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Authors: Meira Chand

A Far Horizon

BOOK: A Far Horizon
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A Far Horizon

MEIRA CHAND 

CHAPTER ONE

Calcutta,
1756
 

T
he evening was already upon Calcutta, light sucked from the sky at an alarming rate. The first bats left their trees and flitted about in a purposeless way. Moths blundered into candles. In the fading wastes above the town, the Pole Star hung, gripped invisibly by God’s fingers, incandescent with strange light. A full moon appeared beside it. In the house there was bustle and a heightened sense of expectation not normally to be found.

Sati Edwards twisted the glass bangles on her wrist and sat forward on her chair. Before her a servant, cross-legged on the floor, buffed some bits of silver. A pile of candles was stacked upon a table, before which argued two more servants. The new bearer, a Moslem, refused to touch the candles, saying they were made of pig fat. The chief steward, who had worked for a time in the house, protested that the candles were made from the fat of an enormous fish, and especially imported from France. He rapped the box importantly, with its yellowing picture of a whale.

Sati sensed her stepfather observing her. His grey eyes resembled the monsoon sky and had the effect of a downpour on her. His gaze strayed from her to the table, assessing how many candles would create the right atmosphere for the seance. Too much light would dispel the spectral element. Too little would generate a climate of fear
that might drive the curious away. Fabian Demonteguy was normally frugal with the use of the spermaceti since they were not only more expensive than local wax candles, but had to be ordered from France a year in advance of his needs. Tonight he would not spare their use. The candlelight grew steadily stronger as darkness settled outside.

‘The Governor’s wife will be coming tonight,’ Demonteguy reminded his wife.

Rita Demonteguy examined her appearance in a tarnished mirror, her face held close to the glass. The red brass of henna, lit by the candlelight, flamed in her hair. Ignoring Demonteguy’s advice, she refused to dress or powder it in White Town fashion. If he ever returned with her to France he knew she would create a stir. At times she caught his eyes upon her, as if scenes already entered his mind that made him shudder with distaste.

‘Nobody thinks well of that Mrs Drake‚’ Rita announced, still observing herself in the mirror. The blemish in the glass disturbed her, moving over her like a disease. However hard she exhorted the servants to polish, the stains remained, untouchable. Behind her reflection floated the image of her daughter, a further blight on her satisfaction. The girl’s eyes followed her every move.

‘Emily Drake is a lonely woman. Such women seek their own affirmation. But is our Governor regarded with any more respect?’ Demonteguy asked, then ordered more candles to be lit. The argument at the table now appeared to be settled. The head steward handled the candles and the bearer carried a taper which he lit from a candle the head steward held, in order to light further candles.

*

Sati avoided her mother’s gaze in the mirror. The sight of her here in the Frenchman’s house, and the nature of the glances that passed between them filled her with confusion. She turned her face from Rita’s appraisal. A pink ribbon tied up her hair; tight European clothes constricted all movement. Beneath her dress a bodice and skirt, set with bamboo, were hooped about her like a cage. Her pulse seemed to slow, her breath became shallow and her spirit fled deep
into hiding. She stared at the room before her and felt only further constriction.

She hated her stepfather’s house in White Town, filled with useless objects. Mirrors reflected everywhere, filling the house with
inaccessible
worlds, throwing her own ghost before her. They deceived through vanity and drew the unwary; they caught and closed away in darkness the secrets of her soul. Danger also lay beneath the chandelier, and its trembling crystal shards. The silk-covered chairs of fashionable design Fabian Demonteguy had brought from France, but the marble-topped console and the inlaid commode had been built to his taste by a cabinet-maker in the local bazaar. The house was a neat one-storeyed affair with a veranda and a small garden. Strange flowers had also been imported from France and grew in a sickly fashion, cajoled from alien soil. Sati gazed out of the window, spurning the vases of ephemeral flowers. Across the fading shapes of White Town she could see the river and Fort William.

The garrison had been built in the days when a fort was worth more than an ambassador. Although it no longer rose threateningly, with the dusk it regained some menace. The town was preparing for the night, but whatever the nature of White Town’s preliminaries, it was the bustle of Black Town that came Sati’s way. Her stepfather’s home, in an unfashionable area of Calcutta, was situated near Black Town’s perimeter; the smell of dung fires, frying spices and effluent assailed it. Clanking pans, crying babies, women’s voices and the howl of a dog echoed into the sky. Apart from the odours of Black Town, the reek of the Salt Lakes drifted into the room. Newcomers not yet acclimatised to the stench of Calcutta constantly retched. Women sickened politely behind posies of jasmine, their stomachs turned inside out. The open drains and noxious mud flats, mixed with the rot of dead fish tossed up each day on the tide, did not disturb Sati Edwards. Nor did it disturb her stepfather. Fabian Demonteguy was not a man of the East India Company, which was lit from within by its own fierce light. He was an interloper, who had
to generate his own illumination as best he could. Calcutta treated his breed with distaste.

Demonteguy turned to assess the room and was forced again to observe his stepdaughter. The girl was from his wife’s brief marriage to an English sea captain fifteen years before. He frowned as he stared at Sati. If he could have arranged the evening without her he would have done so, but she was the pivot upon which it would turn.

‘You look very pleasing tonight‚’ Demonteguy said, grudgingly. He wondered as always why the girl could not have inherited her mother’s honeyed skin. Instead, perversely, she reflected all of Black Town’s intensity.

‘You will perform as instructed,’ he ordered, suddenly fearing she might yet slip from his grasp. The girl looked up, and he met her amber eyes, disconcerting in their clarity. Those feline eyes and her wild tortoiseshell hair, burnished and streaked as if by the sun, were all she had inherited from her English father.

‘Good money has been spent on that dress,’ he reminded her, observing the silk he himself had chosen and seen cut by a tailor from France. The ragged
salwar
kameez
Sati had arrived in from Black Town he had at once ordered thrown away. Besides Sati’s new dress, Rita had also required a suitable outfit. He had purchased a waistcoat for himself as well; the occasion seemed to demand it. Already, a considerable sum had been spent on the evening.

*

Sati cringed before Demonteguy’s scrutiny. The cage of bamboo beneath her dress held her like a vice, squeezing the last of her identity from her. She had seen nothing wrong with her Indian clothes and protested at their disposal. Her grandmother had opened the trunk that stood in a corner of her hut, knowing the importance of the White Town visit. She rarely lifted the lid of the heavy chest filled with the bric-a-brac of her life. From its depths she pulled out an ancient outfit, worn long before in her Murshidabad days. The soft silk and faded embroidery, smelling of damp and incarceration, slipped easily over Sati. For a moment her grandmother’s eyes had
filled with tears. The dress had been given her by the raja in whose
zenana
she had once lived. Sati knew she did not cry for the raja but for the lost years of her life. The silk flowed like water over Sati, swinging as she walked. She seemed to grow tall with the splendour of it.

Yet on her arrival in White Town, her mother had announced that Mr Demonteguy was disturbed by her appearance. A dress of European design, more suitable to life in the settlement, had already been bought for her. Rita’s hands were hard and her breath sour as she ripped the old clothes off her daughter. The soft Murshidabad silk was rolled into a ball and carried away by a servant. Sati cried out and received a smart slap from Rita. She thrashed about in her mother’s arms but the clothes were already gone. As she watched, a door was shut firmly upon them. It was as if her own skin were being discarded, like the gauzy moultings of a snake, swept up with the dust and leaves. Except that she was left skinless, unable to make the passage from one body to another. Before her mother she suddenly fell silent and stepped into the strange clothes that were offered, which were then lashed tightly about her. At last she turned to the mirror. It showed her only a distant figure she did not recognise. A crack seemed to have opened within her, parting her soul along a fine line. She belonged to neither Black Town nor White Town. She appeared neither one thing nor the other, but something on her own. Now, sitting on the stool in Fabian Demonteguy’s home, she heard her mother speaking.

‘The Governor’s wife only recently gave birth to a baby. How can we be sure she will come here tonight? I have heard that people avoid Mrs Drake. They only accept official invitations, other times they turn their backs upon her. They say also she is country born. In Surat or Bombay.’ Rita Demonteguy stepped away from the mirror, picking up the conversation. She tossed it lightly, like a ball, to shatter Mrs Drake. For a moment she saw no paradox in assuming White Town scorn.

‘It is one thing to be country born, another to marry a brother-
in-
law.
That
is no better than incest.’ Demonteguy gave a laugh. ‘It is said Mrs Drake’s father settled a good sum on each of his daughters. Drake will have got the lot, first from one sister and then from the other. It shows the character of the man. No morals to hinder his greed.’

‘Nothing is wrong with being born in India instead of Europe. Who can help where they are born?’ Rita’s voice was brittle with annoyance as she came up against hard facts. A battle that day with her mother, surrounded by Black Town’s pigs, chickens and fruit and vegetable hawkers, had unsettled for a moment the future that seemed so certain in her new husband’s home.

She had gone to Black Town with Demonteguy to collect Sati from her mother and found her attired in Jaya’s old clothes. Rita’s terse comments had angered old Jaya and she had refused to let the girl go. She had clung to Sati, battling desperately for her granddaughter on her Black Town doorstep. Sati was tugged back and forth between the two women. Jaya Kapur screeched abuse at her daughter, Rita Demonteguy let loose unrepeatable words at her mother.
Demonteguy
waited some distance away, fanning himself with a handkerchief. At intervals, when the odour of Black Town pressed too close around him, he held the square of scented linen firmly to his nose. Sati’s cries and the shrill determination of both women had gathered a crowd, who all attempted loud and active intervention. A pig interrupted its rooting to watch, chickens stopped pecking, the vegetable vendor lowered his basket. Demonteguy, in embarrassment, had removed his two palanquins to the seclusion of some coconut palms beside a filthy pond. Women washing clothes in the muddy water raised their heads and stared. The reality of absorbing his new wife’s origins caused Demonteguy to sweat profusely. He had never visited his mother-in-law’s thatched hut, never heard from his wife the vulgar, guttural notes she now tossed about in abandonment, never entered the labyrinthine depths of Black Town before. The accumulation of all these harsh facts made him feel quite faint. Two mangy pariah dogs started to copulate before him, oblivious to the scene, uttering
high cries of ecstasy. He watched them with distracted interest. Languid in his home, wanton in his bed, his wife had blinded him to everything about herself but the ripe willingness of her body.

Eventually, the screeching subsided; some settlement seemed to be made. Accompanied by the curious crowd, Rita and her mother then turned to approach Demonteguy. To his horror, Jaya had climbed into his palanquin, her hand still locked in her granddaughter’s. The squash was so great and the odour of his mother-in-law so intense that he was forced to vacate the conveyance and walk behind the runners, leaving the palanquins to the three women. He crossed the Maratha Ditch back into White Town with inexplicable relief.

‘And why is to marry a dead sister’s husband not a proper thing to do? This I do not understand. Mrs Drake is lucky the Governor married her. It must have been a charitable act. Just look at her; so dried up. No bosom, no backside. No nothing,’ Rita announced, turning again to the mirror. ‘In India such a marriage is not a bad thing.’

‘We are not talking about Black Town customs. Now you are part of White Town,’ Demonteguy snapped, watching as the last candles were lit.

Sati listened in surprise. A distant cousin of her grandmother’s had married three sisters of the same family one after another as they died, the first in childbirth, the second from cholera. The third and present wife was still alive. But, said her grandmother, should misfortune overtake her also, there was still a fourth and unwed sister who was already nearly twelve. There had been only praise from old Jaya for the dutiful response of this man to the plight of his wife’s unmarried sisters. He had demanded less for each new dowry, and most important, said her grandmother, the women were wed and not left, a shameful weight, upon their father’s hands. Sati frowned in confusion.
No
bosom,
no
backside.
No
nothing.
The image of a paper cut-out came into her mind.

Before the glass Rita adjusted the gems at her neck. Her breasts and hips, proportioned like a Hindu statue, were laced into the dress
Demonteguy had ordered from the French tailor. Diamonds circled her in cold fire and flashed on her fingers. In the freckled mirror, her dark eyes, ever mysterious to Demonteguy, were hard when meeting those of her daughter. Sati looked away. Tonight in this room she knew she must climb the steep, slippery slope of approval. The only comfort was that her grandmother had accompanied her into White Town. Old Jaya sat hidden on the back veranda with orders not to intrude. Sati was comforted by the movement of a curtain and a sudden glimpse of her grandmother. The old woman pulled an encouraging face, then let the curtain fall.

BOOK: A Far Horizon
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