The Impressionistby Hari Kunzru
Pran Nath Razdan, the boy who will become the Impressionist, was passed off by his Indian mother as the child of her husband, a wealthy man of a high caste. Pran lived a life of luxury just downriver from the Taj Mahal, but at fifteen, the news of Pran’s true parentage is revealed to his father and he is tossed out into the street—a pariah and an outcast.… See more details below
Pran Nath Razdan, the boy who will become the Impressionist, was passed off by his Indian mother as the child of her husband, a wealthy man of a high caste. Pran lived a life of luxury just downriver from the Taj Mahal, but at fifteen, the news of Pran’s true parentage is revealed to his father and he is tossed out into the street—a pariah and an outcast. Thus begins an extraordinary, near mythical journey of a young man who must reinvent himself to survive—not once, but many times.
From Victorian India to Edwardian London, from an expatriate community of black Americans in Paris to a hopeless expedition to study a lost tribe of Africa, Hari Kunzru’s unforgettable debut novel dazzles with its artistry and wit while it challenges with its insights into what it means to be Indian or English, black or white, and every degree that lies between.
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One afternoon, three years after the beginning of the new century, red dust that was once rich mountain soil quivers in the air. It falls on a rider who is making slow progress through the ravines that score the plains south of the mountains, drying his throat, filming his clothes, clogging the pores of his pink perspiring English face.
His name is Ronald Forrester, and dust is his specialty. Or rather, his specialty is fighting dust. In the European club at Simla they never tire of the joke: Forrester the forester. Once or twice he tried to explain it to his Indian subordinates in the Department, but they failed to see the humor. They assumed the name came with the job. Forester Sahib. Like Engineer Sahib, or Mr. Judge.
Forrester Sahib fights the dust with trees. He has spent seven years up in the mountains, riding around eroded hillsides, planting sheltering belts of saplings, educating his peasants about soil conservation, and enforcing ordinances banning logging and unlicensed grazing. Thus he is the first to appreciate the irony of his current situation. Even now, on leave, his work is following him around.
He takes a gulp from a flask of brackish water and strains in the saddle as his horse slips and rights itself, sending stones bouncing down a steep, dry slope. It is late afternoon, so at least the heat is easing off. Above him the sky is smudged by blue-black clouds, pregnant with the monsoon that will break any day. He wills it to come soon.
Forrester came down to this country precisely because it has no trees. Back at his station, sitting on the veranda of the Government Bungalow, he had the perverse idea that treelessness mightmake for a restful tour. Now he is here he does not like it. This is desolate country. Even the shooting is desultory. Save for the villagers' sparse crops, painstakingly watered by a network of dykes and canals, the only plants are tufts of sharp yellow grass and stunted thorn bushes. Amid all this desiccation he feels uncomfortable, dislocated.
As the sun heats up his tent in the mornings, Forrester has accelerated military-march-time dreams. Dreams of trees. Regiments of deodars, striding up hill and down dale like coniferous redcoats. Neem, sal, and rosewood. Banyans that spawn roots like tentacles, black foliage blotting out the blue of the sky. Even English trees make an appearance, trees he has not seen for years. Oddly shaped oaks and drooping willows mutate in lockstep as he tosses and turns. The dreams eject him sweating and unrested, irritated that his forests have been twisted into something agitated, silly. A sideshow. A musical comedy of trees. Even before he has had time to shave, red rivulets of sweat and dust will be running off his forehead. He has, he knows, only himself to blame. Everyone said it was a stupid time of year to come south.
If asked, Forrester would find it difficult to explain what he is doing here. Perhaps he came out of perversity, because it is the season when everyone else travels north to the cool of the hills. He has spent three weeks just riding around, looking for something. He is not sure what. Something to fill a gap. Until recently his life in the hills had seemed enough. Lonely, certainly. Unlike some, Forrester talks to his staff, and is genuinely interested in the details of their lives. But differences of race are hard to overcome, and even at the university he was never the social type. There was always a distance.
More conventional men would have identified the gap as woman shaped, and spent their leave wife hunting at tea parties and polo matches in Simla. Instead Forrester, difficult, taciturn, decided to see what life was like without trees. He has found he does not care for it. This is progress, of a sort. To Forrester, the trick of living lies principally in sorting out what one likes from what one does not. His difficulty is that he has always found so little to put on the plus side of the balance sheet. And so he rides through the ravines, a khaki-clad vacancy, dreaming of trees and waiting for something, anything, to fill him up.
That something is no more than a mile off as the crow flies, though with the undulations of the dirt track, the distance is probably doubled. As the sun sinks lower, Forrester makes out a glint of light on metal and a flash of pink against the dun-colored earth. He halts and watches, feeling his jaw become inexplicably tight, stiffening in the saddle like a cavalryman on parade. He has seen no one for the last day and a half. Gradually he discerns a party of men, Rajput villagers by the looks of them, leading camels and escorting a curtained palanquin, bumpily carried at shoulder height by four of their number.
By the time the party is within hailing distance, the sun has dipped almost to the horizon. Bands of angry red show against a wall of thick gray cloud. Forrester waits, his horse stamping its hooves on one bank of a dried-up stream bed. The palanquin bearers stop a little way off and put down their load. Heads swathed in enormous pink turbans, mustaches teased out to extravagant length, they appraise the sweating Englishman like buyers eyeing up a bullock. Eight sets of black eyes, curious and impassive. Forrester's hand flutters involuntarily up to his neck.
From the rear pops up a lean middle-aged man, clad in a dhoti and a grubby white shirt, a black umbrella under his arm. He looks like a railway clerk, or a personal tutor, his appearance strange and jarring against the wasteland. He is clearly in charge, and just as clearly irked that his servants have not waited for instructions to halt. Shouldering his way forward he salaams Forrester, who touches the brim of his topi in response. Forrester is about to speak to him in Hindi, when the man salutes him in English.
"Looks like rain, what?"
They both peer up at the sky. As if in response a fat drop of water lands on Forrester's face.
Fire and water. Earth and air. Meditate on these oppositions and reconcile them. Collapse them in on themselves, send them spiraling down a tunnel of blackness to reemerge whole, one with the all, mere aspects of the great unity of things whose name is God. Thought can travel on in this manner, from part to whole, smooth as the touch of the masseur's oiled hands in the hammam. Amrita wishes she could carry on thinking forever. That would be true sweetness! But she is only a woman, and forever will not be granted her. In the absence of infinity she will settle for spinning out what time she has, teasing it into a fine thread.
Inside the palanquin it is hot and close, the smells of food and stale sweat and rosewater mingling with another smell, sharp and bitter. Once again Amrita's hand reaches out for the little sandalwood box of pills. She watches the hand as she would a snake sliding across a flagstone floor, with detachment and an edge of revulsion. Yes, it is her hand, but only for now, only for a while. Amrita knows that she is not her body. This crablike object, fiddling with box and key and pellets of sticky black resin, belongs to her only as does a shawl, or a piece of jewelry.
A bump. They have stopped. Outside there are voices. Amrita rejoices. At nineteen years old, this is will be her last journey, and any delay is cause for celebration. She swallows another opium pellet, tasting the bitter resin on her tongue.
Just as it does every year, the wind has blown steadily out of the southwest, rolling its cargo of doughy air across the plain to slap hard against the mountains. For days, weeks, the air has funneled upward, cooling as it rises, spinning vast towers of condensation over the peaks. Now these hanging gardens of cloud have ripened to the point where they can no longer maintain themselves.
So, the rain.
It falls first over the mountains, an unimaginable shock of water. Caught in the open, herdsmen and woodcutters pull their shawls over their heads and run for shelter. Then in a chain reaction, cloud speaking to cloud, the rain rolls over the foothills, dousing fires, battering on roofs, bringing smiles to the faces of the people who run outside to greet it, the water for which they have been waiting so long.
Finally it comes to the desert. As it starts to fall, Forrester listens to the grubby Brahmin's chit-chat, and hears himself tetchily agreeing that now would be a good time and here a good place to camp. Perhaps this Moti Lal is offended by his brusqueness, but Forrester can't worry about that. His eyes are fixed on the palanquin, the grumpy maid fussing around its embroidered curtain. Its occupant has not even ventured a peek outside. He wonders if she is ill, or very old.
Soon the rain is falling steadily, swollen droplets splashing into the dust like little bombs. Camels fidget and grumble as they are hobbled. Servants run around unpacking bags. Moti Lal keeps up a steady stream of conversation as Forrester dismounts and unsaddles his horse. Moti Lal is not the master here, oh no, just a trusted family retainer. It has fallen to him, the duty of escorting the young mistress to her uncle's house in Agra. Most unusual, of course, but there are extenuating circumstances.
Extenuating circumstances? What is the bloody fool on about? Forrester asks where they have come from, and the man names a small town at least two hundred miles west of where they stand.
"And you have walked all the way?"
"Yes, sir. The young mistress says walk only."
"Why on earth didn't you go by rail? Agra is hundreds of miles from here."
"Unfortunately train is out of the question. Such are extenuating circumstances, you see."
Forrester does not see, but at the moment he is far more concerned with erecting his tent before the rain worsens. It seems to be getting stronger by the second. Moti Lal puts up his umbrella and stands over the Englishman as he bashes in pegs, just close enough to get in his way without actually offering any shelter. Forrester curses under his breath, while all the time the thought circulates in his head; so she is a young woman.
Rain drips through the ceiling and lands in her lap, darkening red silk with circles of black. Amrita turns her face upward and sticks out her tongue. The rain sounds heavy. Outside it is dark and perhaps, though she is not sure, she feels cold. To ward off the feeling she imagines heat, calling up memories of walking on the roof of her father's haveli in summertime. Vividly she senses the burning air on her arms and face. She hears the thud of carpets being beaten and the swish of brooms as the maids sweep sand from the floors. But heat leads on to thoughts of her father, of walking around the pyre as the priest throws on ghee to make it flame, and she recoils back to the dark and cold. Drops of water land on her forehead, on one cheek, on her tongue. Soon the rain is pouring through in a constant stream. The soaked curtains start to flap limply against her side. The wind is rising, and still no one has come for her. No one has even told her what is happening. With no mother or father she is mistress now. If only she could gather the energy to assert herself.
Amrita unlocks her box, shielding it from the water. She is to be delivered to her uncle, and that will be an end. He writes that he has already found her a husband. At least, said the old women, she will arrive with a good dowry. So much better off than other girls. She should thank God.
Within half an hour the dust has turned to mud. Despite his tent Forrester is drenched. He clambers to the top of a hill and looks out over the desert, scored by a fingerprint whorl of valleys and ridges. There is no shelter. As the wind tugs at his topi and forked lightning divides the sky into fleeting segments, he is struck by the thought that perhaps he has been a fool. His red-brown world has turned gray, solid curtains of water obscuring the horizon. Here he is, out in the middle of it, not a tree in sight. He is the tallest thing in this barren landscape, and he feels exposed. Looking back down at his tent, set at the bottom of a deep gully, he wonders how long the storm will last. The Indians are still struggling to put up their own shelters, fumbling with rope and pegs. Amazingly, the palanquin is still where they discarded it. If he had not been told otherwise, he would have sworn the thing must be empty.
Before long, a trickle of muddy water is flowing through the gully, separating Forrester's army tent from the Indians' contraptions of tarpaulin and bamboo. A fire is out of the question and so the bearers are huddled together forlornly, squatting on their haunches like a gaggle of bidi-smoking birds. Moti Lal climbs the ridge to engage Forrester in another pointless conversation, then follows him back down the hill and crouches at the door of the tent. Finally Forrester is forced to give in and talk.
"So who exactly is your mistress?"
Moti Lal's face darkens.
She was always ungovernable, even before her mother died. Her father took no notice of her, whether she was good or bad, too busy weighing out coin to bother about the world outside his cloth-bound ledgers. The servants would come and report to him in the countinghouse, saying that the girl had thrown a cup at the porter, that she refused food, that she had been seen speaking to Bikaneri tribeswomen by the Cremation Gate. In the mornings her maid would find sand when she was combing her hair, as if she had spent the night out in the desert.
She was bringing shame on the family, and if the master chose to ignore it, the job of curbing her fell to his head clerk. At first Moti Lal used words. Then, when he found a cake of sticky black resin in her jewelry box, he dragged her into the courtyard and beat her with a carved stick kept for scaring away monkeys. She was locked in her room for three days. Distracted as he was finalizing a land deal, the master asked who was weeping in his house. Told it was Amrita, he seemed surprised. Does she want for something? he asked.
As soon as the bolt was drawn, she disappeared, returning with a wild look in her eye and garbled talk of trees and rushing water. Moti Lal could never find who brought the drug to her, and gradually she lost interest in everything else. She took to her bed, and stopped speaking. It was as if she had withdrawn to another world. He had to shake her and slap her face before she understood the news about her father.
His killer had left a length of wire wrapped tightly around his neck. The body had been found lying on a rubbish heap outside the town walls, the soles of its feet turned up at the sky like two pale fish. No one seemed surprised. Moneylenders are not popular people. Do you understand, Moti Lal shouted at her. Now you are completely alone.
Now the flood is coming. The earth will be drowned but like Manu the first man, Amrita will float on the ocean and be saved. She cups her hands and sees a little fish flip and curl in the rainwater. She will show it compassion because it is the Lord come to her as a sign, and though she is cold to the bone, the little horned fish means that she will survive.
They do not come to get her. The water saturates the palanquin, soaking the curtains and the cushions, running over the wooden frame in a constant stream. Amrita has no shawl, and the thin sari plastered over her skin offers no protection. She does not expect them to come. Moti Lal hates her and wants her dead. Why should he help her? She should move, but it will make no difference. The flood is imminent, and when it comes it will lift her up and sweep all of them away.
When it was time for the journey, Moti Lal had the haveli closed, and the valuables packed into trunks, which went on ahead with one of the servants. In the street, carts waited outside to take them to the railhead, three days journey by road. Shopkeepers sat by their scales and spat betel juice into the gutter, pointing out to each other the possessions of the murdered Kashmiri broker; his carpets, his scales. The bullocks swished their tails and the drivers scratched themselves. Everything was ready. And the girl would not go.
Moti Lal beat her and she lay on the floor and said she would kill herself. Moti Lal beat her again, and told her he did not care if she lived or died, but he had given his word to her uncle that he would bring her to Agra to be married. She said she had no uncle in Agra and marriage meant nothing to her because soon she would be dead. Moti Lal beat her until his arm was sore. When her face had puffed up and a tooth had loosened in her jaw she said she would go, but not by train. Finally, he gave in.
Moti Lal gave in and now he has walked for weeks across country, the sweat running off his balding pate, while inside her palanquin Amrita lay still and had visions. Every day as he slips his feet into his dusty chappals, he finds it more absurd. He is a trusted man, a man with a position and a certificate, and he is trudging across country like a beggar. Every day as he squats for his morning evacuation, a thought bubbles up in his mind-that her will is stronger than his. The girl does not care if she dies. It is as if she is taunting him.
So maybe she deserves to be left there, in the rain and the cold. If she dies of exposure, it will be God's work. Then he can board the train and read a pamphlet and drink station chai out of a glass, knowing all this is behind him. He marvels that the slut, for all her stubbornness, will not even drag her carcass undercover where it is dry. For the water is pouring down with a strength he has not seen before, tearing out of the sky like blood from an open wound.
All the world is in the past. Now there is nothing but a torrent of white water rushing down a mountain, and the future is contained in that water, suspended in it like the tree trunks and thick red mud it has swept off the hillside. The water moves at an extraordinary pace, propelled downward as if by a great hand, and it rushes over the desert like an army, forced through narrow clefts in the earth until it arrives in the gully where Forrester kneels, wrestling a loose tent peg back into the slack wet ground. He looks up, and it appears in front of him, a huge white wall.
"Oh, God-" he begins, giving it a name. Then he is engulfed.
The palanquin smashes like a child's toy, and Amrita smiles as the night explodes into a vast rush, the force she has longed for since she can first remember. Camels bray and strain at their hobbles, turning end over end in the water as they try desperately to free themselves. Men and bags are sucked down, barreling along in the flood. For an instant Moti Lal keeps hold of his umbrella, standing bolt upright in roiling foam with a looks-like-rain expression on his face. Then he is swept under, and the umbrella goes skating off across the swell. As his lungs fill with water, he thinks with irritation about the expense of replacing it. Then, one more bead flicked across the abacus, one more column of figures completed with a stroke of the pen, he drowns. All the world is in the past.
This should be everything. Yet small miracles are woven into the pattern of every large event. Forrester finds himself snagged on something. White water screams around his chest but leaves his head clear, his mouth and nose free to breathe. When small hands clasp his wrists and help him up out of the flood, he ceases to understand what is happening to him. His consciousness is entirely adrift.
He scrambles up a slope and falls to his hands and knees, still reflexively gulping for breath. Gradually he realizes that he is somewhere dry and dark, and stands up. The mouth of a cave. Again, the touch of fingers. He recoils, then collects himself and allows his wrist to be grasped. The hand guides him farther in. He kneels down a second time, not entirely trusting his legs to follow orders. He tries to breathe more slowly. It is no good. When a fire flickers into existence, he is convinced that he has died.
The native mother goddess stands before him in the firelight, elemental and ferocious. Her body is smeared with mud. A wild tangle of hair hangs over her face. She is entirely naked. Kneeling, he flushes and averts his eyes, awed by the black-tipped breasts, the curve of the belly, the small tight mat of pubic hair. So much more real than the girls who populate his wakeful nights in the mountains. Those are picture postcard girls, flimsy as lace. They peep back over parasols, milk-white and rosy cheeked, asking, Oh will you not come into the garden my dear.
Forrester realizes he is in the presence of a spirit. He died in the flood and this is some kind of phenomenon, the sort of thing one tries to conjure up with table rapping and Ouija boards. But she seems real, this goddess. Shaped out of the raw clay by the flood. He wonders if he has created her, sculpted her with his sleepless nights and his meanderings through the desert. Perhaps, he reasons, if you lack something enough you can force it into being.
Then she steps toward him and starts to unbutton his shirt, and as she does so he feels the tug of fingers on button and feels her wet hair against his cheek and smells her clean rich smell of woman and mud and hair oil. His hands brush over her skin and they touch real skin cut and scratched by stones and branches and he knows he has not created her at all. She clears her hair out of her eyes and looks directly at him, and with a start Forrester realizes that it is the other way around. He has not created her. She has created him. He has not, never will have, any other purpose than the one she gives him.
As the fire crackles and dries his skin, she strips him of his clothing and he does not even wonder that he is in a warm dusty place with brass water pots and a stack of brushwood piled neatly against one wall. Outside the storm is raging and inside the cave her small hands are curling round his penis and tugging him down in a tumble of limbs onto the floor.
The flood comes and the whole world is swept away except Amrita. The water shakes and paws her, unwrapping her from her sari, batting her around like a huge rough dog. Then it sets her down and she slips out of it, shivering at the sear of the wind on her bare skin. Objects stream past her in the dim light, men and beasts and valuables, the things of the defunct world being swept off into oblivion.
That is the old world and she is the mother of the new. She peers into the watery darkness and pulls a pearl-skinned man out of the flood. He is panting like a baby. The raw heavy sound of his breathing excites her.
Amrita drags the pearl man backward and a roof closes over them. He falls on the floor. She looks around. Everything is there, everything they could need. So the mother of the world squats with flint and tinder and lights a fire and looks at her find. He has no color at all, face and hair washed clean and pure as milk. He is wearing wet feringhi clothes, which she takes off. He seems very helpless, lifting up his arms to assist her with his shirt, putting a hand on her shoulder as he steps out of his khaki shorts.
Then he is naked and although he is helpless he is very beautiful. Amrita traces the line of his hip, the arrow of hair leading down from his navel. In small extraordinary stages, his hands start to return her touch, and soon she does something she has only imagined, and pulls him downward.
Their sex is inexpert and violent, more fight than sex as they roll and claw across the packed earth floor. It happens quickly and then for a long time they lie tangled together and breathing hard. The unprecedented sensations of each others' bodies make them start again and they do this twice more, roll and claw, then lie exquisitely, drunkenly still. By the last time the fire has guttered and sweat and dust has turned their skins to an identical red-brown color. The color of the earth.
They lie until the fire has died out completely. Then, in an instant, something tiny sparks in Forrester's brain. This small thing cascades into something larger and potentially threatening and he takes a shot at giving it a name and fails, though he thinks it may be something to do with duty and India Office ordinances, and this thing that now seems enormous and important and panic inducing makes him leap to his feet and stagger backward, turning around to try and confront it or at least have some idea of its shape and meaning. Perhaps it is unnameable, the unnameable thing which strikes a lost man whose sole short purpose has just been achieved, but whether or not it can be named, it makes Forrester look at the girl wildly and understand nothing about where he is and why, except to know that he has just changed everything about his life and cannot see where it will lead. So Forrester wheels around and steps out of the cave and down to the edge of the water, which has formed itself into a fast-flowing red river. As he rubs his eyes and straightens his back and tries to control his panic, he sees, with a surge of joy, something coming toward him that he knows. A young deodar tree, snapped off at the trunk, is sailing toward him down the flooded gully, its branches quivering like the beginning of speech. The tree seems so freighted with wisdom and routine that it might as well be playing the National Anthem and Forrester lets out an incoherent cry and hails it like a cab and jumps on and is swept away. The last Amrita sees of him is a mud-streaked torso heading downstream, continuing the journey she interrupted a few hours before.
In 1918 Agra is a city of three hundred thousand people clenched fist-tight around a bend in the River Jumna. Wide and lazy, the river flows to the south and east, where eventually it will join with the Ganges and spill out into the Bay of Bengal. This, just one of countless towns fastened to its banks, is an anthill of traders and craftsmen that rose out of obscurity around five hundred years before, when the Mughals, arriving from the north, settled on it as a place to build tombs, paint miniatures, and dream up new and bloody modes of war.
If, like the flying ace Indra Lal Roy, you could break free of gravity and view the world from up above, you would see Agra as a dense, whirling movement of earth, a vortex of mud bricks and sandstone. To the south this tumble of mazy streets slams into the military grid of the British cantonment. The Cantonment (gruffly contracted to Cantt. in all official correspondence) is made up of geometric elements like a child's wooden blocks; rational avenues and parade grounds, barracks for the soldiers who enforce the law of His Britannic Majesty George. To the north this military space has a mirror in the Civil Lines, rows of whitewashed bungalows inhabited by administrators and their wives. The hardness of this second grid has faded and softened with time, past planning wilting gently in the Indian heat.
Agra's navel is the fort, a mile-long circuit of brutal red sandstone walls enclosing a confusion of palaces, mosques, water tanks, and meeting halls. A railway bridge runs beside it, carrying passengers into the city from every part of India. The bustling crowd at Fort Station never thins, even in the small hours of the morning. The crowd is part of the grand project of the railway, the dream of unification its imperial designers have engineered into reality. The trails of boiler smoke that rise over heat-hazy fields and converge on the station's packed platforms are part of a continent-wide piece of theater. Like the one hundred and three tunnels blasted through the mountains up to Simla, the two-mile span of the Ganges bridge in Bihar, and the one-hundred-and-forty-foot piles driven into the mud of Surat, the press of people at the station proclaims the power of the British, the technologists who have all India under their control.
For such a lively city, Agra is heavily marked by death. This is largely the fault of the Mughals, who, in contrast to the current mechanically minded set of masters, thought hard about the next life and the things that get lost in the transition from this one. Everywhere they have left cavernous mosques, chilly monuments to absence. Around the curve of the river from the fort is the Taj Mahal. For all its massive marble beauty, for all the relief its cold floor and dark interior affords on a scorching day, it is a melancholy place, forty million rupees' and who knows how many lives' worth of autocratic mourning. The Emperor Shah Jahan loved Mumtaz-i-Mahal. Now the pain of his loss rises up at the edge of town, clothed in the work of countless hands, surrounded by a formal garden still used as a meeting place by steam-age lovers. Despite all this effort love still refuses to conquer, and the trysting couples have a subdued, pensive look about them.
Now, as it does every so often, death has come to hang over the city. This time the killer is not siege or famine, but the influenza epidemic, making its way eastward across the world from its mystical birth in a pile of dung behind an American army camp. By the time it leaves it will have taken with it a third of Agra's people; a third of all the shoemakers, potters, silk weavers, and metalworkers in the bazaars; a third of the women pounding their washing against flat stones by the riverbank; a third of the six hundred hands at John's ginning mill; a third of the convicts making rugs in the city jail; a third of all the farmers bringing produce in to market; a third of the porters sleeping on the station platform between shifts; a third of the little boys playing shin-shattering games of cricket, bowling yorkers off the baked mud of their tenement courtyards. Rajputs, Brahmins, Chamars, Jats, Banias, Muslims, Catholics, members of the Arya Samaj, and communicants of the Church of England will all succumb to the same sequence of fatigue, sweating, fever, and darkness.
Across the world, the scale of this killing is even greater than the slaughter that is finally playing itself out in Europe. Here, it hangs like a miasma over the knot of streets near Drummond Road, the quarter of the city called Johri Bazaar where the jewelers have their shops. Now, like the pilot Roy, trailing black smoke over faraway London, plummet down into the middle of all this death, to a large, impressive house cut off from the street noise by high brick walls. Swoop down over the parapet topped with shards of broken glass to a low flat roof, a place where a boy reclines on a charpai, one hand working steadily inside his pajamas.
Pran Nath Razdan is not thinking about death. Quite the opposite. The bazaars may be empty and the corridors of the Thomason hospital clogged with corpses, but none of it has anything to do with him. At the age of fifteen, his world is comfortably circumscribed by the walls of his family house. The only son of the distinguished court pleader Pandit Amar Nath Razdan, he is heir to a fortune of many lakhs of rupees and future owner of the roof he lies on, along with all the courtyards and gardens, the cool high-ceilinged rooms, the servants' quarters, and the innovative European-style toilet block. Farther afield there are other houses, a brace of villages, a boot-blacking business in Lucknow, and a share in a silk-weaving concern. When he glimpses his future, it seems full of promise.
With a sigh he looks down at the tent in his raw-silk pajamas. Full of promise. Money is the least of it. Clearly he is loved by everyone. His father will not hear a word spoken against him. The servants smile as they struggle upstairs with his bath water. When his aunties come to visit, they pinch his cheeks and coo like excited doves. Pran Nath, so beautiful! So pale! Such a perfect Kashmiri!
Pran Nath is undeniably good looking. His hair has a hint of copper to it, which catches in the sunlight and reminds people of the hills. His eyes contain just a touch of green. His cheekbones are high and prominent, and across them, like an expensive drumhead, is stretched a covering of skin that is not brown, or even wheaten colored, but white. Pran Nath's skin is a source of pride to everyone. Its whiteness is not the nasty blue-blotched color of a fresh-off-the-boat Angrezi or the grayish pallor of a dying person, but a perfect milky hue, like that of the marble the craftsmen chip into ornate screens down by the Tajganj. Kashmiris come from the mountains and are always fair, but Pran Nath's color is exceptional. It is proof, cluck the aunties, of the family's superior blood.
Blood is important. As Kashmiri pandits, the Razdans belong to one of the highest and most exclusive castes in all Hindustan. Across the land (as any of them will be happy to remind you) the pandits are known for their intelligence and culture. Princes often call on them to serve as ministers of state, and it is said that a Kashmiri pandit was the first to write down the Vedas. The Razdan family guru can recite their lineage back hundreds of years, back to the time before the valley was overrun by Muslims, and they had to leave to make a new life on the plains. The blood stiffening the bulge in Pran Nath's pajamas is of the highest quality, guaranteed.
Pran Nath is not alone on the roof. The servant girl's choli has ridden up her back, exposing a swath of smooth dark flesh and a ridge of spine. She is sweating, this girl, her skin glistening in the sunshine, her broom held loosely in one hand as she sniffs the air, catching the strong smell of raw onions wafting up from the master's bedchamber. Beneath her many-times-washed cotton sari he can just make out the curve of her buttocks, which was the original stimulus for unlacing his pajamas. Somehow looking is no longer enough. She is not far away. He could grab her, and pull her down on the bolsters. There would be a fuss, of course, but his father could smooth it over. She is only a servant, after all.
Gita the servant girl has no idea of her peril. Her eye has been caught by a monkey, and she is thinking how nice it would be if it spoke. Perhaps the monkey has been sent by her prince to watch over her, and perhaps it will grow to an enormous size and put her on its furry shoulder and carry her off to a palace where there will be a wedding with singers and dancing-or if not a prince then at least the monkey could turn into the pretty boy who cleans for the fat bania druggist, or if not a shape-changing monkey then a talking monkey who could tell her fortune, and if not a fortune-telling monkey then one which would do something more to distract her from her aching back than just sitting there, scratching its lurid red bottom and rolling its lips backward and forward over its nasty teeth. She straightens up and wipes a hand over her forehead. As usual there is more work to do.
For its part, the monkey has no intention of changing shape. Lacking royal connections or powers of augury, its primary interest is the strong onion smell wafting under its nostrils. Onions are edible. It sits on a crumbling section of wall and cocks its head at a shape it has spotted moving about in an open doorway, unable to decide whether it, too, is edible, or perhaps dangerous.
The shape is Anjali the maid, and she is trying to stay out of sight. It is lucky she came. Something told her, a creaking in her bones, that she should keep a close eye on her daughter today. Look at the filthy boy! If he touches so much as a hair on little Gita's head, he will pay for it. This is not an idle threat. Anjali the maid knows things about Pran Nath Razdan. In fact she knows rather more than he does himself. Just one touch, and she will tell.
Anjali was brought up in the moneylender's house at the edge of the desert. Some years older than the moneylender's daughter, she had been placed with the family as a maid as soon as she was old enough to plait hair and wield a flatiron. She watched her young mistress withdraw from the world, and tended to her as she lay inert on her bed, transfixed by the invisible objects of her imagination. Among the servants Amrita's madness was said to be of that very holy type that reveals the illusory nature of the world. Some of the women would even contrive to touch her clothing when they brought her tea. Anjali was not one of them. She found the girl frightening. Trying to get her to take a sip of water or a mouthful of dhal, she would stretch her arm out straight, keeping herself as far from the bed as she could, on guard against evil spirits that might jump from the afflicted body to hers. When she was told she would be accompanying her on the journey to Agra, the first thing she did was consult a palmist, who told her to beware of water.
Perhaps it was this advice that saved her. After the flash flood she and two of the porters were the only ones still left alive, or so they thought. Searching for other survivors, they waded down a gulley until they found a dacoits' cave, with Amrita sitting outside it, dressed in a khaki shirt and a pair of shorts. They pulled the Englishman's naked body out of the mud a few miles farther south. It was not hard to imagine what had happened.
Amrita mumbled poetry words about trees, and about the water. Anjali dressed her in a sari and made her decent, repeating charms to ward off the evil eye. Inside the shirt pocket was an illegible document, with a photograph of the dead Englishman. She slipped the picture discreetly into her skirts. Once they finally reached Agra, pulling into Fort Station on the third-class carriage of the train, she lost no time in breaking the shocking news to the servants of her new household. The girl had polluted herself. Surely she would have to be sent away.
In the uncle's house the girl was locked in an upstairs room, while the uncle held meetings with brothers and cousins. Then one of them summoned Anjali and gave her a silver bangle, a nose stud, and a pair of heavy earrings. She understood that she was to keep her mouth shut. They had found a husband for Amrita, a Razdan, and they would not tolerate any impediment to the marriage. Had anyone asked her opinion, Anjali would have said she thought it was an ill-fated match. She had often seen the girl naked. She had examined her closely, and she had a mole on her stomach, right at the very center just under her breasts. The meaning, as she whispered to the mali, was clear. The new bride would die young.
The unlucky bridegroom was a very serious young man by the name of Amar Nath, who had recently started practicing Law and was a member of societies for the promotion of hygiene, tradition, cultural purity, cow protection, and correct religious observance. He had recently published an article in The Pioneer on the question of loss of caste through foreign travel, coming down firmly against the notion of leaving Indian soil.
Amar Nath's studies had left him little time to acquire social graces. On first meeting his betrothed he stuttered a few words, then stared at his shoes until the chaperones got bored and called the tea party to a halt. Amrita, of course, said nothing at all, a ghost of a smile playing over her face. She was beautiful, which helped. She gave no immediate sign of insanity. Amar Nath was a dutiful son, and his elderly parents were worried that he showed no interest in anything except books and moral rectitude. So they accepted her uncle's assurances, and pressed their son to do their bidding. The wedding went ahead.
It passed off smoothly. An auspicious hour was determined, and the ceremony duly performed. The priest spoke the mantras correctly and the bride's smile was coy and demure as she was decked with jewelry by the young women of her new family. Sweets were distributed to an improbable number of relatives, and the groom looked more or less dashing as he arrived at the head of the wedding procession. There was, however, one thing of which Anjali strongly disapproved: the sapphire set into the bride's necklace. Sapphires are tricky gems, and though they can deflect Saturn's harmful rays, they can also focus them.
Amar Nath was obviously taken aback by his wife's eagerness in the marriage bed. Anjali, who had joined the household with her mistress, sat up late and listened to his gasps of surprise, little kittenish sounds that carried out of the window and up to the roof where she lay. As she would later remark to the paan vendor, it was a fair bet that this serious boy was not expecting his silent bride to take charge in such a manner. Lucky for her he was so unworldly. Anyone else would have become suspicious. But although rumors of the bride's adventures had already reached as far as the hijras who came to mock the wedding guests, Amar Nath and his family were too lofty to listen to the prattle of eunuchs or servants. With his new wife installed safely in his house, the bridegroom returned to his ruminations about disputed land boundaries and the value of Persian in the education of young gentlemen. So nine months passed, or perhaps a little less, while the young husband attended public meetings, the young wife grew big, and Anjali surrounded herself with a delicious web of speculation and rumor. Then one afternoon, a shriek echoed around the courtyard. Amrita had gone into labor. The baneful influences of the sapphire and the mole started to take effect.
The astrologer was called well before Pran Nath made his entry into the world. The family installed him under a fan on a shady verandah, where he sat drinking sweet tea and clutching his case of charts.
He waited for a very long time.
He finished his tea. He put his case neatly on the table in front of him. He ate some fruit, peeling it carefully with a sharp knife. He declined more tea. He stood up and stretched, feeling his vertebrae click satisfyingly into place. He declined lime soda. The screams of the laboring mother echoed around the garden.
Later the astrologer took a short walk, smelling the jasmine and enjoying the shade of the trees. The gardener was watering a bed of delicate white lilies, and the astrologer stopped to praise him for his work. The mali beamed with pride. Then the two of them fell silent, listening as the gasps and sobs from the mother's apartment became more anguished.
As the sun dipped low over the roofs he was offered a bed on which to relax. He accepted, but found it difficult to doze. Though his business was birth and its meanings, he always found the actual event distressing. The blood and pain. It was a woman's thing, beyond the fathoming of a man, even one educated in the science of Jyotish, to which most common mysteries are transparent. He preferred to think of birth as a mathematical event, the stately progression of planets and constellations through clearly defined houses, gridded sections of airless space. This agony, the scurrying of maids, the scene of mess and horror that was no doubt unfolding in the upstairs room, all of it was most unpleasant. It was not nice to think of the planets tugging so hard at this unfortunate woman's womb. The astrologer always imagined stellar influence as something ethereal, light to the touch.
Then everything fell ominously silent. He strained his ears into the gathering darkness, hearing the immense noise of insects, the rasp of parrots arguing in the trees. Nothing else. Nothing human. Soon a maid came, carrying an oil lamp, which she set on the table in front of him. At once moths started beating against its glass sides.
"The baby is born," said the maid, with an odd, triumphant expression on her face. "It is a boy. The mother is dead."
He nodded resignedly. Then he looked at his watch, opened his case, took out pen and paper, and set to work.
The chart was strange and frightening. The stars had contorted themselves, wrung themselves into a frightening shape. Their pattern of influences had no equilibrium. It was skewed toward passion and change. To the astrologer this distribution looked impossible. Forces tugged in all directions, the malefic qualities of the moon and Saturn auguring transmutations of every kind. It was a shapeshifting chart. A chart full of lies. He kept going back to the almanac to check his results, covering his brown-flecked paper in calculations.
The boy's future was obscure. The astrologer could predict none of the usual things-length of life, marital prospects, wealth. Patterns emerged, only to fade when another aspect of the conjunction was considered. Planets seemed to flit through houses, hovering between benign and malevolent positions. Clusters of possibilities formed, then fell apart. He had never been so confused by a reading.
Perhaps (though he would not have liked to bet on it) there was a route through the chaos. If so, then it was certainly a bizarre one. How could so many delusions lead to their opposite, to the dissolution of delusion? He glanced up at the square of light in the upstairs window. The child would have to endure suffering and loss. Could he really tell the father this? The man was grieving for his wife. On the table a mandala of crisped moth corpses lay around the lamp. The astrologer thought of the dead woman, and shuddered.
When the maid came back, she found him sitting in front of a fresh, neat chart depicting a bland future of long life, many sons, and business success. The torn-up pieces of the first attempt had been stuffed, out of sight, into his case.
When the astrologer brought the master his new son's chart, Pandit Razdan seemed satisfied, but everyone knows that astrologers say what their clients want to hear. If a man's beard is on fire there is always someone who will warm their hands on it, but then again who gives a tip to the bearer of bad news? As soon as Anjali saw the white-skinned baby, she knew it was ill starred.
The baby cooed and gurgled, and a boy ran down to the cremation ghats for a priest, and the midwives burned bloody sheets in the garden. No one, it seemed, had a thought for the dead mother beyond disposing of her body as quickly as possible. The girl had been an anomaly, an irritant against the skin of a smooth-running household. Now there was a silent agreement to treat her as a vision, a temporary phenomenon that had simply evaporated.
Anjali, too, thought it was for the best that Amrita had died. It was a wonder she had lasted so long. The family seemed overjoyed by their son. So big! So healthy! Yet she could not look at the child without thinking of his true parentage, of a Brahmin woman defiled by the pale man in the photograph. Still, she might have been able to hold her tongue-if the child had not become such a monster.
Reprinted from The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002 by Hari Kunzru. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.
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