Elephants. Everywhere he looks, there's always another one. Dark and large, lumbering through the streets, or the knowing Ganesha statuettes vendors sell on the path. He thinks he's rather sick of them, but he wouldn't dare say the thought aloud. Not when Professor Joshi's daughter is accompanying him. She's about his age, and well-spoken -- he wouldn't mind this so much if it weren't for the fact that Joshi Uncle (as the Professor had said to call him) had a very argumentative daughter. And even then, dark eyed Naina's argumentative nature wouldn't be so problematic (Jill knew he loved a good, spirited debate) if it weren't for the fact that she was so vehemently faithful. In the religious sort of way, that is. Naina would take great offense to the mere thought of being tired of the physical representation of a deity.
"Hurry up, Eustace-ji," she says a few feet ahead of him, the bright yellow cloth of her chiffon scarf (Dupatta, Jill would chide him, because she'd remember words like that) trailing against the cobblestone path. "Or do you British not know how to walk up an incline?"
He doesn't mind her teasing him about his nationality; considering the history of the two countries he can't bring himself to argue about that.
"Yes, yes I'm coming," he responds shortly. Not because of any temper, but because he is tired walking up to the palace. The path is long, and the sun is hot, and after several late nights helping Professor Joshi translate between texts - trying to find comparisons between ancient Sanskrit and the Rosetta Stone between making comparisons of what the sky looks like now versus back then is not what he thought this summer would be like, no, he had expected more chai and sweets and blessed sleep - he would much rather lie under the shade of a banyan tree than tour a palace.
Besides, he's already been through one, it was quite impressive, though also a little ostentatious. Rilian claimed it was the Telmarine aesthetic.
This palace was not made in the style of the Telmarines.
It was beautiful.
"And the royal family still lives here?" he asks softly. Currently standing in a room entirely decorated with small pieces of mirror so he catches fragments of reflections (a sliver of his cheek, the white of Naina's smug smile, his own wide eyes desperately trying to take everything in, and her dark eyebrows raised in awe as well), he feels oddly vulnerable and visible.
"Yes, but they allow people to visit. Papa-ji wanted you to see this. He said you seemed a little tired and cranky."
He laughs a little.
"Thank you for telling me to bring my camera. Will you take a picture?"
He promised Jill he would send her photographs.
Naina rolls her eyes, doesn't tease him about his lady friend for once, then puts her eye to the viewfinder.
"This palace incorporates Islamic, Rajput and European styles," she explains. Click.
"So more elephants?" he jokes, taking the camera back.
Naina tilts her head thoughtfully before smirking.
"Of course. Probably as many as the number of lions you see throughout London."
He stills. He'd never thought about it that way.
"Have you been to London?" He catches up to her, and shades his eyes from the bright sunlight outside.
"Yes," she responds, leading them into a courtyard, with walls inlaid with jewels. It's pretty and sparkling and probably has more gems than Rilian's castle and yet looked nowhere near as gaudy. The designs here were delicate, intricate -- Jill would have known the appropriate words to describe it, artist that she was. "Papa-ji took me when I was young and he was doing some work at the University. Or he was supposed to. Things were a little complicated."
"You've never noticed how many lions there are? Everywhere I'd look I'd see another one."
"I...like lions. One escaped from a circus near my school once. Scared most of the children, but not me." He grins at the memory.
"Durga-ji, she's a goddess, the combined female representation or aspects of male deities, her mount is a lion," Naina says warmly. And for once, Eustace doesn't mind the turn towards religion. "Come on, let's get some kulfi."
The dessert she names turns out to be some sort of delicious saffron flavored ice cream made in little clay pots. Maybe. He's not entirely sure, and Naina refuses to explain. (Jill would tell him that not everything needs to explained. Something just need to be experienced. He misses her.)
When they return home, Professor Joshi has gone out for business and Naina asks the maidservant to make two cups of chai and to maybe make some bhel puri - puffed rice with tomatoes, onions and chili, slathered with sweet, sour chutney, Eustace will discover with his tongue on fire. They head up to roof, and enjoy the setting sun.
"Do you believe in God, Eustace-ji?" Naina asks suddenly. He looks at her, confused. "You get a pinched look around your nose when I speak of anything even remotely related to my gods."
Jill would have laughed at that.
"It's difficult to explain."
And how does he? How can he explain that he didn't believe in any higher being until a fantastical adventure - and that he's still not sure he'd call Aslan something like God. How left out he feels when everyone else seems to accept Aslan's presence in this world like some sort of feeling, an emotion based on sheer faith and that he...he doesn't feel it here. And that standing in that room with a person he's known for not even a month surrounded by tiny pieces of glass was the closest he'd felt to that faith in a while.
"I like to argue, but that doesn't mean I don't know how to listen," she retorts, sipping her hot tea. She's curious - he can see it in her eyes, she's quite expressive that way. It reminds him a little of Edmund.
He sighs heavily.
"Imagine a boy. A boy and a girl," he starts. Because he can think of no other way to say it rather than a story. He continues, telling exactly what happened, how it happened, and he can tell she's mesmerized. He pauses after he's finished. "Tell me, did that boy meet God?"
Naina is quiet for a moment. She's squinting into the distance, and he can tell she's thinking through her response carefully.
"It sounds a lot like our stories. Our mythology. If I believe in those so wholeheartedly, than I cannot in good conscience say that the boy didn't meet some form of God. But that's not for me to decide. That's for him to choose. For him to figure out. Just like he should figure out why one boy was unafraid of a wild circus lion when everyone else was afraid."
It's a lot for him to think over, so he bids Naina good night and returns to his room.
"Naina said you might need this," Joshi Uncle is saying a few days later. "She tracked it down with some difficulty."
He hands him an English translation of her holy book - the Bhagvad Gita. He'd read the Bible once, when he was young, if only to find all the inconsistencies.
"She's visiting the temple in the evening if you'd care to join her."
Eustace only nods. Then turns back to his work.
"Take the day off, Eustace," Joshi Uncle laughs. "You need it."
He knows that's not what Joshi Uncle is offering. So he nods thankfully, pressing his palms together, then heads to the roof with his book.
"I read it."
"All of it?" Naina whispers. She's chosen her time well. The temple is typically loud, filled with people desperately wanting their prayers to be heard. They've arrived just before the priest leaves, and it's quiet.
"No," he confesses. "But some of it."
"Did it help?" she asks. She's placing marigold flowers and diamond shaped sweets covered in silver at the base of each God. First a dark youth holding a flute, with a peacock feather in his hair, then an eight armed figure with one leg raised surrounded by a ring of flames, then a woman holding a stringed instrument, and then a woman holding a trident and discus while seated upon a lion. Eustace follows behind her.
"I know why the boy isn't afraid of circus lions," he replies. He wishes Jill were there for him to share this epiphany with, to share this sudden relief that's filled him.
She smiles, and moves on to next god. The remover of all obstacles, who enjoys sweets more than the rest, Naina told him once, son of the Destroyer and his wife, an aspect of Shakti, the divine female spirit. With tusks and a trunk.
He doesn't mind elephants so much any more.