London is nothing at all like India; the place is drab and dull, the food is bland, the sky seems constantly overcast and gloomy, and there is a pervasive chill to it that not even the brightest fire can drive away. Were it not for the small slice of India that this house carries -- the furniture and the decorations all bright and familiar, the rascal monkey Ashok whose antics bring no end of joy, and a man who speaks with me of home -- I would feel impossibly out of place.
But that man needs me, and together we have a common mission.
I had loved my previous master, Sahib Crewe, with a depth I dared not admit. When the jungle fever came, and the other servants fled the house out of fear of the deadly disease, I stayed and cared for him. It was not easy doing so alone, but my devotion to him was absolute.
He was not often lucid during the time he was sick; the high fevers that come with that particular illness bring delirium, and he had been further devastated by a sequence of ill luck that left him wracked with a hopelessness that makes regaining health near impossible. In his better moments, though, he spoke to me of his dearest friend -- perhaps, in the unreal mindset of a fever, forgetting the fact that Sahib Carrisford was in no small part responsible for his current state -- and of his beloved young daughter, and begged me to watch over both of them if he could not.
I gave him what reassurances I could, but with an uneasy heart. The daughter I promised my care freely, with no reservation, but I held an uncharitable bitterness in my heart towards the other man, who had fled as much as the servants had. And he was the one who had betrayed Sahib Crewe's trust and lost his fortune first, which meant that the fleeing and terrified servants had taken with them whatever material possessions they thought valuable.
By the time my master's body failed him, barely anything was left in the house but the sheets I wrapped him in as I wept and said the prayers for the dead. Sahib Crewe had been a good man, treating me well -- not all of his compatriots had the same sort of respect for a native -- and while no death could bring joy, this one left me more hollow than I expected.
So when luck brought me to Sahib Carrisford some months later, I gave a deep salaam and explained who I was and asked with proper formality to be allowed to serve him as I had served Sahib Crewe. I did not have any sort of respect for him; I had not forgiven him, and at the time vowed that I never would. But I had made a promise to my master, and furthermore the wheel had turned for him and his fortune, thought as lost as Sahib Crewe's, had returned in ample measure. His money, and possibly also his connections, could be used to find Sahib Crewe's lost daughter, and restore her inheritance to her.
He was not a well man, in body or in mind. The same fever that had killed Sahib Crewe had ravaged Carrisford's body as well, leaving him weak and fragile and curiously empty. He looked at me with hollow, despairing eyes, and said: "I will be returning to England -- the doctors say I must go, for my health, and I have personal reasons as well." He spoke quietly, in short bursts, as though the very effort of words exhausted him. "What could you do for me there?"
"The same as I can do here, Sahib," I responded. The thought of traveling to England had sent a shiver down my back, for I had never left my beloved India before, but I did not let him see it. "And Sahib, if I may, I believe Sahib Crewe would have wished me to be with you on his behalf."
Carrisford closed his eyes as if pained. "Ralph, Ralph," he groaned, "you deserved a better friend than I."
"Sahib feels he has a debt he can never repay?" I suggested.
A pained smile. "You could say that."
"Perhaps," I said carefully, uncertain of his reaction, "you can serve a part of that debt by finding the Missee Sahib that needs a father now."
His eyes flew open, gazing at me in alarmed excitement. "His Little Missus," he said in a hoarse voice. "You know of her then, of Tom's girl. You know she needs finding, the poor lost soul." He reached out to me then, grabbing at my sleeve in desperation. "Yes. I must -- I must -- what do you know?"
"Only that she is at a school somewhere, and that Sahib Crewe had loved her very much. Almost as much as he loved you."
That evoked another low groan. Etiquette demanded that I murmur apologies, even though I had intended the words to sting, but Carrisford interrupted me with a hollow laugh. "The fault is not yours, my good man." He regarded me thoughtfully. "It is true that I will need a man-servant, and I think -- I think perhaps -- tell me -- do you think that we can find her?
"If she is to be found, Sahib, it would have to be by you. Sahib Crewe had no living family aside from her; you were the closest thing he had. There is no one else that even knows to look for her."
"You know as well," he corrected, and I bowed low and felt a shard of anxiety in my heart settle into peace. For all the wrong that he had done, he seemed anxious to make amends, not just with words but with deeds. If he had resisted me, or ignored his duty, I might have continued to resent him, but he did not. And it was then that perhaps I began to care for the Sahib deep within myself, in his own right and not just because Sahib Crewe had loved him.
The voyage from India to England was a long one, and my new master spent much of his time isolated, both by a lack of desire to socialize with the other passengers and by the lingering effects of his illness -- his health was returning slowly, but he had little more strength in him than a newborn child. I got quite good at telling the difference between the moments when he truly needed solitude and peace and silence, and the moments when he needed instead a diversion from the quicksand of misery that could absorb him wholly. And in the latter times I would distract him with Ashok the monkey, or with tales of India, of my childhood or of the mythology of our people. Like many of the British officers in India, he had developed a fascination with local religions, and in his case Buddhism in particular; while it was not the religion I had grown up with, I knew it well enough to be able to instruct him in the proper devotionals. And in return he would tell me stories of Sahib Crewe, in particular their time as youths; the man he had known had been alive in every fiber of his being, even more so than when I had first started working for him, and full of laughter and recklessness and joy, and Carrisford's love for him shone through every word, every smile that the reminiscing evoked.
A few days after we had settled in London, when I was first realizing just how different a place it truly was, there was a glorious sunset, and both Ashok and I were drawn to the attic to see it better. For once the sky seemed more the high colorful vault that I was used to from India, rather than the low grey haze of the city. It did not remove the ache for home, but it helped, and I wished this moment could last for hours, just basking in the not-yet-faded light of the sun.
But I was not the only one doing this. A girl next door was half leaning out of her own window, face turned upwards as if soaking in the color of the clouds painted above.
Almost as soon as I saw her, she saw me, and her face lit up with a smile. It was a delightful smile, not the disdainful look most English children seemed to bestow upon servants (if even they saw them), nor the meaningless pitying smile that I had back home seen adult Englishmen give to an Indian native. I could not help but respond in kind. Here was a kindred spirit, another lonely soul drawn to the sun, and we did not need to even share words to understand each other.
That was when Ashok, ever the soul of mischief, leapt from my arms and across to her attic. And when she spoke to me, it was not in English, but in Hindustani, and I nearly wept for gratitude. Kindred, indeed! I did not question how she knew it, for a part of me thought that she would perhaps vanish if I did; to hear my native tongue from a strange face was a miracle granted by the gods. (Later that evening I reasoned her to be a student at the seminary next door, the daughter of some Englishman in India; back home I had seen many such children sent back to England for schooling, and if they had spent time with native servants it was not unusual for them to be able to speak our language. But at the time, it seemed impossible, like a dream that I did not want to shatter.)
She let me come across the rooftops to retrieve my errant friend, and what I saw there nearly broke my heart. I was a servant and always would be by virtue of my birth, but I had been treated well by those I served -- even Sahib Carrisford, consumed as he was with finding the Little Missus and with his grief over his lost friend, saw to it that I was comfortable. No such consideration held sway here. The attic was clearly a place where at least one of the servants slept, for there was a bed that was clearly in active use, and a doll that had not accumulated dust, but the attic itself was small and bare and shabby, the bed looked uncomfortable, and the fire grate looked to have been rarely used and had no coal in it.
All this I saw, and I pitied in a distant way the servant who lived there, but I didn't truly understand until later.
I spent most of my time in the house of Sahib Carrisford, ever available to him if he needed me. I did not leave the house partly because he never did -- his health was returning slowly, but he still had no more strength than a newborn, and spent many hours doing nothing but sitting and gazing into the fire -- and partly because he had others who worked for him that spoke better English than I did. I could to a very limited extent understand English that was spoken to me, but I could not easily make myself understood, and I knew no one outside the house so really had nowhere worth going.
But to distract the Sahib from his own misery (for healing comes slowly if you are always brooding on it), and to distract both of us from the search for Sahib Crewe's lost girl (which was slow and miserable, nowhere near as easy as either of us wanted), I would at times describe the people that walked by our window. One such person that was a frequent passer-by was the girl I recognized from the attic next door, always dressed in the same sort of outfit that seemed ill-fitting and not suited to the weather.
And sometimes when I looked out from my own attic, I saw her in hers -- not just as a visitor come to look at the sky, as I'd thought the first time I'd seen her, but as the resident of that cold bare attic. When she was alone she would sometimes look pensive or sad, but that look always disappeared when she had visitors: another servant, sometimes, or more warmly-dressed students.
If I crept out onto the rooftops, staying low and out of sight, I could hear the discussions she had with those friends. She was quite a good storyteller, relaying stories that were familiar to me from Indian mythology as easily as stories that she seemed to make up on the spot, and even when I could not understand all the words (for my comprehension of spoken English was decent but imperfect) the cadence and tone of her speech conveyed quite a bit of information. One of her narratives -- spoken as much for her friend's benefit as for her own -- caught my attention, as she described what the attic might look like in the best of situations. The place she described was quite magical and comforting, and I found myself warmed just by listening.
Thus, the following day when Sahib Carrisford was in one of his more destructively unhappy moods, I described what I had seen and heard, including the harsh state of the attic, even colder and more miserable in the depth of winter than it had been when we arrived. ("Some people," he said with a frown but did not finish the thought.) But the subsequent story, retold in my own fashion, and the child's wonderful inventiveness drew a small smile out of him, and I decided to voice an idea that was slowly growing in my head.
"Sahib," I said slowly, "may I make a suggestion?"
"The search for Sahib Crewe's daughter is a slow one, and we are not likely to find her soon. It would be good for you to have something else to think of."
The idea was only half-formed in my mind, but I explained it as best we could: that until we found the lost girl, we could help the one next door as a sort of substitute. Small things, like perhaps -- something to brighten the attic, or a quilt to help her stay warm at night, or a hot meal on a rainy day.
Carrisford's face practically lit up at that; for the first time he looked almost as he had before the jungle fever had claimed him. "Yes. That is a brilliant idea. Oh, if only I could do the same for all children in this city--!"
"One man can only do do much, Sahib. But if we only touch the life of one child, is that not worthwhile? We can change her life, and reduce her suffering, and in doing so we improve the world around us. It is one of the precepts of the Buddhist path: to reduce not only inward suffering, by changing our inward selves, but to work to reduce the suffering of others."
"Ye-e-es," he agreed, a long drawn-out sigh. "I am glad of your wisdom, my friend."
I salaamed, wishing I could do more to ease the pain I saw inside him. Physical wounds can be salved and bandaged, but there is only so far that one man can go to ease another's burden.
Still, though I would never admit this to anyone, my plans with the servant girl next door were as much for the Sahib's benefit as for hers. I could not myself bring home Sahib Crewe's lost girl, but I could at least provide him with another man's forgotten child that needed the touch of a loving hand.
It was not enough, but I knew in my heart that we would find the girl, and in the meantime, I knew that to change one man's life for the better is to change the world.