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Six Days in Marapore
By Paul Scott
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1953 Paul Scott
All rights reserved.
The rains had not yet reached Marapore and the dry heat was almost more than MacKendrick could bear. He lay on his back, staring up at the high rafters of the bedroom, and thought of Calcutta where the hotel floors were tiled and where the bathroom was more than a prison-cell with a zinc tub, more than a dim place haunted by grotesque spiders which raced across the duckboards from beneath the wooden doors.
In Calcutta he had sweated: here, the sweat dried as soon as it broke through the pores of his skin. A tumbler of water and a bottle of salt-tablets were within reach, and he turned his head so that he could see them and be reassured. Behind the tumbler, visually distorted by the stale water, was his wrist-watch, but he could not see the position of its hands. He guessed it was nearly three o'clock. The window, set high up in the wall so that it could only be opened and shut by cords, let in a shaft of sunlight directly on to the shabby leather couch, to which the manager had pointed with pride, for its presence put an extra three rupees a day on the bill. Room Three was the most expensive in Smith's Hotel, as the manager had been at pains to explain to MacKendrick when he arrived the night before. It had not occurred to MacKendrick to ask for a cheaper room. Bombay and Calcutta had cured him of working out the cost of things in dollars.
The shouting which had disturbed his after-lunch sleep began all over again, this time right outside the door of his bedroom. The door opened a few inches only to be shut hastily: then someone knocked. MacKendrick groaned.
The door opened again. "Please excuse me, Mr. MacKendrick, but there is a matter of importance." The manager spoke scarcely above a whisper as though he had been oblivious to the row he and his staff had made, was now considerate of his guest's privacy, apologetic for disturbing him.
"What is it?"
"You were sleeping, Mr. MacKendrick?"
"Not for some time now, Mr. Desai."
"All this I find distressing. Please, may I come in?"
"Please do." Quickly schooled to the modesty of Indians he adjusted the towel which lay loosely over his loins and leaned up on one elbow. Desai shut the door with what MacKendrick could only call a conspiratorial air. Indeed, with the door closed, the manager glanced swiftly round the room as if to assure himself the two of them were alone. He put his head on one side and smiled.
"You will be forgiving me, Mr. MacKendrick, no doubt. But I must ask you if you would be so kind as to allow me to move you and your belongings into another room. Room Twelve you will find very comfortable, although it is lacking a couch unfortunately. Your bearer I have already sent for, so if ..."
"But, Mr. MacKendrick ..."
"I said no. No dice. I like Room Three."
Desai was gratified yet troubled. "Please, Mr. MacKendrick. All is most embarrassing for me as no doubt you will appreciate."
"Why should I move my room?"
"Mr. Smith always has Room Three."
"Who's Mr. Smith? The owner?"
"No, sir. Mr. Smith is the gentleman who is coming this evening. So said his telegram."
"Mr. Smith must be a very important person."
"Ah!" Desai lowered his eyelids and peeped at MacKendrick coyly. "You are understanding?"
"I'm sorry. I'm tired. I'm hot. I can't get any sleep. And I'm not moving into another room. The hotel's almost empty."
"If Mr. Smith is such an important man you shouldn't have given me his room yesterday."
"But I did not know he would be coming."
"Okay. Tell him that."
"But this is not a thing ..."
"Look. I'm the guest who's renting Room Three. If Mr. Smith doesn't like any of the other rooms he'll have to camp out on the verandah." MacKendrick lay back and closed his eyes. For a while there was silence. When Desai spoke again, diffidently, his voice gave warning of tears.
"I am in a very difficult position, you will understand."
"Mr. MacKendrick. Excuse me. But last night you could not say how long you would stay with us. Is it possible you can be telling me now so that in turn I can report the facts to Mr.
Smith? If in a few days you propose ..."
"I can't tell you, Mr. Desai. I know no more than I did last night."
When Desai had gone the shouting began again and MacKendrick opened his eyes and thought: Why shouldn't I give up the room? He stared at the pale, distempered walls, at the mosquito net, bunched above his head. This was the room. Its bareness fascinated him. Its simplicity both puzzled and refreshed him. But beyond the door at the far end lay the dreadful bath-house. In India the emotions were always subject to shock. Behind beauty was ugliness. Even as the phrase came to him he knew it to be trite.
Here on his bed, alone, he could twist the knife in his wound. His discomfort was contained within these walls which were already familiar and had seemed, last night, to close round him and say: So far you have come. Stay now. Outside there is nothing for you. Not even disappointment. Not even regret. Nothing. Stay and be at peace.
Then, it had been night-time. This morning, after a breakfast eaten in solitude in the empty dining-room, he had ventured into the road outside, ventured to the fringe of the cantonment shops, gazed across the railway tracks at the town, and returned to the hotel, passing on his way the lumbering ox-carts which the drivers guided through the sand-like dust by twisting the tails of the white, humped oxen harnessed on either side of the single shafts.
The heat had oppressed him for he had not accepted it. The old Indian, asleep on a charpoy in the shade of the peepul trees, the single files of women, dressed in unlovely, magenta coloured sarees, walking purposefully from nothing towards nothing, the naked children, the bitch on heat dragging its hind-quarters through the dust and followed dazedly by panting dogs; all these had accepted it, seemed content to be exhausted by it. But MacKendrick could not accept it and dare not let it exhaust him. He had stood for a few moments before turning in at the driveway and the road had become deserted. The tinkling of the bells around the necks of the oxen had faded away; there had been utter silence. He had not known silence before, in India. Bombay and Calcutta never slept, and now, standing there outside the white-painted hotel, a bungalow hiding behind trees, he had become instinctively alert. A thousand eyes were watching him and a thousand voices whispering – Why are you here? What do you want?
He had returned to Room Three, and lunch had been served to him there on a tray. He clung to the room and let the roomcling to him, and he knew that this was folly. The room gave him no clues. It was static. Confined in it he was static too, and he had not come to Marapore to lie on his back and stare at four walls like a prisoner. He had come for quite a different reason, and when he thought about that reason he was both appalled and excited by it.
He jerked himself upright and swung his legs to the floor, stood up, letting the towel fall so that he was naked, and thus, powerful, extrovert. For an instant he imagined himself poised, toes curled round the edge of a pool, then diving into the intimate world of water. He yelled for Bholu and outside someone echoed his call as he reached for his clothes and began to dress. Bholu came in.
"Look. Swimming. Malum?"
"I know swimming."
MacKendrick glanced at him, abruptly moved from momentary arrogance by the familiar sulkiness of the servant's speech. Bholu was small, at first glance shiftless like a man who is at home on the fringe of holiday crowds whose pockets his fingers lightly explore: but MacKendrick prided himself he saw purpose in the shape of the mouth and chin, the lights of passion in eyes which set him above men of his kind. He had hired Bholu in Bombay, selecting him from a dozen other itinerant bearers who had offered their services having heard the Sahib was American, and gullible.
"Where? Where can I swim?"
"There is club."
"Right. Get tonga. Malum?"
Bholu went, using the back way through the bathroom, and as he walked through the dusty gravel to the front of the hotel he wondered whether he should make sure that there was, in fact, a swimming pool at the club. But there was no-one in sight whom he cared to ask. It was hot. If MacKendrick Sahib went to the club for nothing, it couldn't be helped. He disliked MacKendrick more than any man he had ever worked for.
He wandered down the driveway and, at the roadside, squatted down on his haunches, thinking of MacKendrick, and of how soon he could make his get-away. At the rate MacKendrick paid him he could go back to Lahore in a month. In Lahore was his family. There were arrangements to be made for them, and he cursed the American for making this sudden, unexpected trip to Marapore which had put pause to a promising connection in Calcutta.
He looked up. Now, it was June. In August the British were going and in Lahore the long knives would be out. Each day spent fruitlessly in Marapore was like a thrust of the knife into his own flesh. He hated Marapore. He had hated Calcutta too. Only his need of money, his family's need, kept him at MacKendrick's side. In Calcutta he had collected his few belongings together against the moment that would be ripe for absconding. But he had seen the stuffed wallet of the American, seen it crammed full under his own eyes as MacKendrick told him to make ready for this trip.
Suddenly a pistol cracked in the distance and following the crack Bholu heard the sharp cries of an excited crowd. A string of crows wheeled into the air and flew westward. For ten seconds the shouting continued, exploding finally into the fainter sound of handclapping. The end of a race. The college sports. Bholu remembered, and remembering, he realised he was supposed to be finding a tonga. He rose. Perhaps there would be no need to steal. The American might be induced to part with the money in other ways. He began walking towards the cantonment shops, thinking of the wallet.
Last night, as MacKendrick bathed, Bholu had had the wallet in his hands, counting the notes. MacKendrick's sudden call had startled him so much that he had nearly forgotten to replace the photograph of the girl that MacKendrick was always taking out, always staring at. To have forgotten to replace it this time would have been disastrous, for when he rejoined MacKendrick after making a pretence of removing the spiders from the bathroom, he had found the American sealing the photograph in an envelope. The envelope had been placed in his inner pocket, separately: as though, in Marapore, there were suddenly a reason for secrecy about it.
Bholu stood still and stared ahead. Was it, he wondered, because of the girl in the photograph that they had come at such short notice all the way from Calcutta? If that were so then it was more than likely that the girl had been the reason for MacKendrick Sahib's uncertain behaviour in the past, in Bombay, in Calcutta; the inexplicable departures, the unexpected returns, all of which had made life so difficult to bear. He had been a fool not to consider the problem of the girl in the photograph before.
He did not notice the tonga until it was level with him. He would have stepped into the road to hail the driver but he saw that an English army officer already travelled in it. Thoughtfully he began walking more quickly towards the station where there were sure to be plenty of tongas to be had. MacKendrick could wait. For the first time for days Bholu was content to let time pass. Deep inside him, unformed as yet, a scheme quickened. He knew from long experience that it was the scheme conceived in the belly of a man, rather than in his brain, which came fruitfully into the world and, in the end, proved worth the pain of waiting.CHAPTER 2
Major Milner was drunk. During the past fifteen years it could truthfully be said that he was sober only on those occasions when his movements from one job to another, either as a civilian or as a soldier, involved him personally in the checking of stores and equipment; a duty he fulfilled aggressively, in determined possession of his faculties. Drunk, little escaped him; sober, nothing. Yet his career had been so far undistinguished. This surprised him: but whether failure led to his drunkenness or stemmed from it, no-one in India could recall and he himself had never thought to connect the two phenomena.
He sat sprawled in the cushioned seat of the tonga, staring over the tonga-wallah's shoulder at the raised tail of the horse and broke wind in sympathy. He was at home with horses, had mastered many in his time, was ignorant of their sensitivity, alive to their strength which he observed as a challenge to his own. He was forty-five. His soft spot was, perhaps, the pride he took in not having one.
He saw Bholu and beyond Bholu the gateway of Smith's Hotel. He spoke to the tonga-wallah. "Idder." The tonga-wallah urgently slashed the ribs of the horse with his beribboned whip as though afraid the hotel would miraculously vanish before they came abreast of it. With bells jingling on the harness they bowled through the open gates and came to a halt opposite the porch. Milner, alighting, turned to the driver. "Thairo," he said. "Ham maidan ki taraf jana chahie, thori der ke bad."
As he went up the steps he glowed. His knowledge of Urdu was not exact, but it was a language he admired and enjoyed speaking. As a young man in 1932 he had learned the essential words and phrases and had been impressed over the years by the seemingly infinite variety of ways in which those words and phrases could be used. "Urdu's a man's language," he had said once, during the war, to a very young officer fresh from home. "For Christ's sake don't ponce it up with that bastard higher standard muck." He had doubled his fist expressively. "That's your bloody conjugation and" (raising his highly polished boot) "here's your bloody syntax." Yet Milner himself seldom threatened with either boot or fist. His voice and manner made sure of obedience, even of admiration. As a war-time instructor at an Officers' Training School he had been, comparatively, a success. The rooms in which he lectured had echoed to laughter only slightly sycophantic. Under him, field training had been tough, relentless; but the obscene curses of men who laboured for breath in the merciless sun were directed not at Milner so much as at the authority he stood for. The test completed, beer slaking their long thirsts, they were not unaware that he had helped them to the masculine quality of endurance.
When he came into the hotel he yelled for the manager, whom he knew by name, and as Desai came out from his glass-topped cage of an office, Milner noticed that a white man whom he did not know and whose arrival in Marapore he had not heard about was standing close by him; an extremely well-dressed, well-built, dark haired young man who held a rolled towel in his left hand. Milner nodded in MacKendrick's direction, half raised a hand to detain him, and turned to Desai.
"Look, Desai. There's a Miss Anderson coming tomorrow. She'll want a room. Single. Cheap. Clean. Arriving 1500 hours. Staying one week. Right?"
"Yes, Major Milner. Miss Anderson. Will she come alone from the station?"
"I'll bring her myself. Just have the room ready. And none of your extras for flowers and fal-lals."
"Room Number Nine it will be, Major Milner."
"Number Nine. Appropriate."
"Nothing." Milner winked at MacKendrick and came towards him. "Name's Milner," he said. "MacKendrick."
They shook hands. Himself exerting pressure MacKendrick was surprised to find Milner's hand limp, whereas he had expected otherwise. Milner jerked his head up, a trick of emphasis. "Been here long? Haven't seen you before."
"I got in yesterday."
Desai hovered. MacKendrick hesitated before replying, "I don't know."
"Know anybody here?"
"I guess not."
"What you in? Journalism?"
MacKendrick licked his lips, but he managed to say fairly steadily, "I'm just on vacation."
"Vacation? Marapore? Odd place for a vacation. Still, your business. If you don't know anyone you'd better come up to the club tonight. I'll speak to the secretary."
"That's very nice of you."
"Anything I can do now?"
"I don't think so. My boy's just gone for a tonga."
"Tonga? Won't get a tonga this afternoon. All up at the maidan."
Excerpted from Six Days in Marapore by Paul Scott. Copyright © 1953 Paul Scott. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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