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Puzzle-boxlike in its complexity, British writer Barrett's story of three families scarred by the maniacal hand of vengeance begins in the India of 1857 when a native revolt leads to a massacre of British civilians and is in turn followed by the brutal retaliation of Colonel Reginald Mills, driven mad by the sight of his dismembered wife. In his blind rage, the Colonel kills Indrajit Rai, master jeweler to a maharajah, and ruins the rest of Rai's family. He also steals a small, jewel-encrusted bird, one of a pair. The escaped son of the dead jeweler vows revenge, taking the other jeweled bird, and so the plot begins to spin . . . and spin . . . until it ends up in London in the 1960s. There, we are introduced to the latest Mills heir, a good-looking gadabout with a married girlfriend (her husband is a brutal, class-climbing homosexual) and an eye to a royal appointment. To secure the coveted post, Philip Mills needs a wife, and he finds the perfect match in kind, sensible Jane Bennett. The young couple head to India to finish Philip's tour of diplomatic duty, though passionless Philip, with his chilly demeanor and unflagging racism, sets Jane's eye wandering in the direction of the dreamy Rami Rai, who is (you guessed it), a descendant of Indrajit. Forbidden love, a flight through the mountains, various attempts at revenge, and sundry murders all follow. There's even a stopover in a leper colony before we're hurtled back to London in the '80s, and into the life of Jane and Rami's love child, Indi. Indi then encounters more of the above plus a coded map that leads to the maharajah's missing jewels.
Pulp fiction at its pinnacle: ridiculous, convoluted, artificial, possessed of a kind of faux steaminess, but, withal, undeniably energetic.
Colonel Reginald Mills strode through the garden, brushing aside the drooping branch of a jacaranda tree, and up the steps on to the verandah of his bungalow. He shouted out to his servant, squatting in the shade by the door. A stout, middle-aged man, he was sweating in the midday heat and his temper was up.
"Bearer! Where the devil are you? Bearer!" The servant scurried into view and bowed very low. "Ah there you are! 'Bout time!" The colonel took off his hat, handed it across without looking at the Indian and began unbuckling his belt. "Is the Memsahib resting?"
"Yes, Colonel Sahib."
He turned toward the house. "Bring me a whisky soda." Handing over his jacket, he walked into the cool of the bungalow, the head bearer following two paces behind. "And tell Khansama we'll be in late for dinner tonight!" He swore under his breath. "Fraternizing with the natives, it's too damn much!" And blotting his damp moustache on a clean, starched white handkerchief, he made his way across to his wife's bedroom.
"Oh, hello, Reggie." Alicia Mills shushed away the attentions of the ayah with a brusque hand movement and turned her head toward the figure of her husband in the doorway. She was sitting at the dressing table in her chemise and loosened corset, her thick blond hair only half unfastened, a few strands of it heavy on her shoulders. She turned back to her reflection. The colonel looked at her for a moment, the flushed youth of her skin in the hot afternoon, and felt the sudden need of her.
"You can go," he said over his shoulder to the ayah as he walked toward his wife. Alicia caught his eye in the glass and a small smile crossed her lips.
"Damn wretched party tonight," he said as he stood behind her and finished unpinning her hair. He rested his hands on her shoulders, again caught by the fresh dewy quality of her skin, and looked at her face in the mirror.
"The commanding officer's duty, darling," she reminded him. She moved her hand up to his and eased it down to the swell of her bosom under the chemise. Alicia Mills had married well, she was proud of her wealth and position and Reggie was really quite sweet, so long as she kept him that way. "It won't be all that bad ..." she murmured as he bent to kiss her neck. "It does well to keep in with these people ..." She tilted her chin up so that he could nuzzle the hollow of it. "I think it's rather exciting ... he's the maharajah's jeweler you said ...?"
The colonel stopped what he was doing. "He's a bally darkie, Alicia! Remember that!" His nostrils flared and the muscle in his left cheek twitched momentarily. Stiffening, he moved away. Colonel Reginald Mills had been in India too long; as far as he was concerned, it was them and us.
Alicia swiveled around on her stool. "Oh Reggie, don't be so short ..." She unfastened the tiny mother-of-pearl buttons on her chemise, letting it fall open over the very pale skin of her breast. "Come back here ..." she said quietly. She saw his face relax slightly and she smiled. "You'll feel better after a lie down." Standing, in just her petticoats and corset, she closed on him and put her hand up to his face, trailing her finger along the line of his luxurious whiskers. "Much, much better," she finished, and, walking across to the bed, she parted the mosquito nets and lay down ready for him.
"Colonel Sahib! Colonel Sahib!" The knocking on the door increased in its intensity. "Colonel Sahib! Quick! Please quick, Colonel Sahib!"
The Colonel gritted his teeth, panting hard. "Go away!" he snarled. Alicia moaned.
"Colonel Sahib! Please come, Colonel Sahib!" The knocking had stopped and the bearer had his ear to the door, listening for sounds of the Sahib.
"Go ... away ..." The colonel gripped the sheet by Alicia's shoulder. His breathing quickened.
"Colonel Sahib!" The door handle rattled. "Colonel Sahib!"
"Ah, damn it!" Reginald flicked his eyes open. "What the hell ..."
"Reggie darling!" Alicia dragged her gaze away from the wall at the sound of her husband's swearing and focused on his damp red face above her. She brought her mind back to the present. "What is ...?"
The colonel sat up. "Damn people! Can't get a minute's peace!" He glanced down at Alicia, half naked on the bed. "I'm sorry," he muttered, yanking his breeches up from around his thighs.
She waved her hand to dismiss his apology and reached for the sheet. She was peckish anyway, she could do with tea.
"I'll have to go and see what's ..." The colonel had tucked his shirt in and was pulling on his braces. "I'm coming, bearer!" he shouted as the knocking on the door started again. He strode toward the door and moments later had left the room. Alicia rang for tea.
"What the devil is all this about ... ?" The bearer cowered, his head bent and his palms folded together in the Hindu way. "Please, Colonel Sahib ..." he hissed, "the secretary sahib for His Majesty the Maharajah is here ... please, Colonel Sahib, he is outside, please ..."
Colonel Mills swiped his right hand across the bent head of his servant. "I never see anyone in the afternoon! You know that!"
The bearer looked up, pleading, "But Colonel Sahib ... the secretary sahib to the maharajah! Please, you must come!"
Colonel Mills closed his eyes for a second. The heat of the afternoon had begun to close in and his head ached. He wanted to be lying down inside in the cool, not sweating outside with a bloody native! He held tightly on to his temper, his face reddening, and snarled at the bearer, "Where is he?"
"Outside, Colonel Sahib," the servant bent even lower. "On the verandah. He is waiting to be invited inside, Colonel Sahib."
"Get my jacket and boots." Colonel Mills had no intention of inviting an Indian into his bungalow. He would see the chap on the verandah and nowhere else. "And hurry up!"
The bearer scurried off and returned almost immediately. The colonel pulled on his coat and sat ready to be assisted with his boots. Minutes later he stood again, smoothed his fingers over the tips of his moustache, and walked out toward the verandah.
"Colonel Mills." An elderly Indian dressed in dark gray silk sherwani and churidar pajamas folded his palms and bowed his head. "Good afternoon to you, sir. His Royal Highness the Maharajah sends you his good wishes."
The colonel nodded in reply. He refused to acknowledge Indian royalty; they were all natives to him. Insolently leaning back against the wall of the bungalow, the searing heat enveloped him and he shut his eyes for a moment. "What is it?" he demanded, not even looking at Nanda. "You have a message from the maharajah?"
"Yes, colonel sir." Ever courteous, the Indian's English was smooth and polished. He raised his head and looked directly at the officer, red and damp in the heat. He concealed the slightest of smiles. "We have had rumors today from the north, colonel, from Meerut. There is news of terrible unrest. This problem of the pig and beef fat to grease the new cartridges has caused much upset, colonel sir, with the Hindus and the Mohammedans. It is an awful probQ"
"I am well aware of the situation, Mr. Nanda!" the colonel interrupted. "You have no need to remind me." He stood away from the wall to assert himself. "Was this the only thing that youQ"
"Oh no, colonel sir!" Nanda was not in the least intimidated. "We have heard this morning that the soldiers who would not touch these things have been humiliated, colonel sir, all eighty-five of these men have been stripped of their uniforms, their ankles shackled. It is most upsetting, I really do not think ..."
"Mr. Nanda!" Moving forward a pace, Colonel Mills towered above the slight, elegant Indian. "I really don't see what it could possibly have to do with my command here in Moraphur! These men directly disobeyed the order to use the cartridges and their officers have punished them." The colonel gave no hint of the alarm that Nanda's words had caused him. "It really is nothing to do with me," he went on, all the time wondering what the hell that fool Hewitt was doing in command up at Meerut, "and as far as I am concerned, that is the end of the matter!"
"Perhaps so, colonel sir, but I fear that this incident has caused much anger in the lines. From Meerut, just now, we have heard of terrible rumors ..."
"Rumors? Pah! I am not in the business of listening to rumors! I command this division of the regiment on fact, that accounts for my judgment, not blasted rumors!" Colonel Mills felt a small rivulet of sweat trickle down the side of his face and, thoroughly irritated by the heat, Nanda's sly superiority and the bloody fiasco up at Meerut, he turned toward the door.
"But forgive me, colonel," Nanda had dropped the pretense of "sir" "the news was of feelings of great anger and offense," he lowered his voice, "even of mutiny!" He stepped forward a pace to keep himself level with the officer. "I really do think that you should ..."
Colonel Mills swung around. "I should go inside now and get out of this blasted heat, that's what I should do, Mr. Nanda!" To be spoken to in that manner by a native incensed him; his temper finally snapped. "And I'll thank you to refrain from idle gossip and rumor! You chaps are all the same, far too taken up with loose talk and meddling! When you have some facts, then perhaps I will see you. But, until then, please, Mr. Nanda, stop wasting my time!" And without the courtesy of an adieu, the colonel stamped off inside.
The darkened interior of the bungalow, although not much cooler than outside, was at least a relief from the glare of the sun. The colonel slumped into an armchair and shouted for the bearer, wiping his face on his handkerchief. Nanda had infuriated him, he was getting above himself. It would do to remind the maharajah exactly who ran this state, he thought angrily.
Still, the situation in Meerut was alarming, Nanda was right. His own officers had talked of unease in the lines, the men were restless, upset and trouble among the ranks spread like wild fire. He couldn't afford to let any strife at Meerut eat its way into his own troops; he would have to take a ride up there in the morning to gauge the seriousness of Nanda's rumors.
"Bearer!" he shouted a second time, the thought of a day-break start and a ride in the stifling heat up to Meerut fueling his already foul temper. "Bearer!" he hollered. "Where the hell are you?"
He slumped back in the chair as the servant finally hurried into view. "Blasted party!" he muttered under his breath. The last thing he needed was a late night. "Get these ruddy boots off me!" he snarled. "And be quick about it! You damn natives are so damned slow!"
The colonel and Mrs. Mills sat silent in their carriage at seven o'clock precisely that evening, as it swung into the impressive grounds of Indrajit Rai's house, royal jeweler to the maharajah of Jupthana. Alicia felt the colonel stiffen beside her at the sight of such native opulence and placed a pale cool hand on his arm reassuringly. Looking out at the torch-lined driveway, she leaned a little closer to the open window and breathed in the warm, jasmine-scented air as they drove through the flame trees hung with lanterns and approached the house, ablaze with light.
The carriage drew to a halt in front of the ornate and sprawling bungalow and a young house boy stepped forward to help the guests down; he was instantly dismissed. Colonel Mills turned and offered his hand to his wife; the thought of strange dark fingers on her skin incensed him.
"Thank you, Reggie." Alicia held the hem of her evening dress in one hand and tilted her head back in a manner she assumed fitting; they mounted the steps up the verandah toward their host.
Indrajit Rai stood, with his son on his right, waiting humbly to receive his honored British guests. It was a great coup for him that the colonel and Mrs. Mills had accepted his invitation and it was essential that they be given the very best hospitality. As they approached him, he bowed his head and pressed his hands together, smiling all the time but keeping his eyes averted so as not to offend.
"Colonel Mills Sahib! And Mrs. Mills Memsahib. How good of you to come; you do a great honor to me and my family." Indrajit Rai's English, like Nanda's, was precise and carefully modulated. He had studied it fastidiously and practiced his accent tirelessly. "Please, you are most welcome."
Colonel Mills nodded in reply and glanced over the Indian's head into the house to see who had already arrived.
"May I please introduce you to my son, Colonel Mills?" Indrajit Rai motioned frantically with his left hand behind his back for his son to step forward and bow his head. "This is my son, colonel, Jagat. It is a great honor for him to meet you."
From behind the host, a tall lean young man of seventeen stepped forward and held out his hand to the colonel. He looked directly ahead and smiled. "How nice to meet you, Colonel Mills." He kept his right hand extended even though it was ignored. "And Mrs. Mills." He turned and smiled at Alicia. "It is a pleasure indeed."
Colonel Mills felt a hot rush of blood to his face and his nostrils flared. Who the hell did this young devil think he was? Didn't he know the form? He opened his mouth to protest at such damned ruddy impudence when Alicia touched him gently on the arm. He started, noticed the sudden staring silence around them and held his tongue. Alicia was right, it wouldn't do to cause a scene, not in his position.
"Please, Colonel Sahib, please go into my house and the bearer will bring you a drink!" Indrajit stepped in front of his son, his eyes lowered, and edged the colonel toward the interior of the bungalow. He had begun to sweat anxiously. "This way, Colonel Sahib and Mrs. Mills Memsahib, please to have a nice cool drink inside." He blocked the view of his son in an attempt to dismiss his rudeness. "It is such an honor," he rushed on, "to have you as a guest in my house, such a great honor for me and my family! Please, please to go inside ..."
At last the colonel smiled.
"A drink for the colonel and Mrs. Mills, bearer!" The host shouted above the chatter of the party, "Quickly!" He clapped his hands loudly. "Quickly, a drink!" The bearer came into sight, carrying a large silver tray, and Indrajit Rai fussed extravagantly over the refreshments. Alicia smiled at several of their acquaintances, nodding to the left and the right, and the colonel relaxed slightly. He took a long gulp of his whisky soda and glanced around him. The difficult moment was over, at least for the interim, and the party continued much to the relief of the agitated host.
Excerpted from Dishonored by Maria Barrett Excerpted by permission.
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