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Every station had separate dining-rooms for Hindus, Muslims, and for Europeans . . . Many towns had separate stations, one for the Indian town, and one for the European . . . cantonment . . . Indians who did attempt to travel first class often found themselves in the humiliating position of being thrown out of the compartment, either by brute force or by the stationmaster.
E. M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies, 2001
A cold moon washed the skies as the single, black caterpillar line of the night train to Rudrakot cleaved through the Sukh desert. The train's headlamp, fiercely ablaze like Shiva's third eye, illuminated the way across the glistening steel tracks a triangle of golden light amidst this background of silver and shadows.
It was not the only thing that moved in the desert night. Vipers and kraits coiled out of their daytime stupor and went in search of the rats and mice that burrowed into the hard ground; the fox slunk with equal stealth in search of the same prey, and far enough from the train, stayed to watch as it crossed his field of vision.
The supernatural too was alive at night in the Sukh, claimed to be real, and believed to be impossible. The Sukh was the birthplace and, now, the death place of kings and warriors. Despite its inhospitality, its unwillingness to nurture, to welcome them on its soil and sands, these kings and warriors had lived here through generations and centuries. Their tombs (the memories of their demise anyway the Sukh kings were Hindus and so were cremated) dotted the vast landscape, wedded into the rust colors of the desert. Some small, some mammoth, invariably constructed of red or caramel sandstone. Stories were built upon these tombs, of little snatches of lovelorn songs, of figures clad in the white of ghosts, or of the tempest of a thousand horse hooves near the tomb of a valiant raja felled in battle.
The fox waited patiently for the passing of the lighted carriages of the train before crossing the tracks. After its sound receded into the distance and night came to claim the desert again, his ears angled toward the noise of tiny feet scrambling in the dark, and he whisked away toward it, hungry and slavering.
From the train's vantage, of course, there was nothing much to be seen. Most of the carriages had their shutters down, but one, the fourth bogie behind the steam engine, had one of the shutters open, and a man leaned his head against the bars of the window.
Of the three occupants in the bogie, Sam was the only one not yet asleep. A cloth sling lay tight against his right shoulder, cradling his arm into his chest, but the pain had flared up again, mocking the aspirin's efficacy. If he stayed very still, difficult to do so in a moving train, the pain dulled into something manageable. It had been only two days since the military hospital doctor in Calcutta had reset his dislocated shoulder and promised Sam relief almost immediately, but Sam had been so long with his arm out of the shoulder socket that relief did not come easily. He concentrated on the telegraph poles whipping past in a rhythmic tempo, whoosh, silence, whoosh . . . forever, the sounds and silences born of the train-sired wind. The telegraph poles stuck close to the tracks, as though afraid of striding out on their own into that hugely flat earth.
Sam willed sleep to come and erase the fatigue of his body. He had boarded the train to Rudrakot at Palampore early this morning, had spent the previous night bumping along a dusty dirt track in a jeep from Delhi to Palampore, and before that had flown on a military transport plane from Calcutta, westward to Delhi. He had not slept in more than two days. The plane to Delhi had had no luxuries Sam was strapped into the sides of its cavernous belly, buffeted by the winds, kept from being thrown about and smashing his shoulder further only by the belt that held him. During the drive to Palampore in the ancient, barely running jeep, the driver had considered every pothole in the road a personal challenge, and Sam had not dared close his eyes, afraid that he would wake with his head wrenched off his neck and settled in his lap. Since boarding the Rudrakot train, he had stared at his traveling companions wide-eyed and had fended off Mrs. Stanton's overly invasive questions as best he could without being too impolite.
Rudrakot was not an entire twenty-four-hour journey from Palampore, if the train began on time at one end and ended on time at the other, without reckless stops. And so Sam learned one of his first lessons about India during this long, sleepless day as the sun bleached the desert into a whiteness and sent its heated fingers into their compartment. The train stopped at every village on the way from Palampore to Rudrakot, every forty-five minutes or so. Just as it had begun to pick up speed from the last, unscheduled stop, it began to slow again, and Sam listened gloomily to the screeching of the brakes, the slowing of rhythm, and felt the growing heat in the compartment as the breeze dropped. The ceiling fans clanked obligingly, but they were really useless, and sleep was impossible.
But the night train to Rudrakot was the only way to get there; it was too far out into the desert to drive, too small a kingdom to have a commercial airfield, and the only regiments garrisoned there were army regiments, who brought in their men and supplies by rail.
With his eyes closed, Sam listened to the chug of the train, and a sudden, shattering, long and hollow hoot from the engine. He leaned out farther into the air, and let the wind push against his hair. The sweat from his day's journey had long dried. But dirt still rimmed his collar, perspiration stained half-cups of brown under the armpits of his khaki shirt, his skin was gritty with soot. Sam licked his cracked lips, and tasted the coal and smelled the fires from the engine up front. His shoulder throbbed again, and Sam clenched his hand into a fist, drawing the ache down to his palm and holding it there until it abated. Only a few more hours, he thought, and then he would be at Rudrakot. This dirt, this journey, this lack of sleep would be worth it. He could rest his shoulder then . . . but, no, he could not rest his shoulder then, he had only four days left of his leave at Rudrakot. And so much to accomplish.
His holdall lay under his seat, and Sam nudged it lightly with his heel, wanting to be reassured of its presence. There was a map of Rudrakot in that holdall, a map Sam had seared in his mind. The town itself, curved around the edges of the lake. The army regiment quarters in a shaded cantonment avenue. The mighty fort built into the hill behind, looming over the town, melding into the browns and reds of this forsaken earth. The lake in brilliant blue, like a wedge of sky, its waters winking in the sunshine. Beyond the lake, across from a colossal stretch of nothingness, a large tomb of pillars and stones called simply Chetak on the map, and then beyond that, the march of sands westward into an expanse of desolation. And here, somewhere in this desert kingdom, his brother, Mike, had gone missing.
Their mother had once said begin your search at the beginning, where you first remember losing what is lost. So Sam was going to Rudrakot. Maude's advice had come to him at an earlier time when he was in boyhood tears at having misplaced his precious baseball cap and had served him well just a few years later at the cabin.
Mike and he had clattered down the stairs to the beach to watch the birth of a winter storm. Clouds banked over the cove; the wind whipped the waters into frothy waves that grew to mountains midway, ebbed, then expired along the sand. There was a curious and exhilarating blue quality to the light around them, as though crystals of ice hung in the air. Seaweed glistened on brightly white driftwood. Gulls soared and hummed above, wings aspread. Mike, seven at that time, trotted away along the edge of the water, clambering over the logs of wood, and Sam followed him as fast as he could. He had been distracted and overwhelmed by this fury of nature, and yet heedful, in some part of his head, that he had to keep an eye on his younger brother. Lightning forked along the thickly gray sky and Sam waited, listening for thunder. It came, booming and loud, setting the earth shaking.
"Listen to that, Mike!" Sam had yelled, opening his arms wide to embrace the storm. "The skies are hungry. Listen!"
He looked toward his left and did not see Mike anywhere. The clouds had completely covered the north entrance to the cove by now, dulled the light, brought night where day was, and Sam strained to find his brother.
The tips of Sam's fingers began to freeze and he put his hands under his armpits.
"Mike!" he shouted. "We should go in. Mama will worry."
But nothing moved on the logs deposited haphazardly on the beach by previous tides, forming castles and goblins in the dying light. Sam clambered up a rock, zipped closed the front of his jacket, and searched around him. Where was Mike? He had been here, near the log pile they had named Buckingham Palace, and then here, near the Eiffel Tower, and there, and then where?
"Mike, this is not funny. Come back now."
Lightning crawled over the skies again, and Sam put his hands around his mouth. MIKE. MIKE. MIKE-Y. Until he was hoarse and panting. The sea roared in anger, crashing in huge sprays around him. His heart banged in his chest and a sudden chill ate away at his bones.
"Mike," Sam whispered. "Where are you?"
And then a cold hand touched his leg. Sam whirled around.
"Ha!" Mike shouted, pushing a stick of bleached driftwood at him. "Got ya."
Sam slithered down from the rock, scraping his ankles and shins, and grabbed the front of Mike's sweater. "Don't ever do that again. Never. Do you hear?"
On the night train to Rudrakot, Sam remembered the dread that had ensnared him when he thought he had lost Mike, for what had seemed like an eternity, each moment as lucid today as it had been that day. And here, in another continent, another time, now when they were both grown men sent to India to engage in a mighty war, Mike was lost again, this time through no artifice of his own. And no amount of shouting would bring him back. Sam would not let himself think that he could not find Mike, and that was why he was on his way to the desert kingdom Rudrakot, to search for his brother again. To the place where he was first lost. To the beginning.
An arrow of heat plunged downward from Sam's shoulder into his arm and he jerked back from the compartment window and fell heavily onto the bunk on his left side, crying out from the sudden pain. Whiteness filled his gaze, his ears roared, and Sam clutched at his shoulder.
Sam gasped. "Yes, Mrs. Stanton." And then in a more resigned tone, he said, "I apologize, a sudden pain."
"Your shoulder hurts?" she asked, her tone sleep softened from its daytime raucousness.
"Yes," he replied, surprised. She was being solicitous? Why? He had been nothing but rude to her, well, barely civil anyway.
"Well." She clicked her tongue. "It's the war. War hurts, Captain Hawthorne."
Ah, Sam thought, righting himself on his bunk, there was never a truer statement, and it was astonishing that she of all people had considered it.
Adelaide Stanton had a flowered cloth cap tied to her head, to keep her curls in perfect order overnight, yet little wisps of graying hair pulled out from under it. Her printed cotton nightgown was the most decorous Sam had seen; the tightly buttoned collar rode up her thin neck, the folds of cloth diffused tentlike over her body. He had been bestowed with the tiniest flash of skin around her ankles when she whipped her feet onto the bunk and settled her blanket over herself.
"Would you mind shutting the window? The noise of the wind disturbs me greatly."
"Of course, Mrs. Stanton." Sam pulled the shutter down. The air in their compartment stilled. Sam put his nose to the slats of the shutter and heard the soft whistle of the breeze outside. He breathed deeply, drawing the air into his lungs, closing his eyes as it lifted the hair sloping over his forehead and cooled that first effect of closeness. A minute later, Sam rose to switch off the lights, and the blue-tinted globe of the night-light came on.
On the bunk above Mrs. Stanton, his back straight even in sleep, the black of his coat still uncreased, was the Indian gentleman. He slept in his clothes, unlike Adelaide Stanton, who had changed in the adjoining bathroom. He wore a white churidar, tight about his shins, a fitted black coat with a mandarin collar, a gold watch on his right wrist, and leather sandals that were now under the bunk. He had not moved in four hours; he did not even seem to breathe, his form as rigid in sleep as it had been when he was awake.
Early that morning, at Palampore, Sam had been the first inside the bogie, desperate for the quiet of a bunk where he could lie down.
He had pulled himself upright when the Indian gentleman paused at the doorway. The Indian though was so diffident, he almost melted back into the corridor again upon seeing Sam. His demeanor seemed retiring, but nothing about his clothing or his person was his sherwani coat was made of a fine and thick black silk, exquisitely tailored; his hair was cut well, his nails manicured. After a moment, he came into the compartment and nodded, his expression watchful. They said good morning to each other, and Sam added, "How are you?"
"Well, well, thank you," the man said. "My seat is here." His voice was firm, yet with an underlying hint of a quaver, backed by defiance.
"I'm not in your seat, am I?"
"No, no. This," he said, pointing to the bunk opposite, and the seat near the door, "is mine. Thank you."
And then Mrs. Stanton appeared. She hesitated at the doorway, ticket in a sweating lilac-gloved hand, three coolies behind her sporting a variety of baggage.
"I'm sorry," Mrs. Stanton said, "but I believe you have my seat."
She was looking toward the Indian, who jumped up from his seat and reached into the breast pocket of his long, black coat. She was not actually looking at the man, not meeting his eyes, that is, but placing her gaze at the first button of his coat, just below his well-trimmed beard.
"I do not think so, madam," he said with an abbreviated bow, not proffering his ticket to her though. "Everything is quite correct here."
Mrs. Stanton's face congealed into a grimace. She was at that indeterminate age that some women achieved once they reached forty, not really aging more until they were seventy, when what little freshness youth provided had long gone, when ideas and prejudices were firmly settled. She had not even glanced at Sam, though perhaps from the corner of her eye, and registered, somehow, that Sam was not Indian. But he looked Indian to a casual, uneducated glance, for now at least, his skin charred by the Burma sun he had trudged under for weeks, his hair a glossy black, his eyes a deepening blue. The color of his eyes was misleading, for Indians too had blue eyes, or green or hazel, an unfortunate legacy of indulgence and lack of self-control on the part of Mrs. Stanton's countrymen. Yet she somehow knew. Something in the way Sam sat, in his manner, proclaimed him not Indian. Mrs. Stanton had no casual, uneducated eye in India. She knew.
"The native carriages are at the back of the train," she said. "Please find your way there. This is my seat. There can be no possibility of a mistake here."
The British conductor hovering behind Mrs. Stanton's vast figure, with a "May I?" edged through the narrow doorway to look at the Indian's ticket.
"It's quite all right, Mrs. Stanton," he had said, and cleared his throat in that uncomfortable silence. He held the little pink rectangle of cardboard between the tips of his fingers, and Sam saw the name MOHAMMAD ABDULLAH stamped on it, along with FIRST CLASS, BOGIE 4.
It would have been quite all right if the matter had stopped there.
"I'm sure," Mrs. Stanton said, the pale yellow feather in her purple hat quivering with the movement of her head, "this gentleman has been issued the right ticket. But this is not his place. Surely you realize that?"
"You are welcome to sit beside me, madam," Mr. Abdullah said. "But I have bought, and paid, for this ticket. There is no possibility of a mistake here." He echoed Mrs. Stanton's words, but his voice was so bland, his expression so unmarked that Sam saw the underlying sarcasm only in a little smile that touched his lips within his neat, graying beard.
Mrs. Stanton seemed to grow until she filled the doorway with her obstinate presence. And when she spoke, she did not look at the man, but at the conductor. "I cannot be asked to sit in the same compartment as this man. There must be another seat in this bogie."
Her words roused a flurry of worry in the poor conductor, who mopped his brow, and cleared his throat even more. Sam, still seated near the window, had not said a word. He had merely watched the three of them, frozen in a tableau of stubbornness Mr. Abdullah, unyielding to all influence; Mrs. Stanton, equally shut from everything, but simmering in anger, her breathing harsh; and the conductor, sighing and repeatedly patting the pocket where his handkerchief reposed. The conductor had taken Mr. Abdullah out into the corridor and Sam heard him talking, entreating, pleading. At first, his voice was persuasive, and then raised and threatening, but Mr. Abdullah's voice was always tranquil in response. "This is my seat," he had said. "She is welcome to go elsewhere." The train had waited, because Mrs. Stanton insisted that it would not leave Palampore until Mr. Abdullah left her compartment.
The tags on Mrs. Stanton's bags read CALCUTTA-PALAMPORE-RUDRAKOT. On the Calcutta to Palampore train, Mrs. Stanton had sat uncomplaining with Mr. Abdullah. But there she was unknown, just anybody. On the Rudrakot train, she was someone of consequence. She knew the conductor well; he got his little packet of Christmas biscuits and an envelope of rupees from her as baksheesh. He was under her patronage. She could hold up the train if she so wanted. This was her train the train of those like her who owned and ran Rudrakot.
Sam leaned forward to rest his elbows on his thighs and stared fixedly at the floor of the compartment. A little crowd of coolies had grown outside on the platform, along with some pointing of fingers and some asking of questions in Hindustani and Urdu, and Sam could understand only bits of that. What a bloody memsahib she was, he thought. The memsahib of the British Raj, so typical, so true to what she had to be imperious, disdainful, blind to any color of skin but hers, fearful even behind that mask of rudeness. He also experienced a well of irritation at Mr. Abdullah, with his quiet voice, his gentle insistence, his expectation of such behavior. Sam would have wrung Mrs. Stanton's skinny neck by now. His shoulder throbbed.
Mr. Abdullah and Mrs. Stanton had fallen silent, each inflexible, until the train blasted its horn and pulled out of the station after thirty minutes. All the immense built-up drama deflated into futility, because Mrs. Stanton's influence over the night train to Rudrakot from Palampore could bear the weight of only half an hour. For anything beyond that, she would have to be someone and something greater in the British Raj.
She sat then, finally, her bags and hatboxes littered under the bunks, her knitting by her side, and the train moved into its measure without a word spoken in the carriage. And this was Sam's introduction to the India he had not yet seen for himself because, though he had been in the subcontinent since February, all his time thus far had been spent in Burma dealing with the Japanese invasion. With his own attention caught by the war, the Indian nationalist struggle for independence from the British had only briefly imprinted itself upon his consciousness. Ten or fifteen years ago, the Rudrakot train would have stayed at Palampore at Mrs. Stanton's command and Mr. Abdullah would have been forcibly removed to the back. Much had changed since then the world war, the insistence on a free and independent India and so, in 1942, Indians often traveled (when they could afford it) in first-class carriages, some journeys conducted, as this one promised to be, in total silence.
The day passed, slowly, with the stops along the track, the white heat of the sun, the blessed death of it by evening, the coming of the night. Sam and Mrs. Stanton went to dinner together, beckoned by the call of the bogie chai boy, who popped his head deferentially into their compartment and said, "Dinner is served, Sahib," to Sam, and then added, "Memsahib," to Mrs. Stanton. Mr. Abdullah, the boy ignored, knowing he would have his own food with him, that he had permission to occupy their compartment, but not to sit at the table in the dining carriage. Progress had stepped, gingerly, into their compartment, but did not yet dare step over the threshold into other parts of the train. Sam and Mrs. Stanton sat across from each other, for such as it was, they knew only each other, and he learned that the best way to keep her from asking questions was to ask them of her. He knew precious little about her by the end of dinner, because he had not listened to her answers.
They returned from the dining carriage at nine o'clock to the aroma of curry and spices. Mr. Abdullah was just stacking the layers of the round steel vessels of his tiffin carrier, which had been filled in the waiting rooms at Palampore with rice, chapattis, and chicken curry, and from which he had surreptitiously nibbled throughout the day. She wrinkled her nose, but Mr. Abdullah did not seem to see it. He was scrupulously polite and climbed up on his berth, turned on his side, and went to sleep.
When Mrs. Stanton had also closed her eyes, Sam took out his map of Rudrakot and traced all its possessions with his finger. The cantonment area. The native town. The lake. Chetak's tomb. He had four days of leave before he had to return to his regiment. Would it be enough to find his brother? It had to be. Any alternative answer to that question was too terrible to consider. So it was love for Mike and for his mother that drove Sam Hawthorne to Rudrakot.
What he did not know then was that love, of another kind, fulfilling and cherished, would bring him back here, and would eventually occupy his life. Would give him Olivia.
As the train cut through the night toward Rudrakot, Mila sprawled on her stomach, her face flattened against the pillows. Every now and then, she twitched and her eyelids fluttered, her sleep sprayed with dreams she could not stop. Somewhere, a conscious part of her watched the pictures in her mind and told her it was only a dream, that it meant nothing. There was the mocking face of the madam of the Lal Bazaar, Leelabai, her appraising eyes, her too-knowing gaze upon Mila.
She is going to teach us, an Indian girl? Teach us what? Girls are good for only one thing, Missionary Sahib, you should know that. Or perhaps not, your God does not allow you the normal pleasures of a man. What a cruel God you have.
Leelabai was soft and dumpy, dimpled at her elbows, with skin pale as ripening wheat, her hair balding at the part on the crown of her head. Her guttural voice was fed by the harsh smoke of the hookah she smoked incessantly. Mila had almost departed then in disgust, but Father Manning had put a gentle hand at her elbow and said softly, "Look at the women. And then leave if you want to."
So she lifted her eyes for the first time to the women some only girls with childhoods barely brushed out of their expressions. They were all caricatures of any real women Mila had known, caricatures of herself even, their faces powdered white, quarter-inch-thick kohl lining their eyes, its curves elongated to their hairlines, mouths red with paan, beauty marks to ward off the evil eye painted on a chin here, a cheek there.
Mila woke shaking, exhausted, her breathing ragged, with a sudden sting of tears behind her eyes, the images of her dream hanging before her. She had not known that such places existed until Father Manning had taken her there, and once she had visited the Lal Bazaar, she was not able to stay away. So Mila went twice a week, listened to the women's shrill laughter and to their bawdy jokes, heard the hurt lodged somewhere deep within them that they could not be her, privileged and clean that they had never been able to be her, and would never be her now, for they were fallen women.
She sat up on the bed and put her feet on the cool mosaic floor. The previous day's heat had lost its edge, but only a little, enough to transmute into a deceiving semblance of coolness. Though the fan whirred overhead, Mila had woken in a sweat, her skin damp on the undersides of her breasts and the nape of her neck under her hair. The outside khus mats covering the windows of her bedroom had been drawn up by a servant and the sky beyond was saturated with the beryl blues of predawn. Mila had lived in Rudrakot for most of her life, and yet had never tired of the tranquility of this time of day, or been overwhelmed by the waiting vastness of the desert outside that would receive her. She had once been awed by its immensity, when she was a child. Around Rudrakot, the Sukh was a desert not of sands, but a hard, pounded ground of dirt stretching out for miles. Trees and scrub dotted its arid countenance where they could find hold, but they were so sparse, so thirst ridden, their leaves and branches grew into a spinelike hardiness. But there were ways to survive in the Sukh, shelter to be found in the shade of the little hills and hillocks formed of its slowly eroding surface, water to be tapped if one only knew where to look, journeys to be made with a surefootedness led by the sun during the day and the canopy of stars at night.
And in the view from Mila's bedroom window, well into the horizon, one small hill was adorned with a hundred-year-old tomb. It housed a massive, square sarcophagus, ten feet by ten feet, large enough to provide that eternal rest for five humans lying side by side. The tomb was called Chetak, after its occupant, so beloved in life that, in death, he warranted this magnificent creation of stone. The enormous sarcophagus covered the remains of an enormous body. Not human. Chetak was a horse, of the four-legged kind.
The fright from the dream had melted away, and Mila titled her head to listen for sounds within the house. She had woken at this time the cusp of night and day ever since she was seven years old because this was what her mother, Lakshmi, used to do for Mila's father, Raman.
Lakshmi had always opened her eyes before Raman, reached down the bed to touch his feet lightly in the darkness, as a wife was taught to do, asking for a daily blessing from the man who was her master. After Lakshmi died, Mila would awaken to listen for her father's rising and his going down the stairs to the well for his prayers. Mila did not have to sweep the courtyard, wash it down, draw the rice flour kolam to welcome visitors at the front door; there were enough servants in the house to do this. But the rules of engagement between men and women were laid out such that Mila had felt, without ever being told so, that a woman in the house had to rise before the men. In the early years, when she was merely seven years old, she would knock softly on her father's door with a, "Papa, it is time to get up," her limbs loose with sleep, her long hair tangled in knots, her short petticoat (which she wore under her frocks) crumpled. Raman would carry his child back to her bed, his heart touched by this devotion, and Mila would be asleep again before he put her down. He scolded her so much Mila understood that she did not need to waken before her father it was a wife's place, not a daughter's, or at least not a child's responsibility. But this did not stop her from getting up before he did, though now she stayed in her room, waiting to hear his footsteps pass her door.
This morning the top floor of the house was quiet. One of her brothers, Kiran, snored delicately from the room on her right. Ashok, younger than she, the youngest of them all, was a room away on her left, and he would not have been merciful to Kiran had he known of the snoring. Ashok would have stomped around the house trumpeting like an elephant but he was only sixteen, and so young enough to find this sort of thing terribly amusing.
Mila brushed her teeth in the bathroom without glancing into the mirror above the porcelain sink. The toothpaste was chalky and bitter, made of the neem tree's fruit and leaves. It reminded her of the time she had tasted the walls of the corridor outside her room just after they had been brushed with a wash of slaked lime. Mila had felt an irresistible urge to lay her tongue against the dripping whitewash to see if it tasted as good as it smelled. She had placed her fingertips on the wall for support, leaned inward, and touched the tip of her tongue on the gritty coating as her nose was crushed against the surface. The taste was abominable, and Mila had backed away hurriedly, swallowing that stinging flavor, wiping her fingers on her frock, just as Kiran climbed up the stairs. He said nothing, just grinned, dabbed at her white nose, and made sounds of retching.
When she came out of the bathroom, she paused by the photographs on the wall between the windows that fronted the balcony. Jai, ruler of Rudrakot, was in each of them, glorious in his royal finery. Rudrakot was now a princely state in British India, and Jai's title, inherited as it was, had little meaning other than to bestow pomp and circumstance upon him. But this minor inconvenience had never stopped him from considering privilege to be his birthright. In one photograph, he was on his beloved horse, Fitzgerald, saddle and boots indistinguishable from the horse's ebony coat, Jai in his ICC uniform of salt white jacket, white turban, all rimmed in light blue and gold braid. In another, Jai was with Lord Wellesley, governor of the Bombay presidency, and was turned away from the governor just a little, head up, chin ferocious, arrogant as usual. In the third, Jai had been captured during one of his famed White Durbars, held on the night of purnima the full moon more shadows than light on his thin, sharply planed face.
Mila touched this last photograph lightly, the glass cool under her fingertips. Jai had been away at the Imperial Cadet Corps for sixty-two days, and by her counting, it would be at least another month before he returned. He had written her eight letters so far, which she had read with a deep sense of happiness, for in them, he had been candid, open, passionate attributes difficult to posses when they came face-to-face because of an inbuilt shyness in both. As Mila stood by Jai's photograph, she heard the first splash of the brass pot into the well. She went out into the balcony and leaned over the edge.
The sky above her lightened, skewered with skeins of tangerine, but the backyard, thick with the arms of the banyan tree, still held the ebony of the night. And there, amidst that gloom, Mila saw the gleam of the well's whitewashed wall and heard Raman's voice, soothing and mellow in praise of God.
Mila bent down until her chin rested on the concrete parapet. She would pray with Papa, she thought, but she could not concentrate. A tumult of sound crept into her consciousness the crows cawed, the koyal cooed maddeningly, water splashed from the well, the soft, morning voices of the servants rose behind the house. The racket never seemed to bother her father; his focus was complete in the midst of chaos. In the distance, she heard the short and sharp hoots of the night train to Rudrakot. Still balanced on just her toes and chin, her body bent at the waist, she watched the steam from the engine dissolve as a tiny slice of the sun brightened the horizon just beyond Chetak's tomb.
This train would bring Jai home to his kingdom of Rudrakot, though when, Mila did not know. Jai was never very specific with time; he did not have to be because, as in everything else, time adjusted itself around him. Jai would travel, of course, with the train, not on the train, his own bogie shunted to the back. He would merely use the engine to pull him to Rudrakot, but would endure none of the discomforts of travel. Jai's bogie had hushed custard apple carpets, Louis XV sofas and giltwood chairs, teak and brass appointments, a gold-plated sink in the mirrored bathroom. Even, at one end, his own kitchen and bar. His own palace-uniform-clad servants, in white turbans and coats with silver-braided sashes. Gaslight-shaped lamps that picked diamonds out of shimmering cut-glass decanters. Mila had traveled in Jai's bogie only once, with Papa and her brothers many years ago, and she had been astounded by how easily Jai fit into his surroundings, lounging casually on the French damask of the sofa, barely distressed as his wine sponged into that precious fabric when the train braked. The conductor and driver had come later to apologize for the train's shudders, with promises to never let that happen again.
Mila listened to the chug-chug of the train, and wondered who came to Rudrakot today, traveling in a much more common way. She lifted her elbows from the balcony's ledge and straightened her back. It did not matter. This night train to Rudrakot would bring them no visitors. Nothing would ruffle the calm of their lives, nothing would break the routine . . . until Jai came back home.
Sam woke as the train pulled into Rudrakot at the first shine of dawn. Of the birth of the sun over the flat edge of the earth he saw nothing, for his window looked out toward the cavernous platform. He raised the shutter as the brakes squealed on the tracks. Both Mrs. Stanton and Mr. Abdullah were already awake. The Indian was seated cross-legged on his bunk, hunched against the curved roof of the compartment, his head dangerously close to the fans. She was dressed and finished in a white voile dress printed with lilacs, dog-skin gloves on her hands, her curls coaxed back into place on her skull, her bags packed, the nightgown stuffed in with her knitting.
There were little boys and old, wizened men along the edges of the platform, staring solemnly as the train trundled by. They all had their hands raised into the air, fingers splayed in the Churchillian V. Their stances were overcasual, free arms looped about each other's waists, weights depending upon one foot so their hips stuck out. It was an odd gesture, one Sam had witnessed at other train stations during this journey, but never up this close. He began to laugh, and the weight of the last few weeks lifted.
The men and boys had their palms facing inward, not outward, with two fingers, the middle and the index, up in the air. If one of them tucked his index finger out of sight, it would mean something else altogether. Surely, Sam thought, filled with delight, it was a mistake. Or was it? Would the vast, uneducated Indian masses, with their unwashed faces and their ragged clothes, show the finger to the first-class compartments normally occupied only by the British?
The platform crackled with a sudden life. Coolies lined up where the bogie doors were to stop, one after another, four or five deep, their turbans and short coats a brilliant red, white dhotis wrapped around their waists and tucked between their legs. Even in the gathering heat of the morning, steam blew from the cauldrons of chai makers, wafting the aroma of cinnamon that made Sam think suddenly and yearningly of his mother's pumpkin pie. Men and women who had slept through the night in neat rows along the platform, in anticipation of the train, sat up on their haunches to watch it unload its bellyful of passengers. Vendors shouted out their wares, hoping for a hungry passenger who could not wait until he reached his home in Rudrakot. There were crisp golden samosas and persimmon-colored jalebis wrapped in newspaper, and toted in wicker baskets aswarm with flies. Water bearers carried earthenware pots atop their heads Hindu bearers for Hindu water, and Muslim bearers for Muslim water covered with steel plates, long-handled cups hooked on the side. To the India-uninitiated, this raw, unboiled water was a silent invitation to cholera and dysentery.
Mrs. Stanton leaned out of her window and pointed at a coolie. "You! Andhar aao. Jaldi! Now!" and he obligingly fought his way into the carriage to their compartment and began to pile her luggage onto his head, his shoulders, slung on his arms, settled on his thighs, wherever he could find a place so he did not have to share his burden and thus his fee. She made him drop all the bags on the platform outside the bogie, around her feet.
Sam waited until Mr. Abdullah had also left, then pulled out his holdall and tried to hoist it onto his good shoulder. He almost collapsed with its weight, so he settled for dragging it behind him down onto the platform. Here and there, uniformed officers from the Rudrakot regiments, both Indian and British, turned to glance at him with a mild curiosity, but no one approached him. Mrs. Stanton still waited in front of the bogie, glancing at the watch on her wrist. There was clearly no one to meet her, and she had expected someone. Sam almost offered his services and then stopped himself. He would be damned if he would help this hellish woman. The crowds milled around her in a tightening circle; the coolie sat by, spitting out paan near her feet, a few bright red spots sprinkling on her lilac shoes; people fell against her as though by accident, knocked her bags about; and still no one came to receive Mrs. Stanton. She began to droop.
A bevy of little boys appeared from nowhere to surround Sam. "Sahib, baksheesh!" "Please, Sahib, some baksheesh." "You like dance, I do dance." And then an incongruous flailing of arms and legs was followed by "Hip, hip, hurrah" in strident voices. They pawed at him; he fought them off as well as he could, then reached into his shirt pocket for a bunch of coins, which he gave them, one by one, placing each anna coin in an upturned, blackened little palm. They all looked the same to him, bright-eyed, sweet-faced creatures, with a great deal of cunning and slyness all at once. With the money tucked into their torn shorts and shirts, the boys melted away to go bother someone else. But one boy gave Sam a solemn look and shook his head when he proffered the coin.
"No, Sahib," he said, and then ran along the platform and behind a newsstand.
Sam instinctively followed him, hauling his bag. When he got there, the boy, not more than eight perhaps, was standing with his back against the wall, his hands looped behind. He smiled at Sam, looked down at the hand holding the anna coin, and said nothing.
"Take it," Sam said.
"You American, Sahib?"
"Yes. Take it. Go feed your family with it." He did not have the energy to care what they did with the money he gave out, but he still gave. It made him feel as if he was doing something; it appeased his conscience.
"Three annas, Sahib," the boy said. There was a grown-up look on his face, despite his vagabond appearance. He had not bathed in many days, clumps of filth matted his hair, his face was patterned with dirt, and his teeth were yellow and rotting.
"Three annas?" Sam grinned at the boy. He had some skill at negotiation despite having begged for the money. "Two," he said. "My final offer. Take it or leave it."
"I have sick sister, Sahib, please, Sahib."
Sam took out another coin and placed it next to the one in his hand. "Here."
"More for three annas, Sahib. Whatever you want. I touch, two annas. You touch, anywhere, three annas."
Sam's stomach turned. Shit, he thought, oh, bloody shit. Why.
Just then, the birthing sun sent a shaft of sunshine ducking under the platform's roof and over Sam's shoulder to light up the child's face. The wall behind the boy was red-streaked with paan juice and tumultuous blossoms of urine that spat out a stench. Newspapers flapped on their racks, spilling out their surfeit of war news, so many killed, Burma fallen, deaths and destruction, a damnable party at some club in Calcutta, the music accompanied by the bawling of blackout sirens. The boy waited. Something, tiny, countless, moved in his dirty hair, lifting strands of it in the sunlight.
Sam recoiled and the boy's brown eyes flickered with fear, but he retained his smile. Long moments passed and Sam felt sweat pool within his palm, the coins clammy against his skin. Who in hell was he to stand in judgement on this boy? Men wanted this, they paid the boy well for it; he had it to offer . . . he had little else to offer. Perhaps he really had a sick sister at home. Perhaps his mother and his father did not know, or did not care where he was now. Perhaps he had no mother or father. Oh, shit.
Sam reached into his pocket and took out another coin. He set the three of them down on the ground in front of him, and then turned and walked away quickly. The boy whimpered, but Sam did not look back again.
Outside the platform, after having surrendered his ticket stub at the gate, Sam hired a rickshaw and dumped his holdall onto the seat. He was in a bazaar of some sort, foul, disorganized, with overflowing gutters on either side of the muddy tarred road, cows lounging in the center, whipping at flies with their long tails. Something nudged at his shoulder and Sam swung around rapidly, his left arm protecting his right. In front of him, at his very nose, was an enormous head with big, gentle eyes, long lashes, and a thick-lipped mouth that moved in gum-chewing fashion. The camel sniffed at Sam, blew its stinking breath into his face, and then righted itself to its full height. The camel driver, seated in the cart yoked to the beast's back, laughed. "He is curious, Sahib. He has not seen American sahib before, only British. Many British here."
So much for being invisible at Rudrakot, Sam thought with disgust. It was as though he was carrying a banner proclaiming that he was foreign, that he was American. How did everyone know even before he opened his mouth?
"The Victoria Club, Sahib?" the rickshaw puller asked.
"No, I'm not staying at the club."
An enormous and stately Daimler Double Six honked. Sam saw Mrs. Stanton, gracefully and joyously upright, in the backseat. A Union Jack fluttered on the bonnet. As the limousine went by, Mr. Abdullah raised his hand in salute to Sam from the front seat, next to the chauffeur. Sam stared at the squat backside of the brown car. The same car had come to pick them up? They knew each other, then. Why that performance on the train?
When he was climbing onto the rickshaw, a man came running out of the station, dragging the tearful boy behind him, the wet cutting twin rivers through the dirt on his face down to his chin.
"Sahib," the man shouted, paan-colored saliva staining one side of his mouth, as though he had been bloodied in a fight. "You don't like this one? He is stupid. Another one? Younger? Older? Or you want girl?" He cuffed the boy on the head; the boy ducked and cried out, trying to yank his thin arm away from the man's grip.
Sam whipped his head away and said to the rickshaw puller, "Take me to the political agent's house. Jaldi."
Copyright © 2006 by Indu Sundaresan