He jumped to his feet and stretched an arm out to pull me up. 'It's time to go. We don't want the periya dorai wondering where we've got to and sending out a search party.'
When we caught up with Sankaram, the guide put something into Mr Mistry's hand. The little man grinned at me and repeated, 'Ten, ten, ten.'
Mistry said, 'Ten means wild honey. Sankaram would like you to try some.'
He held out his hand, and I could see it was covered in a sticky mass. 'Go on. Taste it. It's good.'
I leaned over Mistry's outstretched palm and scooped up some of the honey on my finger. As I did so, Sankaram hopped from one foot to another and moved his head from side to side.
The sticky goo was sweet and delicious and I licked my fingers, watching Mistry as he did the same. Something deep inside me made me wish I was licking it from his fingers, not my own. I could feel a blush coursing up my neck, and hoped he wouldn't notice or read what I was thinking.
'Do you like it?'
'It's delicious. Where did he find it?'
'There are wild bees all over the forest. The Muduvan collect the honey. It's a dangerous business. They have to climb high up in the trees where the hives are and smoke the bees out.'
He turned to the guide again, and they had a brief exchange.
'His brother-in-law hunts for honey. He's working on a hive just a short distance away. Would you like to go and see?'
I turned to Sankaram and said, 'Ten very good. Thank you.' I tried to nod at him sideways. He roared with laughter, and Mistry laughed too. Then we got down from the horses and walked a short way into the forest, and there they were—the hives, hanging like sacks from the branches, high in the tree, about half a dozen in each of two neighbouring trees. Sankaram's brother was lying along one of the main branches high in one of the trees. He'd climbed about twenty feet, barefoot, a dangerous task. Mr Mistry took my arm, and pulled me back behind a thicket to watch without getting too close.
'I don't want the bees attacking and stinging you. Sankaram and his brother will be stung, but they're used to it. Years of practice.'
'Is it painful?'
He laughed. 'I got too close once and was stung and, believe me, it hurts like hell.'
We watched Sankaram clamber up the tree to join his brother, carrying a bundle of slightly damp leaves. When he reached the crown of the tree, he set fire to the leaves, held the bundle under the entrance to the hive and let the smoke drive the bees out. Meanwhile, the brother chopped a hole in the biggest hive and reached his hand in to grasp the honey. All the while, bees were attacking the pair of them in a demented frenzy. I wanted to cry out and beg them to stop, but Mistry whispered to me that by now they were immune to the poison, if not to the pain. After a while, the two men shimmied back down the tree and pulled on a rope to lower a basket in which they'd placed the honey.
Sankaram, smiling, despite his stings, took a honeycomb and wrapped it in a couple of leaves and handed it to Mistry, who said, 'He wants you to have it. A souvenir of the day.'
I turned to the tribesman and did my best effort at the little sideways head shake, mumbling my thanks, and saying, 'Good ten.'
Returning to Muddy, I wanted the ride to go on and on. I didn't want the day to end. I didn't want to go home. As we approached the tea gardens, we passed a crocodile of native women, all bent forward slightly with bundles of wood perfectly balanced on their heads. They gave the impression the heavy branches were as light as balsa and showed no strain from their labour. I drank in the sight of them, and knew I would paint them from memory. My head was bursting with images from the day.
It was the best day since I arrived in India. It wasn't just because of the breath-taking beauty of the scenery or the freedom I felt out all day on horseback. It wasn't just the perfection of the weather or the deliciousness of the wild honey. It wasn't just the sight of the tea gardens in the mist and the sound of the tea pickers' singing. It wasn't just the peace and mysticism of the secret shrine in the forest. It was all those things and more. But, most of all, it was Jagadish Mistry.
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