Flood of Fire | Chapter 9 of 29

Author: Amitav Ghosh | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 4931 Views | Add a Review

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Three

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Every year at the start of winter, around the time that the festival of Naga Panchami was celebrated, a mela was held at the akhara where Kesri went to train. Along with all the usual fairground attractions, a special raised ring was prepared and wrestlers came from afield to test and prove themselves.

The mela lasted several days and attracted a great number of sepoys, jawans and other military men; thousands of them would converge on the shrine, along with hordes of naked Naga sadhus who came there from distant points in the Indian subcontinent. The festival was considered particularly auspicious for new recruits so it was arranged that Kesri’s brother, Bhim, would wait till it was over before leaving for Delhi with his cousin.

That year Kesri was in the open competition for the first time and much was expected of him. But his brother’s imminent departure, and the prospect of his indefinite detainment in the village, had so demoralized Kesri that he lost quite early, dashing the hopes of his guruji. This added to his misery and the next day he was scarcely able to drag himself out of bed. For once his father took pity on him and let him off from going to the fields.

Since Bhim was soon to depart for Delhi, this became an occasion for the family to gather in the angaan in front of their dwelling. Their mother sent out snacks, sweetmeats and sharbat while everyone lounged on charpoys in the shade of the mango tree.

Around mid-morning, as they were savouring the treats, a horse-cart was spotted in the distance, wheeling up the path that led to their straw-thatched home. Soon enough it became clear that the men in the carts were strangers. The food was swept away and the girls were sent inside. Ram Singh went to greet the visitors himself, with Kesri and Bhim on either side.

The first man to step out of the cart was of impressive, even intimidating appearance. His chest was as deep as a battle-drum and his hands were big enough to cover a brass thali. His upturned moustache glistened with wax, and his skin, which was the colour of ripening wheat, was burnished to a glow with mustard oil. Everything about his appearance and his manner – the taut mound of his belly, the heavy gold rings that dangled from his ears, the richly embroidered shawl around his shoulders – spoke of expensive tastes and voracious appetites. He gave his name as Bhyro Singh and said his village was near the town of Ghazipur, some sixty miles to the west of Nayanpur.

This put Ram Singh on his guard. The people of the area around Ghazipur were known to have close links with the British because many of them were employed by the Company’s opium factory. But Bhyro Singh did not look like a factory worker. Even though he was not in uniform, Ram Singh sensed that he belonged to the East India Company’s army. Nor was he mistaken: the visitor soon explained that he was a havildar in the ist battalion of the 25th Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry – the famous ‘Pacheesi’. The three men who were with him were sepoys from his own battalion; they were on their way to join their paltan and had decided to stop at the Naga sadhus’ mela before proceeding to the regimental base at Barrackpore, near Calcutta. He had come, he said, to discuss a matter of some importance.

It turned out that Bhyro Singh was a recruiter who had heard of Kesri’s prowess as a wrestler; he had come in the hope of persuading him to join the East India Company’s army. When Ram Singh said that Kesri was not available for recruitment Bhyro Singh was taken aback; he was even more surprised when he learnt that his brother, Bhim, was soon to leave for Delhi to join the Mughal Badshah’s army.

But why, Ram Singhji? Bhyro Singh protested. The boy is young and you are his father. You should explain to him that Delhi is not what it used to be; a soldier who wants to rise in the world needs to go to the East India Company’s capital – Calcutta. There is no army in Hindustan that can match the terms offered by the British.

How so?

This prompted Bhyro Singh to launch into a detailed listing of the advantages of the Bengal Native Infantry: while the basic pay might not be higher than in other armies – just six rupees a month – what counted was that the money was always delivered in full and on time. Besides, there were regular increments, with rank: a naik received a basic pay of eight rupees, a havildar ten, a jamadar fifteen, and a subedar thirty. Best of all, the salary was always paid on schedule: never once, in all his years with the Company, had Bhyro Singh known it to be delayed.

Tell me, Ram Singhji, of which other army in Hindustan can it be said that their soldiers are paid regularly? You know as well as I do that our rajas and nawabs purposely keep their salaries in arrears so they won’t desert. Such things are unheard of in the East India Company’s army.

And the battas!

The Company’s allowances were more generous, said Bhyro Singh, than those of any other army: they added up to almost as much again as the basic pay. There was a special batta for marching and another for campaign rations; still another for uniforms. As for booty taken in battle, the splitting of the spoils was always scrupulously fair. Why, after a major battle in Mysore, the English general had kept only half the loot for himself! The rest was divided fairly amongst the various ranks of officers and sepoys.

But that was still not the best of it, said the havildar. The Company Bahadur was the only employer in all of Hindustan that looked after its men even after they had left service. When they retired they were handed something called a ‘pension’ – a salary, of at least three rupees a month, that was paid to them for the rest of their lives. On top of that they could obtain land grants if they wanted. If wounded, they were provided with free medical care whenever they needed it.

Do you know of any employer in Hindustan that offers all this, Ram Singhji? Tell me, truthfully.

Ram Singh’s eyes widened but he parried by asking: What about accommodation? In Delhi they give their soldiers quarters to live. Does the Company do the same?

Bhyro Singh acknowledged that this was not the case at his own regimental base: instead every sepoy was given a hutting-allowance, to build his own shack.

But believe me, Ram Singhji, no one minds doing this because that way we can all live as we like, among our own kind.

Now, with the first seeds of doubt sprouting in his mind, Ram Singh began to voice other, more pressing objections to the Company’s service.

Say what you like, Bhyro Singhji, he said. But these Angrez firangis are beef-eating Christians. For Rajputs it can only bring shame on our families if we work for them. Isn’t it true that everyone who joins the Company’s paltans must eat unclean and forbidden things? That he must live side by side with men of all sorts, including the lowest?

The havildar burst out laughing.

Ram Singhji, he said, you are completely mistaken: the English care more about the dharma of caste than any of our nawabs and rajas ever did. There is not a sepoy in the Bengal Native Infantry who is not a Brahmin or a Rajput. And these are not impostors, trying to pass themselves off as twice-born: every sepoy’s caste is carefully checked, as is his body. As you know, in the old days the armies of Hindustan were like jungles – men went into them to hide, so that they could change their origins. After a few years of fighting ordinary julaha Muslims would pass themselves off as high-class Afghans, and half the men who called themselves Rajputs were just junglees and hill-people. Our badshahs and maharajahs put up with it because they were desperate for recruits. That is how it has been in Hindustan for hundreds of years: everything has become degenerate, people have forgotten the true dharma of caste and they do whatever they find convenient. But now at last things are being put right by the Angrezi Company. The sahibs are stricter about these matters than our rajas and nawabs ever were. They have brought learned men from their country to study our old books. These white pundits know more about our scriptures than we do ourselves. They are making everything pure again, just like it was in the days of the earliest sages and rishis. Under the sahibs’ guidance every caste will once again become like an iron cage – no one will be allowed to move one finger’s breadth, this way or that. Already the sahibs have done more to keep the lower castes in their places than our Hindu kings did over hundreds of years. In the gora paltan no one can join unless he is known to be of high caste, and no person of doubtful origin will last more than a couple of days. All our cooking we do ourselves or else we hire high-caste servants to do it for us. If we raise a question about any sepoy the officers will convene an inquiry at once. If there is anything doubtful about the man’s caste-status he is sent straight back to his village. Why, even the girls supplied by the Company, for our ‘red’ bazars, are always from high castes.

Bhyro Singh paused to let his host absorb what he had said.

I tell you, Ram Singhji, he continued, the Company has more respect for the dharma of caste than we do ourselves. Why, just listen to this: some time ago the English officers made a new rule that a bell had to be rung in our camp after every few hours. Of course none of us wanted to do the extra work so we said that it was against our custom for high-caste men to ring bells. And what do you think? Immediately they hired special bell-ringers to do the job! Do you think our nawabs and rajas would care at all about such things? If we told them we couldn’t ring bells they would have laughed and kicked us in the gaand.

Ram Singh was visibly impressed by these arguments but he continued to protest: But still, Bhyro Singhji, there’s no izzat in working for firangi beef-eaters.

But Muslims are beef-eaters too, aren’t they? Bhyro Singh countered. And that did not stop you from agreeing to send your son to the Mughal army in Delhi? To serve the Mussalman badshahs was always a matter of honour for our fathers and grandfathers. With the Company there is even more reason for pride, since the British are purifying Hindustan. For thousands of years everything in this land has declined and degenerated; people have become so mixed that you cannot tell them apart. Under the British everyone is kept separate, each with their own kind – the whites are with the whites and we are left to ourselves. They are the true defenders of caste, Ram Singhji, and if you have any thought of your son’s dharma you will send him to us.

But dharma is not just a matter of rules, Ram Singh objected. We are Rajputs and for us our worth, our maryada, lies in how we show our courage. No man can be a true warrior in the gora paltan – valour and skill count for nothing with them. Why, during the Battle of Assaye some of our best fighters went forward and challenged the enemy to send their bahadurs, for single combat. Do you know, not one man stepped out from the Company’s ranks? There was not one man in their entire army who was brave enough to be a real bahadur! Even though most of their sepoys were Hindustanis, like us, they had lost both honour and courage, izzat and himmat, after joining the Company’s army. Even we were ashamed for them.

A smile appeared on Bhyro Singh’s face. But Ram Singhji, he said, in a silky voice: Tell me, who won at Assaye?

Unable to think of a retort, Ram Singh hung his head.

Bhyro Singh’s smirk widened: The old ways of fighting may have been good for making heroes and bahadurs, Ram Singhji, but they didn’t always win wars. And that’s the thing with the English way of fighting – it does not depend on heroes. The Company’s army is not made up of a great number of bahadurs: the whole army fights like a single brave warrior. That is why people speak of the ‘Company Bahadur’. The entire army is like one man, one body, obeying a single head; every Company sepoy has to learn this by doing drills. Everyone has to obey the one above him, right to the very top. No one can ever refuse to follow orders or he will be shot. It is not like our Hindustani armies, which are made up of men whose main loyalty is to the sardar who pays them – and if that sardar takes a bribe they will all go off with him. Our Angrez officers understand this very well, and before every battle they send the baniyas to offer bribes to the sardars of the other armies. Almost always it happens that three or four of them accept, and then they either ride away or they stand aside during the fighting. Isn’t it true that this is what happened at Assaye?

Yes, said Ram Singh. It cannot be denied. But that wasn’t the only reason the Angrez army won. They had better cannon than us. Better bundooks too.

Exactly! said Bhyro Singh. Unlike our Hindustani rajas and nawabs, the Angrezes are always studying and making changes. Every year their cannon get better and better. They are always looking to make improvements in their weapons and they don’t allow anything to get in the way of that.

Cutting himself short, Bhyro Singh jumped to his feet: Here, let me show you something.

He went to the horse-cart, which was tethered nearby, and came back with two swords, both sheathed in their scabbards. One of the swords was curved and the other straight; he placed them both on a charpoy, and seated himself beside them.

Look at this talwar! he said, drawing the curved sword from its sheath and laying its shining blade across his knees.

See how beautifully it is made? See how sharp the blade is?

He picked up a fallen mango leaf and held it to the sword’s edge. The blade sliced right through the leaf, almost at the touch.

This is the weapon my father and grandfather carried, Bhyro Singh continued. It is the weapon I was first taught to use, and it is still the weapon of my love. Compared to it, the swords we are given by the English are nothing to look at.

Drawing the straight sword from its scabbard he laid it across his knees, beside the talwar. It was a dull grey in colour, with a sharply pointed tip and straight sides. There were no ornamental designs etched upon the blade and it showed no signs of having ever been touched by the hands of a craftsman.

These English swords are all alike, said Bhyro Singh. They make thousands and thousands of them, all exactly the same. Compared to our talwars, they are blunt, ugly things.

He thrust a leaf against the edge of the blade and succeeded only in bruising it.

But when it comes to fighting, said Bhyro Singh, it’s a different matter. He rose to his feet and brandished the unsheathed talwar in front of him.

Look at this talwar, said Bhyro Singh. It is a weapon that cuts with its edge. To use it in battle a soldier must have plenty of space around him. Or else he will hurt his own men.

He motioned to the others to step back and made a slashing motion, so that the tip of the talwar drew crosswise arcs in the air, swinging from shoulder to waist on one side and then the other.

When I use this sword, said Bhyro Singh, none of my own men can be near me. We have to stand at least two swords’ lengths away.

Laying aside the talwar, he now picked up the English sword and held it in front of him.

This weapon is also a sword, he said, but it works in a completely different way. It is meant not for cutting with the edge, but for impaling with the tip. That is what it is meant to do. With these weapons a column of men armed with swords and bayonets can advance shoulder to shoulder: they pose no danger to each other. Even if their numbers are much smaller, their column has more weight because it is more closely packed. When a line of our soldiers meets a line of men with talwars they will always break through. The fighters armed with talwars cannot turn us back, no matter how brave they are, or how highly skilled. If they try to form a mass they will hurt themselves more than us. Their talwars cannot be used in the same way as a straight sword or a bayonet – the curved blade does not allow that. To fight at all, they need space and that becomes their weakness, no matter what their numbers. That is why they always scatter in front of us.

The havildar handed his swords to his men, to be sheathed. Then he turned again to Ram Singh.

You see, Ram Singhji, he said, there are good reasons why there is no army in Hindustan that can withstand the forces of the Company Bahadur. Sometimes armies run away just at the sight of us. If you want your son to fight on the winning side, if you want him to come home alive, with money in his pouch, you will give him to me and I will turn him into a sepoy for the Company.

At this point Bhim intervened, saying to his father in a loud whisper that he had made up his mind: he wished to go nowhere but to Delhi.

That brought the argument to an end. Bhyro Singh gave a dismissive shrug, as if to say he had done what he could: All right, then I will take your leave now, Ram Singhji. I have said what I had to. If anything changes, I will be at the mela tomorrow.

With that he ushered his men to the horse-cart and they went on their way.

*

Shireen was returning from one of her daily visits to the Fire Temple when she was intercepted by a khidmatgar. A visitor had come to the house to offer his respects, he said; the gentleman was waiting for her in a receiving room on the ground floor, with her brother.

Kaun hai? said Shireen. Do you know his name?

The boy could tell her nothing except that the visitor was a topeewala-sahib – a hat-wearing white man.

Veiling herself with the end of her white sari, Shireen went to the door of her brother’s baithak-khana. Seated inside, with her brother, was a tall man with a face like a wind-eroded cliff: his cheeks were scored by deep lines and his temples were marked by protruding, crag-like bones. He was clean-shaven, his complexion a weathered, sunset pink. His jacket and trowsers were a funereal black and he was wearing a dark armband around his sleeve.

In complexion, as in clothing, the visitor looked very much a sahib, yet there was something about his deportment that did not seem entirely European. Nor was there anything Western about the gesture with which he greeted her – a salaam, performed with a cupped hand and a deep bow.

‘Shireen, this is Mr Zadig Karabedian. I am sure his name will be familiar to you – he was a close friend of Bahram-bhai’s. He has come to pay his respects.’

Shireen bowed her head without removing her veil. Bahram had often spoken to her about ‘Zadig Bey’. She remembered that he had befriended him on a journey to England, some thirty years before. Zadig Bey had grown up in Egypt, Bahram had told her: he was an Armenian Christian, a clockmaker who travelled widely in connection with his trade.

Bibiji, said the visitor in fluent Hindustani; please forgive me for not coming earlier, but my visit to Bombay has been much delayed. Like you I have suffered a bereavement.

Oh?

He pointed to his armband: My wife of many years was carried away by a hectic fever a few months ago.

I’m very sorry to hear that, Zadig Bey. Where did it happen?

In Colombo. But I must count it my good fortune that I could at least be with her at the end. God did not grant you even that.

Behind the veil, Shireen’s eyes suddenly filled with tears: No; He did not …

Bibiji, I cannot tell you how much I have been saddened by your husband’s death. Bahram-bhai was my dearest friend.

At the sound of her late husband’s name Shireen’s eyes flew to her brother’s expressionless face. Over the last few weeks Bahram’s name had become almost taboo in the Mestrie mansion; people seemed to avoid mentioning him in order to spare themselves the ignominy of being reminded of his bankruptcy, and of the disgrace he had brought upon his family and relatives.

Shireen herself hardly ever spoke of Bahram now, except with her daughters, and even they talked about him as though he were someone else, a different man: it was as if his death, combined with the catastrophic failure that had preceded it, had become a kind of re-birth, begetting a man who was utterly unlike the person they had known: a man whose career had been doomed to failure from the start; whose every success was a portent of the disaster he would bring upon those he loved most.

The girls had always doted on their father but now they could no longer speak of him except in tones of shame and reproach – and nor could Shireen blame them, since Bahram’s bankruptcy had robbed them not just of their expectations of inheritance, but also of a considerable part of the respect they had previously enjoyed in their husbands’ families.

For Shireen herself Bahram’s name had become an open wound, which she tried alternately to soothe, heal and hide – and to hear it uttered now, in tones of such unalloyed affection, was oddly painful.

My husband often spoke of you, she said quietly.

Bahram-bhai was the kindest, most generous of men, said Zadig. It’s terrible that he went in this way.

Shireen glanced at her brother and saw that he was squirming in his seat. To listen to praise of Bahram was deeply distasteful to him, she knew, and she guessed that he would gladly have left the room if not for the impropriety of leaving her alone with a stranger. To spare him any further discomfort, she leant over and whispered in Gujarati, telling him that he could slip away if he liked – her maid was outside; he could send her in and tell her to leave the door open. It would be perfectly proper; she was veiled anyway – there was nothing to worry about.

He jumped to his feet immediately. All right, he said. I will leave you here for a few minutes.

The maid came in and seated herself beside the open door, with the curtain drawn. Then Shireen turned her veiled face towards Zadig Bey.

May I ask when you last saw my husband?

About two months before the accident. I left Canton soon after the crisis began. He was amongst those who remained behind.

But why did he stay behind? she said. Can you tell me exactly what happened?

Zaroor Bibiji.

Zadig went on to explain that in March that year the Chinese authorities had launched an all-out campaign to end the inflow of opium into China. The Emperor had sent a new governor to Canton by the name of Commissioner Lin; shortly after coming to Canton he had given the foreign merchants of the city an ultimatum, ordering them to surrender all the opium on their ships. When they refused he had posted soldiers and boats around the foreign enclave in Canton, cutting it off completely from the outside. The merchants had been given plenty of food and they weren’t ill-treated, but the pressure was such that they had ultimately agreed to surrender their goods. After that Commissioner Lin had allowed all but the most important merchants to leave: Bahram was one of those who had been required to remain in Canton. He had stayed on with his entourage in his house, in Canton’s foreign enclave.

As you may know, Bibiji, said Zadig, the foreign enclave in Canton has thirteen ‘factories’ – or Hongs as they are called over there. They are not really factories – they are more like big caravanserais. Each factory has a number of different apartments and lodgings, which are rented out to foreign merchants according to their means. Bahram always stayed in the same house, in the Fungtai Factory, with his staff. That was where I went to see him.

How was he?

Zadig paused to clear his throat, and when he spoke again it was in the awkward, hesitant tones of someone who is reluctant to convey bad news.

Bibiji, I don’t know if I should tell you this, but Bahram-bhai was in a very downcast state of mind when I saw him. He seemed quite ill to be truthful. I asked his munshi what the matter was, and he said Bahram-bhai rarely left his daftar: apparently he spent his days sitting by the window, in a chair, watching the Maidan outside.

Grief was welling up in Shireen now; she began to knead the hem of her sari with her fingers.

It is hard for me to believe all this, Zadig Bey. My husband was a man who could never sit still.

He was weighed down by his worries, Bibiji, and it’s not surprising. He stood to lose a great deal of money and of course he was worried about his debts.

Zadig coughed into his fist.

I am sure you know, Bibiji, that nothing mattered to him more than his family. That was his religion – his second religion, I should say.

Shireen reached under her veil to wipe away her tears: Yes, I know that.

Zadig continued: That Bahram-bhai’s health suffered is not surprising. He was already quite weak when I saw him, but still, I could not believe it when I heard that he had fallen from the deck of the Anahita. That is the last thing one would expect of a man who had so much experience of sailing. And the worst part of it is that if he had only lived a little longer he would have known that his losses would be recouped.

Shireen was suddenly alert: You mean there will be compensation for the losses?

Zadig nodded: the foreign merchants had set up a fund, he said, to put pressure on the British government to take action against the Chinese. The merchants had all contributed a dollar for every chest of opium confiscated by Commissioner Lin. A large sum of money had been collected and sent to Mr William Jardine, in London. Jardine was the biggest of the China traders and he had been making very good use of the money; he had paid off many Members of Parliament and a horde of newspapermen. Nothing like that had ever been seen before – merchants and seths using their money to buy up the government! So many speeches had been made, and so many articles had been published that now every Englishman was convinced that Commissioner Lin was a monster. It was rumoured that on Jardine’s advice the British government was preparing to send an expeditionary force to China. The seizure of the opium was to be their reason for declaring war so it was quite certain that they would demand reparations.

Here Zadig leant forward in his seat: You must make sure, Bibiji, he said, that Bahram-bhai’s claims are not overlooked when it is time for the money to be divided.

Stifling a sob, Shireen explained that this was exactly the problem: she had no one to represent her; her brothers and sons-in-law were busy with their own affairs and could not spare the time for a year-long journey to China.

There is no one to fill my husband’s shoes, Zadig Bey – no son, no heir, and in a way he himself is to blame.

What do you mean, Bibiji?

Shireen was now so distraught, and Zadig’s presence was so comforting, that without quite meaning to she began to talk about something that she had never before spoken of with anyone.

Zadig Bey, there is something you perhaps do not know: my husband had some sort of problem, something physical, that prevented him from begetting a son. We were told this by a sadhu who had cured many such cases; he offered to cure my husband too, but he just laughed it off. If he had taken the matter more seriously maybe things would have been different now.

Having listened intently to Shireen’s words, Zadig fell into a ruminative silence. When he spoke again it was in English. ‘Can I ask you a question, Bibiji?’

Shireen glanced at him in surprise and he made a gesture of warning, inclining his head in the direction of the maid. ‘May I ask you something?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Please. Go on.’

‘May I ask if Bibiji ever leaves the house?’

The question took Shireen by surprise. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘Let me put it like this: how might it be possible to speak to you in private, away from the hearing of your family and servants?’

She thought quickly. ‘Thursday is the anniversary of the death of Mrs O’Brien, my English tutor. I will go to Nossa Senhora da Gloria Church to light a candle for her.’

‘The Catholic church in Mazagon?’

‘Yes.’

‘What time?’

She could hear her brother’s footsteps in the corridor now and she lowered her voice. ‘Eleven o’clock, in the morning.’

He nodded and lowered his voice to a whisper: ‘I will be there.’

*

Tears came into young Kesri’s eyes as he watched Bhyro Singh’s cart receding into the distance: it was as if his own hopes were being ground to dust under its wheels.

No one had listened to the havildar’s words with greater attention than Kesri: the arguments about caste and religion had mattered little to him, but his observations on weaponry and tactics had made a profound impression, re-moulding Kesri’s soldierly aspirations: no longer did he want merely to be a bearer of arms; it was the Company’s army, the havildar’s battalion, that he wanted to join. The attractions of the old ways of fighting had been scorched from his head: this new kind of war was much more attractive. This was what real soldiering was about: winning, adapting, out-thinking the enemy, and through it all, also making money.

That his brother Bhim had turned down such an opportunity seemed almost beyond belief to Kesri. Later, when they were out of earshot of their father, Kesri said to Bhim: Batavo – tell me, why didn’t you go with Havildar Bhyro Singh? Was it because you’re afraid of Babuji?

No, said Bhim, with a shake of his head. It’s Bhyro Singh I’m afraid of. I would rather go with a demon than with that man.

But why do you say that? Can’t you see how good the Company’s terms are?

Bhim merely shrugged and shuffled his feet.

If only, said Kesri bitterly, if only I’d been in your place.

Why? said Bhim. What would you have done? Would you have gone with Bhyro Singh?

Kesri nodded, blinking back the tears that had boiled up in his eyes. If I were in your place, said Kesri, I would not have wasted one moment. I would be on that cart right now, with them …

If the desire to leave had been a dull ache before, it was now a fever raging in Kesri’s belly. The heat of it curdled the rich food he had eaten that morning and he vomited in full view of his family.

In a way this was a blessing, for it gave him an excuse to keep to himself. He spent the rest of the day lying on his mat and went to sleep early. Next morning, when it came time to leave for the Naga sadhus’ mela he could not stomach the prospect of having to sit aside as Bhim received blessings for his journey to Delhi: pleading illness, Kesri stayed at home.

After the others had left, Kesri ferreted out his father’s stock of opium and tucked a pinch of it in his cheek. He soon fell asleep, and although he woke briefly when the others returned, he did not stir from his mat. Night had already fallen so no one came to rouse him and he soon drifted off again.

When next he woke it was very late and his brother was whispering in his year: Uthelu Kesri-bhaiya, wake up – come outside!

Still groggy from the opium, Kesri held on to his brother’s elbow and followed him through the sleeping house, to the charpoys under the mango tree.

Listen, Kesri-bhaiya, Bhim whispered. You have to hurry – Bhyro Singhji is waiting for you.

Ka kahrelba? Kesri rubbed his sleepy eyes with his knuckles. What are you talking about?

Yes, said Bhim. It’s true. I spoke to Bhyro Singhji at the mela today: I told him that you wanted to join the Company’s army but that Babuji does not wish it and wouldn’t give his permission. He said that Babuji’s wishes do not concern him at all. Babuji is not his relative, and he doesn’t care about his views. Calcutta is too far for Babuji to do anything about it.

Kesri was suddenly wide awake: So what did you say?

I told him that if you left without Babuji’s permission you would have no money or equipment, or even a horse. He said that this too would not matter – a horse is not necessary because they are travelling to Calcutta by boat. As for other necessities, he will give you a loan, to be paid back later.

And then?

He said that if you were sure in your mind that you want to go, then you should meet him and his men at the ghat by the river, at dawn. That is when their boat will be sailing. They will be waiting for you. Der na hoi – don’t be late.

Is this true? cried Kesri. Are you sure?

Yes, Kesri-bhaiya. Dawn is not so far off. If you start walking you will be there in time to meet them.

Desperate though he was to leave, Kesri was reluctant to leave his brother to face their father’s wrath alone. But Bhim reassured him, saying that he would be all right, their father wouldn’t know of his part in arranging Kesri’s departure so he would suffer no consequences. To the contrary he might even stand to benefit, because with Kesri gone he might well be asked to stay on at home, which would suit him nicely. In all likelihood Kesri would himself be forgiven once he started sending money home.

Kesri had never known his brother to think anything through so carefully. Was it you who came up with this plan? he said. Did you think of it yourself?

Bhim shook his head. Me? No. It was Deeti. It was all her doing. She told me to seek out Bhyro Singhji and she told me exactly what to say to him. She thought of everything. Even this.

He handed over a cloth bundle: It is a spare dhoti and some sattu. That is all you’ll need. Now hurry!

September 2, 1839

Guangzhou

Yesterday I was again invited to Compton’s print-shop, to meet with Zhong Lou-si.

It was a nice afternoon so we were able to sit outside, in the courtyard, under the cherry tree. For a while we spoke of inconsequential things, and then the conversation came around again, to the question of a British attack on China. Zhong Lou-si was a little more forthcoming today; he gave me to understand that he has been aware of the rumours for some time.

After a while he cleared his throat and spoke in a very gentle voice, as if to indicate that he was broaching a difficult and delicate subject.

Tell me, Ah Neel, he said. You are from Ban-gala are you not?

Haih, Lou-si.

We have heard, Ah Neel, he continued, that in Ban-gala there are many who are unhappy with British rule. It is said that the people there want to rise up in rebellion against the Yinglizi. Is this true?

It took me some time to compose my thoughts.

Lou-si, I said, there is no simple answer to your question. It is true that there are many in Bengal who are unhappy with foreign rule. But it is also true that many people have become rich by helping the British: they will go to great lengths to help them stay in power. And there are others who are happy to have them just because they have brought peace and security. Many people remember the turmoil of past times and they don’t want to go back to that.

Folding his hands in his lap, Zhong Lou-si leant forward a little, so that his eyes bored into mine.

And what about you, Ah Neel? What do you feel about the Yinglizi?

I was caught off-guard.

What can I tell you? I said. My father was one of those who supported the East India Company and I grew up under British rule. But in the end my family lost everything. I had to leave home and seek my living abroad. So you could say, that for me and my family British rule has been a disaster of our own making.

Compton and Zhong Lou-si were listening intently and they exchanged glances when I finished. Then, as if by pre-arrangement, Compton began to speak.

Ah Neel, Zhong Lou-si wants me to convey to you that he is mindful of the help you have given us in the past and very much appreciates it. Earlier this year, during the crisis, you gave us a lot of useful information and advice. He thinks that there is more that we can learn from you – and as I’ve told you he is now in charge of a bureau of translation and information-gathering.

He paused, to let his words sink in, and then continued: Zhong Lou-si wants to know if you would like to work with us. In the months ahead we may need someone who has a knowledge of Indian languages. You would be paid, of course, but it would mean that you would have to live here in Guangzhou for some time. And while you are working with us, you would have to cut off your relations with India and with foreigners. What do you think of this?

To say that I was astounded would not express a tenth part of what I felt: I suddenly realized that I could not answer Compton without picking sides, which is alien to my nature. I have always prided myself on my detachment – doesn’t Panini say that this is essential for the study of words, languages, grammar? This too was why I had liked Compton from the first, because I had recognized in him a kindred soul, someone who was interested in things – and words – merely because they existed. But I realized now that I was faced with a choice of committing my loyalties not just to a friend but to a vast plurality of people: an entire country, and one with which I have few connections.

Faced with this prospect my life seemed to flash past me. I remembered my English tutor, Mr Beasley, and how he had guided and encouraged my reading; I thought of the pleasure and excitement with which I had read Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, and the long hours I’d spent committing passages of Shakespeare to memory. But I remembered also the night I was taken to Alipore Jail, and how I had tried to speak English with the British sarjeant who was on duty there: my words made no more difference to him than the chattering of crows. And why should I have imagined otherwise? It is madness to think that knowing a language and reading a few books can create allegiances between people.

Thoughts, books, ideas, words – if anything, they make you more alone, because they destroy whatever instinctive loyalties you may once have possessed. And to whom, in any case, do I owe my loyalties? Certainly not to the zamindars of Bengal, none of whom raised a finger for me when I was carted off to jail. Nor to the caste of my birth, which now sees me as a pariah, fallen and defiled. To my father then, whose profligacy ensured my ruin? Or perhaps to the British, who if they knew that I was still alive, would hunt me to the ends of the earth?

And as against this, what Compton and Zhong Lou-si were asking of me was to share the one thing that is truly my own: my knowledge of the world. For years I’ve filled my head with things that serve no useful purpose; few indeed are the places where the contents of my mind might be regarded as useful – but as luck would have it, this is one of them. Somehow, in the course of my life, I have acquired a great trove of information about things that might well be useful to Compton and Zhong Lou-si.

In the end it was this – not loyalty or belonging or friendship – that swung the balance: the thought that someone as useless as myself might actually be of use.

I was silent for so long that Compton said: Ah Neel, neih jouh mh jouh aa? Will you do it or not? Or do you need more time to think?

I put down my teacup and shook my head: No, Compton; there is nothing more to think about. I am glad to accept Zhong Lou-si’s offer; I’d be glad to remain here in Guangzhou. There is nowhere else I need to be.

He smiled: Dihm saai – it’s all settled then?

Jauh haih Loi I said. That’s right – it’s all settled.

The costume that Mr Doughty had chosen for the Harbourmaster’s Ball was a simple one: a couple of loosely draped sheets, held in place by a few pins and brooches.

‘A toga, my boy! Best thing the Romans ever came up with! Nautches would be a nightmare without ‘em.’

The sheets and other accoutrements had been laid out in Mr Doughty’s dressing room. Following his host’s lead, Zachary stripped down to his drawers and banyan and then wrapped the sheets around his body.

‘Now bunnow that corner into a little flap and lagow it with a pin – yes, just like that. Shahbash!’

It took a good hour of tucking and folding before the toga was properly bunnowed and lagowed. By the time they stepped into the baithak-khana for a pre-dinner brandy-pawnee, Zachary and Mr Doughty were identically dressed, in costumes that were held together with pins and brooches and finished off, a little incongruously, with socks, garters and polished shoes.

At dinner they were joined by Mrs Doughty, who was dressed as Helen of Troy, in a flowing white robe and tinsel tiara. She blushed modestly when Zachary complimented her on her costume. ‘Oh, I shall be cast into the shade by the other Beebees,’ she said. ‘Why, I believe Mrs Burnham has decided to be Marie Antoinette!’

Here Mr Doughty flashed Zachary a wink: ‘I gather her corset alone is worth a tola or two of pure gold!’

After dinner they went downstairs and stepped into the hackery-gharry that Mr Doughty had hired for the night. It took them down Chowringhee to the Town Hall, on Esplanade Row, where the ball was to be held.

The building was one of Calcutta’s grandest, with massive columns and an imposing set of stairs in front. Music was already pouring out of the hall’s four wide doorways when the gharry stopped to deposit its passengers at the foot of the steps. As they joined the flow of guests, Mr Doughty whispered in Zachary’s ear, pointing out the notables: ‘That’s the Jangi Laat, General Sir Hugh Gough and that over there is Lord Jocelyn, dancing attendance on Miss Emily Eden, the Laat-Sahib’s sister.’

The Town Hall’s main assembly room had been cleared for the ball: gas-lamps blazed all around it and the ceiling was strung with bunting and coloured ribbons. One of the walls was lined with curtained alcoves where fatigued dancers could catch a little rest, on a chair or a chaise-longue. At the far end of the hall sat the band of a Highland regiment, costumed in kilts and sporrans.

On reaching the entrance, Mr Doughty came to a halt and gestured expansively at the whirling dancers, the glittering band, the lavish decorations and the brilliant lighting: ‘Take a dekko, Reid: it’s not often that you’ll see such a chuckmuck sight!’ And Zachary had to admit that the spectacle was indeed as splendid as any he had ever seen.

Scarcely had he had time to look around when Mrs Doughty took hold of his toga-draped elbow. ‘Come along now – I’ll introduce you to a couple of lassies and larkins.’

‘Oh but Mrs Doughty,’ Zachary protested. ‘I was going to ask you for the first dance.’

Mrs Doughty dismissed his offer with a laugh. ‘You can do your duty by us Beebees later. The missy-mems would never forgive us if we monopolized you from the start.’

It took only a few introductions for Zachary to discover that many of the missy-mems at the ball had read about him in the Calcutta Gazette and were keen to know more about his travels. He found partners aplenty, and between the punch, the music and the dancing, he was soon having a rollicking time.

But even so, when Mrs Burnham stepped into the hall, Zachary did not fail to notice her entrance: she was dressed in an unusual and eye-catching costume – a wide silk skirt, with a very narrow waist and tight bodice. Her lavishly powdered hair was piled high on her head, like a great white beehive.

Mrs Burnham was immediately swept off to the floor by Mr Justice Kendalbushe. After that Zachary caught only occasional glimpses of her within the whirling throng: although she gave no sign of having noticed his presence his eyes kept straying in her direction. Yet he would not have ventured to ask her for a dance if Mr Doughty had not suggested it: ‘Have you put your name on Mrs Burnham’s dance-card yet? It’s the tradition at the Harbourmaster’s Ball for the young Tars to give the Beebees a whirl. You’d better look to your duties, my fine young chuckeroo.’

It was not until midnight that an opportunity arose: during a pause in the music, finding himself elbow-to-elbow with Mrs Burnham, Zachary bowed: ‘I wonder if you would care to dance, Mrs Burnham?’

She looked at him with a frown and for a moment he thought he was going to be rebuffed. But then she shrugged in her usual imperious way. ‘Well I do not see why not: it is the Harbourmaster’s Ball after all, so one mustn’t be too particular.’

The band was playing a polonaise and they began to circle sedately to its rhythm. Although the tempo was slow, Zachary noticed that Mrs Burnham was not breathing easily; he soon became aware also of an odd, creaking sound, like that of bone scraping on bone. He had been at pains so far not to look at Mrs Burnham too closely, but a quick glance showed him that her bustline was even more ample than usual: he realized then that her corset had been pulled so tight that it was now creaking under the strain.

Averting his eyes, he said quickly: ‘It’s very crowded, isn’t it?’

‘Ekdum! A dreadful squeeze,’ she agreed. ‘And so frightfully hot! I can scarcely breathe.’

The band switched to a waltz now, forcing them to quicken their pace. After a few minutes of energetic whirling Mrs Burnham’s face became so florid as to cause Zachary some concern. He was about to suggest a break when she pulled her hands free and clasped her palms to her chest.

‘Oh Mr Reid! I’m suffocating!’

‘Shall I lead you to a chair, Mrs Burnham?’

‘Would you please?’

Zachary looked to his right and to his left, and finding no chair on either side he turned on his heel to see if there was one behind him. Instead he spotted a curtained alcove, only a step away: a tug on the curtain revealed an unoccupied chaise-longue inside, illuminated by a cluster of candles.

‘There’s a couch in here, Mrs Burnham.’

‘Oh thank heaven …!’ She hurried over to the chaise-longue and eased herself into it. ‘Please Mr Reid – would you be kind enough to draw the purdah? I wouldn’t care to be seen in this condition.’

‘Of course.’

Drawing the curtain across the entrance, Zachary turned to look at Mrs Burnham’s face: there were scarlet patches on her cheeks and she was still labouring to catch her breath.

‘Would you like me to fetch someone? Mrs Doughty perhaps?’ said Zachary. ‘Maybe she could help?’

‘Oh no, Mr Reid!’ cried Mrs Burnham. ‘I fear there isn’t time. What if I have a seizure while you’re gone?’

‘Is it as bad as that?’ said Zachary, in alarm.

‘Yes, there is not a moment to lose.’ She patted the spot beside her, on the chaise-longue. ‘Could you come here for a minute, Mr Reid?’

‘Certainly.’

After he had seated himself she turned her back to him: ‘I would be most grateful, Mr Reid, if you could undo the buttons at the top of my gown. You will see there the end of a leather fastening. All you need to do is to pull on it.’

Zachary was quite nervous now, but he swallowed his apprehensions. ‘I’ll do my best.’

Fortunately the alcove was brightly lit, so he had no difficulty in locating the cunningly concealed buttons of her gown. When he had tweaked them out of their silken eyes, the cloth parted, just as she had said, to reveal something that looked like a leather shoestring. He gave it a tug and there was a loud creak, followed by a sudden easing in Mrs Burnham’s constricted posture.

‘Oh thank you, Mr Reid! You’ve saved me – I’m most grateful!’

Now, as Mrs Burnham’s bosom began to rise and fall, in a steady rhythm, Zachary’s eyes were drawn over her shoulder, to the jewelled pendant that lay at the centre of her chest. On its tip, suspended just above the bustline of her gown, was a sparkling diamond: it pointed towards the triangle of velvety darkness where began the valley that ran between her breasts. The dark little hollow seemed to grow when she exhaled: Zachary’s gaze was drawn so powerfully towards it that he unconsciously edged a little closer.

Mrs Burnham in the meantime, had braced herself for an even deeper intake of breath: squaring her shoulders, she suddenly flung back her arms, in the manner of a bird spreading its wings. The motion carried her right hand towards Zachary in such a fashion that the tips of her fingers brushed lightly across his lap.

The touch was no more than the skimming of a feather, but it drew a muted shriek from Mrs Burnham’s throat: ‘Oho!’

Quicker than Zachary could move, she whipped around, with her eyes wide open. He too looked down now, following her gaze. He saw to his horror that his toga had parted to reveal his drawers: the fabric had risen through the folds of the white sheets, and was now standing poised over them, like a tent hoisted upon a pole.

He snatched at the cloth, hurrying to cover himself, but it was already too late. Mrs Burnham had collapsed against the armrest of the chaise-longue, with her eyes shut and her hands clasped to her chest.

‘Oh! Oh! Oh! … Never did I think …! Not in a hundred years …! Oh my eyes! … If I could but wipe them clean …!’

Zachary had turned a colour that was closer to mauve than red; such was his shame that he could think of nothing to say except: ‘Oh please, Mrs Burnham, please – I’m so very sorry.’

‘Sorry? Is that all you can say?’

Zachary’s throat had gone dry; if he could have fainted from mortification he would gladly have done so – but his treacherous body offered him no such relief.

‘Look, Mrs Burnham,’ he mumbled, ‘it’s just that I’ve been rather ill of late.’

She made a hissing sound and he began to fumble for words: ‘You got’a understand, it just happens sometimes. It’s like having a pet that sometimes slips its leash.’

‘Indeed?’ said Mrs Burnham. ‘Is that what it is, a pet?’

Zachary was now incoherent with shame. ‘I’m sorry …’ He stood up and reached for the curtain. ‘That’s all I can say, Mrs Burnham – I’m sorry. I think I’d better go now.’

He had thought that she would be glad to see the last of him but he was wrong. She stopped him with an emphatic gesture. ‘Absolutely not! I will not hear of it! I cannot let you go back to the dance, Mr Reid, my conscience will not allow it! If a woman of my age can cause your … your pet … to misbehave like that then I dread to think of the antics that may be provoked by some fetching young missy-mem. And can you imagine, Mr Reid, what would happen if some tender little pootlie were to have an encounter with your … pet? Why, I shouldn’t be surprised if she went completely poggle and ran screaming out of here! Just imagine the scandal if people found out that we had sheltered you on our grounds! Why, I should not be surprised if we were ruined!’

She paused to catch her breath. ‘No, Mr Reid, I cannot allow it: it would be criminal to set you loose in that ballroom in your condition. You are right to say that you are ill – you are indeed in the grip of an illness, a disease. It is my good fortune that I am neither impressionable nor in the first blush of youth. I am fortunate also in having the blood of a long line of soldiers in my veins. My grandfather fought at Wandiwash, I’ll have you know, Mr Reid, and my father was at Assaye. I am a strong woman and will not flinch from my duty. While you are under my supervision you can do no harm; it is my civic obligation to see to it that you are safely removed from these premises. I will take it upon myself to escort you back to the budgerow. At once.’

Zachary was now completely crushed. Hanging his head like a chastened schoolboy, he mumbled: ‘All right – let’s go then.’

Turning her back on Zachary, Mrs Burnham issued a stern command. ‘Would you kindly do up the buttons, Mr Reid? Mine, I mean.’

‘Yes, Mrs Burnham.’

‘Thank you, I’m sure.’ She kept her eyes carefully averted from him as she rose to her feet: ‘Mr Reid, are you in a fit condition to step outside? Is your pet under sufficient restraint?’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘Come then. Let us put a good face on it and make our way back to the carriage.’

With her head held high, she thrust the curtain aside and surged into the crowd. Zachary trailed meekly behind, with downcast eyes, and followed her out of the hall and into the road beyond, where her buggy was waiting.

They got in and seated themselves, as far apart as the breadth of the coach would allow. The horses set off at a brisk trot and for a while they sat in silence, looking out of their respective windows. Then Mrs Burnham said, in a voice that was quiet but firm: ‘You are aware, are you not, Mr Reid, that you have brought this illness upon yourself?’

‘I do not take your meaning, ma’am,’ he responded.

‘Oh do you not?’ Now suddenly she turned to him, eyes flashing. ‘If you think your affliction is a secret you are mistaken, Mr Reid. The world has been alerted to this scourge by a few brave doctors, and you should know that one of them is here right now in Calcutta, attempting to combat the disease. I have attended his lectures and am perfectly well aware, as indeed you should be, that the unnatural excitability of your … pet … is a direct consequence of certain practices … beastly practices … you will forgive me if I cannot bring myself to name them. Suffice it to say that the name evokes a continent of darkness and degradation. To soil our lips with the word is unnecessary in any case for you are not, I think, a stranger to those shores, are you, Mr Reid?’

A rush of anger took hold of Zachary now and he said: ‘I do not know how you dare make such an accusation. On what basis, madam? And on what evidence?’

‘The evidence of my own eyes, Mr Reid!’ she declared. ‘Or rather, of my spyglass. I saw you that day – the day of your arrival, when an attack of morbid excitation caused you to tear off your clothes and fling yourself into the river. You had perhaps imagined that you were unobserved when you were giving release to your condition, though why I can’t think, since you were in full public view.’

Thunderstruck, he protested: ‘But I wasn’t … you are quite wrong, madam. I can assure you that I was not … doing what you think.’

‘What were you doing then?’ she challenged him.

‘I’d be happy to tell you, Mrs Burnham,’ he said. ‘I was merely polishing a pin.’

‘Hah!’ She gave a derisive little laugh. ‘That’s what you choose to call it, do you? But might you not just as well have said that you were flaying a ferret? Or banging the bishop, for that matter?’

‘No, no,’ he protested. ‘You don’t understand, it was a belaying pin.’

‘Which you were no doubt buttering?’ She laughed again. ‘You must not think me a gudda or a griffin, Mr Reid, for I assure you I am neither. I am a good deal older than you and am not easily foozled. I can assure you that the meaning of “jailing the Jesuit” and “soaping the sepoy” are not lost on me. Why, I have even heard of “saluting the subedar” and “lathering the lathee”. But it doesn’t matter, you know: they all add up to the same thing. And it really will not do, Mr Reid, to conceal from yourself the true causes of your unfortunate condition. It is but a disease and the first step towards a cure is to accept that you are a sufferer and a victim.’

Now she reached out and gave his arm a sympathetic pat. ‘You need help, Mr Reid,’ she said, in a softer voice, ‘and I am determined to provide it. I am aware that you are a stranger to this country, friendless and alone – but you should know that while I am here, you will not lack for a pillar to lean upon. I will not begrudge the loss of a small measure of my own modesty in order to rescue you from sin and disease. Mine will be but a trifling sacrifice, compared to those of the missionaries who daily run the risk of being thrown into cooking pots by brutes and savages. For many years my husband has exerted himself to save wayward girls from lives of sin. It is only right that I should do the same, for you.’

They had now reached the compound of the Burnham mansion. The coach came to a stop where a path branched off from the driveway, leading in the direction of the budgerow’s mooring.

Zachary jumped out, mumbled a hasty good night, and was hurrying away, when Mrs Burnham leant out of the window: ‘And remember, Mr Reid – your hands are for prayer. You must be strong. Together we will conquer the continent of darkness that lurks within you – you need have no fear on that score!’

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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