Indigo: A Novel of India
SYNOPSIS: A novel of life in an Indian garrison town, Amritpore, this story centers in the household of Madame de St, Remy, a French widow who owns and operates an indigo factory. She despises the English colony, particularly eccentric old Mrs. Lyttleton, who has befriended Madame’s dark-haired son, young Jacques de St. Remy. Jacques has an intimate of his own age, Hardyal, a sensitive young Hindu. To break up these friendships, his mother sends Jacques off to school in the Indian uplands. There he chums up with a schoolmate,
by CHRISTINE WESTON
ON THE eve of his departure for England the Civil Engineer of Amritpore, Mr. Wall, drove between the sandstone pillars of Mrs. Lyttleton’s compound and drew up under the porch. His groom led the tonga away towards the stables, and Wall went up the steps to greet his old friend. She took his hand and stared into his face. “ I can’t believe that this is the last time I shall see you.”
“Look here, I’m only going on furlough, you know!”
They sat as usual on Mrs. Lyttleton’s verandah under the menagerie of stuffed heads. Wall poured himself a brandy from the decanters which waited beside his chair, and played with a glass eye which had popped out from a moldering socket above him.
“Well,” said Mrs. Lyttleton, the sense of parting hanging over her like a cloud. “Can it be two years since we said good-bye to Hardyal, and you longed to go with him?”
“Two years. Hardyal and I shall probably pass each other in the Mediterranean.”
“Perhaps for you,” she murmured, “England will constitute a rebirth.”
Two years ago he would have kindled at the prospect; today he shrugged.
“Yes — to get away will be a sort of rebirth. I’m tired.” He broke off’, then finished on an odd note of anger: “ I’m fed up!”
This was obvious, and she was sorry, but she had heard too many rumors about him to venture even a friendly question, so she changed the subject by inquiring for news of Jacques.
“I understand this is his last year at St. Matthew’s,” Wall said. “Do you think they’ll make a monk out of him?”
She shook her head. “To he fair, I don’t think they ever intended that.”
“If not, it is only because Madame has other plans.” The glass eye slipped from his fingers and fell in a corner, where it lay balefully glaring. “She will bring him back to Amritpore and set him to work in the factory, which he loathes. In due time she will import a meek little wife for him, from her so aristocratic France. You remember we once believed that he would rebel? But I wonder what chance he has now, with that crippled hand ? Oh, I think we can rest assured that Madame will attend to everything.”
There was a brief silence, then she conjectured aloud: “I wonder, though, whether Jacques will stand up.”
“Can’t see that it signifies whether he does.”
“It will signify for him. if not for us. Oh, I know you’ve accused me of reading too much importance into minor matters, but J think Jacques’s struggle is important. Whenever I see youth break with the past, I know that the future must feel the shock.”
Wall smiled skeptically, but she persisted. “I can’t help wondering about these children. It would have been a different story if they had all stayed in their own country. But in India they will be on trial — as we are.”
“Oh, I know you’ve never felt, as I have, this sense of being on trial—not only for our shortcomings as rulers, but for our capacities as human beings.”
Wall frowned. He disliked the turn which the conversation had taken. He enjoyed Mrs. Lyttieton’s wit, her malice and her penetration, just so long as she confined herself to more or less airy and personal affairs; but he had a horror of the controversial soul-searching to which she was occasionally given. By cutting herself off from most of her own kind she had come to question and to criticize them more and more from the Indian standpoint a dangerous and futile attitude, saved from downright iniquity only by virtue of her age and prestige.
AS NIGHT fell, out from the obscurity burst the frogs’ voices. Wall could imagine the countless pallid throats swelling in chorus, and a sense of suffocation came upon him, for there seemed no respite from the country’s fecundity, no crevice that was not occupied by some musician-snout, some fixed eye, some coiled spring of venom, or a fistful of feathers cheeping with appalling lust. Vivid with brandy, he conjured up visions of home, of England’s ant ique serenity, and the effort brought him to the brink of revelation: he no longer felt alone and spectral, but part of the solid si ruetlire of a tried and merciful whole.
Mrs. Lyttleton broke the spell: “Where is that boy with the lamps?”
The deliquescent light which bathed the garden stopped short at the verandah steps. “Jalal!” screamed Mrs. Lyttleton in the sudden fury of autocracy neglected. “Butti jalao — Light the lamps! ”
There was no answer except, from the frogs.
She peered at Wall through the gloom. “I’m so sorry. He thought we were talking, and decided not to disturb us. But the lights, the lights! It’s getting as dark as pitch.”
“Do sit down. I’m not hungry, and this is the last time we shall talk together,”
“I shall dock his pay!”
“You won’t. You know you won’t. You have never punished him and that’s what’s the matter with him. It’s what’s the matter with all of them.”
She realized that her guest, was drunk. “I’ll go and find Jalal,” she murmured. “I shan’t be a minute.”
But Wall had risen, suddenly tall in the shadows. “Don’t move. I’ll go. I know my way.”
There was something ominous about him, and she hesitated.
“Don’t, worry— I’ll find him.”
Mrs. Lyttleton experienced the sudden helpless fear which assails old people, for she had caught the strain of temper in his voice and she knew that, tone, having heard it often enough in her long life - a cold, dry tone like a sword drawn from its sheath.
“Aubrey — ”
But he walked across the verandah and disappeared into the darkened drawing room. She heard his feet on the matting, heard him bump into a chair, then knew that he had entered the dining room beyond. She fumbled for her cigarettes, assuring herself that she was an old fool to be anxious about Jalal, who was either drunk in some remote nook or alert enough to see the sahib coming, and to bolt.
In the meantime Wall felt his way through the almost pitch-black rooms to the verandah where dishes were washed and lamps trimmed. Beyond it, stretched an untidy compound and a line of servants’ quarters where a light or two glimmered. At sight of them his formless temper flared into rage. He had always detested Mrs. Lyttleton’s servants who, to him, epitomized all that was typical in the native character: inertia, instability, filth. He’d settle them!
He started across the verandah and immediately fell over a large bundle which lay in the shadow of a meat-safe. The bundle was Jalal, snoring in the happy oblivion of his favorite drug. Wall, in falling, cracked ins elbow on a corner of the meat-safe and a white heat exploded inside him. Pulling himself together, he kicked the supine figure twice with the precise, weighted kick of an athlete. Jalal groaned and rolled sluggishly over on his side; he did not waken but lay snoring on a changed note with his feet drawn up like a trussed fowl.
Wall turned away and shouted into the gloom for his syce to fetch the tonga, and when a faint answering shout reached him he made his way back to the front verandah. “I found your servant, but he’s so stuffed with opium I doubt very much whether you will get any dinner or any breakfast, for that matter.”
“Did you try to wake him?”
“I gave him a couple of kicks, but he merely snored.”
“You kicked him?”
“Not hard enough, apparently.”
They heard the jingle of harness and watched the soft beam from the carriage lamps bloom on the puddles. Mrs. Lyttleton felt sad that they should part on a discordant note, but Wall was silent, staring into the obscurity where rain was beginning to fall once more. The queer violence of a few minutes ago had calmed him, his blood flowed coolly, evenly, and he felt an extraordinary sense of generosity and well-being.
The tonga drove up under the porch and his coachman leaped out and ran to the horses heads.
Mrs. Lyttleton put out her hand and said in a firm voice: “Well, Aubrey!”
He took her dry, wrinkled fingers and kissed the many rings on them.
“Yes,” she murmured, smiling. “Au revoir.”
COME in, come in!” cried Ganpat Rai, catching sight of his Moslem friend behind the bamboo screen. “Come in, Abdul Salim!”
“I see you are busy. I can wait.”
“Wait, then, in the drawing room. I shall join you in a moment.”
Salim retired, stepping cautiously among an array of shoes outside Ganpat Rai’s study. Within, clients were squatting on the floor round the barrister’s impressive English desk, and Salim could hear their droning voices punctuated by the nasal interruptions of Ganpat Rai’s clerk taking down depositions.
He wandered down the verandah to the drawing room with its muddle of English and native furnishings a muddle for which he Had no particular fondness since he had become a convert to the new school of Swadeshi and would not permit foreign tilings in his house. But here were altogether too many brass and teakwood tables with cane settees and a Chippendale mirror, too many photographs in ornate frames — photographs of Hardyal taken during the successive stages of his sojourn in England: Hardyal standing before a low stone house in the uncertain English sunlight; Hardyal on horseback with a row of little willow trees behind him; Hardyal taller, stronger, in flannels and the striped cap of his school.
Hardyal, every inch the pucka sahib! thought Salim, smiling. Then, as he examined a recent portrait of Ganpat Rai, in barrister’s gown and the curled wig and notched collar of the high courts, something hot and unhappy flowed upward from his heart. It was not because he grudged his friend anything; yet how resist a sense of envy and injustice? True, a diploma from the Muslim College at Aligarh and an M.A. from Calcutta University were not to be despised, but they were not Balliol and the Inner Temple.
Salim thought of his own sons, young men with superior ambitions occupying inferior government positions. As the Mohammedan brooded on his pet grudge he paused before the mirror and examined his features; bearded, black-eyed, the hair under his fez heavily streaked with gray. Salim’s forefathers had been officers in the court of the last Mogul, a fact which he found hard to forget and inconvenient to remember.
He picked up yesterday’s Pioneer and skimmed through a dispatch on the fighting in South Africa. Amazing how the English survived defeat after defeat: they must possess inexhaustible veins.
Ganpat Rai appeared in the door. “Which do you prefer, the garden or the house? Both are yours.”
The garden was damp and full of ants; Salim preferred the house. Free from European eyes, they sat on cushions on the floor and a servant brought them pan supari and cigarettes.
Salim said: “I came to thank you for sending me the Khwaja case, though I hoped that you would have come in on it with me.”
“What need? You have far greater skill than I in handling these police prosecutions.”
“You mean I understand the methods of the subordinate police!”
Ganpat Rai glanced at him. “You sound as if something has occurred to shake you, my friend.
The other’s high Semitic nostril quivered. “You would insist that it is a slight thing and beneath my notice.”
“Tell me and let me judge for myself.” As he spoke Ganpat Rai leaned against the wall, tucking one leg under him, and Salim folded his arms across his chest. Both men were in native dress and their postures were extraordinarily indicative: the Hindu all repose, seeing things at a distance; the Mohammedan all passion and defiance.
Salim said: “Then you have not heard that judgment was delivered, yesterday, on the Khwaja case?”
“I have heard nothing.”
“Well, that badzat Jones, in his summing up, chose to indulge in sarcasm at my expense. 4 Mr. Abdul Salim,’ said he,” — here the Mohammedan veered into a passable Oxford drawl, ‘“has seen fit to inject political considerations into this case; considerations which the court —to say the least — finds bewildering, and to say the worst — irrelevant! ‘ ”
“Ah!” Ganpat Rai was frowning. “Case dismissed? ”
There was a disturbance in the verandah and they watched a mob of clients drift down the steps and across the drive towards the gates. The light changed subtly. A servant came in and rolled up the screens, opening the doors to a full tide of freshness. When he had gone Ganpat Rai inquired gently: “You attribute the judgment, not to your own but to Jones’s political bias?”
“Allah! Isn’t it obvious?”
To the Hindu, what was obvious was his friend’s readiness to seize upon what, in this instance, was not obvious at all. Salim shrugged with affected unconcern. “What matter? Jones is an ignoramus.”
Ganpat Rai nodded soothingly. “Perhaps he will be transferred.”
“Would to God some miracle might transfer every mother’s son of them lo Jehannum!”
The other smiled involuntarily. “Ah, yes, to make room for a Mahmud of Ghazni or some other great Mohammedan conqueror of India?”
Salim gazed at him thoughtfully. “Why not?” When his friend remained silent the Mohammedan burst out: “Allah! How tired I am of them all! You do not see it, you do not feel it! But we are like sheep, we are slaves, forever obeying, salaaming, fawning!”
Ganpat Rai sat sad-eyed, like one of his own Bhakti saints, for he knew very well that in Amritpore there were many, Hindus and Mohammedans, who shared Salim’s feelings; men with grievances festering like bamboo slivers in their flesh, honest men with the everlasting human dream flowing in their veins.
Salim regained his composure. “We see things differently. I have not your forbearance, for I cannot believe that in life changes occur of themselves. Nothing comes of itself but sickness.”
Presently Ganpat Rai offered his guest another cigarette and attempted, with a lawyer’s skill, to divert the conversation into less dangerous channels. Had Salim by any chance heard the story of Ranulatta’s attempt to bribe the new Superintendent of Police? The money-lender sent an emissary with an offering of mangoes, several of which had been cunningly opened and gold coins inserted in place of the big center seed.
But it seemed that the Englishman had received some inkling of what to expect. A humorist in his way, he received Ramdatta’s man wilh a great show of geniality, admired the mangoes, and then regretfully explained that he was himself unable to eat the fruit, which gave him diarrhea. However, since it was out of the quest ion to return such a gift, he would presume to share credit with Ramdatta in an act of charity. And sending his orderly to round up a group of itinerant beggars, the Policeman distributed the fruit among them.
The story delighted Salim; and talking of Ramdatta, did Ganpat Rai know that Madame de St. Remy was up to her ears in debt to the moneylender? This was mere gossip but plausible enough. The world, always excepting poor Madame, knew that indigo was done for; yet last year she put another three hundred acres to indigo while her foreman openly stated that they could no longer dispose of what they had on hand.
Ganpat Rai looked serious. “So she is borrowing from that gid — that vulture?”
“Birds of a feather. But let her ruin herself. If it were not indigo it would be something else. The country is a treasure house for these people — not for us! By the way, I met your friend Wall’s successor the other day.”
“How did he impress you?”
“You should know by now that your English friends do not impress me they depress me.” He gave the other a sidelong glance. “Since we gossip, what do you happen to know about the death of old Mrs. Lyttleton’s servant, the disreputable Jalal?”
“No more than that he died of a fall.”
“I hear whispers that he was beaten to death.”
“By Mrs. Lyttleton?” Ganpat Rai laughed.
“Feroze, the assistant surgeon, is my cousin, as you know. He was present at the autopsy and he tells me that Jalal’s spleen was ruptured by what looked like a sharp blow. Feroze assures me that it could not possibly have been self-inflicted.”
Ganpat Rai gazed at his friend. “I know that Jalal was a co-religionist of yours. Can that be the reason for your concern?”
“It doesn’t happen to be, in this case. But mysteries amuse me, especially when they implicate the English. Oh, I’m not suggesting that Mrs. Lyttleton was in any way responsible, or even that she knows how it happened. However, there are certain points which fascinate me: .Jalal was a stupid fellow; he had no enemies, nor was he athletically given to rushing about, inviting physical injury. Yet Feroze tells me emphatically that the spleen was ruptured - and he has seen malarial spleens in people who have been beaten or kicked.”
“Truly a mystery,” observed Ganpat Rai drily. But he felt an undefinable uneasiness; Salim was no fool and his little discoveries were often of a disquieting nature.
“Another thing,”continued the Mohammedan. “The night they found Jalal dead in Mrs. Lyttleton’s house, your friend Aubrey Wall was there. It was the evening before he left for Calcutta.”
He had the Hindu’s attention now, all of it. “Why on earth should Wall’s presence have any bearing on the case?”
Salim hesitated for a moment, then spoke with a certain bitterness; “I know that Wail is your friend, but he was never mine. Nor was he friendly to many whom he knew as well as he knew you, and who might be said to have as much claim as you on his kindness. He disliked me, and for a good reason — I disliked him. Perhaps for that reason I am better informed of his character than you could be, for I kept a little dossier on him ever since he came to Amritpore.”
“You spied on him?” The Hindu’s voice was suddenly hard.
“It was not necessary to spy. The English rarely descend to concealment—they are above that sort of thing. But I must say I think Wall was more indiscreet than most men. For instance, he had prostitutes brought into his house.”
“An indiscretion even in a lonely bachelor, I grant you!” And Ganpat Rai laughed.
“Don’t worry. It will all be charged up to our account.” He was back on his favorite ground and Ganpat Rai listened in despair. “Not enough white women to go around, so we must take what we can get — black, brown, or tea-colored! This beastly country, don’t, you know, quite unfit for white men.”
“Oh, hush!" Ganpat Rai implored. He rose and walked noiselessly to the door, peered out, then came back. “Abdul Salim, sometimes I think you are quite mad.”
The Mohammedan looked at him somberly. “ You love these people,” he said in a strange voice. “I wonder why? I have tried to see them through your eyes, but I can’t. There are more and more, every day, who feel as I feel.”
“I know that. I do not scorn your feelings — there is much in you that I admire and respect. But when you tell me that I love the English, you are right. I do love them. That is my excuse, my justification.”
The other’s eyes had a curious veiled expression like the bloom on grapes. “But they do not love you, Ganpat Rai.”
Ganpat Rai sighed. “Perhaps you are right. You are very subtle. But there is nothing very subtle about affection and gratitude. Aubrey Wall is my friend and I have eaten his salt. For two years his family have befriended my son. I cannot — I will not listen to you.”
Salim shrugged. “Then I shall say no more about his private life. Let us confine ourselves to his public actions. You know that he was hot-tempered and given to beating his servants? On the night of Jalal’s death he drove to Mrs. Lyttleton’s and sent his syce to the stables while he talked with Mrs. Lyttleton on the front verandah. Later, the syce was summoned to bring the tonga to the front of the house, and he tells me that Wall shouted to him from the back verandah from the very place where Jalal was later found dead.”
“Is it on the strength of these flimsy details that you try to build up a case against Wall? Remember, you have yet to show cause.”
As the Hindu took up the cudgels, Salim smoked with an enigmatic air.
“Let us ignore, for the moment,” said Ganpat Rai, “the all-important why and wherefore and stick to your pretty little array of circumstantial evidence. I am familiar with the general plan of Mrs. Lyttlet on’s house. The distance which separates the front verandah from the back is roughly a hundred feet. There are no doors, not even curtains in between — merely open arches. On your own showing there were but two people present that evening, Wall and Mrs. Lyttleton. Presumably there was not much noise going on, for they are quiet, well-bred persons. Nad Wall for any reason whatsoever attacked Jalal, there must hav e been a scuffle or an outcry.
“Mrs. Lyttleton is notoriously lax and tolerant with her servants, and she would never have permitted anyone to lay a hand on Jalal. She told me, herself, everything that occurred that evening.
“The autopsy revealed that he was soaked in opium, and they arrived at the perfectly logical assumption that in his drugged state he had walked into some sharp object, like the corner of a table, and had driven it into his stomach. There never was any question of foul play. Why should there be?” He stared at his companion. “Come now, confess that you are by nature suspicious! Any excuse to pin guilt on your special bugbears, the English.”
The Mohammedan sneered. “After all, you are staking your argument entirely on the word of Mrs. Lyttleton.”
“I would stake my life on it.” Ganpat Rai rose, saying firmly: “Come, let us go into the garden.”
Salim responded less to the command than to the tone, for he felt the emotion which troubled it, and it was always easier for him to respond to emotion than to cold logic. They went out, and the scent of damp earth rose against their faces, refreshing them. As they strolled between glossy hedges their separate suspicions and rivalries dissolved on the pale golden air, and they fell into easy talk of local affairs, of their work, of the South African war. When Salim asked for news of Hardyal, Ganpat Rai took a letter from his breast pocket and handed it to him. Salim read it, smiling.
“What a beautiful hand! And what English! How splendid it will be to have him back.” This was brought out fully and generously, and Ganpat Rai felt a warmth in his eyes. “Yes, I shall be glad to have him back. I have missed him.”
They came to the end of their path and saw before them a sort of arbor, of which the walls were screens of the same blue stuff which served as backstops on the tennis court. From behind this screen came a sound of women’s voices and the music of a sitar. Salim knew that purdah was a source of irritation to Ganpat Rai, who would have liked his sisters and aunts to come into the open like white women; but at first sound of those voices the Mohammedan averted his eyes, striving also to avert his ears. Ganpat Rai smiled. “The ladies have hovered on the brink of insanity ever since we got the cable saying Hardyal would land in Bombay next month.”
Salim said slowly: “He will miss his grandmother.”
“Yes.” And Ganpat Rai thought of the old woman who had died six months before. She had always declared that she would not see her grandson again, and in grief and remorse Ganpat Rai performed sraddha for her; he touched her forehead with the sacred mud of the river and walked seven times round her pyre with a blazing torch. Through the night and all through the next day the pyre burned, fed with oil and sandalwood.
“I wonder what changes we shall find in Hardyal,” mused Salim.
“I, too, wonder,” said Ganpat Rai, and he saw form in the air before him the young, unforgotten face of his son.
ON THE day of the Coconut Festival, when men celebrate the abatement, of the monsoon, Hardyal landed at Bombay. No one met him, and for a little while he fell solitary and exalted as he stood on the Apollo Bunda among a mob of tongues and races, and stared at the ship which had brought him home. Passengers were still disembarking in tenders rowed by blue-trousered lascars; the ship itself stood at a distance, its reflections breaking and mending on a flirty sea.
Tall and slender, dressed in English clothes, he passed for a sunburned English boy as he stood there in a gale of voices and a rich profusion of smells. Wherever he turned he encountered the expressive stares of the East, where curiosity is frankly and swiftly satisfied. Touts and peddlers whined their enticements in his ear, Parsi gentlemen wearing shiny black hats stalked past, bent on large affairs, and his eye caught and retained the vision of a Parsi lady in a sari the color of a canary’s wing.
Presently, not aware himself that his movements had adjusted themselves to the tempo of his own land, — a tempo which even in emergencies remains the tempo of leisure, - Hardyal turned to make inquiries about his luggage, and found himself staring into the face of his father’s servant, Krishna. For a moment they regarded each other silently, with grave attention. Then Krishna clasped his hands, thumbs against his breast, in the exquisite Hindu salutation which does not rely on contact or volubility. It was two years since Hardyal had seen a human being weep for joy, and the sight of Krishna’s tears loosed a sudden answering joyin his own breast.
“But where is Bapu? Why did he not come to meet me?”
“He could not come, but he has sent thee letters.” And Krishna went through an elaborate process of combing his shawls for the letters. One was from Jacques de St. Benny, the other from his father. Ganpat Rai explained that, be had been detained by an important case, so be sent Krishna in his stead. The letter contained money and instructions for their journey to Amritpore.
While Hardyal read his father’s letter and listened to Krishna’s welcoming monologue, he felt the pressure of an immense and increasing familiarity; it was in the air about him, in his ears and in his nostrils, but some instinct prompted him to fend it off. to preserve a little longer the consciousness of his own identity and the uniqueness of men and places. It was in this wistful clinging to a mood that, after slight hesitation, he thrust Jacques’s letter unopened into his pocket and said to the servant: “Let us go.”
They completed arrangements for the disposal of Hardyal’s luggage, then elbowed their way through a storm of humanity to the broad street behind the Bunda, where Krishna had a hired landau waiting. The coachman in a dirty pink turban saluted Hardyal with a flourish of his whip.
Sudden, irrepressible gayety poured through Hardyal. “I don’t, care. Just drive. Drive until I tell you to stop!”
He sat back on the lumpy cushions and sniffed the waterproof lining of the hood which sheltered them from the lingering blaze of an afternoon sun. The landau wheeled out from the pier and headed towards the city, where the tops of trees moved against a chaotic design of walls, arches, and domes. Hardyal had glimpses of the sea, of the outline of the Malabar Hills, and the sepia-colored earth of Bombay. And while Krishna talked of home and of family affairs, Hardyal engaged in the secret task of reviving much that had lain submerged in his memory. How often in his two years in England had he dreamed of this homecoming! But now the dream itself had claimed him.
The great st reets opened before him as the landau threaded between other carriages, between ekkas and bullock carts and bicycles. He smelled the fading freshness of the sea as it lost itself in the city’s spicy breath, and he knew that he had reached a stage in his life when to look back is to count experience as golden. A youth with long black hair and a hibiscus flower tucked behind one ear pedaled beside the carriage, eyeing him with eyes like a dove’s and crying in birdlike tones. Krishna spat an imprecation and the youth, losing heart, veered off down a side street.
The landau moved northward through the center of the city, through the sprawling Crawford Market where Hardyal suddenly ordered the coachman to stop, so that Krishna might buy him pan supari. Leaning on his elbow, he watched as the shopman took one of the wet green leaves from a square of folded linen — watched him smear the leaf with lime and powdered betel-nut and fold it in a compact triangle to lit the human mouth. The taste of pan on his tongue brought a sort of intoxication to Hardyal; he chewed away quietly, dreamily, every pore in his body exclaiming its delight.
The coachman volunteered over his shoulder; “The sahib-log who come to Bombay for the first time ask always to be taken to see the Towers of Silence on Malabar Hill.”
Krishna interposed quickly. “That is no place to celebrate a homecoming! Let us wait and go instead to the Coconut Festival, down by the sea.”
“We can do both, for we have plenty of time. I should like to see the Towers of Silence.”
Krishna looked glum, for he was a good Hindu and the funeral customs of other people did not interest him; but this was his master’s first day at home and he did not have the heart to demur. As they drove towards the outskirts of the city, past the great, balconied houses of Bombay’s rich Farsi merchants, Hardyal was thinking of a morning in Sussex when, over the breakfast table, he listened to Aubrey Wall’s sisters argue about the Towers of Silence.
“It is where they keep the outcastes,” insisted Miss Margaret, always the more forceful and the less accurate of the two. “I ought to know because I was reading about it just the other day.”
“ But Aubrey fold me that the Towers are where they put their dead,” Miss Bella contradicted her sister, with a flatness which for forty years had availed nothing. Both ladies had appealed to Hardyal: “Am I not right?” And he answered gravely: “When I am in Bombay I shall go myself and see, and I will write and tell you.”
Rain had beautified those strange gardens on Malabar Hill where the Parsis’ dokhmas rise under a massed shade of trees. As the landau stopped, Hardyal got out, noticing everywhere the droppings of vultures. Several of these feathered monsters stalked about in the sun, their wings drooping, an air about them that was not all bird. He examined the low roofless towers where the Parsis bring their dead for these birds to translate into eternity, and something of his young optimism faded when, continuing his glance upward, he saw in the soft blue sky a ceaseless wheeling flight of wings silvered a little by the sunlight.
“Yes,” observed a voice in English, close beside him. “Barbarous, I call it!”
The speaker, a short, sallow man in shabby clothes and a stained yellow topi, appeared suddenly from behind a bed of cannas. Hardyal, who in his dealings with Englishmen had acquired something of their reserve, smiled noncommittally. The other smiled back, revealing a row of bad teeth. “Two thousand years of Christianity, two hundred years of civilized rule — and look at them!”
Which does he mean, wondered Hardyal —his teeth, the vultures, or the Towers? The other elucidated by a wave of his arm. “I must say I’m disappointed. We’re not even allowed to go into the bloody things.”
“I don’t think I’d care to,” said Hardyal quickly. His voice caught, the other’s attention and he turned upon Hardyal an eye as seedy as everything else about him. “ Oh, you wouldn’t, wouldn’t you ? ” The eye narrowed, concentrated. “I say — are you English, or what?”
The boy, always disconcerted by bad manners, remained silent, and after further point-blank staring the stranger shrugged. “Of course, I see! You do look so damnably English in that getup!”
THIS encounter was trivial, but it left a faint, troubled stir, a tiny whirlpool which required a larger disturbance for its eventual stilling. Hardyal decided to attend the festival that evening on the eastern shores of the city, and to put on Hindu dress for the first time in two years — a yearning which he had not felt that morning as he stood on the Apollo Bunda, when he struggled, instead, to preserve the unique sense of his own identity, not as Englishman or Hindu, but simply as Hardyal.
With Krishna he sauntered among the native shops, and bought a white dhoti and a muslin shirt fastened with silver studs, a flowered waistcoat, a cap of Kotah muslin, and sandals which rasped his feet after two years of English wool and leather. Krishna had hired a room in the respectable Hindu quarter, and here Hardyal bathed, and changed his clothes before a mirror which the servant held for him.
As he assumed the friendly garments Hardyal’s limbs seemed to take on independent life. Memory gave a little gasp, and he remembered an afternoon in Amritpore when he and Jacques de St. Remy had exchanged their clothing. He stood motionless on the bare mud floor of the hired room, watching Krishna fold the discarded garments and lay them on a string charpoy. Above it on the wall crawled a little gray lizard, and from a mitered niche beside the window a crude and glossy picture of Varuna stared back at him — Varuna, god of the elements, his huge eyes beaming fire, his hair floating like a hatch of serpents.
Krishna said suddenly: “Here is the letter which you did not open.”
It was Jacques’s letter postmarked from Gambul, and as Hardyal examined the familiar handwriting he experienced once more the odd thrill which an unopened letter can bring, the small expectant quake of wonder and excitement. A childish instinct to delay pleasure moved him to put the envelope back in his pocket. “I shall save it to read on the train.”
They had commanded their original charioteer to drive them to the shore, and it. was dusk when Hardyal stepped into the tremors and the marigold smells of a little street where lamps were glimmering behind ironwork grilles and bamboo blinds. The landau picked its way southward this time, skirting the docks and warehouses and the pointing fingers of mills. Swarms of people were pushing in the same direction and progress was slow, with a great racket of tikka-gharries, carriage bells, bicycles, the cries of touts and venders and sporadic yells which splintered on the brusque commands of city policemen. Hardyal gazed at the lights of Bombay.
The coachman drove through bystreets and disgraceful chawls in whose sudden convulsive darkness and rancid odors Hardval’s throat seemed automatically to close up. Beggars and lepers seeped from black crannies and staggered whining beside the wheels; children with old, miserly faces capered in slivers of light, crying for pennies. Shutters creaked, spit flew, and a conglomeration of mangy cats, descending from nowhere, struck the cobbles and exploded like firecrackers, shooting off into the hideous blackness. Hardyal, holding his nose, cried: “Why must you bring us by this route?”
“Why?” echoed the coachman in surprise. “ Why not? It’s a short cut, isn’t it?”
But he stirred his browbeaten horse to a sprightlier gait, almost mowing down a knobby, noseless something upon whose half-human face the carriage lamp flung its ray momentarily.
At last they were free of the chawls and on the road towards the sea, with celebrating crowds billowing round them like foam. A drum rattled and a man’s voice, a sweet high tenor, soared into a serene, expressionless sky. Hardyal had never seen the Coconut Festival. He thought: I must write about all this to Miss Bella and Miss Margaret; and he started to compose a long letter to these two friends, including them with himself in tonight’s magic, conversing with them in small, lordly, expository gestures, his eyes glowing with warm and generous light.
Then the carriage lurched and slowed to a crawl as it ran abreast a perfect avalanche of humanity. Hardyal stood up, clinging to the little rail behind the driver’s seat. Below was the shore, and the sea squirming in acres of moonlight which broke in shadows among the crowd. Driving through the city he had forgotten the moon, but now he saw it hanging there in the sky between himself and Arabia; its cool radiance flowed over his hand, twinkled on the drop at the end of Krishna’s nose, lingered for a second on the scrofulous ear of their tired horse.
They ordered the coachman to wait for them on this spot, for they must get. back to the city in time to catch their train. Then Krishna followed Hardyal down the sands into the crowd which ebbed and flowed like the sea itself, a tide of dark limbs and glistening heads and sudden apparitional faces. Hardyal struggled to the water’s edge and stood there with the sea nibbling at his feet. Moonlight slid like mercury over a surface covered with bobbing coconuts. Presently Krishna brought him one and Hardyal flung it with all his force, a prayer going out with it from his heart — a voiceless prayer which he left, to the god to interpret. Half a day had passed since he stepped ashore on the Apollo Bunda and sent a final glance at the ship which had brought him home. Now exaltation seethed in him, a positive sense of well-being, of increase.
Beside him moaned and swayed other bodies; people brushed against him, he smelled them and felt them. A woman laughed and the sound trembled in his ear with the articulateness of a song, but when he turned to search for her he encountered a thousand faces and lost her voice in a hoarse murmur of invocation which poured from innumerable lips.
Something cool and white struck his thigh and fell to the ground, and as he stooped to pick up a garland of flowers, their scent rushed through his body, cutting off his breath. He held the garland and cast about him for its owner, but no one came to claim it, no one noticed him.
Hardyal caressed his flowers and smiled; he no longer thought of writing to his friends of this adventure, for he no longer saw them as essential to his mood. He stooped and laid his garland on the sea, watching it as minute by minute it stole away from him towards a serene further light.
Hardyal read Jacques’s letter as the train carried him northward through the night, towards Nasik and Khandwa, on towards the gold fields of Indore. Folded in a Scotch traveling rug whose fringes tickled his chin, he swayed luxuriously with the motion of the train, while on the next berth Krishna slept rolled in blankets like a corpse, his snores drowned in the humming noise of the wheels.
“In ten days,” wrote Jacques, “you will be in India! It doesn’t seem possible that much should have happened since you went away; yet of course things have happened to you as well as to me, I expect. Now that you are on your way home I find it awfully hard to write because when I start to think about things they suddenly become not so very much. This is one reason why I’ve never got a great deal out of reading books; words make time all queer.
“I wonder what you will think of Bertie. Sometimes it seems as if she had changed since I first, knew her, then I wonder whether it is not just that I have become used to her. I must tell you, in strictest confidence, that I am going to marry Bertie in two or three years’ time. We’ve decided.
“Have I told you that I have had my last year at St. Matthew’s? I shan’t sit for the Cambridge exams — what would be the use? Maman says I know enough as it is, so I shall be at Amritpore learning about the factory. Father Sebastien will go on giving me math and Latin, and I can get the rest out of reading, which I don’t much like. (Except The Count of Monte Cristo.)
“There was some excitement in Amritpore the other day, and Maman wrote me about it. Police raided the house of Abdul Salim, the vakil. They were looking for seditious papers, because he’d been telling people to boycott foreign goods and to buy Swadeshi instead. The police didn’t find anything very important in Salim’s house, so they had to let him go, but now he’s in trouble again because one of his relatives owed Ramdatta money, and when Ramdatta sent a man to collect it Salim was there, and he threw Ramdatta’s man out of the house.
“Well, à bientôt, man cher! JACQUES.”
Hardyal finished the letter and lay for some minutes with the loose pages on his breast, feeling the urgent rhythm of the wheels as they rushed through the night. Then he rose and, standing precariously on the edge of his berth, pushed the baize cover over the ceiling light, plunging the compartment into a brownish gloom.
WHILE Madame de St, Remy was poring over her accounts and while Jacques, Macbeth, and Hardyal were playing tennis, Bertie Wood sat rather shyly among the ladies of Ganpat Rai’s household in their zenana at the rear of the house. It was here that they spent their days, when they did not prefer the arbor at the end of the garden.
The zenana itself, comprising several large rooms and the inevitable verandah, opened on a courtyard with high walls and rows of custard-apple trees; in its center was a goldfish pool with a fountain, and a plot of grass on which there grazed a tame antelope, its wicked horns capped with brass, a silver bell ringing at its throat. Suspended from the verandah ceiling was a huge basketwork cage filled with lals, tiny colored birds whose uninterrupted fluttering and twittering transformed the upper air into a little world of their own. Babies wearing silver amulets and little else stumbled or crawled everywhere or stood, finger in mouth, staring with enormous kohl-painted eyes at the stranger.
The ladies themselves — there must have been twenty of them — crouched on rugs or perched cross-legged on their enameled charpoys, a silver anklet or a beringed toe peeping from under the deckled edges of their saris. The atmosphere, new to Bertie, was redolent of a femininity which tinkled, rustled, whispered, giggled in a continuous minor orchestration, fanned by a faint breeze which moved from the courtyard into the house and emerged freighted with odors of sweet, oil, warm flesh, and tinseled gauze. It kept rising against. Bertie’s face, strangely disturbing and exciting her, as she sat in the main chamber on a chair specially provided in her honor.
Bertie felt the liquid glances of the women absorbing every detail of her own person. Some returned her smile; others, overcome by shyness, turned aside their varnished heads and gave little deprecating tugs at their veils. They had, of course, seen other white women, but Bertie was the youngest ever to visit them and perhaps for that reason they vested her with a special glamour. Her Hindustani was still shaky, but she ventured on a few remarks which were received with an instantaneous, charming attention. How unlike us, she reflected, ruefully, as she remembered her own and her cousins’ squeals of mirth when strangers mauled the King’s English.
For Bertie, creature of the open air, the zenana was like walking straight into a dream. Draperies and screens fell behind her, shadows grew like forests in every corner, tinted and perfumed with intense personality. Demure figures emerged to greet her with little narrow hands touching vermilion-starred foreheads. She had a confused vision of flashing glass and metal, of fire spurting from the center of receding jewels, and the concentrated gaze of these mysterious denizens of a culture six thousand years old.
It was several minutes before Bertie could reconcile Ganpat Rai’s female establishment with the rest of his household — with the barrister himself and with his charming son. Now she was surrounded by a palpitating community of aunts and great-aunts, cousins, and the wives and sisters of cousins. She permitted herself to be touched, to be gazed upon, to be addressed in soft, exquisite Hindi to which she made overload and inadequate replies. Ganpat Rai’s aunt, a blue-eyed woman from Kashmir, who could speak English, touched Bertie’s skirt and exclaimed; “Pure wool, yes?”
When Bertie nodded and smiled the others exploded in little cries of admiration and wonder. The aunt’s strange blue gaze lingered on Bertie’s face. “Husband? Married? Engaged?”
“ I’m afraid I’m too young, yet!”
The aunt smiled, and instantaneous answering smiles flowered everywhere. “Too young? I was married when I was twelve. My daughters have all married. The youngest, fifteen, already has her first child.”
“I think perhaps we’re rather backward about such things,” Bertie ventured. “But I shall marry sometime, of course.”
The statement, translated, was received by a musical clashing of bangles and bracelets.
Mirana Bhai nodded approvingly. “I’ve been told that in past times in Belait it used to be with you as it has always been with us — folks married young and lived long. But no matter how long one may live, time is short. I have ten children,” she added complacently. “Ten children and eighteen grandchildren.”
There was another outburst of trills from the gauzy audience, and the aunt shifted her pan to the other cheek. “I suspect that in your country you waste much time. The best years are the years of one’s youth. Yet I am told that among you there are many who wait until middle age, even until old age, before they take husbands. Many, I hear, never marry at all.”
A moan of horror eddied through the room as Bertie corroborated this melancholy fact. Mirana Bhai looked at her keenly. “But you have a young, strong body and very beautiful breasts. What is it you are waiting for?”
Taken aback by the directness of the question, Bertie reddened; then, half laughing, she attempted an explanation while the others listened, fixing her with tender inquiring glances. Mirana Bhai shook her head. “Nay, I still have difficulty in understanding it. For if women will not bear children, they must assume some other burden. Would they be teachers and servants rather than mothers?”
Her sari, slipping from her head, revealed a coiff ure varnished smooth with coconut oil, tasseled with colored thread which, passing behind her ears, supported a cluster of heavy silver earrings. She continued with an air of authority: “As for us, we perform our duties better if we are not distracted by matters which, in the end, cannot possibly have greater importance. I understand these things, for I have heard much about them. Tell me, little one, wilt thou, also, wait until thou art an old blacktoothed hag before thou bearcst a child?”
Bertie laughed. “I don’t know I hope not!” But she felt heat in her face. In the brief ensuing silence she thought, confusedly: They live for this — for their dark, inscrutable men and their fruitlike children, for this hushed, dim existence.
Mirana Bhai rose suddenly. “Now we shall have tea. Do you like hulwa? Do you like batatas?”
Jacques had warned her not to refuse the hospitality with which she was bound to be showered, and for some time she had been aware of mysterious preparations going on in the background. Now, as Mirana Bhai clapped her hands, various curtains and screens shuddered and parted, and three female servants appeared carrying vast platters heaped with food. There was tea in a massive china teapot, there were Huntley and Palmer biscuits, sardines, and bowls and dishes of Hindu sweets, strewn with almonds and raisins, powdered with saffron.
The ladies all began to talk at once, teasing each other, shooting bold little questions at her, examining with passionate interest her net stockings and the French lace on her petticoat. They cried “Are!” and “Wah wah!” at her feeble attempts at wit, and when finally she leaned back with a groan, insisting that she could not possibly consume another morsel, they fell upon her with wails of distress and urgent recommendations that she swallow just one more spoonful of this or another fragment of that.
Nature, coming to the rescue, supplied the essential note of sincerity, and she hiccuped. It was the magic sign, one which she would never have known how to render unaided; the platters were borne away to be distributed among the handmaidens, and Mirana Bhai produced a box of Egyptian cigarettes, given her by Mrs. Lyttleton. Did Bertie know Mrs. Lyttleton? She was a great lady — a begum, indeed.
Yes, Bertie had met Mrs. Lyttleton; once here at Ganpat Rai’s house, another time driving along Amrit pore’s dusty roads.
“A great lady,” Mirana Bhai repeated, smoking luxuriously. “She understands us. She has been our good friend for many, many years.”
The conversation went on sporadically, but for Bertie the air seemed to thicken, and she gazed longingly at the little courtyard where the antelope tossed its head and charged ferociously at a blowing leaf. She felt suddenly sated, as much with food as with the overladen atmosphere of the room. This, she felt, was the conversation of caged beings, the conversation of the little lals whose ceaseless flutterings and chirpings provided a diminuendo to a theme perversely tuned in the minor key.
When at last she rose to take her leave the ladies rose also in a great upsurge of gauze and tinsel, a climax of anklets and bangles dying away on a long-drawn sigh of farewell.
Mirana Bhai put her arm round Bertie. “You do not have to grope your way through all those dark rooms. Come, you may go through the courtyard into the garden, and join your friends.”
In the verandah Bertie paused to admire the lals. “Isn’t it a pity to keep them shut up like that ?” she inquired, for something to say.
Mirana Bhai smiled. “Look again. You see, there are no doors. They are quite free to come and go as they wish.” She put out her hand and a crimson tuft of feathers the size of a thimble alighted on her finger.
“See, he knows me. He sometimes takes sugar from my lips. There now, fly, little one, fly!”
The bird left her finger and fluttered back to join its companions in their cage. Mirana Bhai turned with a. deepening smile to Bertie. “There are many more of them loose outdoors, but these know each other. They are happier living together like this.”
As they walked across the courtyard to a heavy wooden door set in the wall among the custardapples, Bertie felt that Mirana’s words were not so much an observation as they were an intimation.
AS THE zenana gates closed behind her, Bertie found herself standing in an unfamiliar corner of Ganpat Rai’s garden, from where she could see the river coiling between its muddy shores and the lambent sun poised on the edge of a plain already swathed in bluish haze. This, Hardyal had told her, was the Hour of Cowdust, when cattle wander back to their pens, and smoke from cooking fires rises above mud roof tops under the mango trees.
The Hour of Cowdust, of homecoming, when men and beasts turn their heads towards some fragment of earth known to them for a thousand years! Behind her in the zenana, life persisted unchanged, a humid existence from which she was excluded. Bertie marveled how, in this enormous land, life fell in complex perfection; but it left her outside, and this sense of exclusion suddenly frightened her, filled her with homesickness for a place and a state of mind which she had never experienced.
Three figures appeared in the path to her right Hardyal, Jacques, and Macbeth. They were in tennis flannels, and as Bertie walked to meet them she felt her tension increase—felt an inexplicable urge towards tears. But by now the light was going fast and no one noticed her strange distress.
“ You’ve been ages,” exclaimed Jacques. “Hanif has come to fetch us home.”
He stood with his maimed left hand thrust into his pocket in a posture which had become habitual to him; Macbeth swung his racquet restlessly, his smile a mirage. Of them all, only Hardyal seemed composed, his dark eyes staring at her through the gloom. “My father thought you must have decided to adopt purdah nothin yourself, Bertie!”
“Did I stay too long? I’m sorry — ”
“Oh, no,” Hardyal reassured her. “My aunts will be pleased. They will pester you to come again, to come often.”
“What was it like?” asked Macbeth. “Did they wear those nose-bag things they wear traveling?”
“They were all very kind, but I ate too much. Oh, my goodness, all that hulwa!”
Eager to take Jacques’s arm, she took Hardyal’s and Macbeth’s instead. They all moved together up the path between the glossy bushes. Jacques asked: “Would you like to live like that, Bertie?”
Fearing lest her reply hurt Hardyal’s feelings, Bertie hesitated, but he answered for her, forcibly: “Of course she wouldn’t! My father and I disapprove of purdah, but my aunts have always lived like that and nothing will persuade them to change. Abdul Salim says that, only a revolution will shatter our customs — and his.”
“Would Salim like to start a revolution?” asked Macbeth. He lopped off a gardenia bud with his racquet.
“Oh, no, I don’t think so. He was just talking.” Hardyal stooped and retrieved the flower, handing it to Bertie. The smell of the bruised petals caught her throat, and Hardyal, feeling her hand tremble, glanced at her curiously. “Did the tea party make you sick, Bertie?”
She shook her head. “I feel rather cold, I don’t know why. Tell me, is Abdul Salim the tall man with a beard, who watched us play tennis?”
“That, was he. The short one in European clothes is his cousin, Feroze, the assistant surgeon. They are our good friends.”
“But what did Salim mean by revolution?” Bertie was making conversation, trying to get her emotions under control.
“Well, he has all manner of ideas.” Hardyal hesitated. “He believes that a country as ancient and hidebound as ours must have what he calls an internal upheaval. It is the only way to break down our absurd religious customs and to bring enlightenment.”
“He sounds like a cutthroat,” observed Macbeth, scornfully. “If he were in the army and talked like that he’d be jolly well shot.”
“He is a good fellow,” Hardyal insisted. “I like him.”
“But do you agree with him?” asked Bertie. Hardyal fascinated her. Seeing him at first through Jacques’s eyes, she had quickly learned to accept him on his own merits. Macbeth had struggled against the same attraction, but be too surrendered at last to Hardyal’s generous spirit, to admiration for his skill at games, to his gentle and lucid intelligence. “Not a bit like a native,” Macbeth wrote to his father a few days after meeting the young Indian, and this dictum, this accolade, was to place Hardyal in that select category of beings isolated much as a collector’s specimen is isolated from its own and from every other species.
“Do I agree with Abdul Salim?” Hardyal considered, frowning. “Perhaps, though I am not sure that I like his idea of revolution.”
Hanif’s voice reached them suddenly from the driveway: “For the love of God! It is already late, and I have waited an hour!”
Hardyal walked with them to where Madame de St. Remy’s phaeton waited. Bertie sat between her cousin and Jacques, and Hanif clambered up beside the driver.
“Thank you for coming,” said Hardyal. He put his hand on Macbeth’s shoulder. “I’m going to practice my backhand until I’ve mastered it. And then, old boy — look out!”
(To be continued)
With each twelve months of the Atlantic
THREE GREAT BOOKS OF THE YEAR
RUMFORD PRESS CONCORD. N. H. U. S. A.