Christopher and I drove in silence along the outskirts of several massive estates. Most of them were owned by men whose ancestors had profited from an amnesty granted in 1801 to European officers who’d previously helped to drill and even command contingents of Marathas. These Hindoo warriors were once the vassals of the Moslem emperor of the Moguls, whose dynasty had ostensibly ruled India in one form or another since the fifteenth century. For all intents and purposes, however, the Marathas had formed their own independent fighting forces for centuries in Northern India, and the agents of the East India Company effectively employed them as pawns against the forces of the collapsing Mogul Empire. As they did so, the British gradually assembled an empire of their own from the wreckage of aboriginal princely states.
But all that was a long time ago. By 1857, the Maratha name inspired more ridicule than awe among the British. Their last king, Bajee Rao, had been humiliated against the Company in battle and ended his days reduced to living on a pension in a gaudy palace in Bithoor, just outside of Cawnpore. This monthly allowance was suspended upon his death. His adopted son and successor, the Nana Sahib, was a notorious local character who spent his days holding picnics on his estate and his evenings pleading for British solicitors’ advice on how the defunct pension might be transferred to himself. That is almost all that I knew of him at the time beyond tales of his obesity, poor complexion, and modest talent at snookers. I would never have guessed at the fellow’s future notoriety.
Christopher and I presently smoked a great mound of charas, ganja, and tobacco mixed together in the mouth of a chillum. Then we said nothing for about an hour. I told myself that the intoxicants made us reticent. Finally, Christopher had the courage to lean over and address me in his drawling American accent.
“Did you miss me?”
“Christ, don’t be an idiot.”
“So, Maxim, what brings you back to the Highlands?”
“My love of the land.”
“What a romantic answer.”
“I was obviously being sarcastic. After all I’ve been through, I could care less about this place.”
“Are you honestly telling me that the District means nothing to you?”
“No. And it’s so scalding hot this time of year that you literally can’t step out of doors between eleven and six without risking sun poisoning. Europeans should never have settled here. We don’t belong.”
“But didn’t you tell me that you’d go camping with your father in the fields around the Ganges when you were a little boy?”
“What has that got to do with anything?”
“You used to describe those stories so poetically to me, your memories are proof that you’re lying to me now about your indifference to India. I remember camping trips with my own father on the cliffs around New Haven. I’ll love Connecticut until I die, just as I do the Highlands. And I know that you feel the same way about this place.”
“That’s what you think.”
“Well, I don’t care what you say. This is a fine country, fit for indigo and poppies. And there’s a kind of timelessness here.”
“Nothing is more impermanent than the land, Christopher. The river shifts. The ryots come and go. And honestly, this is an ugly place. Completely mundane. There’s no drama in the landscape – nothing but blood red plains. Trust me. I’ve seen mountains—real mountains. Nothing in India can compare.”
“I’ll have you know that the piddling hills of Scotland—”
“You’ve never even been to Scotland.”
“…that the piddling hills of Scotland are nothing compared to the Himalayas.”
“Which are far away from here, and which you have similarly never seen.”
“It doesn’t matter whether or not I’ve seen them, fool. They’re physically located in India, and proof that what you just said was wrong.”
“Didn’t you just tell me that nothing in India can compare to the mountains you’ve seen in Scotland?”
“Yes, but when I used the word India, I meant this specific area of the country, and not the whole geographical region in general.”
“What were we talking about? I don’t remember.”
“I don’t remember either. It’s a good opportunity to change the subject. Heard any infectious parlor songs lately?”
“It’s not my funeral, but you have to admit that you have the taste in music of a coot.”
“I don’t give a hooter,” I said, mocking his dialect. “There’s great beauty to parlor music, and I’m not ashamed that I love it. For example, that song you greeted me with-”
“O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road!” he threatened.
“Shut up. But yes, that song, Loch Lomond…it has special meaning. I mean, there’s an entire history associated with its lyrics.”
“It’s high-falutin, is it?”
I yawned and stretched my arms.
“You could say that, yes. The song’s about two soldiers in the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie.”
“What the hell sort of name is Bonnie Prince Charlie?”
“A pretty bad one. Anyway, he had a claim to the throne of England. And these two soldiers in his army… they were captured by the English and locked in Carlisle Castle. One of them was going to be executed—going to take the low road…and the other one was going to be released and travel on the high road back to Scotland.”
“Or visa versa. The high road could also be a symbol for Heaven, couldn’t it?”
“No, Christopher. The high road isn’t symbolic of anything. It’s as mundane as Purgatory.”
“Is mundane your new favorite word? Tell me, who are you to have the final say on the interpretation of the lyrics?”
“Stop trying to pick arguments with me. The point is, the song is a monument to the love between best friends.”
“How can you compare it to anything by, say, Verdi? It’s trash by comparison, sentimental trash fit for wakes and funerals. You English-”
“Whatever you are, you have embarrassingly bad taste. Parlor-tunes are nauseating treacle as far as I’m concerned. Songs like What Is Home Without a Mother? are nothing but slime.”
“And what’s so wonderful about Verdi other than the fact that he’s Italian?”
“Are you joking? He’s passionate, he’s larger than life, he’s…damn it, he’s modern.”
I looked solemnly at Christopher for a moment and tried to break the silence by farting. My intestines obliged with such a ludicrously high pitched peep, however, that we both began to laugh uncontrollably. He repaid me with a loud,
“Libiamo, libiamo ne’ lieti calici che la belleza infiora!”
“Admit that you only praise Verdi because you’re an Italian yourself! Your grandparents were from Ischia, weren’t they?”
“Balls! Verdi is beautiful everywhere, to everyone. Besides, I’m not Italian. I was born in Connecticut, just like my mother was. And my grandparents were only Italian on my father’s side of the family, just as you’re only English on yours.”
“Scotch! And you’re wrong—my mother was only a Nagar Brahmin on Ayah Rupee’s side of the family. I’m…I’m but a quarter native.”
“God, what difference does it make? And incidentally, Maxim, today’s Italy-” he paused for a moment, licking his lips. Then, he began to speak again with increased conviction. “Today’s Italy is literally fighting for its independence, for its birthright. Verdi’s music is like the voice of the national spirit raised in song… and your Scottish ditty is all about dying for the sake of monarchy.”
“Wrong. As I said, the song is about the love between two soldiers who’ll never see each other again. As to whether or not it captures a national ethos…”
“What a big word! Greek, is it?”
“The song is exquisitely beautiful, moron. Its politics are incidental.”
“Politics are never incidental when it comes to art. I’ll have you know that when Verdi composed Rigoletto, he and Francesco Maria Piave-”
“He was Verdi’s lyricist. They actually had to fight against the Austrian Board of Censors to have their opera published.”
Christopher grunted and nodded his head in a self-satisfied sort of way. I looked at him quizzically.
“Why are you talking about the Austrian Board of Censors?” I had literally forgotten.
“Verdi and his friend fought the Board of Censors to produce Rigoletto,” he repeated. “It took real grit to do that.”
“In other words, it wasn’t anonymous folk music that they created. It was something greater than that—something defiant and patriotic.”
“And nothing. That’s it!”
“You can’t possibly be arguing that it’s really the context of a piece’s creation that makes it beautiful, and not the thing itself, can you? After all, an objective audience would be deaf and dumb to all of those kinds of issues.”
“No, idiot. You’re setting up a straw man. Even with no knowledge of a piece’s history at all, it can still be inherently impressive to the ear. Especially in the case of Verdi.”
“If you can call screaming sopranos impressive.”
“Don’t be ignorant. What I’m trying to explain to you is that politics is only part of what makes opera beautiful. But that part is vital. We’re living in a new age, Maxim. Empires are dying, and nations are being born.”
“This all sounds very subversive.”
“And you sound like a civil servant. I forgot how puritanical you get when you’re losing a debate.”
“I am not losing a debate. I’m not even arguing with you! We were just having a friendly talk about the merits of different types of music, weren’t we? And I believe you were making the ludicrous argument that politics have something… have anything to do with aesthetic judgments…”
“I’m sorry, but the conversation has advanced beyond that. Now, you have to admit that like it or not, I’m right about what the future will be like. Think about it, Maxim, the birth of whole new states… at the hands of everyone from the carbonari of Italy to the sepoys of India.”
“Viva Italia, Viva India!”
I remember that a flock of parrots flew overhead when he said that.
“Spare me your platitudes,” I ventured over the sound of their flapping wings. “There’s no comparison between Italy and India. Even if the mutineers drove every European out of this place, it would quickly be Moslem versus Hindoo versus Sikh in this country. Since the days of Alexander and Porus, India has only existed in the Western imagination. Everybody knows that religion is stronger than anything else when it comes to peoples’ loyalties here, and certainly more influential than national politics of any sort.”
“Then why are the Musselmen and Hindoos cooperating with each other so eagerly in this present revolution?”
“It’s a mutiny, not a revolution.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Proper perspective. Besides, do you see many Sikhs joining against us? Trust me, so long as nothing but the commercial interests of the British Empire unite the people of this place, independence is inconceivable.”
“Incidentally, that ridiculous line about Alexander and Porus and the Western imagination…did you steal it from someone?”
“I did not. Attribute my eloquence to the charas.”
“I never denied that you could be a proper wise-ass, on occasion.”
He breathed deeply before continuing to speak.
“You’ve been away for five years,” he finally said, “and have chosen a hell of a time to come back.”
“Well, there’s a reason I’m back,” I answered mysteriously. “I have important news… and I need money.”
He laughed in my face when I said that.
“I see that you’re still perfectly selfish, Maxim. Are you oblivious to what’s happening around you? If the mutiny spreads here, it’s Armageddon.”
“Well, when Armageddon looms, perhaps perfectly selfish people might be useful blokes to have around.”
“Alright, alright. At least you didn’t lie and say you were coming home to rescue us! Now, enough bullshit. Where were you all this time, and why are you dressed like some ragamuffin out of Oliver Twist?”
I remember that he didn’t lift his voice on the final syllable of the sentence, so that it took a moment for me to realize that he was even asking a question. When I did, I cleared my throat before saying,
“I was filibustering with Billy Walker in Nicaragua.”
“Some pumpkins,” he said dismissively, making no pretense of believing me. Then he repeated “A hell of a time to come back,” and focused his gaze on the horizon. “Do you remember when we were kids and would dream about sailing the Nereid all the way to Corea?”
“I think about it every night.”
“We were pretty naïve then.”
We were silent for a long time again. Finally, to irritate him, I asked,
“Are you angry that I didn’t say goodbye to you before I left?”
“Not at all. After all, you left a note. To this day, I treasure it as a valued snot-rag.”
He contorted his mouth into a sort of half-smile, and the conversation ended at that. There were times when I felt like punching him in the face and shattering his porcelain features, offset by what can only be described as an elegantly receding hairline, hidden at the moment under a pith helmet. His was not that messy sort of baldness that starts on the top of the head and ravages the scalp in increasingly destructive concentric circles. No, it was Julius Caesar’s type—the sort that vain men try to conceal by maneuvering their dying bangs. I told myself to poke fun at Christopher for being a bald son of a bitch.
He’d reminded a disinherited and broken man of his passion for all he’d lost, and he brought up too, as if off-handedly, the topic of his polluted blood—the causa causarum of his every misfortune. It was all done subtly enough, but sure as hell, I believed then that he was trying to cause me excruciating pain, as I had once caused him. But then again, perhaps I was wrong. I still don’t know.