- January 15, 1856 ~ We cannot afford rumors
In her mind Malika was an ibis taking flight from the windowsill, rising above the rumble and jumble of old Lucknow. Leaving behind the labyrinthine alleys and bustling Chauk Bazaar, she swooped through the still, mid-morning air along the languid Gomti, following the river’s silt-laden course east, past the British Residency with its verandahs and maroon awnings, over shimmering domes and spires, and through the champak-and jasmine-scented gardens and orchards of the Nawab’s palace complex. Gliding over the dark groves that lined the river’s curves, she flew until the city fell away and all that unfurled below and ahead were emerald fields and wide-open sky.
The slap of bare feet and the rhythmic jingle of hundreds of ankle bells jolted her out of her flight. She plummeted to her place: the dance room of the city’s most renowned kotha, or courtesan house. In front of her, three tawaifs, the youngest courtesans, arched coy eyebrows, pulled veils over their faces in mock bashfulness. This was the aspect of kathak dance—of their entire occupation—that Malika detested the most: the art of nakhra, pretense. She far preferred the pure compositions, the intricate patterns that matched—or defied—the beats of the tabla. With those she could lose herself in rapid and mathematical footwork that made logical sense, derive the satisfaction that comes from ending a composition right in time with the musical cycle. With those, nothing threatened to call forth any of the serpents that lay dormant within her. With those, there was no need to feel.
Which was why the observance of Muharram, the Shia month-long mourning that had just ended days earlier, was an annual relief to Malika. During that month, as the entire city commemorated the battle at Karbala where Imam Husain, his family, and his followers were massacred, all artistic activities ceased. All luxuries were put aside. All courtesan duties paused. Women donned green and black clothing and locked away their jewelry, musical instruments slept in velvet-lined cases, dance bells rested on shelves, and Malika breathed easier.
But Muharram was over, and dance lessons had resumed. Thakur Prasad, dance master to the Nawab himself, corrected the positioning of the tawaifs’ arms—of course at a respectable distance: right arm extended, elbow slightly bent, palm facing in, no break in the wrist as the hand reaches toward the heavens with grace and purpose and the gaze follows longingly. Except Malika’s gaze wandered to the window, to the filigreed cutouts in the lattice shutter. She was the senior daughter to the Khanum, the matriarch of the house, and therefore exempt from instruction, serving instead as the head teacher when Thakur-ji could not come. Now she stood to the side as half her attention drifted to the clink of cut-glass bottles from the perfume shop downstairs, the calls of the paan-seller hawking his betel leaves and areca nuts with sing-song verses, the squeals of children chasing a bleating goat. But as always, the laughter of children tugged at her heart, and she closed herself to it.
There was a rapping at the window frame. A bird, startling in its pure whiteness, pecked at the wood. One of Mamoun Hamid’s tumbler pigeons. Why did those birds, who could so easily soar away, insist on returning time and again only to be trapped in cages on the roof? Malika struck the window screen with the back of her hand. The bird simply regarded her coolly with an unblinking red eye. Restless, a familiar sensation tightening within her, Malika salaamed, her hand to her forehead, and backed out of the room past the musicians—large, squat Ustad-ji fingering his sitar and the bushy-haired tabla player at his side. The heavy, lined calico curtain at the doorway enveloped her, the fabric thick around her. Shoving it aside, she emerged into the main room.
Everyone was in her usual place: her sister, Dhaya, nestled with her daughters amid cushions on the daybed with a plate of sweets, nuts, carrots and radishes; their mother Zeenat poised on the edge of the mahogany chair at her secretary desk; and Banu Jan, reclining against a bolster on the floor, her water pipe bubbling as her paan-reddened lips puckered around the stem like a leather pouch pulled shut with string. Banu Jan was a part of the kotha the way the walls and ceiling were. It was as if she had emerged from them at its construction, already wrinkled and wizened.
Dhaya chuckled. “Yes, Mallu! You can do it. Defeat the ferocious curtain!”
Malika glared at her, batting the curtain away from her legs. Dhaya resembled a mother pigeon, her arms under her brocade shawl like wings around her four-year-old twins, Muna and Zehra, on either side of her swollen belly. Her maidservant, Saraswati, kneeled on the floor, kneading Dhaya’s calves. As always, the little girls wore matching outfits—loose kurta pajamas, one in pale green, the other pale pink, both elaborately covered in the white flowering curlicues of chikan embroidery for which Lucknow was famed. The sameness of the twins was irritating, the way they were not only identical to each other but miniature versions of their mother, round-faced and big-eyed, hair tumbling in a cascade of bouncing curls as they jumped about. In the six years since Malika’s own daughter, Vivienne Salima, had left the physical realm, Dhaya had produced these two children, to be joined by another in about four months’ time. It was as though the Prophet himself had deemed it necessary to shift an imbalance in the universe. But the day Vivienne had died was the day Malika had stopped believing in the wisdom of the Prophet.
“Don’t make that face, Mallu,” Dhaya said with a moue. “You look like a bather of corpses. Doesn’t she, Amma?”
From her seat at her desk—a gift from the Nawab who had acquired it from England—their mother Zeenat gave a sidelong glance but said nothing. She sat tall and straight, frowning at her piles of chits and receipts.
“Come,” Dhaya continued. “Sit with us and have some of this makan malai.” She patted the space on the quilted coverlet next to Muna, then pushed another spoonful of the fluffy whipped cream, pale yellow with saffron and cardamom, into the O of the little girl’s mouth. “Come, nah? Why are you always like this, just out of reach? The little ones don’t bite. Do you, my treasures?”
Zehra emitted a little roar, baring her teeth, and Muna giggled as Dhaya scraped a remnant of cream from her child’s lips with her finger and then licked it clean.
It was always something small that set it off—milk teeth like seedling pearls in a soft pink laughing mouth. Then a wave—dark, surging, untamable—would rise within Malika, crashing onto the jagged shores of her grief. It deafened her, threatened to pull her back into that chasm, the one that had first ripped open when Vivienne, four years old and lifeless, had been lifted from her arms. Never again would Malika feel the warm, smooth touch of her child’s skin, the trusting weight of her little body nestled on her, plump arms thrown around her neck. And so she kept her distance—in space and in feeling—from her younger sister’s children, wary of the effect that any closeness with them might have on her. It was an exercise in control that Malika welcomed. This she could do.
Malika clamped her mouth shut lest the wave come gushing out and fill her throat and nose. She backed away from the comfortable scene on the daybed.
Dhaya’s look softened. “You need a little loosening up. What about your Frenchman? Aren’t they known for their special ways?” She waggled her eyebrows. “Now that I think about it, have you been seeing him much? If not, that would explain some things.”
Zeenat lifted her head momentarily, pinching her thin lips together until they disappeared. She nodded slowly but said nothing, just tapped her pen on her desk in the way that she did when formulating a plan.
He had been Malika’s anchor despite his own anguish. Their son, Etienne Ahmad, seven when Vivienne died, lived with him, boys not being allowed to remain at the kotha past the age of four unless they served as house staff. It was unusual for a patron to take in his child, but François had insisted. In any case, there was nothing usual about a patron being a Frenchman to begin with. When they lost Vivienne, François had confessed to Malika that he had a wife in France—as though that was something shameful. He had planned on staying in Lucknow only three years, but he had fallen too deeply in love with Malika to leave. Then came one child, and the other. Hearing those words then, when the hole in her heart was so ragged and vast, Malika had retreated. It was too much. From then on, whenever she saw Etienne, at first on occasional visits to François’s workshop at the gardens of Qaiserbagh, the royal palace, then when Etienne came to the kotha for etiquette lessons with the sons of nobles every six weeks or so, Malika felt a terrible pull and tug. She desperately wanted her child close to her, yet every goodbye was so wrenching, as though it was the last one, that the only way to lessen the pain was to deny herself any physical contact with him.
Now Malika stood on shaking legs. She looked over the twins’ heads to Dhaya’s placid face. “That has nothing to do with anything. Besides, François is busy. The Nawab needs him.”
“Oh yes, he’s a very-very important man, I know. Superintendent of Spouting Water and what-all.” Dhaya made a lewd spurting motion with her fingers. Muna and Zehra giggled and mimicked her.
Malika narrowed her eyes at her sister. Fine. She could do this. Arguing with Dhaya would help push the wave down. Anger had that advantage.
“He’s an engineer, as you know,” she said in a measured voice. “In charge of all the steam engines that power the fountains and the boats of the Nawab. I happen to find what he does quite fascinating. Those are complex machines that make the boats move and the fountains spray. It’s called technology. You have no idea.”
Dhaya waved a hand dismissively. “The point is, you can always go see him there, no? In the garden, a shady grove by a fountain, surely he can find a few minutes . . . ”
“Stop it!” Dhaya’s appetites were revolting. Malika would not give in to anything like that, not anymore. She had vowed—to herself, to François—there would be no more children. His friendship, their conversations—about his work, literature, mathematics—and the mere fact that he came from another world helped her escape her own. It was enough.
“How much of that have you eaten, anyway?”
Dhaya shrugged and served herself another heaping spoonful of fluffy makan malai. “What does it matter? I can eat as much as I want. We can only get it in winter, you should have some. Put some fat on those bones. You’re becoming like one of those spindly, repressed British ladies. All you ever show is anger or displeasure. Doesn’t it get tiring, always disapproving of everything?” She turned to Zeenat. “Amma, does that François man still at least send his payments to us?”
Zeenat pushed her ledger back and set down her pen. “Yes. Of course. François fulfills his commitments.” She looked down her pointed nose at Malika.
François had understood—no more children meant no more relations. Not that Zeenat ever knew this. The money the Nawab sent in addition to that from Zeenat and Dhaya’s very wealthy court patrons, along with the lesser amounts from the younger tawaifs’ patrons, was sufficient to sustain the kotha and all its residents. But François sent his own payments anyway, ensuring that Malika could still visit him and Etienne without raising questions. Then his wife Marie arrived within a year of him taking in Etienne. There was someone to fulfill his manly needs. As for Malika, when she was with François, she had only to think of Vivienne’s heart slowing against her own chest, that heart with the hole that could never close, to quell any of her own stirrings. And then, over time, those stirrings themselves faded.
“Well, at least he hasn’t forgotten his duties,” Dhaya said. “But we should find another patron for Malika, nah? Someone she will want to dance for. Someone to loosen her up.” She wiggled her hips, bumping playfully into Muna and Zehra, and looked at Malika. “You’re thirty. It’s not completely hopeless. Yet.”
“Dhaya,” Malika warned her sister. She crossed her arms against her meager chest, long a subject of comparison by visitors who clearly preferred Dhaya’s voluptuous form.
“What? Amma selects good men. You could have another one for a few years. Make him do whatever you like. You do like things, don’t you?” Dhaya giggled and lowered her voice, holding her belly like a watermelon. “Mirza Sahib likes me like this. Calls me his juicy, ripe mango. I drive him to near madness and then tell him we can’t do anything, it might harm the baby.”
Malika groaned. She had no desire to imagine what the Chief Magistrate and her sister did together.
Banu Jan’s bony shoulders quivered as she laughed silently. She pulled the hookah from her mouth and presented the room with a rhyme: “Laying his log along the sluice / Amid her sweet and flowing juices / There’s little that he can refuse / And yet, for her, so many uses.”
Dhaya laughed. “The old coot will do anything I ask now. I need to take advantage of that as long as possible. I’ve already told him I need more sweets, some of those chocolates that are coming from England. Muna Jan, my treasure, don’t press down on there. Don’t forget your sister is inside.”
Sister. Dhaya was so certain she carried a girl. Did she deserve to have three girls and keep them all?
Zeenat cleared her throat and faced the room, her face impassive but weary. She was quiet for a moment. The slap and jangle from the adjacent dance room filled the air. She nodded, whether in approval of the rhythm or of a decision she had made, Malika could not tell. A kernel of apprehension settled in her stomach.
“I had been thinking this very thing,” Zeenat said. And when Zeenat thought something, it rarely took long for the thought to become fact.
“What?” Malika croaked out her question.
“Finding you a new patron. We cannot afford rumors about you. About us.” Zeenat rested her wide forehead on her palm.
From the kernel, tendrils of worry unfurled. “Amma, please. I don’t need another patron. You just said yourself François is making his payments.”
“He is, but another, better-placed man could pay more. There are plenty to be had at the court. We might as well, if you are withholding your services from François. I’m surprised he hasn’t tired of you.”
Zeenat’s words ignited something in Malika, like a flame to a wick. So what if she was correct? “Services? Like we are common prostitutes in the bazaar?”
“No!” Zeenat’s response flew from her lips as she slapped her palm on her desk. All eyes turned toward her, even Banu Jan’s. And even as Malika’s temples throbbed, she knew what she had said was not fair. Amma had let her have an unconventional patron with whom, for some time at least, she had found happiness.
“Amma,” Dhaya said softly, pulling her daughters close but leaning forward. “What is wrong?”
Muna’s little face puckered, her bottom lip quivering, while Zehra looked as though she’d been physically hit. They snuggled into their mother.
Malika held her breath.
Zeenat buried her face in her hands, breathed through her fingers, composed herself. The tips of her long fingers disappeared into her grey-white hair. Her still-thick braid fell over her shoulder to rest, snake-like, on the open ledger. Then she raised her head, placing her palms on her desk.
“You are right,” she conceded. “I should never have used that word. These men have the privilege of being invited into our world. Their association with us grants them much coveted status. In return, we profit handsomely. But–” Zeenat raised a finger and her eyes came to rest on Malika, “we must maintain our reputation. Changes are coming, and we must protect ourselves. The British have some nefarious plans, I can sense it.”
Something welled in Malika. It mounted from her center, pushing at her windpipe, tightening her chest. Her palms prickled, perspiration gathering beneath her arms and between her breasts. Her own voice sounded distant and thin, echoing as though from the bottom of a tin cup.
“No. François is good. Please. Not another patron.”
A thick greyness veiled Malika’s vision, closing in from the edges. A loud buzzing filled her ears. She leaned against the wall, placing her palms against its plane. It was solid, unmoving. She was dimly aware of the curtain in the doorway to the dance room, and of Ustad-ji and the tabla player and Thakur Prasad entering the room. The movement of Ustad-ji’s large body across the room rippled the cloth hanging across the ceiling, and that in turn set the cut-glass chandelier tinkling. Lessons were over for the day. From the adjacent dance room came the jangle of ankle bells as the three other tawaifs uncoiled them and hurried back to their quarters.
“As salamoalaikum,” the musicians said.
“Wa-alaikum as-salam,” Zeenat, Dhaya, Banu Jan and the twins responded. Somehow Malika managed to raise her hand toward her forehead in greeting.
Ustad-ji dabbed at his face with a lace-trimmed handkerchief and nodded toward Malika, although it was Zeenat he addressed. “We have not seen Malika Bai dance in a long while,” he said, referring to her with the suffix often appended to the names of courtesans. Malika recoiled at its use. “Is she unwell? With all due respect, she is looking brittle. Were there too many privations during Muharram? She must learn to bend with the wind, not crack like a dry reed.”
“Of course, Ustad-ji, your observation is most apt. We have been telling her as much.” Zeenat spoke in the most formal register of Urdu.
Thakur Prasad flapped one hand in the air dismissively. “She will dance when she is ready. These things cannot be forced. The feeling, the need, must come from within.” He made a pulling gesture from the base of his stomach outward. Malika’s own insides churned.
Ustad-ji considered this pronouncement. “But you know, the kotha over in Phool Wali Gali, that one run by Khanum Nasima, they are having many more tawaifs trained.”
At the mention of the rival kotha on the other side of the Chauk, Zeenat pursed her lips. “There is no comparison. They are like pebbles to our pearls. Our tawaifs—my daughters in particular—put theirs to shame with their artistry. We owe this largely to your most excellent teachings,” she ended with a deferential inclination of the head. “Malika will return to her duties. I shall ensure this happens in time for our next mehfil.”
Malika gripped the wall, her mouth dry and thick, as though stuffed with cotton. The kotha was renowned throughout Lucknow’s elite for its mehfils, the nightlong music and dance soirées to which men of considerable means vied for invitations. The next one was to be on February 5th, and Malika would be expected to dance.
She swallowed hard as the musicians and Thakur Prasad took their leave, wishing a favorable afternoon to the assembled. Their steps faded down the stairs. There was the creak of the front gate, followed by the resounding tremor of Ustad-ji’s sneeze.
In the corner, Banu Jan pulled the stem of the water pipe out of her mouth and teased her upper lip with it, head waggling from side to side. “So does he speak of breaking wind / He who comes in on a breeze,/ until does rise from deep within / his moist and spittle riddled sneeze.”
Dhaya emitted a snort. She dropped back amid the tasseled cushions, her belly jiggling. The mole on the side of her chin danced with every smile, unlike the one that nestled uneasily against Malika’s right nostril.
“What did she say? What did she say, Amma?” the twins chanted in unison, clambering over their mother. Dhaya, a twinkle in her eye, made a show of explaining the joke.
Zeenat held up a hand. “Enough!” She glared at Dhaya. “We cannot afford rumors about us. Not now.”
“What is different about now, Amma?” Malika asked.
“It’s not your concern. Yet. But I will speak with Khan Sahib as soon as possible about finding you a new patron.”
The Nawab’s vizier, Zeenat’s patron, would have no trouble finding a ready and willing match, and no doubt one who outshone François’s financial means.
On the windowsill, the pigeon, having apparently followed Malika, ruffled its feathers. It clawed at the screen and cooed, then flutter-hopped across the sill and shook its head as though mocking her.
There was a knock on the door and one of the errand boys ushered in a dapper man in a maroon silk waistcoat, black eyes shining like river stones between the thick bristle of a white mustache and the smooth rim of a black top hat.
Muna and Zehra erupted in synchronized squeals. “Mamoun Hamid!” They ran to him, each one encircling a striped trouser-clad leg. Zeenat barely acknowledged the arrival; she always acted as though Hamid Abbas—the master craftsman whose workshop downstairs turned out some of the city’s finest zardozi embroidery and whom they referred to as Mamoun, or Uncle—was a servant. And yet by her own admission he was the only male, other than the errand boys and musicians, allowed inside the confines of the kotha.
“Adab.” Hamid Abbas lifted his right hand in greeting while with his left he tipped his hat to the assembled. He patted the girls on the head and made a show of prying them loose from his legs while they giggled and clung to him like macaques.
Malika remained standing by the window, wishing she could be alone with her uncle. Now would be a good time for his words of comfort. Downstairs in his workshop, where he had worked and lived for as long as she could remember, she could talk to him in safety. He listened, eyes turned away from her, bent over the expanses of cotton and muslin stretched over wooden frames, his gnarled hands weaving gold thread along with spangles and beads. It was there that she could escape. It was there that she could unravel.
Mamoun Hamid clasped his hat in both hands. “Have I arrived at an inopportune moment?”
“No, of course not,” Zeenat said, glancing up and then considering him more intently. “It is always with pleasure that we receive you. But what is this attire of yours? With every passing week you look more like one of those angrezi fools overrunning the city.” She grimaced as she used the common Indian word—derived, as François had told Malika, from the French word “Anglais”—for the British.
Mamoun Hamid looked contrite. “It is not to your liking?”
“Respectfully, Mamoun,” said Dhaya, “I prefer your usual smart clothing. You have always been among the best-dressed men in the city. Why adopt these foreigners’ ways?”
Malika cleared her throat. “I like it. And the waistcoat as well.” François often dressed in this manner, and she found it a fetching look.
Mamoun Hamid crinkled his eyes at Malika and nodded his thanks. He waved his walking stick around the room. “Solid rosewood. I think it makes me look distinguished.” He propped the stick against the wall and shuffled over to the desk.
Zeenat fixed him with a defiant look. “We were just discussing a new patron for Malika.”
Malika’s throat hardened. Mamoun Hamid cocked his head to the side.
“I see. Well. It is of course none of my business, but why not simply take in a new girl instead?”
Dear Mamoun Hamid. Malika wanted to throw her arms around him.
Zeenat shook her head. “No one new. Not now.”
He lowered himself onto a cushion by Zeenat and gently took one of her feet into his lap to massage it. The gratefulness Malika had felt just seconds earlier dissolved into something sour.
“Why not?” Dhaya, Malika, and Mamoun Hamid asked in unison. Only Banu Jan said nothing.
Zeenat surveyed the room, her gaze resting momentarily on each of her daughters, as though she was weighing the notion of explaining herself. Then she shook her head.
The subject was closed. The walls moved in, the ceiling cloth dipped down. How long did she have before her mother’s patron found someone for her? Holding onto the wall, she moved toward the door to the hallway as though through a tunnel, a bird seeking the way out to the light.
And then, a cry sounded from the watchmen downstairs, sudden and alarmed.
“Purdah karo! Purdah karo!”
A male visitor had arrived, and the women were to go into purdah, to cover their heads, before he could set eyes on them.
At the commotion, the pigeon flew off. Zeenat, Dhaya, and Banu Jan exchanged a look of apprehension and pulled their dupattas over their heads. Malika hurried toward the door to seek refuge in her quarters before whoever it was arrived.
- January 15, 1856 ~ Small and dark
Five boys from Etienne’s 8th Form dormitory at La Martiniere College for Boys cornered him as he changed out of his nightclothes. Frederick, their self-anointed leader, materialized out of nowhere and shoved Etienne’s chest. His blue eyes drilled into him, his face an assemblage of freckles, wide nostrils, and toothy grin below a sweep of blond hair. Etienne stumbled back.
“Look! The half-caste is half-naked!” Immediately, the four others crowded around him. “His face and arms are light, but what about the rest of him? Off with your underthings! Let’s see the color of your Nebuchadnezzar!”
Hoots of jeering laughter encircled Etienne. He squirmed on the floor between two sets of iron bed legs, attempting to cover himself with his trousers. Frederick’s four acolytes pinned him down, each sitting on a limb, while he himself straddled Etienne’s legs and bent to tug at his underclothes. Etienne’s thoughts raced, his heart thudding at his ribcage. This was different from all the previous times. He was used to verbal assaults about his bookish nature, about the clumsiness with which he wielded his rifle during target practice, even about his parentage, which, although the boys didn’t know the full of it, clearly set him apart. But none of it had ever turned physical until now.
Before Etienne could make a sound, William, sitting on one of his arms, clamped his moist hand down so hard on his mouth that Etienne could not even part his lips. The boy’s sharp odor of ink and acrid sweat wormed its way up Etienne’s nose as his underclothes were pulled down to his knees.
“I don’t know, chaps. What do you think?” Frederick asked, looming above Etienne and looking to each of the others. “Looks rather small and dark to me.”
The downy hairs of his nascent mustache glinted in a ray of morning sun. Beyond him, raised curlicues of white decorative plasterwork squiggled against the pink and green ceiling. Etienne turned his head to the side, the floor hard against his temple, William’s hand pulling at his cheek. Frederick had said “dark.” And so what? A voice raged inside Etienne. La Mart was full of dark boys. There was an entire Native College for Indian pupils. And even here, a number of them were part Indian. Even Joseph, sitting on Etienne’s legs, whose Portuguese father had been a railway inspector before he died in an accident and left Joseph as a charity case. But Joseph’s father had been married to his Indian mother. She was a proper “bibi.” Whereas Etienne knew he was supposed to be ashamed of his own mother, even though none of these boys knew anything about her. He was registered at La Mart as a Christian European.
Etienne wriggled as best he could to escape, but all he succeeded in doing was grinding his spine painfully against the floor. The others leaned in, still holding his arms and legs, and agreed with Frederick’s assessment. Small and dark. From the corner of his eye, Etienne saw Frederick cross his arms and stroke an imaginary beard.
“Maybe it’s because it’s shriveled. Hmm, do you suppose the color rubs off? Etienne, can you rub off the color? Have you ever given it a go? Or maybe all your hands can do is hold books?”
“Right hand or left hand?” Henry asked, snickering.
“What do these Hindoos say here? Left hand for dirty things, isn’t it?”
It’s dirty for Mussalmans, too, you fools, Etienne thought. But what would they know? More importantly, what were they going to make him do? A wave of nausea swept over him.
The room fell quiet. William shifted his bony buttocks. Etienne lay motionless as a thousand pins and needles invaded his arm. His mind went blank. Surely this wasn’t happening. He turned his head, searching Joseph’s face, but Joseph looked away.
“Wait! Maybe he doesn’t know how! Maybe one of you needs to do it for him. Let me see…” Frederick gazed around. The silence thickened. The grip over Etienne’s mouth tensed, and he tried to part his lips, to scream for the headmaster. One of the fingers slipped into his mouth. He pulled his tongue in as far away as possible just as William withdrew his hand with a cry of disgust. Etienne’s throat constricted and he gagged. Immediately the boys leapt and staggered back from him in horror.
“Ugh! Stand clear!”
“Don’t you dare vomit on me!”
The bell rang for chota hazri. Masha’Allah! It was time for the early morning bread and tea that preceded First School. The boys scattered like cockroaches in lamplight.
Etienne pulled his underwear back up and then, when he was sure the very last one had left, he rose, his lower back tender. His insides burned with shame and anger. His stomach felt empty and full at once. Frederick’s uncle had just been appointed to some coveted position in the East India Company—something just under the Governor General—and evidently this made Frederick think he was invincible. Already he had lorded it over Etienne that the EIC had defeated the French Compagnie des Indes a hundred years ago, and what were any French people doing still in India anyway when clearly it was to be a British territory? The cocksure son of a cur. The British had no business trying to take over India, either.
Etienne pulled on his trousers and buttoned his shirt, going over in his head all the things he wanted to say. He knew Frederick’s father had died and that the only reason the boy was even at La Martiniere was that his mother was of fragile constitution and not quite right in the head. There were rumors she had taken a dagger to her wrists, had been found just in time, and his uncle had agreed to keep Frederick in India for her sake rather than send him to England for a proper education. La Mart was known for taking in European orphans. Frederick was now one of the “Foundationers,” at the school for free. At least Etienne had a father, and a mother who loved him, even if he could only see her every six weeks or so. Even if she, too, acted as though there was something wrong with him. He yanked his tie into a knot, grabbed his books and his blue serge coat, and spiraled down the ninety steps from the dormitory tower to the dining room.
Downstairs, most of the other hundred or so boarders—mostly from the towns of Cawnpore (about one hundred kilometers away) and Meerut (550 kilometers)—had already entered the dining hall. But not Frederick nor the other four who stood in wait under the pillared arcade that ran around the back of the building and gave onto the dusty garden where two malis tended to the grass one blade at a time, their crouching silhouettes like statues amid the wisps of fog rising from the river. Etienne shivered and clutched his coat. The weak January sun had yet to melt the chill in the air. The boys appeared as blurry shapes, and Etienne could not so much see as sense their eyes on him.
“What are you waiting for? You don’t want to miss chota hazri, do you? Need a cup of tea to warm up,” Joseph said with mock sweetness, hugging himself and rubbing his hands on his arms.
Frederick balled one hand into a fist and smacked at his own palm. “Well, look at this. A puny son of a native whore. His father must have caught himself a darkie.”
“Maybe he caught something else, too. Something down there.” Henry grabbed at his privates and gyrated grotesquely.
The boys halted, took a step back, as though afraid the imagined diseases they were conferring upon Etienne’s parents were emanating from Etienne himself. For a split-second William hesitated, even held out a hand toward Etienne, then shook his head and fell back into formation.
Etienne’s fingernails dug into his palms. In his mind, he flew at Frederick, shoved him down from the raised verandah and pummeled him to the ground, smashing his face to a pulp. Why couldn’t his father have enrolled him in the Native College instead? He’d never had this kind of trouble with Indians. For five years in his father’s home, his companions had been his ayah, the servants, and their children, and with them he’d always been at ease. But here he was now.
As he stood there fixed in place, the two malis squat-walked closer to the verandah, turbaned heads still bent over their work, small scythes whisking across the trip lawn. Etienne had a brief thought: perhaps the boys wouldn’t attack him in the presence of these men. But this was wishful, foolish thinking. These silent Indian gardeners were invisible to his classmates.
Frederick pounced. He knocked Etienne down hard off the verandah. Etienne held himself up with one elbow, gravel digging into his tender back, while he shielded his head with his other arm. As he drew in his knees and head, he caught the look of one of the crouching malis. Brown eyes under knitted brow bored into him. A tilt of the head incited him to fight back, hit back, stand up for himself. Etienne closed his eyes. Nothing happened. Time felt suspended. He peered out from under his arm. Frederick loomed over him, fists on his hips, sneering, but his gaze flitted between Etienne and something else.
The mali. He had stood and was only a few feet away.
A crow cawed. Another answered from somewhere upriver. Chairs clattered and dragged across the floor in the dining hall as chota hazri came to an end. The earthy smell of dew-laden grass filled Etienne’s nostrils.
William broke the spell. “Enough, Fred. You’ll get us into heaps of trouble.”
Frederick snorted. “Nah! Principal Sutton is a friend of my uncle.” But he lowered his fist and stepped back, keeping an eye on the mali.
William shrugged. “Well, it’s enough anyway. Look at the poor sod.” He looked down and kicked a pebble.
Etienne scrambled to his feet. Frederick darted forward as if to hit him. In the instant that Etienne ducked, the mali lunged and shouted in Hindoostani for Frederick to stop.
“Rucko!” The cry sliced through the air as he waved the rusty blades of his grass cutter at the British boy’s face. Something raw and wild took over Frederick’s countenance. The four others backed away. Frederick narrowed his eyes. The mali stood his ground in front of Etienne.
Frederick spat on the ground, narrowly missing the mali’s feet. “Let’s go,” he growled, and the other boys needed no further coaxing to run toward the building.
Etienne dusted himself off and picked up his books, which had scattered across the path. The mali approached him, holding out Marshman’s Brief Survey of History with his two hands. He touched it briefly to his forehead, begging forgiveness from goddess Saraswati for letting an object of learning touch the ground, and handed it reverently to Etienne. The gardener said nothing, only raised his eyebrows with an air of concern. Beyond him, Frederick spoke with the Principal in front of the green office door, pointing at Etienne.
“I’m fine. Shukriya.” Etienne mumbled his thanks as he accepted his book.
The Principal beckoned him with stern eyes and a clenched jaw.