I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this,—
Away at once with love or jealousy!
William Shakespeare, Othello, Act III Scene 3
And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.
The Gospel According to St John, Chapter 20 Verses 24-28
Dorothea craned her neck to see what the sailor was pointing to. "Just there," he said. "There on the horizon - see?"
And there it was: a dark, green-grey strip dividing the sky from the sea, something she'd begged for before every birthday and Christmas since she was five, her first glimpse of India.
"Thank you!" she said. She hardly knew whether she was speaking to the sailor, to her father (who was somewhere within what she could now make out to be the walls of Fort St George), or to the subcontinent itself.
She had thought she was prepared for the anarchy that awaited her as she stepped off the boat into Madras Docks: her father's eagerly awaited letters had described it vividly enough, but the assault on her senses was utterly overwhelming. Coolies with cloth rings on their heads jostled for her luggage; skinny children plucked at her clothing and gestured to their mouths; an old lady with no legs, no teeth and cloudy white eyes held out her hands in supplication.
Then a very loud, very English voice cut through the chaos. "Make way, make way," it said. "Leave the Memsahib alone." A tall white man wearing a luxuriant moustache and extravagant dress uniform was using some kind of truncheon to part the crowd. When he arrived at Dorothea he pushed the children away and bowed. "Very sorry about this, Mademoiselle," he said. "You have to be firm with them. They don't understand anything else. You'll soon adjust."
"Oh no," said Dorothea. "It's quite all right. I'm fine, really I am." Looking over his shoulder she saw that one of the smaller children had hit his head and was crying, comforted by an older girl. "Oh dear," she said, moving towards them. "I'm sorry. Sorry? Um... Mannikkanum?"
She wished there had been more time to learn Tamil, but after finals there had only been a couple of months to tie up all her loose ends in England: to let the house, arrange for her goods to be shipped or put into storage, and travel round saying goodbye to her relations and college friends. The children didn't respond to her efforts to speak what she hoped was their language: if anything they looked even more frightened.
"Don't worry about it," said the white man. "They're just faking. Cut their own hands off, some of them, to get money out of us. Oh, but excuse me, I haven't introduced myself. I am Sir Roderick Davenport." He bowed again, and held out his hand.
"Dorothea Brabant," said Dorothea, shaking it.
"Aha!" shouted Sir Roderick over the din. "The Bishop Sahib's daughter. That's what the natives call your father. Sahib means 'owner' or something like that. You'll soon pick up the lingo, it's all jolly good fun."
"My father said that one of the officials was going to be so kind as to meet me," said Dorothea. "A Mr Casper?"
"Michael!" said Sir Roderick. "Yes, yes, a fine fellow, if a little..." he trailed off.
"A little what?" asked Dorothea.
"Well," said Sir Roderick. "I don't like to gossip–"
"Nor do I," said Dorothea. "So perhaps you could just tell me whether he's any of these young men over here."
The journey back to the Bishop's residence – Dorothea's new home – was by palanquin, a sort of covered sedan chair carried by four bearers. Mr Casper helped her in.
"Oh dear," she said, feeling very self-conscious. "Is it really such a long way? It doesn't seem fair to make them carry me."
"You'll be fine," grinned Mr Casper. "We'll give them a generous tip." Then he spoke to the four in Tamil.
"I don't have any Indian money yet," said Dorothea.
"Don't worry," repeated Mr Casper. "Ready?"
Then she felt herself being lifted up into the air, and they set off, Mr Casper striding along beside.
"Was it a good voyage?" Mr Casper asked.
Dorothea hesitated. She didn't really have much to compare it to. She'd never even been across to France or Ireland; the furthest she'd gone by water was a boating lake when she was very little, back when her father lived in England, and her mother was still alive. "Not too bad," she said. "I was a little queasy at first, but I got used to it."
"That's the ticket," said Mr Casper. "I find plenty of rum always helps. Now, do you want me to start pointing out all the sights now, or would that better wait until tomorrow?"
"Whichever you prefer," said Dorothea, looking out. Everything was so different: the trees and plants, the clothes – more revealing than Dorothea's underwear in many cases, but bright and vibrant in the hot midday sun. And the smell of the humid air: heavy, foetid and spicy.
"Right-o," said Mr Casper. "On your right you can see Fort St George. That's where most of the English people live and work, including me. I'm not sure if your father had a chance to mention it to you, but there's going to be a bit of a dance there tomorrow night. I do hope you'll both be able to make it."
"I'll see how I feel," said Dorothea. "I may still be tired from the journey."
"Of course," said Mr Casper. "Sorry. Well, it would be lovely to see you but there will be plenty of other dances if not!"
Once they were past the walls of the fort, Mr Casper pointed to an area full of little wooden houses, barely more than shacks. A naked child was washing under a pump, and some laundry was hung up between walls. "That's where most of the Eurasians live," he said. "The poorer ones, at least."
"Eurasians?" said Dorothea.
"People of mixed descent, European and Indian. Very useful folks to know. Most of our police are Eurasian. And messengers and so on. Foot in both communities, you see."
"Oh!" said Dorothea, pointing to one of the strangest things she'd ever seen. "What's that?" It was like a whole thicket of young trees had huddled together.
"It's a banyan tree!" said Mr Casper. "Aren't they amazing? And they're even better up close."
Slowly, the more intriguing smells in the air were overpowered by the unpleasant ones. Dorothea found that she had to hold her handkerchief to her nose to prevent herself from retching.
"Sorry," said Mr Casper. "We're getting near the water."
"Is it always like this?" asked Dorothea.
"Pretty much," said Mr Casper. "You get used to it... Sort of." He himself retched. Then he smiled ruefully at her. "What are you looking at? I didn't say I had got used to it. I'm a relative newcomer myself, you know."
"What do you do?" coughed Dorothea.
"Assistant Collector," said Mr Casper proudly.
"Really?" said Dorothea. "What do you collect?"
"Taxes," said Mr Casper. "Or at least, that's where the title comes from. I'm a civil servant, basically."
Dorothea tried to ignore a little stab of envy. The brother of one of her college friends had done the exam for the Indian Civil Service. She'd had a look at one of the papers, and could answer most of the questions quite easily. She envied the young men who came out to India to do something rather than sit around in palanquins and look decorative. Now she'd persuaded her father to let her come out here, she'd have to start working on him about being a nurse again, or else see whether she couldn't find some kind of secretarial position.
"Nearly there," said Mr Casper. "You can see the cathedral through those houses: the white building with pillars."
For some reason she'd been expecting it to look like an English Cathedral, though now she came to think of it, of course it would be different, being built in a different era, with different materials. It was beautiful, but as she was being lowered to the ground, and Mr Casper was paying the bearers, she saw something far more exciting.
"Daddy!" she said, running to greet her father. He gave her a big bear hug.
"My little Dot!" he said. "Let me have a look at you... You've grown!"
"Not since I last saw you," she said. "I am twenty-two, you know."
"And a graduate!" said her father. "Am I going to have to call you Little Dot BA Hons Cantab from now on?"
"Not a graduate," said Dorothea. "Women don't get degrees, remember?"
The Bishop grunted. "You sat the exams, you passed the exams, your results were posted along with everyone else's. As far as I'm concerned, you're a graduate. Now come on in and have a cup of tea. You must be exhausted."
"I'm not entirely sure I should be going to dances at my age," grumbled the Bishop as he pulled on his gaiters.
"Well, I'm certain I shouldn't be going to dances alone," said Dorothea.
"Now you remember what I told you..."
"Yes, yes. Although I was thought to be awfully plain and ugly in England–"
"That's not what I said," interrupted the Bishop.
Dorothea ignored him: "...there are no single white women in Madras apart from me–"
"...so I will get a lot of attention, but I mustn't let it turn my head. Although you have no objection to me finding a nice husband for myself so I can get out from under your feet–"
"You can stay here for as long as you like."
"...and start producing adorable grandchildren for you to play with."
Both of them laughed.
"It's good to have you back with me," said the Bishop.
"It's good to be here," said Dorothea, looking round in glee.
Barring King's College Chapel, the ballroom at the Governor's residence in Fort St George was the grandest thing Dorothea had ever seen. There were high ceilings, an ornate carved roof, gilded pillars and enormous portraits of former Governors and local Indian royalty all around the walls.
"The Right Reverend William Brabant, and Miss Dorothea Brabant," announced a man in a green and gold tunic and trousers, and an ornate turban, as the two of them walked down the main staircase.
Dorothea felt horribly underdressed. She didn't have many fancy clothes, and most of what she did have was yet to arrive. She was fond of the cornflower blue evening dress, and she knew it looked good with her blue eyes and light brown hair, but compared to what everyone else was wearing it looked dowdy and plain. Her hand was drawn to her mother's sapphire necklace. That, at least, was as precious and beautiful as anything else in the room.
She smiled, knowing that the best way of feeling more confident was to start by feigning it, and readied herself to be introduced to the Anglo-Indian community of Madras.
Disappointingly, the first person she met was Sir Roderick. Although she tried not to judge on first appearances, she felt she had already seen enough of him to know that she didn't want to see any more.
"Wonderful to see you again, Miss Brabant," he said. "You look absolutely charming."
"Thank you," said Dorothea.
Sir Roderick leant in close. "See what I mean?" he said, nodding towards his left hand side.
Dorothea looked and saw Mr Casper waltzing expertly with a short woman wearing green silk.
"I'm afraid I don't," said Dorothea.
"Wait 'til they turn," said Sir Roderick. "There! See?" He started laughing.
The woman Mr Casper was dancing with had dark skin. She could easily have been Italian, but Dorothea guessed from Sir Roderick's reaction she must be Indian or Eurasian.
"I mean," continued Sir Roderick. "It's all very well to keep a bibi. I'm a man of the world, I know a thing or two, but to take one to a dance like this..." he trailed off and shook his head. "The poor fellow's only been here a year. My guess is he'll be gone by spring."
"It was lovely to see you again," lied Dorothea. "But I'm not sure how my father would feel about me speaking to a man of the world. Please excuse me."
"This is James and this is Emily," said the Bishop. "James was one of my churchwardens last year, and Emily is a stalwart of the choir and the flower-arranging committee and the altar guild and... well, pretty much everything, really."
Emily smiled. "Welcome to India, Dorothea," she said. "I hope you're not finding it too overwhelming. If you need another woman to show you the ropes, we live inside the Fort, just ask for Emily Rigg. You're welcome any time. And I'm in the Cathedral more days than not so I'll probably see you there too."
"Thank you," said Dorothea, enchanted by Emily's warm smile. "I will certainly take you up on that offer."
Emily was smiling at the Bishop. "Why yes," she said, eyes twinkling. "I would like to dance."
The Bishop laughed. "My dancing days are long gone," he said, but he nonetheless allowed himself to be led onto the floor.
Dorothea thought she heard James mutter something under his breath, but the only word it could have been was not the kind of word that polite people used, so she assumed she must have been mistaken.
"How long have you been living out here?" she asked.
"All my life," said James. "Apart from a couple of years back in England in my early twenties."
"I've wanted to come ever since I was a little girl," sighed Dorothea. "I envied the children who grew up here."
"Well," said James. "You're here now." There was a finality about his tone that left Dorothea momentarily lost for words.
She was saved by Michael Casper, who arrived at their table still out of breath, presumably from his energetic efforts earlier. "Glad you could make it," he said, grinning at her. "On the off-chance that there are any spaces left on your dance card, I wonder whether I might..." He trailed off.
Dorothea fought a momentary panic that she was supposed to have a physical card of some description and she'd somehow broken all the rules of India by not picking one up. She fiercely told herself it was probably a metaphorical card, and even if it wasn't, it wouldn't really matter. "I haven't danced since school," she said. "And there they always made me be the man because I was taller than the other girls. But I'm quite willing to have a go if you will excuse my terrible ignorance."
"Oh, I have two left feet myself," said Mr Casper.
Dorothea frowned, mock-disapproving. "As the Bishop's daughter, I'm afraid I have to remind you that all liars go to hell," she said. "I saw you earlier."
"That?" said Mr Casper. "Oh, that was all Venya's doing. She's extraordinarily talented. She can even make a buffoon like me look graceful."
"Perhaps I'll have to ask her for lessons," said Dorothea.
Mr Casper looked surprised for a fraction of a second, but then he laughed. "Yes," he said. "Perhaps you will."
The music stopped, signalling that it was time for a new set of dancers to take to the floor. "Excuse me, Mr Rigg," said Dorothea, as Mr Casper took her hands and led her onto the dancefloor.
Dorothea was just as bad at dancing as she thought she'd be. But luckily Mr Casper – Michael, as he had entreated her to call him – was just as good as she thought, and managed to lead her through the whole thing in a way that made it hard to go very wrong.
"Thank you!" she said, as Mr Casper bowed and then went off to flirt with one of the middle-aged memsahibs hiding behind her fan in the corner.
"Dot!" The Bishop looked pink-faced and cheerful. "Have you met Sir Roderick Davanport?"
"Yes," said Dorothea, noticing his extravagant moustache twitching behind her father's left shoulder. "I have."
"Would you care to join me for a turn around the floor?" he asked.
"Sorry," she said. "I'm still very tired after my voyage. I think I might have to sit the rest of them out." She sat down on a nearby sofa, careful to pick one with no extra space on it.
"Quite so!" said Sir Roderick. "Well, let me join you." Then he glared at the sofa's other occupant, an elderly man with a monocle, until he got up and wandered away.
Dorothea looked up, hoping her father would provide aid, but he had gone to get another drink.
"Well!" said Sir Roderick.
Dorothea pretended not to notice this was intended as a conversation-opener, and continued looking around the room. There was an awkward silence.
- "Sorry?" said Dorothea, still looking around.
"James Rigg," said Sir Roderick. "Oh, you didn't know? That's not a suntan he's got – it's a touch of the old tar brush."
"Well," said Dorothea. "If there's one thing the bible and the biologists agree on, it's that we're all descended from common ancestors. I honestly don't understand what all the fuss is about."
Sir Roderick laughed unpleasantly. "I can tell you're only one day off the boat. A few weeks living among 'em will soon show you what the difference is."
Dorothea began to doubt herself a little. What if he were right? Wasn't she being terribly arrogant assuming she knew better than someone who had lived here for years? "Perhaps," she said.
Sir Roderick smiled. "There's a sensible girl," he said. "But the fact they're savages doesn't mean they're not interesting. You should ask James about his native relations sometimes. He can talk for hours about them. Fascinating stuff."
"Thank you," said Dorothea, thankful for the tip on how to converse with the aloof James, but bristling at the word 'savages'. There was an African girl named Victoria who went to the same school as her, though they were never close as Dorothea was a year younger. People had called her a savage too, and it made her cry. She had been clever at maths and good at hockey, and had seemed perfectly friendly and normal.
"Aha, Dot!" The bishop wandered over, red-faced and grinning. Dorothea began to wonder whether her father had drunk a bit too much, but she was glad of the excuse to get up and leave Sir Roderick.
"You must meet Selvam," said the Bishop. "Um... Mr Selvam. He's our Collector and District Magistrate, which means he's in charge of just about everything, isn't that right?" He looked at the man standing beside him, and Dorothea immediately wondered why she hadn't noticed him before. For a start, he was the only guest in the room dressed in the Indian style rather than the European, in a sort of knee-length tunic of intricately embroidered orange silk, and a small headdress. But he was the kind of person you can't help noticing whatever they're wearing. He stood as though he was commanding an army, but with a casual, unrehearsed ease. His eyes gave the impression that he was fascinated by everything and everyone around him yet at the same time detached. And at the same time he was looking at her as though she was the only thing in the world.
He laughed, a rich easy laugh, mellow and smooth. "The Bishop Sahib flatters me," he said in an English accent, still looking at her.
Dorothea knew it was just a trick. She had met men like him at Cambridge, able to play everyone in the room in turn, looking at each of them as though they were the summation of all that is fascinating and good, asking them about whatever they wanted to talk about. She was not silly enough for the attention to turn her head.
"Sorry I was late," Mr Selvam continued. "There was a bit of business with the new railway I needed to sort out."
"You're going to hear a lot about that dratted railway," said the Bishop. "The Government people don't seem to talk about anything else." Then he looked at his empty glass, and wandered off to get another drink.
Dorothea smiled. "I hope everything with the railway is on track again," she said. Then she realised she had made an inadvertent pun, and felt herself blushing.
Mr Selvam laughed, apparently appreciating the humour. "For now," he said. Then: "would you like to dance?"
"I'm really not very good at it," said Dorothea. "I made a terrible fool of myself earlier." But she allowed herself to be led onto the floor.
Dancing with Michael had been very much like the dances at school, great fun, and really quite gratifying whenever all of their feet happened to be in the right places for a few seconds or so. Dancing with Selvam was like nothing she had experienced before. She really had no concept of what her feet were doing, though she supposed she'd have noticed if it were anything terribly wrong. There was his hand on her shoulder, and her hand in the small of his back, and both their other hands together, and his eyes looking into hers, and his smile. It was all over far too quickly.
"Thank you," she said. "Um... Romba Nandri."
"Aha!" he said. "The Bishop Sahib said you were a scholar."
"Not of Tamil," she said hurriedly. "As you can probably tell. I studied biology."
"Then I'm even more grateful that you made the effort."
"I only had time to learn a few words and phrases," she said. "I hope to pick up more while I'm out here."
"Would you like me to find a teacher for you?" asked Selvam. "I know some very good ones who would be grateful for the opportunity."
"Oh, yes please!" replied Dorothea. "I would be more than happy to pay whatever the going rate is."
"It would be my pleasure," said Selvam. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I see one of my colleagues I need to talk to."
"Of course," said Dorothea. "Thank you."
"Thank you," said Selvam.
"For the dance," said Selvam. "I've never danced the woman's role before. It was most educational."
Selvam's amusement had been so infectious that Dorothea's embarrassment left her almost as soon as it arrived, and by the time she woke up the next morning, her memories of the night before were entirely pleasant. She lay in bed for a while, remembering what it had been like to dance with Selvam, remembering his laughter, remembering what his hands had felt like on her body. She hugged herself with glee. She hadn't felt like this since sixth form, when she'd had a crush on her Latin teacher.
Breakfast was kedgeree - far nicer than the version of the dish she'd had in England - and fresh mango juice, something she'd never tasted before, but which quickly became a favourite.
While she was on her second cup of tea, two envelopes arrived, both addressed to her.
"You're popular this morning," remarked the Bishop.
Both of them were invitations. One, from Emily Rigg, reiterated the fact that she was welcome to call whenever she felt like it. The other was from Sir Roderick, inviting her to an excursion out to St Thomas' Mount.
"Does he say whether anyone else is going?" asked the Bishop.
"He says 'just the two of us'," said Dorothea, shuddering at the thought.
"I'm not entirely sure that's suitable," said the Bishop.
"I'm certain it isn't suitable," said Dorothea. "I shall definitely decline."
Of course, it hadn't been reasonable of her to think one of the invitations might have been from Selvam, but nonetheless, she was a little disappointed.
That afternoon, she went to visit Emily, who answered the door herself. "Oh, how lovely to see you," she said. "Do come in."
The Riggs' house was considerably smaller than the Bishop's residence, but it was very pretty. It consisted of a one storey building arranged in a 'U' shape around a central courtyard garden, where Emily and Dorothea took their tea, watching the butterflies and hummingbirds.
"What did you do to your hand?" asked Dorothea, noticing some bad scratches.
"I was feeding one of the little stray cats you get round here," said Emily. "But she turned out to be less sweet than I thought. How is India living up to your expectations?"
"Oh, it's beautiful!" said Dorothea. "Though it surprises me how little we have to do with Indian people. I thought... I don't know. Since it's their country, that I'd be mixing with more of them, but Selvam - Mr Selvam - is really the only non-English person I've had a conversation with."
Then Dorothea heard a door slam, and Mr Rigg walked out. He was frowning but he drew himself up short when he saw her, and smiled at Emily. "Oh, I'm sorry love," he said. "I didn't realise you had company. Delighted to see you again, Miss Brabant."
"Please," she replied. "Call me Dorothea."
"Dorothea was just giving me her impressions of India so far," said Emily.
"You must call me James, of course," said James. "So, how are you finding it all?"
"Beautiful," repeated Dorothea. "But I was just saying to Emily I'm a little sad to see how much we English keep ourselves to ourselves. I was told you have Indian relatives as well as European, James. I wonder whether you have any tips for getting to know the locals."
"Well," said James, even more stiffly than usual. "I suppose that learning a bit of the language might help. And of course a few of them attend St George's Cathedral, though there are far more at the Roman Catholic place, the San Thome Basilica."
"I hear you went to Cambridge," cut in Emily. "I visited it once when I was a child. It's a beautiful city."
"Yes," said Dorothea, surprised by the sudden change of subject. "Though it gets very cold in the winter."
As the conversation meandered inconsequentially on, it dawned on Dorothea that Sir Roderick might have been playing a trick on her, and that in fact James hated acknowledging his mixed ancestry. What a shame, she thought, though hardly surprising if Sir Roderick's opinions about Indian people were typical. She decided to try a different tactic to draw him out – one that might lead on to a subject close to her own heart.
"Tell me about your work, James," she said. "I hear you work with Mr Selvam and Michael Casper."
"Some other time," said James. "I should be back in the office right now, in fact. It was nice seeing you again, Dorothea."
"You too," said Dorothea.
"Sorry," said Emily, once he'd left.
"What on earth for?" said Dorothea.
"My husband," said Emily. "He isn't normally that rude. I'm afraid you accidentally hit upon a couple of sore spots for him."
"A couple?" asked Dorothea, wincing. "I realised he doesn't like talking about his Indian family, so sorry about that. But what else did I do?"
"You didn't do anything," said Emily. "But it's a difficult time for him at the moment. He had hoped to get the Assistant Collector job when the old chap moved on. He would have been very good at it. Plus he's an old friend of Mr Selvam's: they grew up near one another in Cochin – that's over on the west coast – so he thought he might be able to pull a few strings, but unfortunately it doesn't really work like that. James hadn't done the exam, so he just wasn't eligible."
"Oh dear," said Dorothea. "I really am dreadfully sorry. I can't seem to open my mouth without putting my foot in it. Just so I know, what does he like to talk about?"
Emily laughed, a short, bitter laugh. "I don't know," she said. "If you find out, maybe you could tell me."
Selvam paced up and down his courtyard. He hadn't felt this agitated for years. When he had lived in England, he had seen enough of English girls to know he didn't want to marry one. Most of them treated him as a curiosity, asking him impertinent questions, assuming he didn't know even the simplest things about England. But he would never have wanted anything more than friendship even with those few who treated him as a human being.
Now, of course he wouldn't say he was in love with Dorothea. But when they had danced, there had been... something. Selvam was a man used to getting what he wanted even – no, especially – from the English. The problem here was trying to work out what he did want.
An affair would be dangerous. English men could do what they liked with Indian women, but an Indian man and an English woman would be totally unacceptable. If anyone discovered them, at best he would lose his job; at worst, he could be killed. The injustice made him angry, but he had long since learnt to set his anger aside, keeping it in what he visualised as a little box in the back of his mind. He could take it out now and again and look at it, but he must never let it affect the way he interacted with the English. After all, he had a lot to be grateful to them for.
What was left? Marriage, friendship or nothing.
Marriage would have many of the same problems as an affair, but he judged he would be able to get away with it. He had at least heard of other Indian men who had taken English brides, though he had never met one. But there were some additional problems with marriage too. Three of them, in fact, who were no doubt currently sitting on mats in the house in Kerala where he grew up, plotting.
Selvam's mother had died giving birth to him, and he was brought up by his intellectual, Anglicised father, and three aunties. The aunties started mentioning marriage the day he returned from England, almost ten years ago now, and over the past year their letters to him had started to contain almost nothing but descriptions of beautiful, educated girls from good Brahmin families, and entreaties for him to come and visit. He had vaguely scheduled a trip to Cochin next summer to pick the best of them and bring her back. Would the aunties' pleasure at him finally marrying outweigh their displeasure at his having chosen his own bride, and a white, Christian one to boot?
But he was getting ahead of himself. Enjoying a dance with a girl most emphatically did not mean wanting to marry her. He had seen too many men, English, Indian and Eurasian, who had married in haste and were still repenting at leisure. Was she as clever as she seemed? Would he still find her as attractive next time he saw her? And most importantly of all, would she stay faithful to him?
So, friendship? But was true friendship between a man and a woman even possible?
He stopped pacing. There wasn't really a dilemma, or not much of a one. Clearly, the next step was to see more of the girl. Then he could work out what he wanted, and then make it happen.
The invitation arrived on a Saturday morning, about a week after the dance.
"Mr Selvam says he's found a Tamil teacher for me," said Dorothea to her father, as they were finishing breakfast. "May I go this afternoon?"
"Certainly," replied the Bishop. "I must say it's very gratifying to have a daughter who's so excited about learning."
Dorothea, who thought she had been hiding her excitement well, smiled ruefully. "Thank you," she said.
Mr Selvam's villa was not that different from the Bishop's residence, at least on the outside. But the furniture was made of a heavy, dark wood quite different from the English stuff that the Bishop had imported from home, and there were beautiful textiles everywhere: on the floor, on the walls, and over the chairs. A small woman was standing by a dresser. Dorothea wondered whether she was the teacher.
"Would you like a drink?" asked Mr Selvam. "A nimbu pani, perhaps?"
Dorothea's hesitation betrayed her ignorance.
"Sorry," said Mr Selvam. "It's made out of soda water, lime and a little sugar. They're very refreshing."
"Yes please," said Dorothea. "It sounds delicious."
The woman – Mr Selvam's maid – bowed and went off to fetch them.
"So," said Dorothea. "You said you'd found me a teacher."
"Yes," said Mr Selvam. "Though not a professional one." He paused, uncharacteristically shy for a moment. "I wondered whether you'd permit me to teach you myself? I used to want to be a teacher, you see, when I was a boy."
Dorothea tried once more to hide the extent of her glee. "I would be honoured," she said, "if you're sure you have time. I know you're very busy."
"Please, Miss Brabant," said Mr Selvam. "The honour is all mine."
"Call me Dorothea," said Dorothea, taking a glass of nimbu pani from the maid, and sipping it. "It's delicious!" she said.
"Thank you," said Mr Selvam. "You may call me Selvam."
"Forgive my ignorance," said Dorothea. "But is that your Christian name or your surname?"
"Neither," said Selvam. "It's just my name. I don't have a Christian name because I'm not a Christian–"
"Oh," said Dorothea, blushing. "I'm terribly sorry. I didn't think–"
Selvam waved his hand and laughed. "It's quite all right," he said. "It's an easy mistake to make."
"Well, I'm still sorry," said Dorothea, wondering when she'd manage to have a conversation with any of her new neighbours in which she didn't say something dreadful.
"...and I don't have either a forename or a surname, because that's not how Tamil names work. Come to think of it, that can be your first lesson..."
Selvam started by explaining his full name was Jayaraman Anand Selvam. Selvam was the name his parents had given him, Anand was his father's given name, and Jayaraman was his grandfather's given name. If he had a son, he would be called Anand Selvam... whatever. "Anand Selvam Charlie," suggested Selvam. "Anand Selvam Archibald."
Dorothea laughed. "How are women's names formed?" she asked.
"The same way," said Selvam. "Women also take their father and grandfather's names."
"So that would make me William William Dorothea!" said Dorothea.
Both of them laughed, and Dorothea found it hard to stop. "Are you sure there's only lime, sugar and water in this?" she asked, holding up her glass.
"So," continued Selvam. "That's the simple version of how our names work. My mother's family is from Kerala, and they follow a completely different system, where people take their mother's name rather than their father's, and inheritance doesn't go from father to son, but from a man to his eldest sister's eldest son, and the family property is usually under the control of the senior woman in a family."
Dorothea's eyes widened. "How long has it been like that?" she asked.
"Forever, so far as I know," replied Selvam.
"Until ten years ago," said Dorothea, "Englishwomen weren't even allowed to own property once they were married."
"I know," said Selvam. "I was living in London when the Married Women's Property Act was passed."
"Oh dear," said Dorothea. "Sorry again." Then: "I didn't realise you had lived in England."
"I've lived in all sorts of places," said Selvam. "My father liked to travel, and he often took me with him..."
When she returned – late – for dinner, Dorothea had learnt a little Tamil, and a great deal about Selvam's life, all of which fascinated her.
"...and when he was fourteen, his father took him to China," she explained to the Bishop. "And one day they were out hunting tigers on horseback, and one turned round and attacked and killed his horse from under him. All he had was a sword and–"
"Enough, enough," laughed the Bishop. "Eat your soup before it goes cold."
"He was very brave," said Dorothea lamely. "Mmm... this is delicious. What is it?"
"Mulligatawny," said the Bishop.
"And such a good storyteller," she added. "I was on the edge of my seat with fear for him. I honestly can't do justice to his stories. I–"
"Stories indeed," said the Bishop. "Be careful to take what he says with a pinch of salt."
"Daddy!" said Dorothea. "They're all true, I know they are. He still has the tiger skin."
"Well," said the Bishop, no longer smiling. "Just be careful, won't you?" He hesitated. "It's just the two of you alone, is it, these Tamil lessons?"
"No," said Dorothea. "His maid is there most of the time as well."
"Good," said the Bishop. Then he took a few moments to finish his soup before looking up. "And if he ever did anything... I mean you would tell me, wouldn't you?"
"He would never do anything to hurt me!" said Dorothea.
"You've only met him twice," said the Bishop. He paused again, this time even more awkwardly. "You do know what I mean by 'did anything', don't you? Oh dear, if only your mother were still alive..."
"Daddy," said Dorothea, embarrassed and exasperated. "I did a biology degree."
The Bishop smiled ruefully. "I'm sorry, my love," he said. "I'm sure you know more than I do... about biology. But you can be too quick to trust people sometimes. You've always been that way, ever since you were little. And that's a good thing, it really is, but–"
"I know, I know," said Dorothea. "Wise as serpents, harmless as doves."
"Exactly," said the Bishop. "Do not for a moment forget that he is not a Christian but a Hindu, and so you might find he doesn't share even our most basic values. You hear some terrible stories..." He trailed off, and then brightened. "I don't mean to alarm you, my dear. As Christians it is our duty to bring the light of Christ to those who don't yet know him. And Mr Selvam is very good company, I know it myself: he is intelligent, just and kind – far kinder than I believed a heathen could be. He has taught me a great deal, and not just about India. But the fact is we just don't know – we can't know – what's going on inside."
"We can't know that about anyone," said Dorothea.
"True," said the Bishop, "but..." He sighed. "But there's no point in sermonising about it, is there? I know you're a sensible girl."
"Thank you," said Dorothea. "Now, shall I ask cook to bring in the main course?"
Selvam had been hoping that Dorothea's visit would reveal some kind of horrible flaw in her, or at least lessen the attraction and – yes – desire he had felt when they danced. In fact the opposite occurred, and he knew he would find it very difficult to keep her out of his thoughts. As he said goodbye and sat back down onto the sofa they had shared, his nostrils tried to capture the last lingering scent of her perfume.
She was beautiful (for a white woman, at least), she was intelligent, they could laugh together, and perhaps most importantly of all, she was interested in him. Not as a curiosity, but as a human being; not as an Indian, but as Selvam. Or so I flatter myself, he thought. Was there really any difference between her interest and that of the giggling London girls other than the fact he happened to desire her? He thought so, but how could he be sure?
He went to his desk and started to compose a letter inviting her to lessons every Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon. These, he told himself, would be real lessons. He would work her hard and see whether she really was as intelligent and devoted to learning his language as she seemed.
The trouble with India, Dorothea reflected, was that there was so little to do. She could spend hours every day working on her Tamil simply because no-one required anything else of her. She met with Emily regularly, and of course took on various small tasks around the Cathedral, but she didn't feel needed. That's why I'm so ridiculously obsessed with Selvam, she thought to herself. I'm just grasping for anything to liven up my emotional landscape. But she knew that wasn't true, and although she firmly called it "obsession" whenever she was deliberately thinking about it, the name it whispered as it crept into her dreams was shorter and sweeter.
"Emily," she said one day as they were drinking mango juice in her little private parlour in the Bishop's residence. "Which parts of James's family are Indian, and which parts English?"
"His maternal grandmother was Indian," she replied. "All his other grandparents were English. His mother's still alive in Cochin, living with her Indian cousins. But he never writes to her or visits."
"Is it common for Englishmen to marry Indian women?"
"It used to be," replied Emily. "In those days, not many Memsahibs braved the voyage over here, so the young men had no choice but to marry local women. It's different now though: I don't think I know of any mixed couples, unless you count Michael and poor Venya."
"Why poor?" asked Dorothea.
"She thinks he'll marry her," replied Emily. "He tells her that sometimes."
"And doesn't he mean it?"
"Of course not," said Emily. "He's far too ambitious to go against social convention. You'd have the likes of Sir Roderick threatening to run him through for impugning the honour and beauty of the white girls. And it would be the end of his career."
"What about Englishwomen marrying Indian men?" Dorothea tried to sound casual about it, but was so aware of her thumping heart that she couldn't believe Emily wouldn't hear it too.
"That never happens," said Emily. "Well, unless you count couples like us, but James is more English than anyone I know. And even then, people said I was no better than I should be."
"But you don't regret it?" said Dorothea. "You don't regret going against what they were saying?"
Emily paused and looked at Dorothea very closely. "What are you asking?" she said.
She was clearly inviting a depth of confidence they had not yet shared. Dorothea was afraid. What if Emily laughed at her, or if speaking it aloud somehow spoilt it? Still, she was bursting to tell someone, and it's not as though there was anyone else. Besides, what could that look mean other than that she'd already guessed?
"It's Selvam," Dorothea said. "I think I'm in love with him, and I think he might be in love with me too."
"Oh," said Emily, clearly surprised. "I'm sorry, I..." she shook her head. "Selvam. Gosh."
"What do you think?" said Dorothea. "He's an old friend of James's, isn't he? You don't suppose they might have talked about it, about me, I mean?"
"I don't know," said Emily. "I... I can try to find out if you like."
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, yes," said Emily. "Perfectly all right. Just surprised, that's all."
"Do you think... I mean, could there ever be a future for us? For him and me? What do you advise?"
"Honestly?" said Emily. "I think you should forget him. Find someone else to teach you Tamil, make no more than polite social conversation when you're forced to see him. Your feelings will only make both of you miserable, particularly if he shares them."
Tears sprang to Dorothea's eyes. That was not the answer she had expected. "But why?" she said. "Because he's Indian and I'm English? Because he's Hindu and I'm Christian?"
"None of those things help," said Emily. "But the fundamental reason is this: that he's a man and you're a woman, and over the years I've come to realise that the only happy women are spinsters and widows."
"That's an appalling attitude!" said Dorothea, angry now as well as upset. "And you can't really mean it. I don't believe you can mean it." Even as she spoke, the anger turned to a kind of sympathy. "I'm sorry if you've had some kind of argument with James. But you'll make it up, I know you will. And that's no reason to be so cynical about all marriages."
"I hope you're right," said Emily, in a flat, dull voice.
"I am!" said Dorothea fiercely.
"Well," said Emily. "Whatever happens, I'll always be here for you. But for now I should go or else I'll be late for dinner."
"Thank you," said Dorothea, as they both stood up. "And I'm sorry for snapping at you. I'm just a bit emotional at the moment." The two women hugged each other tightly.
"Good-bye," said Emily. "See you at church on Sunday."
"You haven't been to St Thomas' Mount yet?" said Selvam at their next Saturday afternoon lesson. "I thought it was the most important Christian pilgrimage site in India?"
"Probably," said Dorothea. "But my father's too busy to take me, and I didn't think to ask anyone else. Anyway, I'm an Anglican. It's mostly Catholics who go in for saints and martyrs and pilgrimages and that sort of thing."
"You don't want to go?"
"Of course I want to go!" said Dorothea. "St Thomas is my favourite saint. I am a scientist, remember. It's my favourite bit of the bible: "except I shall put my finger into the print of the nails and... all those other things, I will not believe." I gave Daddy's curate a terrible time at confirmation class asking why Jesus wouldn't give us the same proof he gave Thomas." She knew better, now, than to assume Selvam to be ignorant of English or Christian culture. "I don't think I believe all the stories about miraculously dragging logs out of rivers using the Virgin Mary's girdle, or whatever it was, but I know he was martyred there, and of course I want to go!"
Selvam smiled at her enthusiasm. "Well come on then," he said. "Let's go."
"What?" said Dorothea. "Now?"
"Why not?" asked Selvam. "You've been doing very well in your lessons, and it's a lovely day. I think you deserve a class excursion."
"My hat's not big enough to keep off the sun!" said Dorothea. It was a stupid excuse and she knew it, but she was remembering her father's words regarding Sir Roderick's similar invitation: "I'm not sure that's entirely suitable."
"Don't worry," said Selvam. "I can give you something." He appeared to think for a moment, then went to a drawer in a large chest. He rummaged for a few moments, then handed it to her. "Here," he said.
Dorothea unfolded one of the most beautiful things she'd seen in her life. A long blue silk scarf, embroidered with parrots. If the work hadn't been so fine, it might have been garish, but the tiny stitches, and beautifully matched colours made it instead a masterpiece.
"It's a dupatta," said Selvam. "My mother made it. Would you like me to show you how to wear it?"
"It's far too fine to wear!" said Dorothea. "Really, Selvam. I couldn't borrow something like that."
"I'm not lending it to you," said Selvam. "I'm giving it to you. Here."
He put it over her head, and wound it over her shoulder. He was careful not to touch her, but nonetheless she shivered at the intimacy of the gesture.
"Thank you," she said. And, praying she hadn't misunderstood, she leant up and kissed him on the lips.
He closed his eyes, and kissed her back, parting her lips slightly with his tongue. Then he drew back. "Thank you," he said, smiling.
St Thomas' Mount was high enough to give them a spectacular view of the countryside around Madras, and of the city itself: the port, the walls of Fort St George, the cathedrals and the countless dwellings, Indian and European, rich and poor.
Dorothea stopped to pray at the shrine over the spot where the Apostle was martyred. Her prayer was her usual one: "Dear Lord, give me faith," but here it had an extra poignancy. "Or give me proof, dear Lord, as you gave it to your servant Thomas." She looked up to see Selvam, waiting a respectful distance away, sitting on a bench beneath a banyan tree. "Is that your answer, God? Love is your proof?" She laughed at her own childish conclusion, but she still half-believed it.
She arose and rejoined him.
"I will ask your father if I may marry you," he said. "That's the way it's done, isn't it? I don't need to get my aunties to do it?"
"I can't wait to meet your aunties," said Dorothea, trying to ignore the question of her father, just for a few more moments. "You've told me so much about them."
"What's the matter?" said Selvam.
Dorothea sighed. "My father's the matter," she said. "There's no point in asking him, because I already know what the answer's going to be, and it's 'no'."
Selvam drew away from her. "What?" he said, tense with anger. "He thinks I'm not good enough for you?"
"It's not that," said Dorothea. "He likes and respects you very much. It's just–"
"Oh yes," said Selvam. "I've come across that kind of respect before." He put on a ridiculous posh English voice: "Oh yes, splendid chaps, but you wouldn't want one of them marrying your daughter, eh what?" The box at the back of his mind where he stored all that rage was threatening to crack. He kept it all in, but the strain of doing so showed in his voice.
"I'm sorry," said Dorothea. "I wish it didn't have to be like that. He's my father, and he's wise and wonderful and I love him, but... I suppose this is just his blind spot. I'm sure he'll come round in the end, but..." she trailed off, uncertain of whether to suggest something so bold.
"But what?" said Selvam, almost spitting the words..
She drew a deep breath. "But we're going to have to get married first, and seek his consent afterwards."
Selvam paused. "You'd do that?" he said. The anger wasn't gone from his voice, but the tenderness was back. "You'd do that for me?"
"Yes," said Dorothea, without hesitation. "Naan unnai kadhalikiren, Selvam."
"I love you too," said Selvam. "Even if your pronunciation is still atrocious."
"Is Selvam having an affair with Dorothea?" James asked over dinner one day.
Emily almost spat her soup with surprise. "Why on earth would you think that?" she asked.
"I've watched the two of you, always whispering together in corners. And it's his name I hear. Selvam, Selvam, Selvam." He imitated a woman's voice, shrill and mincing, then continued in his own: "I can't imagine he could possibly want to fuck you, so it must be her."
"Women can talk about things other than sex, you know," replied Emily.
"You haven't denied it," said James.
"No," said Emily. "As far as I know, they're not having an affair."
Then he pushed the tureen over so the hot soup fell in her lap. She suppressed a scream, turning it into a whimper. "Stop it," she said. "Please, stop it. Not today." She stood up and tried to get the sodden skirts away from her scalded skin. "I'll go and get changed, and we can pretend it didn't happen. Please?"
"You're disgusting," said James. "Look at you."
Emily went to change, and he didn't stop her.
That night, he came to her bed, pulled off the sheets and then pulled up her nightdress to see her scalded thighs. "You're a clumsy slut," he said, climbing on top of her and stroking her hair. "I love you." He kissed her.
"I love you too," said Emily.
"Then why won't you tell me what you talk about with Dorothea?" said James, licking her face and then biting her arm, hard.
"Stop it," said Emily. "Please stop hurting me. I know things are hard for you at the moment, and I want to help make it better, but–"
"Well tell me what you talk about with her," said James. "That's how you can make it better."
"Promise you won't do anything that harms Dorothea," said Emily.
"I promise, my love," said James, kissing her neck and stroking her hair again.
"They're getting married," said Emily. "They're going to elope."
James sat up, straddling his wife's scalded thighs. She gritted her teeth, trying not to betray the pain. "Where are they going?" he said. "And when? You must tell me everything."
Father O'Malley sucked in some air between his crooked teeth. "Well," he said. "It'll cost ye."
"We've got money," said Selvam. "Don't worry about that.
They couldn't have an Anglican wedding, of course, because any priest they asked would send word straight back to the Bishop. And they couldn't have a Hindu wedding because, in Selvam's words, it would take five days, and about a thousand relatives. They couldn't have a Muslim wedding, because they weren't Muslim, and the Muslim community tended to be a bit picky about these things. So it was lucky that Selvam happened to know the old Roman Catholic priest who had special charge of St Thomas's Tomb, which lay beneath the enormous San Thome Basilica. And that he knew Father O'Malley's weakness, too...
The priest nodded. "I feel obliged to tell you I think it's an awful idea," he said. "Elopements almost always end unhappily, and the difference in cultures makes it even worse."
"How much money are we talking about?" asked Selvam.
Father O'Malley named his sum. Dorothea raised her eyebrows. "All for the leper hospital, of course," he added. "Not a penny will go into my pockets, God's honest truth."
"Of course," said Selvam. "We'll bring it with us tomorrow night."
"It almost goes against my conscience," said Father O'Malley, cheerily. "But the way I see it, what is two peoples' lifelong regret and misery compared to the good that the leper hospital will do once we finish building it?"
"What does he really spend the money on?" asked Dorothea, on the way back to the Bishop's residence.
Selvam laughed. "The leper hospital," he said. "I know, I couldn't believe it either, but there's absolutely no doubt about it. He lives like a pauper, never drinks, eats nothing but dhal and rice, and spends every rupee he earns – or prises out of people like us – on helping the poor."
Selvam apologised for having to marry her somewhere as "macabre" as the little tomb chapel, but Dorothea said she wouldn't have wanted to go anywhere else for all the world. St Thomas, she explained, was the perfect patron for their wedding vows. People were wrong to call him 'doubting' Thomas. He only doubted until he had evidence, which was entirely sensible. After that, he remained faithful even to the point of martyrdom. She would be the same, she said. "I wouldn't have married you unless I was sure it was the right thing to do, but I am sure, and now I will be faithful to you for the rest of my life."
The Bishop woke suddenly. Outside, the sky was still dark. Someone was shouting. In English! What? Something about a sheep?
He sat up, groaning, put on his dressing gown and staggered to the window.
"What the–" It was Sir Roderick, wearing that ridiculous uniform of his, capering round in a state of great agitation.
"You are drunk, Sir," said the Bishop. "Go home and go to bed."
"Your daughter, your Grace!" shouted Sir Roderick. "Go to her room if you don't believe me."
"I will do no such thing," said the Bishop. "Now go away before I send for the police."
"She's eloped," continued Sir Roderick. "That filthy nigger's run off with her. Go and look if you don't believe me."
The words sunk in like a dead weight. The Bishop felt his face go cold. He pulled the curtains shut, and ran down the hall to Dorothea's bedroom. He knocked. Nothing. Cautiously, he opened the door. The bed was empty. He stood for a while staring at it, then sank to the floor, his face in his hands.
He remained there until dawn, when he dressed, and set out for the Governor's residence.
"Well," said the Governor, once Selvam and Dorothea had arrived. "Is it true?"
"Yes," said Selvam. "We married last night."
"Daddy," said Dorothea, going to hug her father. "You look awful. I'm so sorry."
He pushed her away, though not unkindly. "Wait," he said. "Tell me he forced you. There's no need to be afraid, my love. I won't be angry, and we can get the marriage annulled. Just say you want to come back to me and everything will be all right."
Dorothea's eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry, Daddy, but this is all my own doing. I love Selvam, and chose to marry him freely. I would have asked you, really I would, but I knew you'd say no."
"How old are you, Miss Brabant?" said the Governor.
"I'm twenty-two," said Dorothea. "But my name is Mrs Selvam." Her voice faltered as she spoke, but she remained looking at the Governor straight in the eye. The Bishop groaned in anguish.
"I apologise, Mrs Selvam," said the Governor, and then turned to the Bishop.
"She's of age," he continued. "She says she freely consented, and there's nothing whatsoever to suggest she didn't. I'm afraid there's nothing you can do, your Grace, except welcome your new son-in-law to your family. Selvam's a good man, and a loyal servant of the Queen. You could really do a lot worse, you know."
Selvam turned to the Bishop and looked directly at him. "Your Grace," he said. "I apologise for marrying your daughter in secret. I hope you can forgive me. From this day onwards, I will honour and respect you as my own father, and I cherish and protect my wife even at the expense of my own life."
The Bishop didn't reply, but stood up, turned his back on them and walked towards the door.
"Daddy!" said Dorothea. "Please, wait, listen!"
He turned then. "How could you?" he said. "I have given you everything you needed, everything you wanted. I have loved you and trusted you, and you have deliberately sought out the one thing that I just can't tolerate." And without waiting for an answer, he left.
Dorothea put her face in her hands and started to cry. Selvam put his arm around her.
"Oh dear," said the Governor, passing her his handkerchief. "But I'm sure he'll come round in the end. He loves you very much, you know."
Dorothea nodded and dried her eyes. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you for supporting us."
"It's my pleasure," said the Governor. "Selvam has been invaluable to me, and to England, over the past ten years. It's good to be able to repay him. I'm sure you'll make him very happy, my dear."
Dorothea smiled and looked at her new husband, savouring that word, 'husband'. "And he'll make me very happy too," she said.
The Governor smiled at her, then turned to Selvam. "I'm afraid that time, tide and the Indian Railways wait for no man, however. I hate to spoil your honeymoon by talking shop, but something urgent has come up regarding the Bangalore-Anantapur Line. Some kind of dispute over land ownership around Hindupur. I'm afraid I need you to get out there straight away."
Selvam groaned. "The Nawab's raising a stink again, is he? Very well, I'll go and pack. How long do you think I'll need to stay?"
"It could be as much as a month," said the Governor."
"Oh dear," said Selvam, then turned to Dorothea. "I am so sorry, my love. But my servants will look after you well, and–"
"But I'm coming with you!" said Dorothea. "We're only just married. You can't leave me for a whole month."
"It's not safe," said Selvam. "Some of these disputes can get very nasty, and in any case, the conditions are primitive–"
"I'm coming with you," said Dorothea. "I didn't marry you so I could stay here, I married you so I could share your life, and that includes the dangerous parts and the parts that involve living in primitive conditions. It's like that beautiful book you gave me. Ramayan? Sita didn't think twice about following her husband into the wilderness, and nor will I."
Selvam smiled fondly at her. "What do you think?" he asked the Governor.
"I don't see why not," he said. "James sometimes takes Emily along when he needs to be out of town for protracted periods of time. Come to think of it, we need him out there too, so we could make sure she goes along, as company for Dorothea. Why don't you form an advance guard this afternoon with Michael Casper, and Dorothea can follow with James and Emily in a couple of days?"
Selvam settled Dorothea down in his residence, giving order to his servants to obey her as their new mistress, and showing her to his own bed.
"Aren't you joining me?" she said. "You must be as exhausted as I am!"
"No time," said Selvam. "I need to get to Hindupur as soon as I can."
"But you'll sleep in the coach?"
"I'm going by horseback," Selvam replied. "I prefer it, and besides, it's quicker. Michael will take a small coach with Venya and a couple of clerks. Goodbye, my love. I'll see you in a few days." They kissed.
Selvam changed his clothes, and threw a few spare things into a bag. As he was leaving his house, he saw his cook whispering to one of her friends. Then they saw him and stopped talking, but instead stifled some giggles. So already he was the subject of gossip. He knew the anger that arose on his breast was as much as anything the result of a sleepless night, but that didn't make it feel any better.
Was this to be his life now? As he mounted his horse and set off, he wondered what they were saying, why they were laughing. He had expected the white people to mock him – he read the same newspapers they did, and had seen the disgusting cartoons where beturbaned lechers preyed on innocent young white girls. He was prepared for that, but why were his own people laughing at him?
Was it even right for him to call them 'his people' anymore? He looked Indian, and dressed Indian more often than not (yes, even though that meant visitors from England would click their fingers at him and call him 'boy' and tell him to hurry up and serve their tea). But twelve years ago, in one of India's darkest times, when millions died of famine, including some of his own cousins, where had he been? Where but England, learning to serve the regime that had stopped the farmers growing rice and wheat, and made them grow tea instead; the very tea he drank in London cafés and parlours, learning to be English, learning to be white. And now he had gone further, and taken an English bride.
But even then, the thought of her raised his spirits. She was beautiful. And she loved him. When he was in her arms he felt happy and at peace. He had searched every corner of his mind for his motives in marrying her, and found them pure. People would say – people were already saying – that he took her merely as a trophy, to show he was as good as a white man. But he had married for love, and because she was intelligent, sensible and a fitting mother for his children.
Children. Selvam's mind turned to James. And odd fellow, him. They had known one another from childhood, and even then James was obsessed with his whiteness. He talked about hating his dark-skinned mother, and fantasised about his white father coming back to take him to England. Would Selvam's own children hate him? Better to die childless than for that to happen.
What was wrong with him? He enjoyed riding (just like an Englishman, a voice in his head pointed out). The rhythm of the horse under him was normally calming, and generated happy reflections, why did every thought he had turn to melancholy? He had married a beautiful woman he loved, and against his expectations, the Governor had been outspoken in their support. He should be the happiest man in the world.
Something must be wrong, he realised. There's something I'm not seeing, something wrong.
"Why are they still married, then?" whined Sir Roderick as he sat on his terrace that evening, drinking gin and tonic with James.
"I have no idea," said James, through gritted teeth.
"You said that if I woke the old man up, he'd make the Governor annul the marriage."
"Look," said James, suddenly smiling. "Why don't you come with us all to Hindupur? I'm sure she'll very swiftly become disillusioned with her dusky husband, and there will be plenty of scope to comfort her in her distress."
"All right," said Sir Roderick, swatting away a mosquito. "But are you sure she even likes me? Sometimes it feels as though she's being quite rude to me."
"Certainly she likes you," said James. "Women are always rude to men they find attractive."
"Really?" said Sir Roderick, perking up a bit. "Yes, that makes sense, I suppose."
"There's only one possible rival," said James. "And that's Michael Casper."
"Michael?" said Sir Roderick. His eyes narrowed. "Yes, I've seen them together a few times. He behaves very forwardly towards her. Oh dear, it's hopeless."
"No it's not!" said James. "Don't be such a pessimist. You're handsome, wealthy, accomplished. I know, why don't you hire some coaches to take us all to Hindupur in luxury? You can keep modestly silent about it, and I'll tell her you hired them."
"Yes!" said Sir Roderick. "Women are always impressed with things like that, aren't they?"
"Undoubtedly," said James, draining his glass, and clicking his fingers for another. "And here's another thing. You need to disgrace Michael in her eyes, and in her husband's eyes. Maybe start a fight with him or something. He'll get demoted for brawling – Selvam's never been able to abide that in his staff – and you can also impress her with your fighting skill."
"Yes," said Sir Roderick uncertainly. "Um... I'm not sure I have very much fighting skill. Not brawling, anyway. I can fence like a master, of course."
"Wait until Michael is drunk," suggested James. "And remain resolutely sober yourself. I'll make sure I intervene if things aren't going your way."
"All right," said Sir Roderick.
James drained another glass. "Right. Go and pack, and see to those coaches. I'd better get back to Emily and Dorothea."
Emily enjoyed looking out of the coach windows at the Indian countryside, but she wished Selvam could have been there to point things out and explain what they were. Sir Roderick had insisted she sit next to him, and since he was paying for the dratted coaches, she could hardly refuse. She did her best to avoid all conversational gambits, however, and after a while they all left her in peace.
Once they were away from Madras, the houses were very different. Many of them were just little huts which seemed to be made entirely from leaves. The grandest were no more than wooden shacks. Men, women and children were all out working together in the fields. She saw an old lady bent over carrying a bundle of sticks that looked about twice the size she was, and several times an hour the Hindu drivers stopped to let cows amble around the middle of the road, and flat out refused to move until they had moved on of their own accord. Dorothea didn't particularly mind, except for the fact that whenever it happened, Roderick muttered something along the lines of "bloody savages" and then started ranting about superstition.
Despite the fact she had done little but sit all day, Dorothea was so tired by the time they got to the village where they were staying overnight, that she barely noticed anything about it, even the name.
The second day was much like the first, but more exciting, because Dorothea knew she'd see her husband at the end of it. Now and again there were larger towns, and once there seemed to be some kind of religious procession going on, with people carrying statues, and an elephant whose forehead had been coloured with some kind of orange powder.
"Heathen nonsense," muttered Roderick, but Dorothea thought it was beautiful.
The railway camp was to the south east of Hindupur proper. The buildings around it were makeshift, but no more so than many of the huts and shacks that seemed to function as peoples' main homes. Gangs of dark-skinned coolies with their dhotis folded up to reveal their knees worked in orderly lines with shovels and picks, while the foreman prowled up and down the line, inspecting their labour. Two dogs fought, while a small group of boys shouted at them, whether egging them on or trying to separate them, Dorothea couldn't tell.
Selvam and Michael were waiting outside the biggest of the shacks, waving to the new arrivals.
"How did you know we were coming?" said Dorothea, paying no heed to the dust that clouded up as she leapt out of the coach and flung herself into her husband's arms.
"I've done nothing but wait ever since we were parted," said Selvam.
Dorothea laughed. "But really?" she said.
Selvam tapped his nose. "I have my methods," he said. "Now come in, all of you. It was a wasted journey, I'm afraid, because the land ownership problem has been solved, thanks to Michael here, and there's nothing left to do but celebrate."
"Selvam made me Master of Revels," cut in Michael. "I'm afraid it won't be up to our Madras standards, but I've hired some local musicians, and Venya will sing for us, and food and drink will be plentiful. Emily – I've managed to dig out an old piano from somewhere and get it tuned. Perhaps you'd be willing to play?"
The visitors from Madras were all staying in a villa situated halfway between the town and the railway camp, and went there to change out of their travelling clothes. Dorothea and Selvam had the largest, grandest room, but it wasn't much compared even to the smaller Madras houses. It was on the first floor, at the top of an attractive curved staircase. There was a large, low bed with a richly embroidered beige coverlet, and no other furniture to speak of, but at least it was clean.
They sat on the bed and kissed. Dorothea felt a pang of regret that they had to attend the party, and couldn't snuggle up in bed straight away, but told herself she was being churlish. She hadn't brought any party clothes with her, so she wore her favourite day dress, which was a rich russet. She was embarrassed to disrobe in front of her new husband, but did it anyway, though he politely turned his back. She finished off the outfit with the parrot dupatta.
The party was to take place mostly outside, partly because it was a beautiful evening for it, but mostly because there wasn't a room even nearly big enough for it in the railway camp, or even in Hindupur proper.
However, Michael had taken a semi-wooded area at the back of the big shack, and turned it into an enchanted grove. There was bunting strung through the trees, as dusk began to fall, dozens of lanterns were lit.
"It's beautiful!" said Dorothea, looking around her in wonder.
Michael bowed. "Nothing but the best for the beautiful bride," he said.
There were thirty or so Europeans attending the party, mostly Englishmen, with a few memsahibs, and a couple of Portuguese traders. There were also a fairly large number of Indian and Eurasian people; local dignitaries, Dorothea supposed. The different groups mixed more freely than they ever did in Madras.
Rugs were spread on the floor, and at some signal Dorothea didn't catch, everyone settled down to watch the performance. Selvam and Dorothea were led to two makeshift thrones: chairs covered with finely woven silks.
Three musicians took to the stage and began to play. One had an instrument that looked a little like a tall lute, one beat a drum, and one played something that looked like a fiddle.
It wasn't like any music Dorothea had ever heard before. Like most girls of her class and generation, she had been taught enough music to sing and play the piano, and although she had displayed little aptitude for it, she knew enough about scales and whatnot to understand that what she was hearing followed a completely different set of rules.
"It's magical," she whispered to Selvam, closing her eyes and leaning her head on his shoulder. The lack of visual input seemed to sharpen her other senses, so the music filled her, and she noticed the warm, spicy scent of the air. It reminded her of her favourite speech in Shakespeare, by Titania, about her little page's mother:
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip'd by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laugh'd to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind.
How many lonely, boarding school nights had she spent reciting that to herself through her tears, and wishing, praying, bargaining with God for her father to call her out to join him? Her father. Her eyes filled with tears again. It had been three days since he had last spoken to her.
It was then that Venya began to sing, a sound of such sweetness and melancholy that it seemed to Dorothea to be an extension of her own thoughts and feelings. She opened her eyes. "What does it mean?" she whispered to Selvam.
"The rāga?" he asked. "Unrequited love. Why do you ask?"
Then Dorothea remembered what Emily had said about Michael and Venya's relationship and felt a little guilty for imagining the song was part of her, when Venya must be singing her own sorrow. She said something of the sort to Selvam.
He laughed a short ironic laugh, and that place at the back of his head started throbbing. "Surely that's what you English do with everything about India?"
She must have looked hurt or confused because he then apologised and reached surreptitiously for her hand. Dorothea wanted to kiss him, but had been told that Indian couples do not kiss in public, even chastely, so she contented herself with enjoying his touch, and looking forward to their first night together.
Venya went on to sing two more rāgas, both of which were far more cheerful and upbeat, and afterwards, a splendid meal was served. It was proper Indian food, which Dorothea found she preferred to the Anglo-Indian kind, once she had got used to the piquancy of the spices and the dominance of vegetables rather than meat. Selvam and the other Indian guests ate with their hands, although cutlery was provided, so Dorothea decided to do likewise. She found that it added something to the experience, almost like tasting the food with your fingertips before it even gets to your mouth.
"Right hand only, love," Selvam whispered.
Dorothea blushed. Why did everything have to have so many rules?
"Look at her," said Sir Roderick, disgusted, sitting at one of the few tables with James. "She's dabbling her fingers in it, like one of them."
James sighed. "Poor girl," he said.
"Oh, yes," said Sir Roderick. "Yes, quite so. What is this muck anyway?" He fished about in his dhal. "There's not even any meat in here."
Michael, overhearing, wandered up to them. "Sorry about that," he said. "I did my best, but the local chaps are mostly vegetarians. But there's a lovely curry made out of sheep's trotters, and some little triangular chicken pastry things, if it's flesh you're after."
Sir Roderick frowned. "What do you mean by that?" he asked, his hand on the hilt of his sword.
"Um..." said Michael, thinking that what he said had been self-explanatory. "There's meat, as well as vegetables. Would you like me to go and get you some?"
"What did you mean when you said I was after flesh?" said Sir Roderick.
James was amused, but hid it well. Perhaps getting Michael drunk wouldn't even be necessary.
"Well," said Michael. "Just let me know if you'd like some. I'd better go and mingle now, you know, host's responsibility and all that."
Sir Roderick stood up, swaying drunkenly. "Don't you ever say anything like that about Miss Brabant again!" he said.
"Miss Brabant?" said Michael. "You mean Mrs Selvam, and I didn't even mention her. Look here, old chap, I think you may have had a few too many. James, I wonder whether you could get him some water or some tea or some of that nimboo whatsitsname?
"Certainly," said James, and left.
He went straight to Emily and kissed her.
- She laughed. "You're very amorous tonight," she said, stroking his cheek. "How could I not be," he replied, "with a wife so beautiful as you?"
"I love you," said Emily, closing her eyes and sinking into his embrace. Why can't he always be like this? she asked herself.
"What's that scarf Dorothea always wears?" James asked, as they sat down together on one of the rugs.
Emily laughed. "That was Selvam's first gift to her," she said. "She's obsessed with the thing: for the past two nights she's slept with it in her bed."
"It's lovely," said James. "Any idea where he got it? I would love to get you a similar one."
"Thank you," said Emily. "But there's no chance of that, I'm afraid. His mother made it decades ago."
"Well," he said. "I know some very good embroiderers. Perhaps you could borrow it from Dorothea and I could have it copied."
"I'll try," she said, "but I don't think she'll want to part with it."
"Do," he said. "It's important to me, very important." He glanced over to where Sir Roderick had been sitting, but they had gone their separate ways, apparently without coming to blows. Damn.
"Well, if you'll excuse me love," he said. "I have some business to attend to."
FOOOOOOR Champagne Charlie is my name.
Champagne Charlie is my name,
Good for any game at night, my boys,
Good for any game at night, my boys.
Champagne Charlie is my name,
Champagne Charlie is my name.
Good for any game at NIIIIIIIIGHT, boys,
Who'll come and join me on the spree?
"All right," slurred Michael, putting his arm round James's shoulders. "Father O'Malley taught me this one..."
James waved his hands in front of him, feigning drunkenness. "No, no," he said. "Not now. Any idea where the khazi is, old chap? Here, let me pour you another one on the way."
Michael gestured vaguely in some direction or other, and then slumped to the floor. "Time for a little nap," he slurred to himself. "Venya, love? Where's Venya?"
Michael opened his eyes to see Sir Roderick standing over him. "What's up, guv'ner?" he said in cockney, then dissolved into giggles.
"You still haven't apologised for what you said about Miss Brabant," said Sir Roderick.
"She's a damn fine woman, and I will..." Michael he staggered to his feet. "And I will, um... thing, you know, any man who says otherwise."
"Right," said Sir Roderick, drawing back his fist...
"Do you think we can leave now?" whispered Selvam in Dorothea's ear. "That bed looked awfully inviting."
"That sounds like an excellent idea," said Dorothea, stealing a quick kiss. After all, no-one was watching. They turned to go.
"Help!" It was Emily. Both of them turned round at once. She ran to them. "It's Michael and Sir Roderick, they're fighting!"
Selvam cursed in Tamil under his breath. "Excuse me love," he said, and strode off in the direction Emily was pointing.
Dorothea and Emily followed. "What on earth happened?" asked Dorothea. "I thought Michael was too sensible to–"
"My husband," interrupted Emily. "That's what happened. My husband and a bottle of gin."
"Oh dear," said Dorothea, and they hurried to where the commotion was: a little clearing surrounded by the belanterned trees. One by one, the lanterns were flickering and going out.
Sir Roderick was still on his feet, gesticulating fiercely and saying: "he impooned, um... inpuggened, he... the honour of your wife."
Michael was on the floor, holding his head and groaning. Dorothea could see blood trickling out from between his fingers. "Oh dear," she said, and knelt by him.
Selvam was standing between the two of them, holding his hands out to separate them. "Get both of them out of my sight," he said. "Before I do something I regret." Servants and guests alike clamoured to help, including Dorothea, until Selvam held her back. "Stay with me," he said. "You too," he added, looking at James and Emily.
"Did you see what happened?" Selvam asked Emily after everyone else was gone.
Emily shook her head. "I'm afraid not," she said. I just came when I heard the shouting.
"I saw everything," said James, grimly, but didn't continue.
"Go on," said Selvam impatiently.
"Sir," said James. "I hesitate to say anything, because I might have misinterpreted what I saw. What I think I saw, I mean. Sir Roderick and Michael are both good men. I find it hard to believe that–"
"Speak your mind," said Dorothea. "We'll be the judge of that." She turned to her husband. "Selvam," she said. "Sir Roderick isn't all he seems. He–"
"That's just the problem," sighed James. "As far as I could see, Sir Roderick didn't do anything wrong. Michael just came up to him and started saying... well, not anything I would repeat in front of the ladies. And then tried to hit him. As far as I could tell, it was completely unprovoked."
"That doesn't sound like Michael," said Selvam. "I've warned him before about getting involved in brawls, but he was never one to start one without a reason."
"No," said Dorothea. "James, is there any chance you misunderstood? Did you see what happened before? Perhaps Sir Roderick had–"
"Exactly," said James. "I'm sure I must have misunderstood. Mind you, I was with Sir Roderick directly before, and we were just having a quiet drink. He didn't say anything to Michael until the latter started abusing him, but–"
"Was Michael drunk?" asked Selvam quietly.
"I'm afraid so," said James. "I'd been trying to get him to sober up for a while, but he kept pouring himself more and more gin."
Selvam's eyes flashed with anger. "I don't mind my men drinking, but not so much they get out of control. It's dangerous. It reflects badly on the whole Empire. It's a pity, but I told him last time it was his final warning, and I can't be seen to be a man who goes back on his word." He shook his head. "What a waste," he said, almost to himself. Then: "Come on, love. Let's go to bed."
James and Emily watched them depart. "Well?" said James, once they were alone.
"Well what?" said Emily.
"Have you got it? The scarf?"
"The... oh, not yet. I haven't even had a chance to ask her."
James grunted with exasperation. "Haven't had a chance?" he said, mimicking her in a high pitched voice. "It's been hours. Couldn't be bothered, more like."
"I'll do it tomorrow," said Emily. "I promise."
"You'll forget," said James.
"I won't forget," said Emily.
"Well," said James. "Here's something to help you remember." And he punched her in the face. She reeled backwards, and fell heavily against a tree, knocking one of the last lanterns to the ground, where it went out. But she managed to stay on her feet.
"Please," she said. "Stop it. I'll remember, I promise I'll remember."
"Good," said James. "And if it leaves a mark, you're to tell everyone you got caught up in the fight trying to separate them, and Michael punched you. Got it?"
Emily nodded, knowing there was no other way. Even if people believed her about James, if she somehow managed to get away, back to England even, he would always find her and come after her, and she would be as good as dead. Besides, she would have nothing, and putting up with being hit was better than starving in the streets. In her darkest moments she fantasised about killing him, but as soon as the thought came into her mind, she felt something tightening in her throat, like the premonition of a noose.
Now, her body was dully aware, he was kissing her, forcing his tongue into her throat. She allowed herself to be led up to a bedroom and fucked, until he rolled over and she cried herself to sleep.
Michael sat up alone in his little single bed, groaning. "Come in." The door opened. "James," he said glumly.
"I've brought you some water," said James. "It'll make you feel a bit better."
"What time is it?" asked Michael.
Michael groaned again. "What happened last night?" he drawled. "I mean, I remember part of it, the Champagne Charlie song, and that dashed impudent rascal Sir Roderick trying to bait me, and someone bringing me back here and bandaging my head and... Oh dear. It's all coming back now. Is Selvam furious?" he took a glug of the water, and then threw up by the side of his bed. "Oh dear, I'm dreadfully sorry, James, old thing."
"It's all right," said James. "I'll get someone to clear it up in a minute. Keep trying to drink. Small sips now."
"Is it all right?" said Michael. "Really? I mean, I still have a job, don't I? Selvam's spoken to me about my drinking a couple of times before..."
"Well," said James diplomatically. "Right now, not as such, but–"
Michael groaned a third time, longer and louder than before, so it was almost a shout. "I'm such an idiot, James. Why did I do it? And now everything's ruined. I'll have to go back to England, and leave Venya - she's all right, isn't she? She said she'd go and sleep with the maids or something." He groaned again. "It's like an elephant stamped on my head. Why couldn't Sir Roderick just have finished the job and run me through?" He slumped back so he was lying, staring up at the ceiling.
"All is not lost," said James. "Venya is fine, though a little worried about you, and it was just a momentary slip. I'm sure Selvam will forgive you eventually."
"Eventually's not good enough," said Michael. "Before 'eventually' happens, I'll be on the ship bidding goodbye to jolly old India, and... oh dear, Mummy will kill me when she finds out."
"Well," said James. "I'm sure there are things we can do to speed the process. Why don't you have a word with Dorothea, for example? I know she's very sympathetic towards you. Perhaps we could get her to have a word with her husband."
"Yes!" said Michael, sitting up again and grasping the water glass in both hands. "Yes, that's it, I'll do exactly that. Thank you, James. You're splendid. The best pal a chap could have."
"It seems like a long time since we've had a proper conversation, James," said Selvam later that evening, as they drank gin on the dusty veranda, while the insects buzzed and whirred around them. "I'm at fault for neglecting you, old friend, I know I am."
James inclined his head graciously. "I understand," he said. "I know how busy you are."
"That's no excuse," said Selvam. "I have time to spend with my beautiful wife, so why shouldn't I have time to spend with my oldest friend? I miss the old days, you know? I don't know about you, but I miss the days when we were both boys, running wild round Cochin. And I even miss our little flat in London." He laughed. "Do you remember how we used to have to take it in turns to get dressed in the morning because there wasn't room for both of us?"
"All the same," said James. "It was so civilised there compared to India."
"If you ever want to go back," said Selvam. "If you want to take the exam again, you know I'm willing to support you. Financially, I mean, as well as in other ways. Of course I will make you Acting Assistant Collector, and I will delay getting someone in from England for as long as I can, but I can't appoint you permanently. The rules just don't allow it."
"So change the rules," said James. "You're powerful enough. I am not going back to take exams like a schoolboy. And it's a stupid system anyway, appointing children with no experience to positions of responsibility. I don't want anything to do with it."
Selvam sighed. "I understand," he said. "Well, the offer's still there."
The two of them drank in silence for a few moments.
"So, how's married life?" asked James.
Selvam broke into a smile. "Wonderful," he said. "Not a minute goes by when I'm not grateful to Dorothea for choosing me, and she says the same."
"Where is she now?" asked James.
"I'm not sure," said Selvam. "In the little library, I think."
"Really?" said James, looking shocked. Then he shook his head. "No, nothing, never mind."
"What's wrong?" said Selvam.
"Nothing," said James. "Forget it."
"Come on, man," laughed Selvam. "Spit it out. What on earth's in there? Some crusty old bureaucrat's pornography collection?"
"I'm sure it's nothing," said James. He paused. "But... I just saw Michael coming out of there, looking... well, I'm sure it's nothing. Drunken brawling is one thing, but openly, in the middle of the day... as I say, I'm sure it's nothing."
Selvam frowned. "They seem to be quite close, those two. Like brother and sister, Dorothea said."
James nodded enthusiastically. "Yes," he said. "Like brother and sister, exactly so. Oh, there she is now! Dorothea!"
She came over, smiling, and sat down next to Selvam, taking his hand.
"I've got a favour to ask of you," she said.
"Oh yes?" said Selvam, drawing away a little.
"A big favour," said Dorothea.
Selvam didn't reply.
"It's Michael," she continued. "He really is very sorry about last night. He's quite seriously talking about giving drink up altogether. Please, as a gift to me – a wedding present, if you like – take him back? James agrees, don't you James? When I went to see him in his bedroom this afternoon he told me James had been there just before and–"
"You visited him in his bedroom?" Selvam asked.
"Yes," said Dorothea, brushing some of the ubiquitous dust off her husband's knee. "I think he had concussion as well as a hangover. Venya and I have been nursing him all day."
"I know," said Dorothea. "He doesn't deserve it. The way he behaved last night was truly despicable, and I told him so, particularly managing to hit poor Emily. But that part was an accident. He says he doesn't even remember it. And he really is truly repentant–"
"He hit Emily?" said Selvam. "I didn't know that. James, is it true?"
"Unfortunately so," said James.
"She's got a shiner of a black eye," said Dorothea. "But she says it doesn't hurt much, and she thinks it was just an accident."
Selvam shook his head.
"I'm not leaving until you say yes," said Dorothea. "You told me what a genius he'd been over resolving the land ownership question. You said if it wasn't for him, we'd still be stuck in negotiations, if it hadn't deteriorated into violence by now. You need him, Selvam. You'd be stuck without him."
"All right, all right," said Selvam. "Just leave us alone for a while."
"What do you mean by 'all right'?" frowned Dorothea. "Do you mean yes, you're taking him back? Can I tell him that now?"
"Please love," said Selvam. "I have a headache. Please can this wait until the morning? It's late. Go to bed, and I'll join you shortly."
Dorothea opened her mouth to ask whether he meant he would tell Michael he was reinstated in the morning, or something else, but thought better of it. "Yes, love," she said. "I'm sorry. I'll see you soon."
Selvam and James watched her depart.
"Is she not beautiful?" asked Selvam. "Is she not the most beautiful woman you've ever seen?"
James smiled. "Remember you're speaking to another married man," he said. "I wouldn't dare say so."
"I was a fool to marry her," said Selvam. "To think that she was different from other white women."
"She loves you," said James quietly. "I truly believe she loves you, and you alone. Be careful. Keep an eye on her, but don't let jealousy destroy you."
Selvam nodded. "What is it you Christians say? Wise as serpents, harmless as doves. That's what I must be. I must be a loving husband, at least until I get proof, but not a gullible one."
"Exactly," said James. "And I'd be prepared to wager my life that you won't find any proof, because there's no proof to find."
Selvam poured another drink for each of them. "To faithful women," he said, holding up his glass. Then he added, under his breath: "if there are any."
It was long past midnight when James walked back to the room he shared with Emily.
"Dorothea!" said James. "What on earth are you doing still up?"
"Where's Selvam?" asked Dorothea. "I'm worried about him."
"He decided to sleep under the stars," said James.
"Well, to be honest, I think he had a bit too much to drink, and just sort of passed out where he was."
Dorothea rolled her eyes. "Men!" she said, under her breath, and made for the garden to find her husband.
He was lying on one of the seats, twitching and moaning in his sleep, occasionally putting his hand to his head. Insects buzzed around him. She tentatively shook his arm, but he just pushed her away. Dorothea wondered whether she should go back and get the mosquito net from their room, but it was too high for her without fetching a ladder from somewhere, and that would wake up the whole house.
She looked around for something to use instead. All she could think of was the parrot dupatta, which she was wearing for warmth. She looked at it. On the one hand, it was too precious to leave lying around. On the other, it was so much less precious than her husband. If he got bitten and got malaria and died she'd never forgive herself. He seemed very out of sorts earlier. Perhaps using something so important to protect him would show him how much he was loved. Carefully, she rigged it up, so it covered his face without getting in his way. Then she crept back to her bed and went to sleep hugging her pillow, imagining it was him.
James awoke at dawn after only a couple of hours of sleep.
"I've got a present for you," said Emily.
"I don't want a present," said James.
"You will when you see it," said Emily, and unfolded the parrot dupatta.
James sat up in bed, immediately alert. "You genius!" he said, kissing her smack on the lips. "How did you manage to get it?"
"I woke up when you came to bed," she said. "And I couldn't get back to sleep, so I looked out of the window, and there it was. Selvam was asleep on the bench there and it was covering him. So I just snuck down and took it."
"Come here," said James, pulling her on top of him.
She laughed and started stroking his thigh.
"I love you," he said.
"I love you too."
"The odd thing," said Michael, "is that it looks very familiar, somehow. I'm sure I've seen it before."
Everyone was back in Madras. Michael was in the little bungalow he provided for Venya, lying on the floor with his head in her lap.
"I don't believe you," she said miserably, stroking his hair.
The parrot dupatta was draped over the back of a chair.
"Look," he said. "If I did have another mistress, I swear I would tell you about her. You're not my wife. Why should I keep things from you? And if I did have another mistress I wanted to hide from you, why would I show you the gift she gave me and ask you to copy the work?"
Venya shook her head. "I just don't understand it," she said.
"Nor do I," said Michael.
"For us Hindus," said Venya. "The parrot means love. Physical love, I mean."
Michael reached up, unpinned her sari at the shoulder and started unwinding it. "Then it must be the scarf that's filling me with this uncontrollable desire. Oh no, my mistake, it's your beautiful body." He exposed her belly and started kissing it. She smiled, then lay down and started to stroke his back as he climbed on top of her.
"I'm going to see my father," said Dorothea.
Selvam nodded, without looking up from the book he was reading.
"I sent him a note yesterday, telling him to reply if he didn't want to see me, and he didn't reply, so I'm going. I expect I'll be back for dinner, but if not, I'll make sure I send you a note."
Selvam nodded again.
"And you're still thinking about Michael, yes? You promise you won't keep him waiting for too much longer?"
She sat down beside him on the sofa. Their sofa, though it didn't yet feel like it. She wondered when Selvam's house would start feeling like home. "I love you," she said, and kissed him. He smiled at her briefly and went back to his book.
"Well, goodbye then," she said as she left.
"Damn," said Selvam, for no reason in particular, and threw the book hard against the wall.
A few moments later, James knocked on the door.
"I'm glad to see you, friend," said Selvam. "You're the only person I can talk to nowadays. Please. Come in, sit down."
"I see that Dorothea's started quite a trend," James said cheerfully.
"What?" Selvam frowned.
"That parrot dupatta you gave her. They seem to be all the rage. Michael gave Venya one almost identical, and now she's busy copying it."
"That's impossible," said Selvam. "There's not another like it in all the world."
"Well," said James. "Come with me on a stroll by the sea, and you'll see her at it."
"Where is the parrot dupatta I gave you?" said Selvam as Dorothea returned.
"I don't think I've unpacked it yet," said Dorothea. "Don't you want to hear how it went with Daddy?"
"Go and fetch it please," said Selvam. "I like to see you wearing it."
"Oh, you are adorable," said Dorothea, kissing him. "I'll go in just a minute. But let me tell you what happened first. I really think it's going to be all right. Come on, let's sit down."
He reluctantly followed her onto a sofa.
"He said he was glad to see me," she continued. "And he said he was still worried about me, but he'd prayed about it a lot, and come to the conclusion that now we were married, he was going to have to learn to accept it. Then he said a lot of crazy things about Hindu widows being forced to immolate themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres–"
"Sati," he said quietly.
"Pardon?" said Dorothea.
"Sati," he repeated. "It was a pious custom among higher caste women. One of my grandmothers chose to do it."
"It's real?" she said. "I thought it was one of those things white people made up when they wanted to pretend brown people are savages."
"No," he said. "It's real, or was real. And it wasn't about anyone being forced to do anything." He paused. "Or shouldn't have been, at any rate. I'm enough of a civil servant to know that things don't always work the way they ought to."
"That's terrible," she said.
"It could be," he said. "Or it could be the most beautiful expression of love between man and wife that exists."
"If I died," said Dorothea. "I'd want you to live on, and have the happiest life you could. That's what love means to me."
"Go and get the dupatta," said Selvam, speaking in a dreamy, detached voice.
"All right," said Dorothea uncertainly.
She returned a few moments later.
"I've just remembered," she said. "That last night in Hindupur, when you slept outside. I used it to protect you from insects. You must still have it."
"You weren't even there that night," he replied. "I stayed up late with James. You had already gone to bed."
"I stayed up for you," she said. "And when James came to bed, I asked where you were, and–"
"You gave it to Michael," he said.
"No I didn't," she said. "Don't be silly. I'm sorry I forgot about it for a couple of days, it's just that with all the commotion about Michael, and packing to leave, and worrying about you–"
"You gave it to Michael," he repeated, more forcefully.
"Why would I do that?" she said. "Please, Selvam. Calm down, you're frightening me. Is your head bad again? Would you like me to send for the Doctor Sahib?"
"I should have known," he went on. "I should have known that first day when you made me dance the woman's part. I thought it was sweet, then, more fool me. But you're trying to emasculate me, just as your people are emasculating my people."
Dorothea laughed nervously. "That's just because I was tall and went to a girls' school," she said. "It doesn't mean anything."
"If you didn't give it to Michael," said Selvam. "Why does he have it now? Or rather, why does his whore have it?"
"Venya?" said Dorothea. "Please don't call her that."
"I will call her what she is," he said. "And I will call you what you are too." He grabbed her wrist.
"If Venya has it," said Dorothea, angry tears springing to her eyes, "I don't know why. Perhaps she found it on you that morning. Or perhaps it blew off. Let go of me." She wrenched her wrist away.
"James and Michael shared a carriage back to Madras," said Selvam. "Michael fell asleep for part of the journey, and James heard what he said in his sleep."
"Selvam," said Dorothea. "I'm worried about you. I'm going to go and get the Doctor Sahib now."
"Oooh!" said Selvam, imitating Michael's lazy London drawl. "DoroTHEEEah, come here, sweetness, wrap your legs around me. Put your hand just... oh YES!"
"Why are you telling me this?" said Dorothea, disgusted. "If Michael... If he... I don't want to know about it, all right?" She paused, her mind whirling. "No," she continued, finally. "Sorry. You were right to tell me. I'll avoid him in future. I'll never be alone with him. I'd never want to be alone with him after... Oh, poor Selvam." She put her arms round him. He tolerated it, but did not respond.
"I wish to dine alone tonight," he said. "But I'll see you in bed later." Then he left the house.
Dorothea put her head into her hands and started to cry. She didn't feel safe anymore. Should she go back to her father's house? To Emily, perhaps? No. Selvam was her husband, and she had vowed to stay with him for better or for worse. He was just going through a bad time.
Emily sat in her room, trying to make out what James and Selvam were talking about in the parlour below. It was so frustrating. She could hear perhaps a third of what they said, but understand less, as they kept switching between Malayalam – their mother tongue – and English. She could hear more of Selvam than of her husband, but not enough to put together to mean anything.
Selvam left after about half an hour. Shortly afterwards, there was a knock on her door. "Come in," she said. It was Arani, the maid.
"Do you need anything, Memsahib?" she asked, curtsying, her eyes lowered.
"Come in for a moment, Arani," said Emily. "I don't suppose you happened to hear anything of what James Sahib and Mr Selvam were saying?"
Dorothea sat up in bed, the white sheet pulled up over her chest, trying to pray. "Dear God," she said. "Dear God who gave proof of thy existence to thy apostle Thomas, please..." she sighed. No matter how hard she tried, her prayers always sounded embarrassing and false, like a small child's prayers. It was all that Doctor Darwin's fault, and her own, for choosing to study biology. "Look," she said finally. "If there's anyone out there. God or Jesus or Mary or St Thomas or Vishnu or Allah, please look after Selvam."
"Dorothea." He was standing in the doorway.
"Selvam!" said Dorothea. "I didn't hear you come in. How are you?" She lifted the sheet. "Come to bed, my love."
He shut the door quietly and came over to her, but instead of getting into the bed, he sat on it. "What were you doing, love?" he asked.
"Praying," she said. "Or trying to pray." She paused. "Selvam, do you think I might make a good Hindu? I'm a rubbish Christian."
"It's good to pray," said Selvam, sounding almost hypnotised, giving no indication of having heard her question. He stroked her neck. "You're very beautiful," he said. "That's the pity of it. I thought... Never mind what I thought."
He began to cry, burying his head in his hands.
"Oh Selvam, said Dorothea, putting her arms around him. "What is it? Please? You can tell me, don't torture yourself like this."
He turned and kissed her, then encircled her neck with his hands, so lightly that he barely touched the skin.
"What are you doing? Selvam? Please?"
Emily hitched up her skirts and scrambled through the window. Her room was only on the first floor, but it seemed a long way down. She had no choice. There was no other way of getting out without James knowing. She lowered herself carefully as far as she could, and found herself hanging on, cursing herself as a coward for not being able to drop. But then a bat darted past and startled her, her fingers slipped, and the next moment she was lying on the floor.
Her arm hurt very badly. She remembered dimly wondering whether it was broken, before the door slammed open, and James was there.
"Who is it?" he shouted. Then she heard the sound of a gun firing, and there was a pain in her left shoulder as well as her right arm.
"Emily?" James pulled her up by her shoulder and she screamed in pain. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Get back inside before I–"
"No!" She pulled away. "No. Not Dorothea. You can do this to me but not–" Then she started to run, some almost supernatural energy driving her on despite her wounds. There was another gunshot, then another, but he must have missed because she didn't feel anything. Then there was a third, and this time he hit her, and she couldn't run any more, but it didn't matter because she was right outside Selvam's house. She battered on the door, and it gave way before her.
"Selvam!" she shouted, half running, half crawling up the stairs. "Selvam! Don't do it! James lied to you. It's all his fault, and mine. I stole the dupatta."
Selvam staggered out to meet her in the hallway. "Emily?" he said, sounding confused and dreamy. "Emily, I've done a terrible thing."
Emily screamed, a mixture of rage and agony. "You idiot," she gasped. "You stupid idiot. It was all a trick. It was all James. He lied to you. Dorothea didn't give the dupatta away, I stole it. He set you up. He set us all up." She coughed, and a mess of blood came out. She collapsed to the floor.
Selvam stared at her. "It could be terrible," he Selvam slowly, "or it could be the most beautiful expression of love between man and wife that exists." And he returned to the bedroom.
Chapter 17: Epilogue
James heard the crackle of the flames as he walked away from Fort St George, his kurta flapping unfamiliarly around his legs. He smiled to himself. It felt good to know he'd never return. He walked through the night, and through all the next day. Only then did he sleep, and submit himself to his dreams.
The old woman lived alone now. Everyone she had loved was gone: mother, father, husband, aunties, uncles, child. Each morning, she came out of her little hut, and felt the sun on her face, and tried to be grateful. Every morning, it got harder.
She saw him in the distance and, oddly, even then she knew. It must have been something about his walk. Her heart gave a leap, and then she went to slaughter the chicken. It wouldn't do to meet him unprepared.
She smiled tenderly as he sank his head into her breast, sobbing: "Amma, Amma," and stroked his back, just like she had when he was a baby.
- "Jaiman," she said. "My Jaiman. Welcome home, my love. Welcome home."
"I suppose we'll never know what happened," said Michael, stroking Venya's dark hair as they lay in bed. "I'd like to think it was an accident, but from what the servants said..." He shook his head.
"They've stopped looking for James now?"
"Yes," said Michael. "I suppose he must have been so badly burnt there was nothing left." He shuddered.
"At least the servants escaped," said Venya.
Michael nodded, and kissed her. "Well," he said, drawing back. "I'm afraid that this whole business has taught me one thing. Madras is no place for a white person who has the misfortune to fall in love with a brown person."
Venya looked at him, feeling as though she'd been physically struck. She'd always been afraid of Michael leaving her, always, from the moment she first kissed him. But like this? So suddenly?
Michael smiled. "So where shall we go, my love? Back to London, or back to your family? The choice is yours."
She just stared at him.
"Or am I being too presumptuous there?" He leapt out of bed, and knelt by the side of it. "Will you marry me, Venya?"