though the younger generation would have preferred a more rousing history.

Chand’s hut, and his brother Balle Ram’s equally modest establishment, are almost the last houses in the village. They are set on a slope just before the soaring forests arc upwards on the first hill of the Aravalli range. A canal flows behind Chand’s home, opening out onto untended fields.

Their huts are about an hour’s walk from the tumbledown police chowki that marks the start of Teetarpur, a fifteen-minute ride on Chand’s ancient Rajdoot 350cc bike. In their boyhood, the two huts were part of a dozen-strong cluster, but most of their neighbours had moved to the village proper, disliking the isolation, the dark shadows cast by the forest at night.

Balle Ram and Chand stayed on after their father’s death, unwilling to abandon their ancestral land. Chand plants a few food crops in the field near his hut and leaves the trees to flourish as they please. Balle Ram and he reap fair harvests from their other fields, which are a long walk away, part of the patchwork of village lands that lie behind the police chowki.

Chand’s only other neighbour is the richest man in Teetarpur, Jolly Singh, who brings some of Delhi’s briskness with him. Jolly Villa rose brick by brick fifteen years ago, its brightly painted gates and balustraded roof one of Teetarpur’s wonders. It rests like a gaudy crown on a low ridge, looking down at Chand’s hut and the village below.

In the mornings and early evenings, pilgrims pass by Chand’s hut to pray at the shrine of an animal-loving sage who lived high up on the first of the great hills of the Aravalli range. But they are otherwise undisturbed. During the day, only peacocks and snakes travel up the hill to the quiet shrine.

Chand has grown to cherish their isolation and independence, though he tells Munia many tales of Delhi, of other faraway places they find in her school atlas – the Arabian Sea, the winding silver ropes of the Yamuna, the Ganges, the towering snow-covered ranges of the Himalayas. She has hazy memories of the capital, which she had visited once with her father when she was just five years old.

‘An ocean of cars and a sea of houses,’ Chand says to Munia. ‘At first you put your hands over your ears because of the noise from the traffic, but you liked Delhi after a while. We’ll go again, someday.’

‘But I like it here the most,’ she says firmly. ‘I don’t want to go anywhere else.’

‘When you’re grown up, you’ll want to see the capital. Everyone does.’

‘I want to see the Himalayas.’ And Chand says, delighting Munia, ‘Some day we’ll take the Rajdoot, you and I, and we’ll go all the way to the mountains, you’ll see.’

Chand’s fields, the trees and the mehendi bushes that surround them, are set down from the road, hard to see even from Balle Ram’s home. Chand knows that when he leaves to farm his other fields, this small patch of earth becomes his daughter’s private kingdom.

He has seen Munia whirr across the ragged green carpet of the cowpea fields when she thinks no one is watching. Her thin, sunburnt arms, speckled from the sun, and bare feet put him in mind of the tiny brown bird she’s named after.

Munia is quiet with strangers and with family, rarely speaks in front of Balle Ram or his wife Sarita. She is an explorer at heart, fond of illicit excursions, absorbed in the games she invents, and plays with birds and insects. She talks only to her father. Him she tells everything, the conversations she overhears, stories she has made up. Her piping words patter as rapidly as monsoon rain against a
thatched roof.

She tells Chand about the four men hanging at a steep angle off bamboo scaffolds that appear to be anchored in the sky itself, stringing long ropes of lights like twinkling green stars in Jolly Singh’s massive farmhouse, and about the new carp pond there, gleaming with fat red-and-gold fish. About the bus that collided with a truck at the crossing up ahead, both drivers unwilling to be the
one who braked first, and how the loosely packed sacks of marigolds, the truck’s cargo, had burst and spilt in an orange river across the road.

That time, she had carried one of the marigolds back home to show him, allowing him to cradle her in his arms as he inspected the small, crushed petals. ‘You smell of woodsmoke,’ she had said to him. ‘I smell of mud and sweat and dirt,’ he had replied, but his daughter was already asleep, her head a tired smudge against his checked kurta.

Excerpted with permission from Black River, Nilanjana S Roy, Context/Westland.