A Beggar at the Gateby Thalassa Ali
Set in nineteenth-century British India, Thalassa Ali’s dazzling debut, A Singular Hostage, introduced us to Mariana Givens, the Englishwoman who risked everything to save a young Indian orphan from certain death. Now Ali returns to that exotic kingdom beyond the northwestern frontier, where Mariana will come face-to-face with a different destiny.
Two years have passed since Mariana left the walled city of Lahore. But she’s unable to forget its haunting scent of roses or her ill-fated marriage to a native-born husband that has scandalized Calcutta society and made her an outcast among the English. Worse still, she bears the knowledge that she will be forced to give up Saboor—the boy believed to be endowed with magical gifts whose life she risked her own to save.
Now Mariana must revisit Lahore to return Saboor to his family and request a divorce from Hassan Ali Khan. But how can she say good-bye to the enigmatic man whose love defied two cultures—or the child she’s loved as her own? As political and civil strife threaten to erupt in violence, she seeks answers in a world no Englishwoman has ever seen. And she’s driven ever closer to a secret so powerful that it will change her life—and the lives of those she loves—forever.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
June 20, 1840
Three months later, still in Calcutta, Mariana sat beside her aunt six pews behind the Governor-General and his two spinster sisters, watching a short, red-faced man make his perspiring way toward the pulpit steps of St. John’s Cathedral.
Around her, the congregation twitched and whispered. A woman nudged her husband. Another woman, in black, who had appeared to be sleeping, sat up and began to fan herself vigorously. Two rows away, a newly arrived girl and her sharp-faced companion turned in their seats to look back at Mariana, smug satisfaction on their faces. Like her, they knew what was coming. Unlike her, they were enjoying themselves.
Beneath her wilting gown, Mariana’s stays felt as if they had been ironed onto her torso. Her hair, difficult at the best of times, had escaped her straw bonnet, and now hung in loose brown curls on her neck, causing her skin to prickle in the June heat.
The dean stopped climbing and mopped his face. He leaned over the carved wooden rail of the pulpit, his eyes drifting toward Mariana, who yawned deliberately behind a gloved hand, her body tensing against the hard wooden pew.
“I find it delightful to see how much our numbers have grown in the past year,” he began in his high voice. “It gives me such pleasure to see how many eligible young ladies from Home have found suitable matches here in India. As I look out over this congregation,” he added, fastening his eyes upon a square-shouldered officer, his moonfaced wife, and their overdressed, squirming baby, “I am filled with joy at the sight of so many happy little families, and I look forward to many, many more.”
“I know someone who will never be married in this cathedral,” someone behind Mariana said clearly, as the dean looked pointedly in her direction.
It would do no good to let the woman know she had heard. Instead, Mariana picked up her aunt’s hymnal and began to leaf through its pages.
It came as no surprise that the dean had aimed his remarks at her, for he had done the same in every one of his sermons for the past six months.
The gossip about Mariana’s experiences in the northwest had begun to surface in the verandahs and drawing rooms of the British capital six months earlier, immediately after she had returned, along with the rest of the Governor-General’s vast camp, from his lengthy visit to the Maharajah of the Punjab. After Lord Auckland’s state tents had been struck for the last time and the officers who had accompanied him had returned to their families and living quarters, the story of Mariana’s shocking behavior at Lahore had spread rapidly from bungalow to bungalow, defying Lord Auckland’s order of strict secrecy and swiftly eclipsing all previous scandals. For, the gossip ran, while in the Punjab, Mariana Givens had done the worst thing an Englishwoman in India could do: she had entangled herself in a disgraceful, ruinous liaison with a native man.
Confirmed by the energetic, brown-skinned presence of her two-year-old stepson Saboor and embellished with ever more damning detail, the scandal had clung to her like sticky, invisible clothing, uniting all of Calcutta society against her, and turning her overnight into an outcast among her own people.
Worse still, Mariana’s ruin had fallen upon her aunt and uncle, neither of whom had been present in Lahore during that tumultuous time.
From the moment of her return, Aunt Claire and Uncle Adrian, the only family Mariana had in India, had been excluded from the cheerful dinners and the spirited balls and fetes that had made Calcutta the gayest city in India, especially the celebrations that had attended the Governor-General’s triumphant return from his visit to the north. A few loyal friends still paid surreptitious visits to the Lambs’ comfortable bungalow, but the rest of society had drifted away, fearful of being caught by association in the sticky web of Mariana’s disgrace.
“But these people know nothing of what really happened,” Mariana had insisted to her tearful aunt when they had been cut dead for the third time while buying muslin in the bazaar. “Why should we care what they think, Aunt Claire?”
But Aunt Claire cared very much what people thought. Moments after Mariana had carried little Saboor through the front door of number 65 Chowringhee Road and begun a halting, uncomfortable recital of her experiences in the Punjab, Aunt Claire had swooned, semi-conscious, onto a sofa, eyes shut and mouth open.
Choking tragically from a whiff of smelling salts, she had waved Mariana away and refused to listen to a word of explanation. “What have I done to be punished so?” she had sobbed later to Uncle Adrian from her pillows, while Mariana eavesdropped in the hallway outside. “Why has she done this unmentionable thing? And why has she brought a native child into my house? Make her take it to the servants’ quarters, Adrian. Oh, what will become of us?”
“You should never have brought that baby into the drawing room,” her uncle had told her tightly a while later, as he stood, his back to her, staring out of his study window. “Is it not enough that you have ruined yourself? Must you also parade a native child in front of your aunt?
“Since you insist he has lost his mother, and is of high station among his people,” he added grimly, “the child may remain with you. But you are not to let him into the front of the house, and you are forbidden to mention Lahore or the Punjab again in your aunt’s presence.”
Shocked at this angry reception by her normally mild uncle, Mariana had been unable to reply.
He turned from the window and glared at her. “You knew perfectly well,” he added, “why we accepted Lord Auckland’s invitation for you to join his train. You were well aware that it had nothing to do with translating local languages for his sisters. Given such a signal opportunity, why did you not marry one of his officers while you were in the Punjab?”
“But I tried to marry one of them,” she put in, “and then it all fell to pieces because he was supposed to have–”
“Instead of doing your duty and marrying an Englishman,” her uncle barked, his bald head flushing with emotion, “you kidnapped the Maharajah’s baby hostage, and then, with a recklessness I cannot even begin to conceive, you married its father. How could you have done it? How?”
“It was a mistake,” she replied stiffly. “I did not mean to marry him.”
“You might have thought of the consequences to us,” he went on, his voice rising. “Before you abandoned your own race and entangled yourself with a native family, you might have considered my dear brother-in-law, who so generously sent you out here with very different expectations.”
He sighed. “We must, of course, extract you from this most unfortunate marriage and return the child, but when and how that is to take place, I have no idea. It will do you no good, of course,” he added, waving an impatient hand at Mariana’s tears, “but in the meantime you must bend over backward, and behave like everyone else. Do nothing to attract comment. Do you hear me?”
He had been right but it had been far too late for Mariana to bend anywhere. Snubbed and ignored for the next six months, barred from society’s pleasures, she had lived quietly with Saboor and her aunt and uncle at Chowringhee Road, reading Persian poetry with her elderly native language teacher and escaping occasionally to the native part of Calcutta, telling herself it was not an unpleasant way to live, for unlike her Aunt Claire, Mariana had never been interested in parties.
The only things she hated about Calcutta were the knowledge that she would one day lose Saboor, and going to church.
“Put on a pretty morning gown and get into the carriage,” Aunt Claire had snapped that morning, after bursting into Mariana’s room and finding her still in her dressing gown. “There is no need for you to feed it,” she had added, averting her eyes from the round-eyed child who sat beside Mariana, eating his breakfast. “It can have its breakfast with the servants.”
“I loathe church,” Mariana argued, as she deliberately handed Saboor a piece of buttered toast. “I hate everyone who goes there, and they hate me. St. John’s Cathedral must be the most unchristian place in all of India.”
“It is not,” her aunt had replied sharply, “and you shall go there. If you would only make the slightest show of contrition,” she added wistfully, “I am sure you would be forgiven.”
The dean now raised his voice, interrupting Mariana’s thoughts. “And there is still better news,” he announced grandly. “Churches are being constructed all over India. The latest, at Allahabad, is nearly complete.
“What wonders these churches will do!” he added, spreading his arms wide. “We are all breathless with expectation, for it is now certain that the conversion of the natives is very near at hand.
“We must keep in mind, however,” he intoned as he leaned over the pulpit rail, “that until they have seen the Christian light, the natives must be avoided. There is terrible degradation in the native’s present character, and vice in his every word and deed. And we must remember,” he added, dropping his voice and favoring Mariana with a sidelong glance, “that for those who associate intimately with them, there awaits their same vice, their same degradation, their same perdition.”
Degradation. Perdition. The hymnal Mariana was holding came alive in her hands. As if by itself, it slammed shut, making a noise like a thunderclap that rang satisfactorily throughout the cathedral’s stone interior.
The dean jerked upright. A stringy woman turned in her pew and glared at Mariana.
Aunt Claire’s finger jabbed into Mariana’s side. “What are you doing?” she whispered, scowling. “Put down that hymnbook and attend to the sermon.”
People stared. The sharp-faced girl nudged her friend.
Now recovered, the dean began to quote the Acts of the Apostles, his florid voice rising and falling. Below his pulpit, Mariana sat erect, giving no outward sign of discomfort as her mind wandered to the message she had received the previous March from the mysterious pointing man.
He had spoken with urgent authority, but Mariana could not fathom what he had meant. What destiny could possibly await her in the direction he had pointed?
She blinked. Could the man’s message have had anything to do with the poem her old teacher had given her to translate on the day before he began the long journey home to his native Punjab?
My moon of Canaan, the throne of Egypt is thine, the poem had read. The hour is near. The time has come to bid farewell to the prison.
As she translated those Persian words, her munshi’s feverish old face had brightened with some emotion she could not read, but the old teacher had not told her why he had chosen that particular poem for their last day.
There was no question that he knew more than he revealed, for he had long belonged to the Karakoyia brotherhood, and he knew the mysterious Shaikh Waliullah well.
What was the meaning of that verse? Did the prison represent Calcutta for her? If so, where was her promised throne of Egypt? She found her handkerchief and blew into it, trying to imagine herself as beautiful as Joseph, with his coat of many colors.
The dean had stopped speaking at last. As he descended from the pulpit, the wooden stairs set up a great creaking and groaning, accurately voicing Mariana’s sentiments. She longed to jump to her feet, pink-faced and shouting, and teach the old hypocrite a lesson in Christian charity.
Half an hour later, as she followed her aunt toward the cathedral’s main entrance, she heard a male voice behind her in the crowd. “She wouldn’t be bad-looking, you know,” the smug voice said, “if she ever smiled.”
When they reached the driveway, Aunt Claire hoisted herself, panting a little, into her new carriage and fought her parasol open against the Calcutta sun. “What is the matter with you, Mariana?” she demanded, one hand clutching the side of the carriage for balance. “Why did you bang your hymnal shut in the middle of the sermon? You will never redeem yourself with Calcutta society if you behave like a lunatic.”
Mariana snapped open her own parasol. “I could not bear to hear one more syllable about my supposed sins, Aunt Claire.”
“And why should he have mentioned your sins, Mariana?” Aunt Claire sniffed, settling into her seat. “I am quite certain he did not. In any event, no one can make out what is said in that great, echoing cathedral. I, for one, caught no more than one word in three of that sermon.”
An English family drove past them, wedged into another carriage, the husband stuffed into his frock coat, the children looking wan and ill in the heat. As they passed Mariana and her aunt, all turned their heads away. Mariana winced at the miserable little sound that came from her aunt’s corner of the carriage. Aunt Claire might pretend she had not heard the sermon, but there had been no avoiding the Broderick family’s collective snub.
The houses along Chowringhee Road stood up squarely, each in its large, walled compound. As she always did, Mariana studied the brass nameplate on each gate. All save two were English.
They had arrived at number 65. The scarlet-turbaned durwan waved his bamboo pole. Four men in loincloths appeared and pushed open the wrought-iron gate, and the carriage with its matched horses swung through.
In the echoing entrance hall, Aunt Claire handed her bonnet and parasol to a servant. “I must look in on your uncle,” she said over her shoulder as she puffed her way up the stairs.
Mariana waited, listening anxiously at the foot of the stairs. Worse than the punishing heat of Calcutta, its mosquitoes, its gossip, or even the squalor and starvation of many of the natives, were the illnesses whose sudden descent could wipe out entire families in a matter of hours.
She did not think she could bear her life without Uncle Adrian, who now lay, ill with fever, in an upstairs room. Unlike most of the English, her uncle knew something of the Indian life she craved to understand. An avid student of military strategy since her childhood, she had always cared more for her uncle’s stories than for her aunt’s silks, laces, and gossip. It had been Uncle Adrian who had introduced Mariana to her munshi, the old man who had taught her both Persian and Urdu, the court language of India.
Unlike his wife, Uncle Adrian had forgiven Mariana’s sins.
A sound came from the dining room, followed by a high-pitched hiccupping giggle. Forgetting her worry, Mariana tore off her bonnet and rushed through the archway in time to see a small figure in white erupt from under the table and race through the pantry door, his clothes flying.
“Come here, Saboor, you nuisance, you pest!” Her hair falling from its pins, she burst into the pantry, and found a curly-haired child dancing with excitement, half-hidden behind a china cupboard.
Half a dozen men sat on the kitchen floor, eating rice heaped on freshly cut banana leaves. They looked up, chewing.
“Saboor, my little cabbage, my little cauliflower!” she cried as she scooped the child into her arms.
He wriggled and bounced as she kissed him, his broad face alight. “An-nah, put me down, put me down,” he shrieked. “I want to run and run!”
As she followed his galloping three-year-old figure through the doorway, her aunt’s voice rang in the hallway. “Mariana, come upstairs. There is something we must tell you.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Thalassa Ali is an American who married a Pakistani and lived in Lahore for many years, before returning to Boston to become a successful stockbroker. She is the author of two previous novels featuring Mariana Givens, A Singular Hostage and A Beggar at the Gate, both available from Bantam Books. She lives in Boston.
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This was an excellent book. I loved the prequil, A Singular Hostage, so I was very excited to find that there was a sequil. It is written so well and has a truly intriguing plot.
In 1838 India, Englishwoman Mariana Givens arrives to find herself a suitable husband amongst the British military. Many officers want her, but instead she falls in love with a native baby Saboor whose mother died from poison.. During her quest to return the allegedly mystical infant to his father, Mariana falls in love and marries Hassan Ali Khan over the objections of both their societies............................. Two years later Mariana realizes she has no place in the Indian world and remains the pariah of English society. She knows it is time to return to Lahore where her spouse lives and do two acts that will destroy her soul. She must return her beloved Saboor so that he can obtain his rightful place as a person supposedly gifted with magical abilities and she must obtain a divorce from Hassan. A heartbroken Mariana must say goodbye to the two native males that she loves for the sake of peace between two cultures on the verge of deadly conflict............................... The sequel to SINGULAR HOSTAGE, A BEGGAR AT THE GATE is a terrific insightful historical tale with a touch of romanticism that brings to live mid eighteenth century India. The story line moves rather quickly yet not only has full blooded key characters, but also provides a deep window into two peoples at a point of major strife seemingly ready to turn deadly. Still the center of the novel is Mariana and her relationships with the two males she loves and with Indian and English societies. Readers will beg for more sequels especially what happens to the fascinating Saboor as an adult.............................. Harriet Klausner