Remember Cawnpore, A Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter I (My Inner Monologue Was Once a Prayer)

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Once upon a time I had faith that when I was talking to myself, I was really talking to God. But then I discovered that I was a nigger, and my inner dialogue suddenly became altogether one-sided. At the age of 21 I was exiled from everything that I ever loved or hated. At the age of 27 I returned to India seeking vengeance and a second chance at an old passion. What I discovered there and what became of my designs are the subjects of this book. My only forewarning is that I don’t know the moral of my story and whether I am its hero or its villain. My readers can be my confessors and judge for themselves whether what follows is a farce, an adventure, or a nightmare.

As to my authorial style, I make no apologies. I pray that the compulsion of memorializing ghosts arms me with the eloquence to do them honor. Barring that, I can only hope that the truth is intrinsically fluent enough to speak for itself, even at the hands of a novice. I’m no Austen, or Thackeray, or Dickens. In fact, my only practice at anything of this sort is my experience telling fairytales to my brother Peter when he was an infant. I learned to keep the constituent parts of the story as short and interesting as possible, or my audience was liable to fall asleep or vomit upon itself. The lesson won’t be forgotten here.

My story began a long time before a blistering afternoon in late May of 1857. To be more specific, it was the 23rd of May and a Saturday. I recall that it was the day before Queen Victoria’s birthday, which coincided with Peter’s. He always took irrational pride in that fact. The sunlight was punishing, casting drifting mirages in every direction, to put it poetically. At least there wasn’t a strong wind that day. Dust storms were regular annoyances in Fatehgurh and the surrounding reaches of the Doab. There were days when the air itself seemed to glow blood red.

I was on my way by foot and in rags to my dead father’s indigo plantation between Fatehgurh and Mendhi Ghat. A chorus of locusts welcomed me home. Their droning poisoned me with nostalgia despite my best efforts to dull the effect.  This echoing seascape of russet fog and rippling clay furrows was my home, a wilderness of dust between the Ganges and the Jumna.

My father had named his estate the Highlands. I suddenly realized that this was an incongruous moniker considering the flatness of the surrounding terrain. Strange that the irony had never dawned upon me until that moment—as a boy, I’d been naïve enough to think it a regal title. Truth be told, the place was a small and pathetic holding compared to most of the other sprawling mansions of the District. It was heartbreaking to think that by 1857, besides a small warehouse some 80 miles downriver in Cawnpore where my Nagar Brahmin grandmother lived with my uncle and helped to organize accounts, a single dilapidated farmhouse was all that survived of my family’s storied fortune.

To be honest, I’d chosen my wardrobe with some forethought. Finer examples of tailoring lurked somewhere in my trunk, but I was required to look the part that day. There were people I hoped to manipulate emotionally.

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