Friday, February 05, 2010

Children of the Lie: Chapter Eleven


The Fields Of The Fallen

The early afternoon was torrid and oppressive, burdened with the weight of unshed rains, and after four hours driving from Delhi it was a relief when Agra tumbled out to greet them. This was the city which in ancient times had been called a splendid paradise. It was here that the great Mughal emperors made their home and it was in the sumptuous courts of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan that the fairytale court was brought to being, a fame which would travel as far as Europe and dazzle all who heard the stories.

There were tales told of a favourite fish fitted with a gold nose ring; of a prince's dress festooned with pearls; of one great, glittering ruby worn as a ring; of a queen who distilled and preserved the heady scent of rose petals; of an emperor who twice a year was weighed in gold and silver which was then distributed among the people and of a land where even such food as humble, boiled rice was served with a scattering of wafer thin sheets of pure gold.

This was the city to which they had come, and, as they skirted its now all too sadly tattered hem, the car was engulfed by a flock of rattling taxies, three-wheeled bumble-bees in yellow and black. As they weaved and danced amongst them, it became even clearer that the city most fair had become flea-bitten and haggish. The narrow, serpentine streets and crowded , bustling bazaars of the guide-book, were all the more narrow and all the more crowded and what remained of the spacious suburbs and fine cantonment built by the British was enough to make the dead weep. Agra, the 'city of beautiful buildings', presented no more than the perennial face of modern India -- dirty and dishevelled, if not downright squalid. There were some things which whispered still of beauty, but in the main, the voice of past grandeur had been stilled, strangled by the fingers of decay.

Jo looked closely at the faces of the people as they passed. The windows of the car were tinted and she knew that she could not be seen by those outside. It was surprising how grim and sad so many of the expressions were. She had been told by others how good-natured the Indians were, how much they smiled, how content they obviously were with their lot; but these people did not look good-natured and neither did they look content. She knew that, if she wound down the window, they would immediately break into broad and gracious smiles, for it seemed to be a matter of courtesy in India that, when one caught the attention of a foreigner, then one should smile. They certainly did not smile for each other. She had seen that.

"Bit of a disappointment," said Jan sadly, staring through the window.

"Well, my guide book says that all it needs is only a 'jot of imagination to bring the magnificent riverside fort alive,' said Jo with a laugh. "We're into 'India-think' now...if we just wish it were true then it will be."

Jan grunted in reply and then muttered: ”It would take a lot more than wishing to clean this lot up."

“Not quite what we expected, is it?” said Jo ruefully.

“What I don't understand,” said Jan, talking as much to himself and the world outside his window as to anyone else, “is why it has to be so filthy, so run-down. I mean it almost looks derelict. He shook his shaggy head in disbelief and disappointment and scratched at his beard. ”I mean,” he went on, and this time turning toward her as he spoke, “it's as if no-one cares about anything. I don't understand what makes people that way. Don't they have any pride? Look around you, this must have been wonderful. It's as if they can't stand anything beautiful so they trample it into the mud."

"The Taj Mahal has lasted," offered Jo.

"Yes, but that has got World Heritage Listing, so they are under some pressure to take care of it," Jan replied. "Although I have heard that even the Taj is being damaged by industrial pollution. Look at this could it not be. They've got one of the greatest wonders of the world and they allow all this filth to spring up around it. Beats me. This place was the capital of India once! Can you believe it?"

"Well," replied Jo slowly," to be accurate, it was the capital of Moghul India in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries according to my book. Most of its monuments date from that time. But perhaps you are right, maybe they do want to trample it into the mud, at least at a subconscious level, if only because it reminds them of their conquerors. It seems to me that they think they are proud of it ...I mean, every Indian I have met has raved about how wonderful the Taj is for instance, but I still think, at another level, at an unconscious level, they must also hate the place and all the other places like it, if only because it represents the power of their conquerors and their own weakness in being conquered. It's a bit like having someone come into your home and kick you around and then go away, leaving a little monument to themselves in the middle of your living room. How would you like to live with that?"

Jan laughed: "Well, when you put it that way ... I guess I wouldn't. I suppose if what was left was a beautiful thing it would be a sign of how civilized I was if I let it remain. If I could come to terms with what had happened and accept that I had been conquered, but now the conquerors had gone and I was left with this monument, which reminded me of them, but which was beautiful in its own right, then I would do everything I could to take care of it."

"Yes, but few of us are as civilized as we think we are," said Jo," and anyway, if our hatred is unconscious, then we are going to destroy the reminder, slowly but surely, whether we want to or not. I think that's why this place is in such a mess, why so many magnificent things are just rotting away." She was silent for a moment, thoughtful, and then she said: "You know, I'm beginning to think that while people talk about this being an ancient civilization, it's really a very new one... crude and raw and still trying to work out what it wants to be. I think when they can stop living in the past and realise that they are new, as a country, as a nation, then they will finally be able to do something about cleaning things up ... at a physical and a psychological level."

"All I can say is that I hope you are right," said Jan, as the car turned into the driveway of the hotel. "There are so many truly wonderful things about this country it really does upset me to see them destroying everything just because they are not prepared to accept some aspects of their history.”

As they got out of the car a guttural cry made them both jump. A woman sat, on one side, crouched low on her haunches with a woven cane basket on the ground in front of her and a ragged mongoose, tied to her wrist with a piece of thin rope. She lifted the lid of the basket and hissed at the bowed head of the cobra which was inside. It raised itself slowly, far too slowly for her liking as she quickly slapped it once, then twice around its harmless head, its poison glands having been removed when it was a baby. It was a less than subtle invitation to dance and one which the snake declined, choosing instead to sink back into its basket. The woman signalled that for just a few rupees the mongoose and the snake could be made to fight. Neither looked capable of breathing, let alone fighting and, when heads were shaken in rejection of the offer, the woman snapped her loose lips together in a gritting of teeth and slammed the lid back on the basket.

"It's the first time I've felt sorry for a snake," Jo said, as they followed the porter inside.

"The mongoose didn't look too healthy either," replied Jan. "Then again, neither did the woman. A miserable threesome, to say the least. A snake with no fangs, a mongoose with no freedom and an old woman with no hope. It's that sort of country."

They ate a quick lunch of vegetable biryani, which proved to be both fragrant and filling, and then went off to their rooms to sleep for an hour . But for Jo, sleep was elusive, despite the coolness of the room provided by an efficient, if noisy air conditioner. As she lay on the bed she remembered the sign she had seen on their way to register at the reception desk: 'Astrologer. No Date Of Birth Needed.' Behind the sign had been a regal looking gentleman wearing a dark suit and a black Sikh's turban.

She was curious as to how a chart could be read without knowing the birth date. Susie was a great believer in astrology and had her chart done regularly, every eighteen months. From what she had said, not only the date of birth was necessary but also the time of birth, if a chart was to be truly accurate. She had pressed Jo to have her chart done in the year before David left, saying that it would help to prepare her for what might lay ahead. At the time Jo had not had the energy to acknowledge the present, let alone to run headlong into any possible future and anyway, when she had asked her mother what time she had been born, her mother had said she did not remember. It had been a very difficult birth, her mother added, and one which she had chosen to forget as quickly as possible. She was not likely to remember the moment of her greatest agony, she said, when she wanted nothing more than to put the entire eighteen hours of hell from her mind, once and for all. And no, the nurses had not written down the time. Why should they? Such things are of no importance.

Given the uncertainty of her life, Jo had reasoned she was better off with no chart at all than with one which could well be inaccurate. But this man downstairs was interesting. She wondered if he really could tell her about herself. Even as she wondered she was slipping her shoes back on.

He was still sitting in the same place when she reached the foyer, tucked up behind his sign. He rose to his feet at her approach and bowed slightly from the waist in greeting. Jo saw a creasing of kind, wrinkled eyes beneath a grubby turban. He wore a faded shirt and dark, worn trousers. He held out his left hand in greeting; dry-skinned and big-thumbed. Beneath a fleshy twist of nose, his voice came, thickly accented: "Madam. I will tell you of yourself."

He had the gentlest voice and sounded utterly sincere. She sat down in the chair beside him and he gave her a pencil and a piece of paper, marked into a graph, saying as he did so: "I will tell you the planets and you must put them in place." And so she did, straining to capture the names from the tangle of his accent: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Pluto ... she marked them all and handed back the piece of paper on which she had unconsciously written her life.

"How can you tell me about myself without knowing when I was born?" she asked.

"When someone else writes down the time of your birth it can never be as accurate as that knowing inside of yourself," he replied. "Only you know the truth of your own chart and that is what I read.”

“So is this Indian astrology that you do?”

“It is that and it is more,” he replied. “ I have studied here and in the West and use all that I have learned. There are different ways to see and different words to describe but we all see the same truth and this is what I will tell to you.”

And, in the truth which he read, she did find herself, uncannily, almost uncomfortably so. She was, he said, a woman who loved others too much and herself not enough. She found it hard to forgive failings, both in herself and in others. It was to the tree that she turned in times of trouble; it was here that she found sanctuary. The tree, he said, was the sign of the Goddess and it was written large in her stars. She must remember that the Goddess, she who purifies with myrtle, does not forget, and neither does she like to be forgotten. The Goddess retaliates through her furies. Jo was called to serve her. She must learn to recognise the one whose coppered sky-born womb brought the world to birth at the dawn of time. She must come to know the one who wears the girdle of Venus, the belt of the sky, that which was threaded with both pearls and with skulls and with severed limbs.

But also, there was the father ... it was big in this chart, very big. The Sun and Saturn came together: it was malefic. She was like her father. He was the biggest parent. She had known her darkness and now had come the time of remembering; the time of light. She had been thrown into the unconscious, but the morning star now heralded the dawn. Saturn had been in the place of lost order, but now it was moving into memory. There was much which would rise to the surface. This Saturn had big teeth, but she must not fear. She was protected. She knelt within the wings of the angels and it was they who sought always to guide the uniting of Venus with Mars, of copper with iron, of the Moon with the Sun.

He said too that she would live a long life and that she would be happier in the years to come than she had been in the years just past. She should not wear too much black, he cautioned, and she should also wear the yellow topaz, as it was good for her health. For a moment she wondered if he would send her off to see some cousin-brother who dealt in yellow topaz, but he did not. When he had finished he asked if she had any questions. She did not.

He slipped the hundred rupee note which she gave him into his pocket and rose to his feet. He said that he hoped she was happy with her reading and she replied that she was, although in truth, she was not sure exactly how she felt about it. Perhaps it was all just silliness. How could someone tell her what she was, simply by looking at where she had placed a bunch of planets on a graph? And yet, she sensed that that was exactly what he had done.

It was three o'clock before they set off for the Taj Mahal and Jo was conscious that she felt both calmed and confused by all that the astrologer had said. It had been unnerving how well he had described her and her life. Yet, hadn't he said that the worst was over? Hadn't he said that she was protected? She liked the idea of nestling within the wings of angels. It was funny, that he should say that, because even as a small child she had believed herself to have a guardian angel.

"You seem quiet," said Jan, with a look of concern wrinkling at the corners of his eyes. "Not quite awake yet?”

“Probably not," replied Jo, stretching herself as she did so. "I didn't really get such a good sleep. Had a bit of a rest though." She did not know why she felt reluctant to tell him about the astrologer, but she did. It was not that Jan was not broad-minded, he was. She doubted that anything would surprise him much, let alone shock him. Perhaps it was just too hard to explain.

The driver pulled up at one of the outer gates which led to the Taj Mahal and after Jan had bought the entry tickets they ran the gauntlet of beggars and hawkers. Jo could feel the guilt hanging around her shoulders like a dirty rag. It was a relief when they finally walked inside, beyond the border which held back all those who pulled at both mind and pocket.

The path was bordered on either side by long, low, lawn-fronted buildings and it led toward a central quadrangle, dominated by the enormous and ornamented bulk of a red-sandstone gateway. The soft, brick red was decorated with the most intricate inlay work of semi-precious stones and across the top of the high-rising, pointed arch, stood twelve smaller arches, crowned in turn with eleven white, gold-tipped cupolas. It was beyond this beautiful but begrimed edifice that the glistening, shivering beauty of the monument to death and to love lay and they walked for a brief time through the gloom and the closeness of crowd, to emerge on the farther side, face to face with the beautiful building they had come to see.

Jo's first reaction was one of surprise: It looked so small, resting as it did, at the end of a long central pond and lawned avenue. And yet, as she brought her eyes to focus, down from the round gentleness of its shape, she saw the swarming of the crowd at the foot of the monument, in an ant-like surging up the distant steps. Even from a distance, the whimsical white beauty reigned supreme, holding court against the wide, grey-blue arms of the sky. The tomb seemed to float upon the horizon in a drifting of pure, carved cloud. There was a gracefulness to the monument, raised as it was on a high, white marble platform which seemed not to come from stone, but to have been carved from the very ether itself. On each corner a minaret stretched toward the heavens

It was the resting place of but one woman and yet it seemed to be so much more. That the bone-dry remnants of the beautiful Mumtaz lay within, along with those of her husband, Shah Jahan, seemed of lesser import. How many women had died in childbirth after producing fourteen children in nineteen years of marriage and yet for whom no monument had been raised? Numbers beyond counting!

Had it been created because of the woman, or because of the man who had lost her, or because of the love which they had shared, or simply because some angel had whispered in the night that such a thing should be brought to birth. In a way it did not matter, it was a glory in its own right and as such,needed no other reason to exist.

That it had taken twenty one years to complete and the efforts of twenty thousand people was of little import in the final counting. Perhaps if Mumtaz had not thought she heard the ominous cry of the child from her womb and believed that it heralded her death, then such a place would not have been. But she had heard and perhaps this one, who had been named on her wedding day, The Chosen One Of The Palace, had believed all too well that her time had come. She was remembered, when all others were forgotten, not because of the fact that she followed her husband to war and had risked dying in that place where death gives birth to death, but because she had followed her destiny and fallen in the eternal battle; had died giving birth to life.

There were those who said, that it was Mumtaz herself, who had asked her husband to build an unsurpassed momument in memory of their love. Whether it was to fulfil his dying wife's last wish or to meet some other inner need, Shah Jahan had thrown himself into the task of creating a tomb which would be a glory to all eyes. He brought artisans from Baghdad, Bukhara, Syria, Baluchistan, South India and Samarqand; fine, textured marble from the quarries near Jodhpur in Rajasthan;turquoise from Tibet; jade and crystal from China; lapis lazuli from Afghanistan; agate from Yemen; chrysolite from Egypt; saphire from Sri Lanka; amethyst from Persia; malachite from Russia, coral from Arabia; diamond from the Golconda mines; quartz from the Himalayas and shell and mother of pearl from the Indian Ocean. He gathered the jewels of the world, both human and mineral, and it cost in the end some five millions rupees, and perhaps, as some say, the chief mason's hand, in order that such beauty could never be repeated.

There were others however, who claimed, that the chief mason kept both of his hands because Shah Jahan planned to build a second such marvel on the opposite side of the Yamuna River.It was supposed to have been his resting place but it would have been built, not in white marble, but in black. It was to have been an exact copy; a negative of the positive, the dark beside the light; the unconscious facing the conscious across the flow of the river. If it had been built, it would have been a symbolic recognition of the need for balance between the eternal opposites: between the one and the other, between woman and man, between black and white, between night and day, between the hidden and the known, between death and life.

But fate had other plans and the black Taj Mahal was not brought to being on the far bank of the Yamuna River. By the time that the white tomb had been completed the royal coffers were empty. No money remained for a second momument. In the end, both woman and man were to rest only in the light. The 'gift of the perfect black within which the gold is hid' had been forsaken once more. For the moment at least there would remain one, a solitary token, shining so brightly in its sun and moon-lit glory that all who saw would be blinded by its wonder.

When Shah Jahan was at last overthrown by his son he was imprisoned in Agra fort, which stood some little way along the river. It was here that he lived out his last days and where he looked out from a high turret window upon the tomb of his wife as it stood, way down across the wind of the river, reaching out of the tree-green into the sky-blue. When he grew too ill to sit upright, a mirror fragment was fixed into the wall, capturing the image to the end. Without his own black pearl as a place of rest when he did at last die, he was taken to lie next to his wife; a ruination of symmetry in a tomb meant for one coffin, not two, but perhaps a more fitting end for those who had known in life what it was to be the two made most surely the one. They lie together still, in something so wonderful it could not be the creation of a mere man or woman, but truly, the work of the gods.

Along the central path flocks of parakeets, feathered ripe-green with a rose-pink necklace, settled and then rose with the movement of the crowd. The fountains were still but enough water remained in the pond to hold fast a ghostly reflection. The lawns on either side were lush after the recent rains and neatly clipped. As they grew closer, what looked to be lace from a distance revealed itself instead to be richly coloured inlay work. The tomb loomed larger and larger, with the small figures clustered around the base growing to full human size.

The building was cream now, not white and then they fell into the thickening crowd. At the top of the stairs they emerged upon the wide marbled platform and were met by ambling young men who indicated that they should remove their shoes. Upon the far wall of the momument hung signs stating that shouting was not allowed. It was, thought Jo, an unusual request for such a hallowed place. As they passed through the heavy doors which led into the tomb she began to understand a little better why it had been made.

Within the thick, stone walls dwelt a shuddering of sound, as visitors called and cried across the crowd, talking to each other, loud of voice, in shrill excitement. The tomb itself was even worse as shouts rang out in a bid to elicit the renowned echo from the thick, stone walls and high, raised roof of the tomb. Caught by the musty darkness and the push of people, Jo felt herself to be choking. She had come to what she believed to be a holy place and found something which seemed more akin to a carnival. Jan had pushed through, like the others, oblivious of all but his intended destination, his bearish head standing out above the crowd.

The yellowing light of the guide's torch illuminated fitfully, the delicate beauty of the fine-cut marble screens which surrounded the two memorial tombs. The first such screens were originally of gold but Shah Jahan had reasoned, and rightly so, that such riches would not survive his death. He had them replaced with a translucent copy made of fine, carved marble. Those same fragile screens which now withstood the surge of people pushing in either direction through a single, narrow doorway.

Jo stood back, edging to one side of the claustrophobic crush. The inner area, large enough to comfortably hold a dozen people, was crammed with twenty or more and a further thirty bodies were pushing and shoving their way through the door, grasping onto the flimsy marble screening as they did so. Those who wanted to get in gave no thought to those who were trying to get out. It was like a stampede in a cattle yard, a milling and rushing, within and without the trellised partition which had been built to protect the stone-boxed bodies of the dead. They had come to visit this famous shrine, this honoured memorial to love and death, and yet beyond the reverentially bare feet there was more of the bestial than there was of the respectful.

A guard stood to one side, his heavy, wooden-barrelled rifle at the ready. He surveyed the chaos with placid equanimity: this was considered to be no crisis. It was yet another incongruity in a country which had raised the paradoxical to something of an art form. Whether such vulnerable beauty would be able to withstand the onslaught was debateable, decided Jo.

It was some comfort to her when Jan whispered that these were not the real tombs. Perhaps the hallowed was held safe after all. It seemed the two dead lovers lay instead below the octagonal chamber in which they were now standing. When they reached the narrow mouth of the dark, steep stairwell which led down to where the true tombs lay at rest, a fetid belch came forth from the depths. For a moment Jo felt faint. The heat, the terrible crowding, the churning blackness beneath her feet. She reached out a hand to stop Jan, signalling that she would wait outside. He nodded and then plunged on, disappearing in an instant amidst the toss and turn of heads and the clamouring of voice.

It was a relief to return to the open air, to walk across the broad expanse of hard, white marble, grown hot in the full-handed grip of the waning day. The ragged cotton foot-covers were little protection and Jo moved across into the shade, walking out to the far side where she could see the slow, wide curl of the river. On either side of the tomb stood a mosque, each constructed in the same rich red sandstone of the main gateway. Looking over the parapet she could see the trickling remains of the once broad Yamuna; shrunk now to a narrow existence within broad, sandy banks. Hunched figures, in a rhythmic bending, could be seen in the muddy shallows, washing for all those who could afford such a luxury. Laid out behind the dobi-wallahs were the finished articles: neat lines of washed clothes, drying in the dirt.

Jo settled herself on the parapet, looking back toward the tomb, watching out for Jan, if and when he should return from the depths. Something familiar caught her eye and she turned in expectation. It was not Jan however, but a young woman who had been at the reception desk checking in at the same time as they had arrived. Now, as then, she stood beside a tall, thickset young man in a green checked shirt and faded denim jeans. The young woman was Indian, but her hair was cropped short and dressed as she was in jeans and a black, body-hugging top, she looked decidedly Western.

She was also beautiful with a glossy thickness of hair which moved with a silky tossing and falling each time she turned her head. Her eyes were enormous, dark and almond-shaped and her soft, pouting lips were coloured a deep cyclamen pink. For a moment she seemed to look toward Jo with a smile of puzzled semi-recognition. Jo returned the smile and then watched as the young couple walked away.

It was getting late by the time Jan emerged but they decided it would be best to go on to see the Agra Fort in the short time remaining before darkness. They planned an early start the next morning in order to visit the abandoned city of Fatephur Sikri before beginning the long drive back to Delhi where Jan had booked to fly out to Bangkok the same evening and Jo had to catch a flight to Bombay. Jo saw the young couple alight from a taxi a short distance ahead of them, just as their driver pulled up outside the fort. This time each exchanged smiles of real recognition and as they walked past the young woman greeted them: "Hello. I thought I knew you. It was from the hotel. We checked in at the same time."

Jo and Jan both nodded. They all shook hands. The young woman was called Sara...Saraswati actually, she explained, but Sara was much easier. She introduced the young man as Steve, her fiancee. His accent marked him as an American and a slight twang to Sara's voice revealed her to be someone who had spent some time in the States. They walked across the moat turned open sewer together, beneath the soaring walls of Agra Fort, which reached, in the glowing redness of local sandstone, up, up from the littered earth.

Jo felt a desperate urge to pinch her nostrils in order to extinguish the nauseating stink which emanated from the now waterless but waste-filled ditch beneath their feet. Instead she held her breath, fearing that Sara would be offended should she walk into the imposing monument holding her nose. Once inside the portico they turned left and began the long climb up a gradually sloping ramp.

On either side were high walls, intended originally to trap the enemy once they had broken through the front gates, and to hold them fast, imprisoned within the narrow space, the better to be destroyed with buckets of boiling oil and a barrage arrows. Such threats were long past, and the only remaining danger was the cultural penchant for spitting and indiscriminate nose-blowing.The gauntlet was however negotiated without incident and they emerged at the top to confront the great but neglected beauty of the extensive fort complex.

The occasional workman could be seen replacing broken brickwork in a desultory fashion but it was difficult to believe that he was driven by any sort of dedication to the task in hand. In the main, the wonderfully intricate inlay work and the richly painted ceilings were but a fading shadow of their former selves. One small section of the ceiling had in fact been repainted and it offered a glimpse of the true glory which once had been. It was a very small section and it had been restored early in the century by a British official stationed in Agra. It was a wonder to behold, however small, and a prod to the imagination. At one time every square inch of the buildings had been decorated in some way; either with delicately carved marble fretwork, fine inlay work of coloured stones and semi-precious gems, intricately painted patterns in every colour known; all gilded for a final touch of splendour.

The rusty hooks which remained upon the far reaches of the walls and embedded in ceilings had once held lengths of cloth, beautiful silks and heavily embroidered fabrics which had draped rooms from top to bottom and which caught and caressed the gentle breezes, which came, heavy with the smell of rosewater from the many pools and fountains. The now dusty paths were once covered with the richness of silken carpets; carried on the backs of camels from Persia to adorn the greatness of India. Here too, as it had been at the Taj Mahal, was the noise and clatter of the undisciplined crowd, loud-voiced adults and running, screaming children. That at least was perhaps a constant: even in its heyday it would not have been a place of silence and serenity, it would have been a place of people and movement.

The fort was surrounded by the grimy skirts of the city, beautiful still, but so terribly careworn, like some aged courtesan, discarded and diseased, who could still flash glimpses of her former glory despite the scabrous face she now turned to the world. It was a relief for Jo when they returned finally to the cool calmness of the hotel. What she needed more than anything, she told herself, was a shower. It had teamed itself with tea-drinking, this drenching of the self in cooling water, as a comfort and a protection against the rigours of India.

Jan wanted to go on to see Akbar's Tomb on the outskirts of the city and so he dropped her at the hotel on his way. Jo knew when she had had enough; she had learned to pace herself. It had been a long day and unlike Jan she had not had the advantage of a sleep before setting out. It was not that she felt tired, but she had had enough of noise and crowds, of wonders and glories, of the new and the alien. A surfeit of stimulation!

It was half an hour later that she came face to face with Sara as she exited from the lift into the lobby. Steve was upstairs, she told Jo, trying to put through a call to the States. It would keep him busy for at least and hour and she had decided to come downstairs to the coffee shop. Since Jo was heading in the same direction perhaps she would like to join her.

Sara was twenty-six, a radiologist, and she had been living in the United States for the past six years. She had gone away believing that she would always want to come back to India to live and for the first two years she had stayed loyal to that, but then she had gotten used to it and found that she liked the life. When she had first gone there she had tried to live as Americans lived. She thought it would only be for a short time and reasoned that it would be a good way to experience the country. She had not tied herself down with tradition because she did not feel threatened; soon she would be going home. After a few years she had realised that she liked the life for itself. She felt freer, happier when she was wearing Western clothes than she did in a kalwar sameez or a sari. She could move more freely and there was greater choice.

She was based in Boston, and it was there that she had met Steve, some eighteen months previously. She had realised that she could be happy in America and that she would be content to spend her life there. Perhaps, she said, that was why she had let herself fall in love with him. They were planning to marry at the end of the year and had returned to India so that Steve could meet her parents. Her parents were professional people, her mother a gyneacologist with her own practice and her father a professor at the university in Delhi.

They were wonderful, mummy and daddy, such reasonable people, so supportive...until now. Sara had expected the news of her planned marriage to be received with reluctance but she had not thought there would be any great opposition. And there she was wrong. Mummy and daddy were it seems, very supportive, until it came to the issue of their daughter marrying a firangi. A fortune had already been spent on trans-continental phone calls endeavouring to nip in the bud this disasterous development. But the bud remained resolutely un-nipped, and now Sara had returned home to confront her parents with the reality of Steve and perhaps to extract from them some grudging acceptance of the situation. Because she would marry him, of that she was certain and if that meant estrangement from her liberal parents who had always maintained that she was free to make her own choice, then so be it. It saddened her though, this separation between those whom she loved the most, and it grieved her too that her parents were not the people that she had believed them to be.

People in India want their children to go overseas, she said. They want them to study, to learn, to make money ... but not to change. They want the children to take from the host country all that they can, of education and of prestige and of wealth ... but not of culture, they want nothing of the culture. It was a case, she confided, of grab and run. Children studying or working overseas represented greater prestige and made for a better bid in the marriage market. It was an investment in the future, but not for the child; it was an investment in the future for the family.

The rules were simple. The child could spend as long a time away as he or she liked but, the ‘musts' had to be met. they must eat Indian food, wear Indian clothes, watch Indian movies, read Indian papers ... and they must marry only of their own kind. In this way was everyone happy, or so it was claimed. The truth, said Sara, was that only the parents and senior members of the family were happy. Some of these lost children, she said, could be seen after twenty years in America still clinging to some dream which more rightly belonged to their parents. It was hard to see what they had given the country of their adoption and even harder to see what they had given to themselves, except a sense of being split.

It was even worse for those who were born in the host country and who belonged to neither; not to the land which they called home, nor that which their parents and grandparents called home. They were the truly lost, strangled with all the talk of India until they no longer believed in anything, let alone themselves. They were tied to a country which many had never seen and which, of those who had, many responded to only with loathing.

At the end of the day, said Sara, you were left with a group of people who were half -baked Americans, confused Indians and screwed up human beings. No-one wins when people sacrifice reality to live a lost dream. That would not happen to her children. She was determined to set them free, to let them belong to the land of their choice. She would tell them about India, because it was a part of herself, but they would be Americans, and then, if as adults, they returned to the land from which their mother had come and they wanted to be Indians instead, then, so be it ... but they would be free to make their own choice. That was a promise. She would not have them torn apart between two conflicting cultures.

The tragedy, she said, was that there was no need for it to be so painful. It was the intractability of the parents which led to the awful splitting of self and soul. It was the people left behind who screamed about what was being lost while greedily grabbing to themselves what was being gained. It was a prison, the Indian family, not the warm, comforting place which everyone said it was. They talked about how close Indian families are but it was no more than a euphemism, for all the rules, dogma, interference and outright domination which existed within the relationship. Everyone was too scared to venture 'out' of the family and far too fearful to let anyone in, at least not without a fight, because that would mean a stranger, someone who would ask questions and questions required answers and the truth was, that no-one had any. Everyone clung to the old ways because they were too frightened to face the truth about themselves. It was only now, standing as she did, outside the walls, that she could see it for what it really was.

As she talked to Jo about the situation which she faced, the pink pout of her mouth drew into a slow, miserable droop and there was a sense of real puzzlement in the shining black of her eyes when she said: "I never would have believed that my mother would say to me:'There are so many nice Indian boys over there, why does it have to be an alien.' I mean, an alien ....she talks about him as if he were a martian. He may as well be from another planet the way that they go on. And do you know what the worst of it is?" Jo gave the expected shake to her head and Sara went on:"They are so nice to his face, all sweetness and light, so charming, so gracious, so reasonable and then, behind his back, they are saying these things to me ...he won't fit in, he isn't like us, your children will eat meat, they will forget that they are Indian”

Sara began to shake her own head, sadly from side to side as if not quite able to believe what she was saying. Her mother maintained that she was not against marrying foreigners, it was just that, with a girl, it was different. A woman would always follow her husband and adjust to his family and his ways; a woman would fit in where a man would not. Whether it was the East or the West, her mother believed, it was always the woman who followed, who moved with him if he changed jobs, cooked the kind of food he wanted, returned to his native home when he chose to come back, made a greater effort to please his people, fell in with his customs.

“I mean,” Sara said,” my mother said to me that a woman would not ask for a knife and fork, she would eat with her hands like everyone else but a foreign son-in-law, that was a different matter.” A son-in-law was someone who must be made comfortable, someone who must be treated with deference, just as an Indian male is waited on by all the women in the household ...all of his needs must be met. If one could not meet all those needs it would be a terrible thing. And the name too ...children take the name of the father and if a girl marries a Westerner then she is lost to the alien culture and so are the children ... what a tragedy to have children who are not of their true home, not of India.

And these were people, confided Sara, who had married for love. Admittedly, it had not been out of caste, but it had been out of their traditional communities. They believed enough in their own love to take such a drastic step and yet, they could not or would not understand her love."Mummy said that was different ....her and daddy getting married," Sara added. "They had their Indianess in common and their caste. It wasn't like marrying a foreigner. “

“I guess they fear they will lose you," said Jo. "You are changing course and they may not be able to follow you.”

“But that's silly," said Sara, gripping even tighter to her near-empty cup with a flash of perfectly manicured bright pink fingernails. "They don't have to follow me, they just have to love me. They think I will just follow Steve in everything he wants ...they don't understand that it doesn't have to be like that.”

“Do they realise," said Jo, "that, in the West, it is very often the wife's family which takes the lead, if only because it tends to be the woman who organises most of the socialising?"

Sara shook her head and a rather firmer set to her mouth took shape: "It wouldn't make any difference. Even if I could convince my mother of that, she still wouldn't accept Steve. The truth is that they live these tight little lives where nothing may change ... or so they think ... while all the time the whole world is changing around them. They have to keep deceiving themselves more and more just to keep the truth at arm's length." She pushed her cup to one side and began a hard pink drumming upon the wooden table top.

"I don't know what they are trying to hold on to," she said with a growing edge of irritation to her voice. "I mean look at this place," she continued, opening both arms in a gesture expansive enough to embrace a great deal of the world around them, " who would want it? This country is in such a mess and all they can do is hold on tighter and tighter, trying to keep it as it is. Steve likes it more than I do.”

“Well, I guess he doesn't have to live here,” interrupted Jo gently. "It's easy to like things when they have no hold over us. This is where you were born. In some sense it will always be a home for you. You will always care about it even if you don't think you do.”

“Now that's where you are wrong," Sara countered with a flash of firm teeth. "I don't care about it at all. I'm glad I won't have to live here. I'm glad I won't have to be an Indian wife. I don't care if I go away and never come back. If Steve likes it so much he can come for holidays on his own."She was silent for a moment and her shoulders hunched low, as if the voicing of final rejection had released the anger. “ But I don't want to lose my family. I love them, and I love Steve and I don't want to lose him either.” Her voice shivered with waiting tears.

"I don't think you will," Jo said gently, "they will come around. You just have to give them time.”

“Oh yes, they will come around," Sara replied with a hollow laugh, “they will be polite and gracious and do all the right things but the fact is that they will never ever truly accept him. He may not know about it but they will make sure that I do. My parents don't want me to marry Steve because he simply isn't one of us, he isn't good enough! Oh they tell lies to themselves and to me and say it is about eating meat and him being comfortable and losing my heritage ....some heritage, but it's not that at all. Deep down they know that they are superior and they believe their ways are superior. It's disgusting. At least in America they admit to their racism and try to do something about it, but here, here they just deceive themselves with a lot of sanctimonious bullshit!”

Sara shook her head and the black, silken bob bounced from side to side: "Listen to wonder they fear for me ... I'm lost already. Here I am, supposed to be a good little Indian girl and I'm talking to a complete stranger like this ... it simply isn't done."

Jo re-filled both tea cups as Sara lapsed once more into silence.It wasn't long before she leaned across the table and said: "I'm not a good little Indian girl anymore you know, if I ever was, and I'm glad. I hide it from my parents because I don't want to hurt them, but I'm sure they know how much I've changed. In a way they don't mind too much, just so long as I don't show them, or any of their friends, that I am different ... less Indian. You may not know it, but you can be anything you like in this country as long as you hide the fact from all those who might disapprove, all those that you should consider as your superiors. It's all a bit schizophrenic really." She broke off to sugar her tea and gave it a vigorous stir, saying as she replaced the spoon in the saucer with a sharp ring: "Not that you'd know of course, looking around you ... see how well adjusted we all are, see how brilliantly we've organised things ... the efficiency of the place. I mean, we've really set standards which will take some beating."

Jo was silent in the face of such bitterness. Sara had already made up her mind and was obviously preparing herself for the final confrontation with her parents and perhaps for a painful break. In releasing her anger and bitterness, in putting it in the hands of a stranger, there was a chance that she would be able to inform her parents that her mind was made up and there was no turning back, with as much composure as possible. It was obvious that she feared a rift which would not be mended; that she feared all the things which would not or could not be said, either by herself or by her parents. She had disappointed them and she knew it, but they too had disappointed her and they did not know it, and that fact alone fed her anger all the more.

When she spoke again it was in a voice more melancholy than embittered, and yet, with a brave if brittle edge: "I'm glad I'm leaving .... and do you know what ... I'm going to be a good wife for Steve and if that means I've failed as a daughter then it's too bad!” The conversation came to an appropriate end with the appearance of a smiling Steve who had at last managed to get a call through to Boston. He seemed an amiable fellow, thought Jo, and there was no doubt that he adored Sara. Steve sat down next to Sara and gave her a quick hug."Sorry it took so long," he said," but I can see you haven't been lonely.”

“No," said Jo," we've had a good chat and more cups of tea than either of us needed." Sara gave a shy, almost guilty smile in agreement. Jo could sense that now it was all over she regretted more than a little that she had been so candid with a stranger. "I must be off," said Jo."It was very nice to meet you both. I do hope enjoy your stay and I wish you well for the future." She shook the hand of each, giving Sara's a firmer squeeze, hoping as she did so that the young woman would understand that her secrets were safe. They would probably never meet again. Sara had needed to talk and she had been able to listen. There was nothing more to it.

They met in the lobby at seven. Jan wore one of his white-shortsleeved shirts, complete with the tiny gold cross studs in each corner of his collar, and a pair of black trousers, rubbed to something of a shine by wear, while Jo had unpacked a straight-fitting skirt and matching jacket, both in navy blue. It was a simple outfit but one which she knew to be forgiving of time spent at the bottom of a suitcase, and with the peacock belt around her waist and small gold earrings clipped in place, the effect was simple. She knew it was also a trifle dull ... safe, but dull. She made a mental note to remember to buy the pink silk for Sophie and perhaps to pick up something a little more colourful for herself. The astrologer had told her she wore too much black; perhaps it was time for a change.

"Indian or Chinese?" asked Jan, as he pushed the lift button. "We have a choice. I think the Indian restaurant is considered to be the best one and since we are dressed for the occasion perhaps we should try that.”

Suits me," said Jo. "I always enjoy a good curry and it does seem silly to be here and not eat the local food.”

The restaurant was situated on the lower level of the hotel and a broad marble staircase led down from the lobby. The lighting was subdued in the restaurant and green carpet and olive and yellow striped upholstery imparted a sense, perhaps inadvertently, of the watery depths. The linen was also green, and each table glowed with an adornment of brass, both in the cutlery, and in the small, full-bellied vases which held an arrangement of fern-like fronds and close-blossomed sprigs of yellow flowers.

“All we need now is a mermaid," said Jan, grinning broadly as they sat down.

“I knew I should have worn green," said Jo, "although I suppose navy blue is reasonably aquatic."

"I wonder if this means we should eat fish," said Jan, settling his dark-rimmed reading glasses onto the bridge of his nose and opening the menu.

"Anne says we shouldn't ... not so far inland," replied Jo," and anyway, I'm sure she muttered something about not eating seafood during monsoon. I can't remember why but we have been all right this far. It's probably not a good idea to take risks...we are both flying out tomorrow night."

"You are right of course. Why is it that women are always right?" returned Jan, with an expression of mock surrender on his face. Jo laughed and flicked her menu toward him in feigned annoyance: "You would be the only man in the world to believe that ...if you were at all serious ...which of course you aren't. I would have to live a very long time to hear a man admit that I was right and he was wrong."

"I think," said Jan,"that you have known the wrong sort of men." There was a twinkle to his eye but a seriousness to his voice which Jo appreciated.

"There you go," she returned," now you are the one who is right. There aren't many of them out there like you Jan, nowhere near enough and what do you do, you go and give yourself to God, so we poor women have to make do with even more meagre offerings!"

"Now you are the one who is teasing," he said with a chuckle. "Somehow I doubt that I am such a loss to the world of women."

"Well, we're not likely to find out are we," said Jo, "so we may as well eat."

They ordered with enthusiasm. Both were hungry. Pakoras to start with; vegetable dumplings made from pieces of cauliflower, onions and sliced potatoes dipped in a gram flour batter and deep fried. Some samosa, suggested the waiter, would also be very good, made with minced lamb and served with tomato sauce and chilli powder. They came, steaming hot and rich with the smell of fresh ginger, garlic and cumin. For the main course they ordered Roghan Goshth, a Kashmiri dish made from chunks of lamb, cooked with yogurt, almonds, tomatoes and spices, along with side dishes of Aloo Matar...potatoes and peas, Thurai Aur Methi ...courgettes immersed with sliced tomatoes and fresh fenugreek leaves and Kabli Chana Bhujia...chick peas simmered with diced potato, green chillis and pungent, fresh coriander.

Along with the food, advised the waiter, they must have a selection of the Indian breads; some buttered naan, some pooris, which were deep-fried wholemeal bread puffs and some chapati, or unleavened bread... and some parata, or layered bread, perhaps stuffed with grated cauliflower. They had agreed, that of course they must have some of the breads but only a small serve, very, very small, they had added optimistically as the waiter turned and hurried off.

It was just at the point where the main dishes were delivered, that the lights in the room flickered, and all was plunged into darkness. "Guess the power is gone," Jan whispered through the blackness. "Damn, can't see the food." Just as he uttered this, the lights returned and all was revealed once more, if only for a moment. They had begun to spoon the food onto their plates when once more a shudder was heard from the outside generator and the world became black. This time it remained black. That is, until waiters began moving around the tables with long white candles flickering atop brass candlesticks.

"You get the feeling that this has happened before," said Jan, a dim shadow across the table. "At least they are prepared. There's a chance we might be able to see something of what we are eating. It certainly smells good."

The waiter placed two candles, one on either side of the table and then returned to the task of serving their food. In the gentle glow of candlelight the room took on a different feel; a place beyond the known world. They ate in silence, cocooned within the soft, moving shadows. They had ordered some red wine to have with the meal, Italian chianti; the glasses glowed carmine in the candlelight. When they had finished and the plates were cleared away, Jan sat back in his chair and gave a slow sigh of satisfaction.

He looked content, thought Jo, and yet, at the same time, there was something wistful about him, even sad. He sipped slowly at his wine, his eyes dark shadows in the half-light. Jo raised her glass to her lips ... it wasn't too bad, this Italian red ... a little rough but better than nothing. It warmed the heart and it stilled the restless soul; what more could anyone want? She looked again at Jan and could not help but feel that his answer would be very different to hers. She was feeling more contented than she could remember being for a long time, and he, well, he looked more than a little troubled. She was about to ask him if he was all right when he spoke instead: "You know, I've been thinking about what you said about death, about my fears, and I've decided, it's not death that I fear, it's the unexpected ... it's the shattering, the extinction of the known. Does that make sense?"

Jo nodded. He went on: "I had a brother. He died when he was in his early twenties. He killed himself in fact -- blew his brains out. He was schizophrenic ... had been for quite a few years, it was getting worse. He knew it and we knew it. I don't know why he killed himself. Perhaps he thought he was doing us a favour ... or perhaps he just couldn't stand it anymore. It wasn't his death that terrified me, but ... the extinction of his mind, gone, suddenly, just like that ...." Jan snapped his fingers in the gloom. He did not speak for a moment and then he said: "Well, it seemed sudden although of course it wasn't. It just seemed sudden. There had always been a frailness to him not physically ... but psychologically, as if he had been born without any emotional skin. I used to tease him. I made him cry ... often ... maybe I was jealous because he had moved in on my world. I liked being the only child. When he got sick, I hated myself. I hated myself for teasing him. I blamed myself I guess, not so much at the time, but after."

He took a long drink from his glass, and then looked across at Jo as if pleading for acceptance: "We're good at that, aren't we?" he said. "We're good at blaming ourselves when it's too late and not accepting responsibility for things when there is still time to change them."

His eyes glittered;shining damp. There was a dullness to his skin, thought Jo, despite the movement of the flame. She wanted to reach across and touch him, to comfort him and yet she knew, veiled as he was in the semi-anonymity of the dimness, he felt safe enough to speak. If she touched him, if she took herself into that place where he felt hidden enough to reveal, then he would no longer feel protected. She kept both hands held together in her lap and spoke softly instead. "I'd say we're very good at blaming ourselves, fullstop," she said. "What we need to do is accept responsibility for our part in things and go on from there."

He seemed not to hear. At least he gave no indication that he had. He continued to speak, almost to himself, his words rolling out over the remains of her own. She wondered for a moment if she were invisible, leaning as she was, against the back of the blackness. "I wasn't sorry when he killed himself." His voice was heavy, almost lifeless. "I was glad! Glad for him and glad for us. I didn't believe that God could really punish anyone for ending such pain, but I still felt guilty, helpless... I should have done more. And yet it gave me something ... even now, when I feel tired and helpless in the face of the troubles that people bring to me, I only have to remember his eyes, beseeching, desperate, and then, it's as if I'm renewed, full of strength, able to deal with anything. I suppose that's one of the reasons I became a priest ... to make good my sins of omission. But it was also to be safe ... it seemed safe." He leaned forward as he said this, moving back into the quivering flow of the candlelight. A dance of shadow and light played around his large, sad face. He looked at her and smiled, almost conspiratorially, as if they had joined forces and stood alone now against the outside world.

"Where does God come into it?" she asked.

"God ... God was there all the time. I never stopped believing you know, and I was grateful for that. Even in the worst of those hellish nights I still had faith. It was a blessing and afterwards, that was what I wanted to share with others. It was a gift I did not believe I deserved. I don't know why God has always remained real to me ... no matter how much of a fake I've been. I don't know why I should have been given such a gift ... but I do try, I do try to make myself worthy to do his work."

"Do you think you are a better priest because of what happened with your brother?"

"I have to be," Jan responded, with almost desperate affirmation. "I owe him that much at least. Without that his life becomes no more than meaningless pain. I couldn't bear that to be true. I couldn't live with that."

"Just be careful," said Jo, "that you don't end up trying to live his life as well as your own or you may lose both in the end. It's enough to learn the lesson. That's the only price which needs to be paid. The past will drain the last drop of blood from you if you let it."

"I know that. I know that. But the past also has to be remembered. There are some things which must be honoured."

"Honour yes," said Jo, leaning across the table between the two flickering candles, "but not sacrifice. You don't have to sacrifice yourself to the past."

"I know," he said, shaking his head in assent. "I know what you are saying. I remember him the way that I do because it makes me a better person. It's like ... I remember the time I went to Ypres, in Belgium ... the war graves, the monuments to the dead, the names inscribed on the Mennen Gate ... it's all part of the remembering, so we won't make the same mistakes. I went with a school friend whose father had died there in the great war. So many Australians died there ... and Indians too, Canadians, New Zealanders ... people from everywhere, people from across the world, died there in those muddy fields. You can't see it now, except in the old photographs... it's all so pretty, green farmland stretching for miles and the poppies, bright red poppies as far as the eye can see.

"They say the poppies grow best on the worst of the battlefields ... that they are fed by the blood of the fallen. So much beauty from so much death. It's so hard to believe that the rotting bones still lie beneath that flat, rolling farmland. We can forget the horrors and the death when we see only the beauty. That's why we need things to make us remember. That's why I want to remember my brother, remember his eyes ... I don't want to make the same mistakes with others that I made with him. They're all too easily forgotten, over time, the fields of the fallen. It's fragile, that veil of green, over the mud of Flanders."

The words ended, and Jan began a slow clearing of his throat. Jo thought he was beginning to look a little uncomfortable. What was it about her, she said to herself, that made people bare their souls? She did not mind listening but she always feared that afterwards the confessed person would regret their frankness. Many did, and then she felt responsible, as if she had in some way elicited things from them that they would not otherwise have given. At this rate she would have to start charging. If she was going to provide comfort through counselling, then she may as well make a profit. Not that Jan looked ready to receive any sort of account, which was probably why the waiter chose that particular moment to present the bill.

"Don't feel too bad," she said, as Jan signed the bill. "It's those damn candles...they make people say things they shouldn't. You could always take it up with management," she added with a grin.

"Very funny," replied Jan, with something which came close to a restrained chortle. "I don't feel bad anyway. I feel very much better. It makes a great change for me to be on the other side of the confessional. There are very few people in whom I can confide. I'm sure you understand that. I don't know how much we will see of each other in the future, but I have enjoyed meeting you, and as for tonight ...I can only say thank you."

When they left the restaurant, it was to discover a strange new world of shadows, with the staircase, stretching up before them, lit on either side by rows of flickering candles. It seemed that the entire hotel was without power. As they walked up the steps, a phantasmal shining in a dreamlike world, there was a sense of something hallowed about it all. With the broad expanse of the lobby rising above them, illuminated only by a whispering of light, it was as if they were walking into the womb of some great, ghostly shrine.

They set off early to see the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri. It was just before seven when they left the hotel and the grey sky was streaked with a scattering of rose. There was no sign of the woman with the snake and the mongoose although a bundle of rags at the far end of the driveway may well have held the tattered trio.

It was some forty minutes to the old city, or so the driver said. Jo did a quick calculation and decided that with any luck she might well be able to grab an extra hour of sleep. She was feeling tired. She had had a restless night, although she could remember nothing of it, not of dreaming, nor of waking, just a sense of feeling less than rested when the clattering ring of the telephone wakened her.

The city of Fatehpur was built some time between 1570 and 1586, during the reign of the mighty Emperor Akbar, and it had been, for a ridiculously short time, the capital of Moghul India. It was abandoned with as much suddenness as it had been built. Not enough water, so it was said. Richard had been adamant that it was well worth seeing. He explained that while it was talked about as a city, the attraction was really no more than the main palace itself; which was certainly exceptional. The city had long since rotted back into the earth, he said, although mounds of rubble could be seen here and there and large sections of the city wall still remained. But it was a city no longer, abandoned or otherwise and so they should not expect to walk along ghostly streets, nor to wander through empty but perfectly preserved buildings. The palace complex was well maintained. Even better, it was off limits to the touts and hawkers and so could be inspected with a reasonable amount of pleasure and freedom. There were guides, official or otherwise, it was hard to say, but if you wanted to wander in peace then they could be sent off with a few firm words.

Jo felt herself drifting off as the car bumped and rattled its way along the largely deserted road. Jan seemed to be in a cheerful frame of mind, she thought. Whether it was the lack of traffic or the unloading of his soul the previous evening, it was hard to say. She was pleased though, to see him looking so happy. In the short time that she had known him she had become very fond of him. She had meant it when she had said that his becoming a priest had been a great loss to women. He was a man who seemed able to look at himself and others with both insight and sensitivity. He was warm and he was funny and he was affectionate: he would have made a wonderful husband, of that she was sure.

Or was she? Would he be the same sort of man if he were married? Perhaps he would be like all the others ... well, most of the others anyway. Michael, her son, didn't seem to be like that, although she was probably biased. Mothers always were. Sons couldn't really be judged like other men because they were always sons before they were men. Who knows what kind of man Jan would have been if he were not a priest and if he had a wife. There was no way of knowing. She had no idea who she would have been if she had not married David. That man, that marriage, and the subsequent divorce, each had served to make her who she was.

"Look at that!" Jan exclaimed. Jo sat up. Following his pointing finger she could see through the back of the car the carcase of a camel, stretched stiff-legged at the side of the road. Upon what remained of its distended, putrid belly, sat three vultures ... those silver-backed birds, scrawny of neck and naked of head, which hiss and screech as they demolish, with astonishing speed, the victims of the brutal highway.

Jo made a face of disgust and pressed both hands to her stomach. "I feel sick. It's too much for me at this time of the day," she said.

"I guess it's breakfast as far as they are concerned," returned Jan."Take-away," he added with a grin.

"Do you mind," Jo hissed, "I still can't get the memory of all that trailing guts out of my mind."

"Oh, they'll clear it up quick smart. Very efficient the old vulture. Keep the place clean free of charge. I suppose the poor old camel got too close to a truck or something," said Jan.

Jo was now feeling very much awake, if a trifle ill. She remembered the story about the Towers of Silence and all she could see was the great, curved beak of the vulture, ripping and tearing at the flesh of the corpse. She was glad to be distracted at this point by the sight of the crumbling remains of the stone walls which once protected the city. To distract herself even further she took out her guide book and began to read.

Fatehpur Sikri was situated some forty kilometres away from Agra. It had been built by Akbar in gratitude for the birth of his sons. Legend had it that the emperor was without a male heir and he made a pilgrimage to this spot to see the saint Shaikh Salim Chisti. The saint foretold the birth of a son, who would later be Emperor Jehangir, and in gratitude, when the son did arrive, he was named Salim after the saint. In addition Akbar built the new and splendid city of Sikri and transferred his capital there. For just fourteen years this was his personal dream palace-city. His son, Jehangir, who spent his childhood there described how 'that hill, full of wild beasts, became a city containing all kinds of gardens and buildings.'

Jo looked out of the window. Richard was right. There was little remaining of any city, but ahead of them, high up on the ridge, could be seen the red sandstone towers of the palace buildings which looked still, fresh-chiselled, ready to receive all who would come to pay homage at the emperor's court. When they walked through the gate of the palace, they found, hurrying along on either side, an assortment of men, both young and old, all thin of face, sharp of eye and flaccid of palm. These were the guides. They chattered together, recounting tales of past glories, describing all that would unfold before them.

Jo took a deep breath and said as loudly as she could: "No guides! Go Away!" She was, as she had expected, totally ignored. Jan seemed unable to bring himself to dismiss the dragging rabble so she let herself fall behind and then quietly slipped away in a different direction. She felt guilty, but only for a moment. Let Jan handle them. He was the expert in human relations and being kind to one's fellow man. The palace looked beautiful and she wanted nothing more than to wander through it alone and in silence. She saw Jan's head turn, searching for her, but gave a cheery wave and a bright smile and continued on her way, despite his pleading look.

Apart from Jan and his persistent hangers-on, the red-flagged courtyard appeared to be deserted. Too early for the tourist buses. It was out of season too ... another good reason for the emptiness. It was wonderful, silent even, apart from the twittering of sparrows and the occasional call of a crow. The flower-bordered lawns were clipped and green and the far reach of stone flagging had been swept perfectly clean.

She walked toward a two-storey square building which stood alone at the end of the broad courtyard. It had an arched doorway and three square windows on the top floor; a balcony which was rooved in stone and upon each corner, a cupola, carved in the same rosy stone. It looked like a dolls house, As she drew closer she could make out the finely detailed carving and what remained of inlay work. It was dark inside, despite the open windows and doors; a bat rustled papery wings high up in the domed ceiling. Through the square of the doorway she could see the carved, soft-redness of the stone, sculpted so long ago, remaining still, a testament to grace and to hope. And yet it was a place caught in time, only because it had not fulfilled its hopes: it had been abandoned because it could not sustain and it had endured because it had been forsaken.

The wall was heavily carved, a twisting and turning of pattern, both circular and geometric, and in the half-light, a row of trees, brought forth from the soul of the stone by the artist's knife. She traced one finger along a contorted trunk, which finished in a fat-leaved spreading across the panel; like the tree which the blue-skinned god Krishna climbed into at Mathura to play his flute and tease the bathing maidens. Others had done the same; a veil of black clung to the edges of the stone, in this, the ghostly remains of the City of Victory.

A face appeared at the doorway, etched for a moment, in sharp relief, by a sudden surge from the enfeebled sun. It was one of the guides. He stood in the opening, waiting, watching; eyes glitter-bright, lips tightly closed within the bristling of his close-clipped, grey beard. He wore loose white trousers and a dark coat over his voluminous white shirt. He carried a cane, polished and thin, which he placed on its point just in front of the toe of his right foot. In some strange way, Jo felt as if she had been caught out, as if she should not be here. Perhaps, she said to herself, the brittle look which he bestowed upon her came for no other reason than the fact that she was alone; guideless. He began to speak, a low monotone, detailing the history of the room in which she stood.

"No guide, no guide," she said, with a wave of both hand and voice as she hurried away. He stood watching her for quite some time. She caught a final glimpse of him as she turned the corner. Once outside, into the daylight, he seemed less threatening; he seemed more of what he in fact was, a tired old man who did not particularly enjoy his job but who was endeavouring to make a living in the only way he knew how. She saw again the frayed cuffs of his coat, the soiled white of his shirt and the dirt-encrusted toes of his broken plastic shoes, and she felt guilty.

'Poor old bugger,' came the voice,' it wouldn't have hurt to have given him a couple of rupees. 'Anne said not to,' she replied to herself. ‘Since when has Anne been the arbiter of right and wrong?' replied the niggling voice. 'Well, she isn't,' Jo responded feebly, 'but these people are such pests and the more that they are given then the worse they are.' But there was to be no easy escape. Her conscience was in fine form on this particular morning. 'So, you are going to rehabilitate India single-handedly are you? He seemed a nice enough chap. not so pushy. He didn't chase after you did he?' Jo gritted her teeth: 'No, he didn't,' knowing full well she would have an answer for herself. 'So, you might have learned something and you might have made an old man happy.'

Yes, she might have learned something and she might have made an old man happy, but she hadn't and she didn't, and she wasn't going to pursue herself any longer. She could feel the itch of irritation creeping beneath her skin. It was that sort of place though... whatever you did or didn't do you never felt good about yourself. Maybe it was guilt, or perhaps it was just the terrifying enormity of the problem that was India.

Looking back, her life appeared so safe, even with the chaos and the pain, despite all the hurting, it seemed safe because it was something known. This was a different world. One without rules and one, which until recently, she had not known even existed. She felt as if she had wandered onto a battlefield and now fought in a war she did not understand. There seemed no relevance between the world she knew and the one she had found in India.. She would not have believed that human beings could live such different lives. She wanted to believe that underneath it all, there was a commonality of nature, that the differences were superficial, no more than something which dressed the self, and which was called culture.

People took life and moulded it into different forms, gave it different names and applied different solutions. All sought to achieve the same end, some degree of comfort for the body, some joy of heart, and some peace of mind. And yet, in the moulding, in the naming, people were torn asunder ... each from the other, understanding less and less and hearing only the babble of voices. Every culture was convinced that its way was the only way and yet in the forgotten fields of common sense, lay the discarded truth, that the West needed to honour its traditions more and India needed to honour its traditions less.

She sat alone on the step, at the far end of the courtyard. Apart from a few green parakeets, shrieking in a far corner, there was no other sign of life. Even the landscape, stretching out across the parapet seemed empty, and yet, she could still feel herself crowded in; her senses stifled. She had been here too long. It was time to go home. There were too many questions in India. They came in a noisy rabble, posturing angrily and pointing fingers. She pushed at them, but they came tumbling back, again and again. She felt a stab of fear. She did not like this clamouring in her mind. There was a sense of screaming and of drifting; of being beyond, both her mind and her body. There were too many strange and terrible things in India, too many things which were the stuff of nightmares, and yet, in this land they were real.

The things that she saw and heard about haunted her. It seemed impossible to find a neat and tidy place for them within the structure of her known world. Like the baby girl who had been offered as a human sacrifice to the God Masoba. The child, barely a few weeks old, had been smothered by her parents, and her body then laid in thick bushes behind the temple, with a heavy boulder placed on top. The girl child died because her mother had been unable to conceive, even after five years of marriage. The barren woman had consulted a man who was believed to possess mystic powers and he advised the couple to pledge an offering of sacrifice to please the God Masoba... the deity traditionally worshipped by their village. The couple agreed to observe the navas. The woman had given birth to a male child a year after the navas, and as the boy grew so did the anxiety of fulfilling the promise to the deity increased But the parents had not wanted to sacrifice the boy, despite their promise to the God Masoba. When another child was born, a girl ,it was she who fulfilled the sacrificial promise.

Such things had no place in the world Jo knew; such things should have no place in any world, but they did and she was powerless before them. It was the sense of helpnessness which most frightened her; the sense that in this land one could do nothing against the forces which ruled. She had never known such darkness, even though she had dreamed of it, never believed that life could be so bestial, so venal. There was something powerful about such evil, especially when it masqueraded as normality.

Her head began to ache. What did it matter, all the suffering and pain? It was easier to think of home. She was homesick, and that made everything feel worse. Perhaps it was the eucalypts she had smelled along the side of the road, perhaps it was this country; there was a shared red emptiness to it.

She moved over to sit down on a low step, close to one of the far walls. She could see out, across the battlements, to the distant line of the horizon. The land flowed and dipped, in a gentle drifting to the wide edge of the sky. The land at least was constant, that was a shared thing. The earth was brown, but with well-pinched cheeks, which glowed faint pink in the sunlight which filtered through the lead-blue sky. Apart from the colour of the sky, it could be home. There was a similarity about it... about the face of the land anyway. The sandstone battlements which stretched before her had never been known in Australia, and yet the softened landscape of blood-red soil was probably older than that of India.

Australia possessed some of the most ancient land surfaces in the world. The continent had remained above sea-level almost continuously for two thousand five hundred million years. The oldest rocks were three thousand million years old ... and nowhere could a trace of battlements be found. It did not mean that it was a place which had never known war, but rather that it was a land where life had stepped softly. From the one, the land had been made many, broken into pieces and each had known a different truth. They belonged to the same family but they no longer spoke the same language. And yet, in the memory of the land itself there had to be a memory; something shared.

That south land had been born first upon its western edge in a crushing and surging of crust as the sea rose and the sea fell. Once there had been tall mountains, covered with snow and ice ... but all had been worn to the roots, the land gentled through the aeons. In the oldest parts of the Australian continent, there are no soaring mountains, no great rushing rivers, no cavernous gorges, no forests, no lakes ... all is rubbed low, worn to mellowed old age. The great land, at the bottom of the world, of which the ancients spoke, once held not only the four southern continents, but India as well , in a primeval one-ness, remembered only by the tiny, tongue shaped plant, Glossopteris, whose small, fossilised fronds form a net which links Australia, Antartica, South Africa, South America and India.

It was a violent birthing which brought those separate souls and in the world which existed some three thousand million years ago, the great south land had become no more than shreds, with the heart hidden in the sea. There was a rising and a falling before the final becoming, some twenty million years ago when each land became itself, and the heart rose once more, to rest below the navel of the world.

Jo looked up at the sky. That at least was still shared, a constant link between one land and another. The soul of each could still speak on the breath of the wind and for that no words were needed. The clouds had come with talk of rain; a roof of broken curd, covered for a time by a roll of cumulus, dark-faced, cheek-blown, riding fast and high; gone then, to return the sun, sneaking through the cracks of cloud, bursting for an instant through the toffee gauze of a fluttering wing; a butterfly, stilled, upon the parapet at her side.


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