REMEMBER CAWNPORE, A MEMOIR OF THE OPIUM WAR–CHAPTER II (The Juncture of the High Road and the Low Road)

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I tramped through indigo and poppy fields for what felt like an eternity,drenched with perspiration.  I shuddered involuntarily as the skin on the back of my ears began to peel. I did my best to ignore the ubiquitous ryots, who, I told myself, may or may not have recognized me as John Maxwell’s eldest son, though my auburn hair was impossible to ignore. They were all glowering and, on occasion, even jeering at me. I was at least grateful not to have come across any sepoys. Mutiny was brewing, and the entire country was in the gravest danger. As it was, I was the only one stupid enough to be travelling alone by foot that day. My sole companions were swirling cyclones of eye-flies, the kind that one can invariably find feasting on the dried horse and bullock shit that lines the Grand Trunk Road.

I was startled by what must have been the shriek of a dying bird slaughtered by some predator. The sound made me feel all-overish. I told myself that I could never look ryots in the eye, even as a child. I had always been terrified of them. Granted, the children of the District were no longer kept awake at night by stories of thugees, thieves who robbed travelers on the open road and garroted them with knotted rags as sacrifices to their dread goddess, Bhagwan. No, for many years before the present mutiny, the only things to worry about around Fatehgurh were dacoits, highwaymen who were equally likely to strangle their victims but who seemed less terrifying, somehow, for their lack of religiosity. A Western mind would prefer to fall victim to a mugging than a pagan rite, I suppose. Yet call it what you will, human sacrifice will always become India.

My father had always been gracious with his tenants—patient and sympathetic. Try as I might, though, I had always been inept at playing the role of a gentleman planter. In retrospect, I suppose I was always too ruled by fear, terrorized by the possibility of a sideward glance or a pert remark reminding me exactly who I was and who I could never be.

It was around noon when I heard a hackery coming up behind me. I pretended to stop by the side of the road to remove pebbles from my sandals, but I was really listening longingly to what I instantly recognized as the voice of my best friend.

“By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond!” belted a seraphic voice in an American accent masquerading as Scottish. “Oh we twa ha’e pass’d sae mony blithesome days on the bonnie bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond!”

“Christopher Angelo,” I began in a casual voice, masking my emotion and feigning manly indifference to the manifold horrors threatening us. “It’s good to see you again.”

I immediately wished that I’d said something better—I could have compared his attempt at a Scottish accent to the tones of a drowning marmoset, for example. There’s always humor in over-specificity. But I couldn’t change what I’d said, colorless as it was.

“That was a pathetic greeting!” Christopher cried, as I knew he would. “His majesty has returned to the castle spewing clichés. It’s lucky you have me on hand again so you can copy my wit and pretend it’s your own.”

Then he sang in even louder and more mock-dulcet tones,

“O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road, and I’ll be in Scot-land afore ye’! But wae is my heart until we meet again…”

He leapt from the hackery and stood opposite me, grinning broadly. Then he stopped smiling and just stared at me for what felt like a long time. So I punched him in the ribs with enough force to knock the wind out of him.

“Maxim Maxwell,” gasped Christopher with expert sarcasm, “My love, my soul, my muse! Welcome home.”

He kneed me in the crotch, hard. I cursed. He laughed.

“Let’s smoke some frigging hemp,” he said.

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