Christopher leaned back on the reins and asked me where my trunk was. I told him that I’d left it with my grandmother in Cawnpore. Then I lied that I’d made the journey to Mendhi Ghat by foot on my own.
“I took the Grand Trunk Road for part of the way,” I explained, “and then followed the Ganges for the rest of the trip.”
“Balls! You couldn’t have been so stupid to come here overland by yourself. I don’t believe you for a second. Ayah Rupee wouldn’t have let you do it. Your grandmother is too shrewd for that. You’ve come back from wherever you were an even more obvious liar than ever.”
“I didn’t lie. But I suppose…”
“Here it comes.”
“I suppose that Ayah Rupee did ask Vikram to accompany me for part of the way. He probably would have driven me all the way to the Highlands if I didn’t ask him to drop me off at his village.”
I winced, but Christopher would have eventually discovered the truth from Ayah Rupee herself. My initial dishonesty had been clumsy, but I was so accustomed to prevarication that it had become second nature to me upon even trivial occasions.
“But I was alone for part of the way,” I continued. “For over half of the way, nearly. So really, what I told you was true in substance.”
“The old man lives just outside of Kanauj. His village is practically visible from here.”
“I’d been walking for four solid hours, Christopher.”
“How’s that? Did you break a limb along the way?”
“Very funny. Perhaps not for four hours, but for a long time.”
“I’m not impressed. What would have happened to you if I hadn’t come along? The midday sun alone could have killed you. And you realize that the roads around here are crawling with dacoits even in peacetime, don’t you?”
“It was lucky, then, that my knight in shining armor was on hand to rescue me.”
He muttered profanities under his breath and looked away from me.
Though I could not claim seniority of age over Christopher, I was at least grateful that his status as an employee to my family imprisoned him in a subordinate position relative to my own, dreadful as it sounds. I detested losing debates to him, and he was always arguing. Even when he was proven wrong (seldom, but occasionally), he’d plaster a knowing expression onto his face and pretend that his original contention wasn’t what it seemed to have been at all, and that he was actually arguing for the winning side of the controversy, with some slight but crucial ideological modification.
He never spoke about his parents. The three left the United States when he was very young to join the famous American Presbyterian mission at Fatehgurh. Catholic feelings eventually got the best of Christopher’s father, however, and after the death of his wife, he defected back to papery and became a small time merchant of jellies and preserves in Cawnpore. He made the fateful decision to join Elphinstone’s army on its march into Afghanistan in 1842 in a misguided effort to provide victuals to the troops. He met with conditions worse than death on the journey and then the solace of the thing itself, leaving Christopher an orphan. My father was a kind-hearted man and took him in. Another local indigo planter had evicted him because he’d refused to pray at his parent’s funeral.
While all of this was happening, I was away at school in Scotland with my stepmother Molly’s daughter, Vivian. So by the time that I returned to the Highlands and first met Christopher in 1847, I was already 17 and he was some years older than that. He was doing odd-jobs around the estate, work for which he was too intelligent. But he eventually inherited the position of our chief overseer, which entailed somewhat more interesting duties.
We became fast friends. We smoked ganja and charas together almost every day and enjoyed the most engaging if maddening conversations. Though we often argued and even occasionally came to blows, I knew that he understood my agony when Vivian chose to marry another man, Daniel, in 1848. I returned to Scotland soon after their wedding and did not return to India again until three years later, when the groom vanished and I lost my inheritance.
“It was a mistake for you to come here,” said Christopher suddenly. “My homeland the United States has been free for almost a century now, and Italy is finally being reborn, but India…this is only the first act in a tragedy, my friend.”
“Your homeland the United States is about to split in half,” I laughed. Then, I leaned over and said rather more roughly than I intended, “Besides, your real homeland is India, the same as mine. You’ve lived here since you were seven… And don’t disparage the East India Company’s mission here so quickly.”
“There’s no reason that India can’t modernize and stand as an equal to any European power in the future. But there’s still a great deal for the natives of this country to learn from the British.”
“Balls! Like the Italians have a lot to learn from the imperial Austrians…”
“I can’t argue with you anymore. I’m exhausted. You have a talent for transforming every discussion into a referendum. Let’s talk about something loose and easy.”
“Like Bonnie de Fountain?” We both laughed at that. Then Christopher said, “Do you believe that she’s literally living in the Nawab’s zenana now?”
“She finally moved into his harem, did she?”
“Yes, along with her mother. Poor old Reggie Bryne. He’s a laughingstock in the District. He hasn’t lived with Bonnie for months now.”
This was an entertaining revelation. The Nawab of Farrukhabad was another local character like the Nana Sahib, a prince propped up by the British and supported monetarily for some arcane reason or another. He was a daring man indeed to include a European woman in his zenana. It was common knowledge in Fatehgurh that there had been something between Bonnie and the Nawab since she was an adolescent. The affair was perennially encouraged by the girl’s mother, Adolphine, even after her daughter married an English soldier. I enjoyed talking about that family. It was good to hear gossip about other people’s problems for a change.
On the horizon, I could just make out the red-tiled roof of the plantation and the row of neem trees my mother once planted separating the surrounding wilderness from the garden in front of the estate. My heart leapt, but I hardened my features.
“The baba logue are at their lessons now,” said Christopher. “Their ayah these days is a melancholy Celestial named Orchid. Her real name’s Yulan. It means “orchid,” so that’s how most of us white devils address her. She thinks we’re all white devils, you know—gway-loes she calls us.”
“I know that term of endearment well.”
“How’s that? Have you come from China?”
“So you were lying about filibustering in Nicaragua too, I see.”
“You misunderstand me. I simply came to Calcutta via Canton.”
“Vivian’s girl must be six or seven years old by now,” I said quickly. “And Peter and Andrea’s boy is only a few years younger, isn’t he?”
“Julia is eight going on eighty. Thomas is six. And since you left, Peter and Andrea have had another baby… your nephew, Robert, who’s three.”
“Yes, Ayah Rupee told me about him. And Andrea is with child again?”
“About to deliver any day now.”
“It’s hard to believe. Three children in that house, and a fourth on the way. A lot has changed since I left.”
“Yes. And incidentally, your brother Peter is screwing Orchid under his wife’s nose. So life at the Highlands is awkward these days, to say the least.”
“Evidently Peter hasn’t changed much since I last saw him.”
“Of course not. Human character never changes. Only circumstances do. Now, come on. There are a lot of people who’ll be eager to see you. And if I were Philadelphia layer, I’d bet you were squirming to satisfy your lecherous mind with questions about your sister, Vivian. You can celebrate your return by ogling her.”
“She is not my sister. She is my stepmother’s daughter. We have absolutely no blood in common.”
“Whatever you say, Caligula,” he chuckled, and dismounted.