top of page

Onion Hill

Deepa Bhasthi


A mysterious hill changes the lives of the simple villagers living in its shadow in this short fiction by Deepa Bhasthi, with artwork courtesy of Anushka Rustomji.


Ajji told me this story when I was little. The story of Neerulli Maley soon became my favourite of all the ten thousand stories she had scattered across the geography of her memories. Every day she mined them for a story to tell me, and when I saw her pause before she began, I always assumed she was turning pages of a book inside her heavily oiled head.


She said she heard it as a young girl during the year she, her father, her mother and her sister spent by the sea. During that year of the big plague, their small house half a mile from the beach had seemed a good site, forlorn, reclusive, and seemingly perfectly safe. Her sister—and my grandmother—that year was just a little girl and not yet anyone’s amma or ajji, and the girls spent their days building shapes in the sand.


A wandering elder with matted hair—their god did not allow her people to comb their hair, their scalps would stream blood if they disobeyed—probably running from the plague too, sat beside these two girls by the sea and told them about Neerulli Maley. She had heard this story from someone who had heard it firsthand from one of the villagers at its foothills. According to the story, this had happened:


Clinking her gold-speckled red and green glass bangles until they rushed over the salt rivers on her skin and collected at the top of her wrist, the woman paused. The little girls waited held their breath. They loved stories; their mother rarely told them any; between keeping house and worrying, where was the leisure? Girls were not to be indulged too often anyway.


NeeruLLi Maley. n̪iːɾuɭɭɪ məle. n̪eːeːɾullɪ mələj. Literally, Onion Hill.


The woman let them roll the name of the hill over their bodies for a while.


Onion Hill was what they called it; a forbidden hill near the village of ___ooru, down by the Ghats that clung to the West coast. The village was nondescript, and there was nothing particularly special about its people either. They were regular villagers steeped and made strong by life in a regular land that sometimes received too much rain and sometimes none at all. Like in every village, here too people were born, they lived for the years allotted to them, and then one day they died. And more people were born. And so on.


For as long as all the people who lived and died could remember from the warnings of their ancestors, climbing Onion Hill was forbidden. Generations of boys and girls growing up through brash teenhood went to the edgeland and looked up. They saw not its trees or shrubs and rocks but a gradient of impenetrable black segueing into shrill darkness. They turned back, remembering their elders.


The years passed. One girl managed to study and went off to work in the big city close by. She would later get married to a boy of her choice— imagine that!—and continue to work. It was a marvel her fellow villagers often talked about. A boy would learn to drive. Another crossed the seas. Such miracles did happen among the villagers in __ooru.


But mostly they toiled, ate, lamented, stared at the skies and lived all their lives without crossing the stream that trickled along by the distant end of the village. The not-too-young and not-too-old among them spent evenings on verandas lit by dull orange lamps and their mornings were spent at work in tiny shops or in fields.


*


The woman paused, giving the two little girls in tightly coiled pigtails a few moments to think of the banyan tree. There was one in the village they were born in. If they ever went back, they must ask her to tell them a story, one sister whispered to the other.


Reaching under her many necklaces to pick at the sweat wetting the back of her neck, the storyteller said:


*


Years passed, and Onion Hill, with its unwavering fixity, remained there, never scaled. Then one day, when the old methods of reverence had become frayed around the edges, in a year that saw no rain, only a razor-sharp wintery sun frying up August, four young men sat down to talk. The four men, raised and burnished in the soil of that very village together, had learned different jobs, duly married when the time was right, fathered two or three children each, refrained from vices for the most part and spoke to elders in a softer tone than the ones they used with their sons and daughters. In other words, they were considered good men.


*


But what were their names? Ajji told me, years later, that she had dared to interrupt and ask the storyteller.


Their names were Obba, Innobba, Mathobba and Magadobba, the woman replied, smiling to herself. She saw that the girl who would be my Ajji would grow up to be a great storyteller, one of the true elders. And so did it happen.


She continued; when does the story begin, where did Onion Hill go, the sisters wondered.


*


The air seemed stiff; in August the rain drops were supposed to be as thick as dosa batter; not that year though. Obba, a minor landlord rich enough that his wife wore two pairs of gold bangles on each arm, a long chain and even gold earrings every day (not just for weddings and funerals), had the largest house. It had a half-covered veranda where they sat whenever just the four of them wanted to talk.


They took their time, alternating, each, between rubbing their chins, scratching their behinds, fiddling with their clothes, swinging their feet and such other gestures empty of purpose. No one wanted to say it first. Time passed. Finally, it was Mathobba who spoke:


“What is the worst that could happen?”


He was a bullock cart driver, and always ready for adventure.


“The worst? Well, our families could be cursed,” joked Magadobba, and unwittingly let out a giggle, like the ones he often shared with his wife. The owner of __ooru’s only petty shop that sold beedis, sliced lemon-shaped candies, wheaty sweet squares, plain soda and such like, Magadobba had the time and audience to think up funnies. For once, his friends did not laugh; the worst was a real possibility.


The other day when they had been shooting the breeze by the stream, Innobba, who had inherited his father’s gold and silver smithery had suggested they climb Onion Hill. They were to go up and see, in that year of drought and hunger, severe hunger, if there might be something up there that they could eat or sell.


Detail from 'Sea, Sermon, Story (I)' by Anushka Rustomji

*


My ajji and her sister gasped, it seems. They both had been raised to fear traditions, and would have never dared to climb Onion Hill themselves. Would these men agree to? They sat up straight, dusted the sand off their fingers and chose a solemn look for their faces. This was getting frightening now. The day was slipping away, like the sand grains from their fists had. Time spun. The waves thought to themselves, we roar now.


The storyteller’s voice shifted, grew deeper, and seemed to envelop the beach, the sky, the little house and the girls in the centre of it all, as she continued.


*


Obba, Innobba, Mathobba and Magadobba, meanwhile, talked and talked. They debated the stupidity of climbing the forbidden hill. What if lightning struck them or the earth split open and swallowed them? They debated the stupidity of old traditions and of new hungers. At the most, there might be a wild animal or two. They pretended they were not as scared as they felt. Finally, after much talking, they decided they would brave it up the hill, though they would not tell their families and the village elders their plan.


And so they set off, one very early morning two days later, armed with knives and a staff each. They made up excuses and sat themselves anxiously on Mathobba’s cart. He would drive them till the edgeland and then they would walk.


*


Men are silly. They tie themselves up in all sorts of nonsense: tradition this and custom that. Though I suppose it is easier than commonsense for them. There they come up now, slowly, because they have never climbed before, and fearfully, because they are nervous about what I am home to.


I am really a regular hill, for the most part. No special reason why they call me Neerulli Maley. No one has ever planted an onion crop here. But I do have layers in me; layers of continuity and increasingly, of sorrow. Perhaps that is why. There are big wide trees here, many animals, many, many birds, the forest floor is full of life, as is the air. The small ponds, a waterfall or two, these waters are filled with memories from distant time. Time though, that has little meaning here for me. Skies change, and human years pass. But I, they call me Onion Hill, I remain here, stable, still. They will forget and call me something else someday. But today, when these four men start to climb, I am Onion Hill.


Onion Hill heaved a sigh, and a few stones seated along its nerves rattled, dislodged themselves and rolled down a few notches, grumbling quietly. The four men froze. They were now just below halfway up.


*


Here too by the beach, it was turning darker. Amma had called out to them once already. Please…what happened next? Tell us, we have to go, the sisters pleaded.


A good story should never be hurried, the storyteller frowned. But she saw in the distance, time spinning in the feminine rhythm of the waves. She too, like the two little girls, the tiny gold beads in their delicate ears catching the last spill of orange, has somewhere else to be.


*


The small stones settled down on their new perches, and all was mostly quiet again. Faintly, behind them, they could see orange spread across dawn, the slight fog made the light seem like water lamps. Before them, it remained night on the path they had to cleave up the hill.


Obba, Innobba, Mathobba and Magadobba kept climbing. They stopped pointing out things to each other. Everything seemed… normal. There were no strange animals with extra horns or trees that chased you and swallowed you whole. The snakes they came across were the regular rat snakes, even their little children were not afraid of those. When they reached the summit, everything, animals birds air and soil, all life was silent. They stood there for minutes, or perhaps for centuries that way, they had no measure to confidently tell. Onion Hill ceased to exist, or perhaps it was the men who peeped into a past and a future where they, their village, their fields and shop and bulls and families did not place themselves in recognisable time. The silence got so loud that the only way through was past that eerie stillness of space.


Innobba cleared his throat nervously. And the spell broke. The birds were chirping again, an animal sound or two they didn’t recognise but decided were not scary enough to flee, the wind, the sun in an upturned bowl of orange. The four men, seasoned in village life, had no trouble recognising familiar trees—mahogany, teak, rose and wild fig. They looked at each other, and laughed uneasily. This is what we were told to be scared of? But here was just a forest, one of so many they had seen before and would see. They walked on, manly, confident now.


It was true that the canopy of the tallest, fattest trees they had seen was so dense that the sun had not touched the forest floor in perhaps millennia. Far away to the left of where they were walking, trying to keep a straight line, Obba saw a faint light, like a tree of fireflies in summer. They decided to head that way.


*


Ajji told me that she knew they couldn’t have been fireflies. It didn’t make sense, she told me; stories had to make sense, she used to think back then, she said.


*


As the four men got closer, the light shone brighter. They blinked hard and there it swung, a screen-like image. Brighter than the sun, as tangible as their own bodies. They could touch and pick up and hug the mountain-high piles of everything gold there in that alcove. None of them knew the Midas story, but they saw every single thing they used in their lives turn into gold here on Onion Hill.


Obba saw corn cobs, a paan box, his favourite chair, the plates for lunch, his daughter’s doll, footwear, the corner of his shed, and all were remade in gold.


Innobba saw hammer, a low stool he sat on in his smithery, his tools, the bag he stored them in, jewellery in shapes and designs he never imagined could be made, and these were all in solid gold.


Mathobba saw giant wheels, the embroidered cloth lining the top of his cart, the bells on his beloved bulls, sickles and ploughs and hoes, all too heavy to lift, being yellow sunshine gold.


In another corner, Magadobba’s money box, a shining yellow again, overflowed with gold coins. The broken and rickety shelves he displayed his wares on down in their village, the rusting box for bidi packets, the plastic bottles for sweets and mixture, all gold, just solid gold.


None of them could believe what they were looking at. They laughed and cried and hooted, stupid with joy, and ran about, showing each other things they used and the countless, un-listable other objects that just lay there. How could everything be gold? Who owned all this? Why was it all here, in the open, where were the people? Why were they asking themselves this, when even the smallest of objects would feed their families, buy them clothes and fields and carts for the rest of their lives?

Each one of them spread their arms wide, bent down and grabbed as much as they could. They struggled to walk a few feet, then saw something more attractive and dropped what they were holding. Unable to choose, they wanted everything, or at least too much.


By then, it seemed like the sun was on its way down again. Or maybe it was just the forest they had feared all their lives? Was this why some clever elder had started the divine stories, so they could keep all the wealth to themselves? The four friends shook with anger, then quickly smiled, for their eyes had turned yellow. The whole world had turned into gold by then. The last leaf on a tree near them seemed polished in gold, as were the tips of their fingers, their toes. Gold, just gold, gold, an impossible dream.


But she pushed him away, sobbing, kicked the clay pot to shards, grabbing her neck in both her hands, repeating her words breathlessly. I want water, this gold is mine. Water, water, gold and water.

Mathobba looked up and all he could see, through the miniscule openings in the canopy, was a golden sky. He sighed, and spoke to his childhood friends. Let us each take only one thing now. There is no way we can carry anything more, he said. We will of course come back tomorrow with our brothers and our uncles and our fathers, with many bags to carry back as much as we can, he said.


His friends reluctantly agreed. He was right of course. They couldn’t risk having to spend the night in these forests, though the gold beds there up on the pile looked inviting.


Obba picked up a pair of anklets for his daughter. Innobba chose a grand necklace for his wife. In all his years as a goldsmith, he could never afford to make even a nosepin for her. Mathobba collected a pair of horn decorations with tiny bells for his cattle. Magadobba took his time to choose—there were so many things he wanted— and finally settled on a gold coin box.


There was a spring in their steps as they found their way back to the main track they had cleared. The four kept looking back, and the golden glow began to fade. Did such a place actually exist, they began to wonder. But the objects weighed down their hands. Each man rubbed the talisman often, willing themselves to believe that yes, such a treasure trove was real and within touch.


By the time they returned to their village, it was only just after noon. They did not stop to ruminate over how that could be, how it was that the hours had crunched or expanded or just toppled off its reliable course up there. They went home; the wives didn’t ask where they had gone, precoccupied with their household tasks.


*


And then? One of the sisters asked, lost in Onion Hill, oblivious to the swirling high tide and Amma’s calls and hunger, for lunch had been years ago.


The storyteller paused here, and looked out to the sea. What was the next meal? Would the sea discard its salt like it had the other day and let her drink that ancient sweet water? Was the sea her friend again that day, the sand her warmth? She did not yet know what the rest of today looked like. But she continued, the two sisters were good recipients for the wisdom in Onion Hill’s essence.


*


The four friends slept the sleep of the dead that afternoon. The humble meal they had had seemed a feast, their wives, goddesses, the children, little angles on earth. Even the cranky elders at the square, they felt love for. Green was greener, the waters sung a melody, everything was right again. They hugged their adventure to themselves and slept for a year, maybe more, or just short of.


When they woke, it was late evening, perhaps an hour to twilight. Sitting in the middle of their homes, they called their families in and laid out their gifts from the Onion Hill. The daughter wore the anklets, the wife wore her necklace, the cattle were brought to the back door and their horns were fitted with gold bells, and Magadobba instructed his wife to bring the earnings from the previous day, for the goddess of wealth had come into their house, and deposited the few coins in his new box. The village was enveloped in worry over failed crops and such like, but four families in the village ended their day very happily.


The next morning, Innobba’s wife hadn’t removed her necklace even when she went to fetch water from the well, and her dear friend, the neighbour’s wife, saw this new possession with suitable envy. Where was the gold from in this age of drought, she asked. Innobba’s wife sought utmost secrecy, was promised it, and then relayed a pared-down account of her husband’s adventure. Another neighbour overheard stray words and told her husband. And soon, versions of what the friends had done spread through the village like forest fire.


The elders summoned the four foolish young men, and advised them to return the objects to where they found them. All four, and their families, refused.


Now that word was out, groups of young men, some old ones too, visited Obba, Innobba, Mathobba and Magadobba’s houses and begged them to take them along on their next trip. The news spread in proportion to the growing size of the groups. Obba’s veranda was no longer large enough to fit them all, so they moved to under the big banyan. Hours and days passed planning how they could shift all the gold to their village and then sell them in the next town without raising suspicion. The village head stayed away, so none of this was going to be easy. They all talked and talked. It felt like there was a fair in the village.


Here, in the four houses, something was amiss. But everyone was busy to quite notice—new riches were to come.


One morning, the mist was just lifting and there still was no hint of rain. People began to stir lazily, their dreams of gold lighting the black corners of their huts. Mathobba stepped out to stretch with a grunt when he saw his two bulls, his love and joy, withered on the ground. Not dead, not ill, just inexplicably shrunk from their fattened selves the previous night to skin and bones.


A few houses away, Obba’s daughter’s fever had taken a turn for the worse. She would not live through another night, her mother realised. The little baby was deathly silent, her eyes open wide and staring into the distant. Only her plump baby legs kicked out, like she was trying to get away from someone, from something.


Innobba had an urgent silver order to make that morning, so he had an early start. His wife was to serve him his gruel. Annoyed, he looked for her everywhere and found her near the well, crouched low. Water, I want water. This is mine, this is mine, she was mumbling, holding her necklace tightly, pushing the water pot away with another hand. He reasoned with her, tried to give her the water she was asking for, tried to convince her that yes, the necklace was hers alone and would always be so. But she pushed him away, sobbing, kicked the clay pot to shards, grabbing her neck in both her hands, repeating her words breathlessly. I want water, this gold is mine. Water, water, gold and water.


Unsurprisingly then, on the other side of the village, the coins that the family had found to put into the special box in Magadobba’s house had turned to ash. The debris was not hot, but a yellow smoke rose up from them, like a moth on fire.


Word of this magic spread too, as fast as a dirty rumour. The elders summoned the four foolish young men, and advised them to return the objects to where they had found them.


*


They went back up Onion Hill and returned all the gold. The sick healed, the baby grew up, it rained, finally, and all was right in the village again, interrupted ajji’s sister. She was getting hungry and restless now.


No, you silly girl, that is not how it works, her sister scolded. They must have returned the gold, but everyone died because they did a bad thing and the villagers were sad about the mistake they made, isn’t it? They never did it again, correct? She asked the storyteller.


In the sparse flashes of light from the frothy waves, the little girls could see the storyteller smile. She was getting up now, dusting the sand from her skirt, launching the bells in the embroidery into an unruly symphony. The storyteller shrugged, patted my ajji’s cheek and hoped that these two little ones would always love the story of Onion Hill.



 



Deepa Bhasthi is a writer and literary translator based in Kodagu, southern India. Her essays, cultural criticism and political analyses have been published in over forty publications nationally and internationally, and anthologised in various book projects. Her translations from Kannada to English include a novel by Kota Shivarama Karanth and a collection of short stories by Kodagina Gouramma. Her translation of writer and activist Banu Mushtaq's short stories, for which she was awarded an EnglishPEN grant, is forthcoming from Penguin Random House in India and from UK-based And Other Stories in the rest of the world. She is currently working on her debut nonfiction, and a translation of the short stories of the prominent Dalit writer Mogalli Ganesh. She was named one of The Next Generation of South Asian Storytellers by Himal Southasian magazine in 2023.


Anushka Rustomji is a visual artist whose practice examines themes of cultural and historical erasure, duality and transcendence. Her works are influenced by the visual representations of mythologies and cross-cultural sacred practices and traditions of the Global South. She is an alumna of the National College of Arts, Lahore and was a participant in the Pilotenkueche Artist Residency (Leipzig, Germany—2015). Rustomji has exhibited her work internationally, including at the recent Colomboscope Festival (Colombo, Sri Lanka—2024). She is an MA candidate at the National College of Arts, Lahore and is a faculty member at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi.


0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Mai

Comments


bottom of page