Thursday, October 06, 2011

Excerpt: Children of the Lie


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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