At first, Elizabeth hated England as much as she missed India. English children mocked her sing-song way of speaking, and she found her mother’s people as cold and grey as the London fog. She felt trapped by the low, intestinal clouds, the bare veins of the trees. The English summer reminded her of monsoon; but where the Indian rains’ frenetic downpour thrummed and throbbed with life and hope, the endless English drizzle and damp oppressed her.
Back home in Budgepore, she was Ayah’s princess; here she was relentlessly, mercilessly ragged in the cruel whispering way by girls sharpening the talons they would wield as women. They mocked: ‘Chee-chee the babu’, or more cruelly, ‘blackie-whitie Butterworth’.
She had but just one friend at school. Bonny Clabber, the equally outcaste daughter of a Manchester haberdasher, would listen breathlessly to Elizabeth’s endlessly mirabilious confabulations of tigers and cobras and handsome Rajputs in shining turbans and diamonds in temples and the strange, exotic aromas of the bazaars and green-shadowed jungles and—and India became mythical, impossibly magical for both of them. Bonny Clabber was quite a few years younger than Elizabeth, but she hoped to see such wonders for herself. Elizabeth promised her she would not be disappointed.
Apart from Bonny, there was one other, the only one she really loved: blue, mischievous Krishna, who’d come to her in the night, cooing to her in Hindustani, His lilting voice fragrant as the breeze through coconut groves as she cried herself to sleep. In a dream, shimmering in sky-coloured light, He told her to come and find Him. How? she’d asked. He laughed and, when she woke, she was still in England, as far away as ever. He faded with her accent. She grew up and got used to the coldness of the winter and the people. When she saw Him again, she wasn’t frightened, but rather, ashamed to think she’d forgotten Him.
After the loneliness of her childhood and the grim, cold-water winters of boarding school, she was happy enough to enjoy the spectacle and glamour of society. The awkward child had somehow blossomed, despite the best efforts of her mother’s people, eligible enough but for what her aunt would refer frostily to as her ‘refractory streak’, she may have landed any number of splendid matches: promising young officers on furlong, ambitious barristers headed for the bench or cabinet, precocious ICS officers set, like her brother Edward, for bigger things.
She seemed to take great delight in playing one suitor off against another, Mrs Montebank wrote her sister in her tight, disapproving hand. Her diffidence was mistaken for coquettishness; her sarcasm for wit; and it only served to fan her suitors’ ardour. Even if she were in the room, surrounded by competing admirers, she seemed somewhere else, somewhere far away. They called her ‘the Sphinx’.
She would confess later that although it may have appeared that she had unduly enjoyed the attentions of so many admirers, that she may have been guilty of pride and vanity, that she had always seen society for it was: a shiny, empty mirage. Even then, she knew something was missing. She wanted something more, though what that was, she didn’t—couldn’t—know yet. But she was old enough to know exactly what she didn’t.
Still, she wanted to live, for now, before duty and destiny befell her. She immersed herself in the glittering thrills of the season: the dizzy nonsensical chatter and brassy noise of balls and tea-parties and lunches; Ascot and Sandwich and Henley. She indulged in brief flirtations with little care or attachment, letting the giddy infatuation burn away by the time the young men were due to return to whichever colony they’d come from on leave.
She did not want her life, like her mother’s or her aunt’s, determined by a man. She didn’t want to grow bitter as her mother, wishing her husband had done more or done better or done something, anything else. Why shouldn’t she make her own way, live her own life, choose her own destiny? When she wrote her mother expressing her desire to study medicine, the reply was incandescent. Out of the question! How could you even ask?
She fell in with a bohemian set of Bright Young Things, whose outrageous antics scandalised her aunt’s people and resulted in a flurry of ever more agitated missives to India— with increasingly anxious replies—assuring that a match would be made. But it was clear by the end of the season that she would not marry. Or the season after. Like most young women whose hearts have not yet been broken, she enjoyed knowing she was desired, before she ever understood the heartbreak of desire. She wasn’t sure if she could love yet, but she loved being loved.
Her mother’s letters, initially plaintive, became pleading, then paroxysmal. Elizabeth stopped reading them, any more than she listened to the contumelious remarks at breakfast, when she wandered in, defiantly light-headed.
And perhaps, just perhaps, she’d wanted to be discovered, to be deported.
She may intend to waste her own opportunities, her aunt wrote Mrs Butterworth, but she would not imperil her own children’s chances—charity, after all, began at home. For all parties’ sakes, nothing would be said or admitted: anything incriminating would be destroyed or disposed of. Not even the Colonel would know what had happened: it would break his heart, wrote back Mrs Butterworth.
Returned empties: that’s what they called those poor, hopeless Fishing Fleet girls, who, sailing out in search of an Indian adventure and a husband on the way, drifted back in spring, empty-handed and broken-hearted.
Now sail the chagrined Fishing Fleet
Yo ho, my girls, yo ho!
Back to Putney and by fleet
Poor girls, you were too slow.
On the passage to India…
She was returned back to India not long after. Not that she cared. People believe what they believe; let them. She didn’t look back as the Ranchi pulled out of Southampton, not even at Bonny Clabber blathering and blubbering on the dock, her face clotted with misery.
Marriage now seemed as distant as the destination, though far less enticing.
Perhaps on the boat home, she could have indulged in a little peccadillo: after all, everyone else was, and besides, what reputation did she now have to protect?
Yet she could not, not after what she’d seen. Though, even if she knew what she’d glimpsed, she couldn’t be sure what it meant. Yet.
All about her the ‘debs’ (they called themselves, but were really desperate spinsters hunting husbands), fell upon any man they could find. Betrothed women journeying to meet their waiting fiancés, wives returning from leave, young girls no older than she, all took part in disgusting debauches: dances and moonlight strolls and cheap flirtations. The worst were the rich women: the governors’ daughters, the residents’ wives, the women of nabobs and generals and the nouveau-riche, who wasted their time with hollow prattling chatter and mindless pursuits: who knew whom, who outranked whom, who wore what, who slept with whom. At dinner, young ICS chokras discussed ‘the sinking ship’. They weren’t talking about the POSH, but rather, the Raj itself.
‘Twenty, maybe twenty-five years, I say,’ said one.
‘I don’t care myself, as long as there’s a proportionate pension waiting at the end,’ added another. They all laughed. She thought of Eddie.
The days of the nabobs were long over. Everyone knew fortunes were no longer to made: the streets were no longer paved with gold, the bakshee trees no longer dripped with jewels. The best one could hope for was the pension, more than one could expect in service back Home. Looking back, it would seem to Elizabeth as mercenary as ever: while Indians starved and scraped to make a living, young Englishmen hoped for cushy retirements, when they’d barely managed a day’s growth on their chins. But at the time, she could only think of everything she’d missed: heat, colour, Ayah. And the one thing she was looking for, the one thing she missed the most.
Everyone behaved as if the end of the world was imminent. The air was charged with the salty thrum of desire and desperation. In the ship library, Elizabeth found a cheap romance, tartly titled Six Merry Mummers:
It’s so easy to love a little, flirt a little, on a big ship, even if a husband or bridegroom or duty with a big ‘D’ is waiting on the quay at the other end.
There was an easy, lazy licentiousness to it all: trysts scandalous on either shore seemed acceptable—almost encouraged—on board. The girl in her cabin, a breezy young ‘deb’ who’d already dallied with a soldier, a sailor and a steward, and would have seduced a candlestick maker if there’d been one on board—joshed her about having a little fun.
Elizabeth grew more and more excited as the air grew heavier and hotter; it wasn’t done to wear one’s solar topi before Port Said, but she’d wear it in bed at night while her erstwhile cabin-mate was out, imagining mosquitoes in the cabin, the plaintive call of a koel outside the port-side window, the smell of the tamarind blooming.
Although she kept up appearances at dinner or on deck, she ended up keeping to herself, reading books she’d packed for the trip, only leaving the cabin for meals, the library and to avoid her energetic cabin mate. Sometimes she’d try to meditate on Him, breathing with the ocean’s listless pulse, but he was as distant and elusive as the ever constant, ever dipping horizon. Sometimes she’d fall asleep and find herself in a silvery grove, feeling him, smelling him, sensing him, catching wisps of a note or laughter here or there, but out of sight, fleeting as a shadow.
Having engaged a young Indian lawyer in conversation on the promenade in plain sight a few days out from Marseilles had blackballed her from what passed for the ship’s polite society. She’d turned from a pollywog who hadn’t passed the equator into a plain old wog, sneered the cold shoulderers. She didn’t mind, but she was too cowardly to engage him or any other in conversation now. One night, while the energetic deb fell clumsily into the cabin with a sour-breathed jungle wallah, she took to the deck with a book, her blanket, and a flask of brandy. Though the days were hot, they still hadn’t reached Aden, and the nights were cold. This night began to exhale, a long slow breath that fogged up the windows, leaving droplets on the deck as she returned to her lost page. The moon was a glassy eye, weeping milky light.
The book, by an author she’d never heard of, set in a provincial town she’d never heard of, had been given to her at a hurried rendezvous in the Moon Under Water a couple of nights before she was due to leave. Raja, breathless, had put the brown-paper Blackwell’s bag on the table and, after his third pint, under it, his hand on her knee. ‘Marry me,’ he’d slurred.
‘Oh, Raja,’ she sighed. She did not love him; and for all her vanity, she could not sleep with someone she did not love. She may have been reckless, but she lacked the carelessness that made life ‘fun’ for so many others on the boat—and the fortune that allowed them to disregard the implications of a ‘reputation’. Since her mother had stopped her remittances, she could barely afford the chit.
Written in the sing-song trill her accent had already started to inflect back into its old rhythms, it told the sad story of Savitri, a village housewife whose husband becomes infatuated with a glamorous, fiercely independent divorcee. Savitri, powerless, retreats to a dark room, but after yet another betrayal, she flees. She struggles to be self-sufficient, but in the end—
A flash of blue. And then vanished, as if He’d become the very mist.
She must have fallen asleep: she woke with a jerk, her neck ringing and her mouth dry, the sour remains of the brandy making her nauseous. There was barely the half-shut lid of a moon, squinting into the great ocean of night. She rose, her legs heavy and her foot, having gone to sleep, tripped her up. She lay on the deck, trying to rub it alive again.
A purser picked her up, and tried to feel her up on the way back to the cabin. She was too tired to resist, but when he tried harder, she screamed; a weary, half-hearted one, but enough to fright him. ‘Stupid toff bitch,’ he muttered as he left her slumped outside her cabin.
It was only later she realised she must have dropped her book as she fell. When she went back to retrieve it, it was gone: drowned in the sea, lost forever.
Later, when she tried to obtain another copy from Higginbotham’s, it wasn’t there. She wondered why Raja should give her such a book, even as he had so pathetically asked her to marry him. She never found out what happened to Savitri in the end, but she knew enough to know what happened to marriage soon enough.
Long before you even sighted India—let alone the Gateway, sitting unfinished and incongruous to the crowded scene about it—the first thing that struck you was the smell: sewage and wood smoke and cumin and bodies. It filled Elizabeth with a fizzing excitement. She was home.
The night before they’d landed, she’d stayed up all night, thrilling with anticipation and dread. She couldn’t wait to step foot on the fragrant earth to which she felt she so utterly belonged; yet she could not help thinking for the first time, in a real way, of what awaited her when she finally met her mother.
Her cabin-mate no longer bothered with pretence: she hadn’t returned after the Disembarking Ball at all.
India grew and grew on the bow, as around her desperate debs clung to the rails, their solar topis toppling into the churning waves, the flying fish flashing like silver fountain pens. It seemed nothing more than a dun line on the horizon, hazy in the autumn sun.
But the smell: at once so alien and so familiar. Her hands trembled as she packed her last remaining things.
By the time they’d pulled into dock, she was struck by the immense, seething, frenetic press of humanity: getting, going, toing, froing, cooking, hauling, laughing, crawling, talking, begging, running, lounging, eating, praying, shouting, pulling, pushing, rushing, lifting, crying: every imaginable human activity and endeavour—and every unfathomable one too. There were Christian bearers, Parsi merchants, Gujarati jewellers, Sindhi tinkers, drivers, rickshaw pullers, Rajasthani hawkers, Eurasian dockers, Chinese tailors, Nepali acrobats, Tamil labourers, Sikh soldiers, red-faced Britishers, disgusted-looking Americans, loud Australians, tight-faced Germans ... every colour and shape and sound conceivable, pressed together in one thrumming, steaming mass.
She was struck by the smartly attired troops waiting to embark, their buttons gleaming as they strode smartly past those ragged, unshaven, sea-green Other Rankers due for Deolali. Bearers while chaprassis clamoured at the dock in their poorest kakhi and brandishing greasy, dog-eared references offered their services to new, lost-looking arrivals. A porter, weighed down by two immense trunks, stooped to vomit without dropping his load, the acrid contents of his stomach spattering his bare feet, before loading them onto a waiting car to a memsahib’s frantic shouting. By the station gates lingered, like dirty shadows, beggars, eyes black and empty, limbs misshapen or missing, sores crawling with flies, dead-eyed babies staring as their desiccated mothers cried with those hoarse, timeless voices, their clawed hands touching their lips: ‘Maa-baap, sahib, kanna’, Anything, please Sahib, light of our lives, our maa-baap, great Lord ... Somehow, between the remembering and the dreaming, she’d forgotten: India had shimmered in her imagination, where now it swarmed and stank in front of her.
She walked straight past Eddie. He smiled, brilliantly and confidently, with all the assurance of the Twice-Born, as they called the covenanted ones, the top brass of the ICS. He smiled indulgently in his sola topi and smart linen suit, only slightly strained at the buttons, then hugged her tight.
‘Oh, Liza!’ he said, after he’d caught her in the swell of the crowd. ‘How you’ve grown!’
‘And you, your Majesty!’ she laughed, patting his paunch. ‘How I’ve missed you, ducky!’ They didn’t need to speak any further—what would they have had to say? The one topic of conversation at the front of their minds they left until well after the third drink that night.
The next morning, the sun hard and brusque, burning itself into the vague ruefulness that ached in her—thanks to Eddie’s enthusiastic show at the Taj Hotel bar—she took a launch to Elephanta. The Madras Mail left in the afternoon; she’d have enough time to see the caves and be back with plenty of time to spare. Eddie couldn’t accompany her; Some emergency, ducky, such a bore, always something after the races, but I shall do my utmost to wave you off before the execution, he’d dashed in the chit. She left Gopal to finish packing.
The briny harbour splashed diamond-cut, her head drumming as the boat lurched and her heart leapt. She stood alone, bound in unendurable crapulousness, gripping the railing for dear life, sickened by the reek of bombay duck.
And then, taking a swaying palanquin up the hill, at the cave’s yawning mouth, the Trimurti, the Hindu trinity: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, Shiva the Destroyer. It looked as if each face gazed not merely in a different direction, but to a different time: past, present, future. And Vishnu, who’d descended as beautiful, playful, powerful Krishna, smiled enigmatically, mystically, his lips parted slightly, as if about to reveal a secret. She half-expected, despite herself and her wavering faith, to see Him leap from the shadows, laughing and fluting, leading her away to her karma—anywhere but where she was headed that afternoon.
She stood there for ages, transfixed, as though trying to divine something from the hands that mocked those great idols, and the hearts that fed them, trying to decipher any of those passions that its sculptors had so well read, but like the other ‘attractions’ other sightseers pushed past her to see it was hard to know what she saw and what she imagined in the gloom. But it was not Him, only an image, like all the others, mutilated by time and the Portuguese.
She caught snatches of a guide reverberating through the cave: ‘And this is Ardhinarisvara, “the Lord whose half is the fair one”, in this case, the hermaphroditic merging of Shiva with his wife, Sati—’
‘As in the burning of widows?’
‘Well, in the Hindu canonical interpretation of kalyana, or perfect marriage, Sati’s devotion to her lord was considered a great—’
‘Barbarism...’ ‘Grotesque!’ ‘Hermaphroditic, what’s that mean, then?’ clattered a babble of voices, echoing into the half-light.
‘It is a wonderful example of Konkani Maurya craftsmanship,’ the guide valiantly offered, ‘though of course, it has been damaged by visitors and invaders, such as the Portuguese, who used the caves for shooting practice. Now, please, if you’d like to follow me, we can see the Kalyana panel itself, representing the union of Shiva and Sati’s subsequent incarnation, Parvati...’
She wandered on, careful not to stray too close to that group’s ugly braying. Looking at the Ardhanarisvara, the now-defaced host of devas and ganas and sages and heroes swarming around the deity, leaning twixt left and right, it seemed as if the fair portion had been subsumed completely, leaving no trace. Parvati’s face was erased, though she’d turned away in anger from her husband, who (from what she could glean from the guide’s fading echoes) had deceived her in a game of dice. She thought of her parents with a shudder as a brackish breeze flitted through the columns, and remembered the train. She walked back, Bombay—and what was coming—spread out before her, tarnished and tattered in the bright, heavy, yellow air, like her, and the worthless trinkets the hawkers tried to press on her at the jetty.
In the cathedrals, the bells rang out. In the temples, the resounding of conches and gongs. In the minarets, the muezzins called the faithful. In the towers of silence, the vultures stripped the flesh from them. And far away, she thought she heard a train calling.