Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter V (Children Can Be Cruel)

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The sight of the children left to their own devices just outside the house made me shudder. The irresponsibility of their ayah was beyond belief. The District was in an uproar since rumor began spreading that the East India Company had deliberately smeared the cartridges of the sepoys’ Enfield muskets with the fat of pigs and cows. This would have had the effect of forcing Moslem and Hindoo soldiers alike to compromise their faiths whenever they bit down on the cartridges – a scheme altogether too subtle and insane for the insipid minds of the East India Company to have concocted, I can assure you. But perhaps carelessness was to blame rather than design and just such ingredients were in fact assembled at some factory or another. I really couldn’t say, and don’t imagine that it makes much difference. All of this was only the pretext for the expression of deeper passions. Since its earliest days, the East India Company had relied on battalions of sepoys to guarantee the security of the country. The prospective mutiny of the native soldiers could only be cataclysmic.

Symptoms of outright mutiny first broke out at Berhampore, not far from Calcutta. In February, the 19th Native Infantry was threatened with cannon fire and then disbanded for daring to reject the Enfields. Then in late March, a sepoy by the name of Mungal Pandy did a capital job of stirring up a commotion in the nearby city of Barrackpore. He attacked his Sergeant Major with a sword before being restrained, just barely, by a quick-thinking Brigadier-General. After his hanging, his regiment, the 34th Native Infantry, was similarly disbanded.  It did little good that a handful of diplomatic Company commanders reacted to news from Barrackpore by allowing their troops to bend the rules with regard to the muskets, for example, by letting them grease the cartridges themselves with the lubricants of their choice. This only reinforced the rumor that something was wrong with the Enfields in the first place.

By May 10, hoards of native Indian soldiers in the East India Company’s employ had rebelled against their European officers in Meerut. The sepoys then rampaged on the ancient Mogul capital of Delhi, eviscerating every European they met along the way, or so rumor had it. The parlors of Anglo-India were promptly resounding with what we all prayed were exaggerations about children burned alive in their nurseries and pregnant women disemboweled by mutinous sowars. The doddering Mogul emperor Bahadur Shah, hitherto considered little more than an amateur poet and professional debauchee, was proclaimed the puppet ruler. Masses of discontented mercenaries were soon vying for prominence in the newly resurrected court of the Peacock Throne. Gossip suggested that an all-out revolution against British rule was about to break out in Bengal. The sepoys of Fatehgurh and Cawnpore remained loyal, however temporarily. The pathetically kept secret was that mutiny was expected among them any day, and the local landholding zamindars and their ryots would probably rise alongside them. The best that we could hope for was that the sepoys would march on Delhi and spare the century-old European community of Cawnpore and its environs.

I knew that it would be a chore, a ludicrous effort to pantomime optimism when I reunited with my family. The motives for my homecoming were tortured enough as it was. Now I would be distracted from my purpose by the machinations of unscrupulous strangers who hoped to profit from bloodshed. They whispered that the sepoys’ European commanders were plotting to call them all out on parade and slaughter them with cannon fire. Then, baptisms would be forced across the subcontinent on Musselmen and Hindoos alike. The entire length of the sacred Ganges would be mutilated with irrigation ditches. Women would be forced to break purdah, paraded about in public, and, worst of all, formally educated. Rumor went so far as to claim that the Company would begin paying its employees in tanned strips of cowhide rather than rupees, though that claim always seemed particularly ridiculous to me. But preposterous suggestions mated with half-truths to conceive murderous sentiments in the hearts of the oppressed and the self-righteous. At any rate, truth itself has never been an impediment to the spread of rumors in any time or place. And as I’d soon learn, even the most heinous crimes can be readily sanctified by persecuted imaginations.

Thomas presently  scrambled across the garden to greet me. Because I hadn’t seen him since his infancy, I supposed that his older cousin must have whispered my identity to him. Or rather, I suppose it now—at the time, I was intoxicated by the ganja and somewhat befuddled.

“Uncle Maxim!” he screamed, leaping into my arms with such force that I nearly toppled over.

“Oh, what a fat little boy! Climb down and let me take a look at you before you give me a hernia.”

He was a stout child with lively eyes, the type of boy to be hiding a slingshot or some sort of dead varmint in his back pocket.

“Look at this!” I cried with perhaps greater eagerness than was becoming. I was eager to impress someone again, I suppose. I produced a deck of cards and shuffled it with professional dexterity.

“Pick any card. I won’t look.”

Thomas obliged.

“Was it the Queen of Hearts?”

“No.”

“Rubbish. I’m not wrong.”

“It was the Queen of Clubs.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“It was.”

“It wasn’t.”

“It was.”

“It wasn’t!”

“Yes, it was. What sort of a magician are you?”

“Look kid, the entire bloody deck is nothing but Queens of Hearts!”

“Got you to admit your trick, didn’t I, Uncle Maxim? And got you to swear!”

I had to chuckle at that.

“Perhaps he uses the deck to trick travelers out of their money at caravanserais,” offered Julia suddenly. “He looks like a dacoit.

I was too shocked to reply to her directly, so I turned to the boy and said,

“The deck’s a gift for you, Thomas. That’s why I brought it. Do you think that I randomly tramp about with trick sets of cards? Now enjoy your little present, and don’t be so cynical. Believe in magic a bit. I’d also brought a kitten for a certain little girl, but I got hungry along the way and decided to eat it.”

“Thomas, let’s go inside,” ordered Julia with chilling authority for a child of eight. Her surliness reminded me of her father. I hoped for her sake that his broad forehead was the only other feature that she inherited from him. There it was, unmistakable, persistently wrinkled in forethought whenever she was speaking or preparing to speak. This was a girl who would never enjoy the pleasures of polite conversation, I thought to myself. She would always be too busy planning her next move to ever really listen to anybody else.

“Aren’t you going to say hello to Uncle Maxim?” shrieked Thomas.

Julia obliged by glaring at me. Perhaps the child was simply afraid. But at the time, I was quite taken aback. What had her mother and grandmother been telling her about me to inspire this sort of contempt? Thomas improvised as best he could.

“Don’t mind Julia. Papa says that women go mad once a month. It’s our lot as gentlemen to forbear them with patience.”

I roared with laughter, and not only because Julia was prepubescent. Thomas was a perfect parrot of his father Peter, who was always groaning on about “forbearing things with patience.” It was a stock phrase of his since his adolescence.

“Thomas, let’s go inside!” Julia ordered. “We have to feed Ms. Google.”

“I won’t go inside, I won’t!” Then, in a suddenly sweet voice: “I missed you Uncle Maxim! It’s not true the sepoys are going to attack us, is it?”

“God forbid.”

“Of course not. Nothing exciting ever happens around here. Well, anyway, I’m glad that you’re back! It seems like everybody but Christopher is worried and serious these days. But I knew that you’d be different. Ayah Rupee tells us stories about when you were a little boy, so I feel like I know you. And… we’ve been waiting for you to arrive all morning.”

“Have you?”

“The ryots said you reached Cawnpore last week, overland from Calcutta. Gossip travels fast around here. Uncle Maxim?”

“Yes?”

“What’s overland?”

“What does it sound like it means, Thomas? Now come inside!”

“No, Julia! You’re not my bloody mother, and Papa says that only parents have the right to order anyone about. Why are you being so mean to Uncle Maxim?”

“He is no uncle of mine.”

I actually smiled at this. I remembered that I’d worn rags with specific ends in mind. If my appearance so disgusted the girl, it could only mean that my costume was effective. And instinctually, I knew that I couldn’t blame Julia for her haughtiness. I imagined that her fervency that I was no blood relation stemmed from Vivian’s similar insistence, because her mother was in love with me, undoubtedly, and close-minded people would think that since she was my stepmother’s daughter, her affection was unnatural. I told myself that she distanced herself from me as much as possible in conversations with her daughter to justify her love and remove it from the unspeakable taboo of incest in her heart of hearts. I knew that Vivian was being dishonest when she insisted that she felt nothing but a sister’s ardor for me on a certain horrible night. She arched her eyebrows in odd ways when she lied. And as for the anger in her daughter’s voice, well, I’d left the Highlands after I was disinherited, hadn’t I? Perhaps Vivian resented me for leaving her, as I knew that Christopher did.

But something was odd. Thomas had said that I was expected at the Highlands, which meant that Vikram and Ayah Rupee’s acquaintances must have spread the word. Why no entourage, then, to greet me? I suddenly realized that everything was stagecraft. Even Christopher was a liar, divulging nothing about his knowledge that I’d returned. Here was yet another reason to fantasize about punching him in the face. Would everyone else similarly pretend to be taken by surprise, or would they be honest that they knew I was coming but didn’t even care enough to come outside and greet me? Whatever was about to happen, I was prepared for just this sort of theatre.  I was costumed for the part.

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