Beyond the Mountains of the Moon: Reflections on Two Months in Egypt, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo

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In the summer of 2017, I embarked on a trip to every source and outlet of the Nile from Egypt to Rwanda. The following are the updates I posted to Facebook along the way and a sampling of my photographs. See more on Instagram, where I’m spqrkimel.

Part 1: Egypt

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“What does a white man go looking for in Africa?” asked my grandmother when I finally told her the truth about my summer plans. “The answer is trouble.”

“No. The answer is adventure, and myself.”

Reluctant to inform Safta of my prospective itinerary along the outlets of the Nile, I delayed conveying the news to her as long as possible. Some scruple prevented me from withholding the truth indefinitely, though. I wasn’t surprised by her dubiety, as I myself wondered if I would have the wits and stamina to complete the adventure. Maybe that’s why I decided to embark on this journey in the first place. If I possessed half the energy I did in high school, its marriage to knowledge and experience would be a potent combination.

Instead, my identity had long since eroded—having delayed ending graduate school as long as possible, I was no longer the President of my own publishing company, no longer the coach of the debate team, no longer anything, really. Facing the prospect of embarking for God knows where in 2018, I tried to enliven 2017 by doing so on my own terms. I told myself that following in the footsteps of Speke and Livingstone would rejuvenate me.

But I didn’t find what I was looking for in Egypt. The country had tragically declined since my visit last summer. I was the only man in the Great Pyramid. The vendors surrounding the site pleaded with me to buy their wares, with more than one whispering as if confidentially, “I want to kill myself.” The economy had evidently imploded—inflation had driven the value of the pound into the ground, and salaries had not adjusted to the plummet. Vendors distributing free snacks and water along the road aside, the spirit of Ramadan was ruined by the ubiquitous sense of tension. Along the Suez Canal and all along the road toward the Delta, military checkpoints dotted the landscape.

Sleeping in a houseboat by the Kitkat mosque, I found a guide to bring me to the Faiyoum and the mouth of the Nile at Rashid. Tarek spoke to me at length about how the tourism industry had waned since the twilight of the Arab Spring. The collapse would have been worth it had true democracy come, he said. Then there was a long silence.

I saw the bones of prehistoric monsters in the Sahara, whales so ancient they still boasted rudimentary arms and legs. I saw boats glide along the Suez Canal. I breathed in the spray of the Nile where it mingled with the Mediterranean, saw the river’s waves crash northward at war with the southward currents of the sea. I met strangers and invited them back to the boat. We profaned the holiday in sundry ways. I woke up alone and stared at the river. Encountering children and animals beaten on the street and ubiquitous misogyny, I reflected on the limits of cultural relativism. A man by the side of the road held a dozen exhausted birds by the feet, shaking them violently until they were half dead, peddling them to passersby before snapping their necks. I bought the liveliest looking pair and told him to release them for the sake of Ramadan. He told me that they were too enervated to fly now, but that he would release them before he went home. I wondered if he was telling the truth. Tarek said the vendor had honest eyes.

Then I left Egypt for Zanzibar, where adventurers embarked into the unknown when there were still places left to discover in this world.

Part 2: Tanzania

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Between its moldering stone fortresses and steaming markets of elbow-to-elbow traffic, Zanzibar seemed to me like the kind of town that Tintin would have visited. But having purchased a T-shirt illustrating his presence in Stonetown, I was subsequently informed by some well meaning chefs in the Forodhani Gardens that he in fact never made an appearance there in any of the original comics —the T shirt which I bought was meant to swindle muzungu tourists, they explained. I assured them that the fact the picture was original only made the shirt more valuable to me. They laughed in response. I echoed them, and this proved to be prelude to a smoke in the ruins of the old fort. It was one of the first times I’d interacted with locals in Tanzania without the specter of capitalism haunting us. The friendliness of my guides was always tempered by desire for tips; that of shopkeepers by hopes of exorbitant prices; that of local children by hunger for charity. But it was only by night during my last evening on the island, bewildered into a sense of intimacy by billows of fumes, that the locals and I spoke as humans rather than actors in a commercial transaction.

They asked me how I felt to be a member of a racial minority for a change. I thought of a Facebook post I wrote a couple of years ago when I expressed the idea that all the brouhaha over color on the Yale campus was misguided. I recall I’d wondered then whether anyone had read Foucault and realized that racial identity was only one social construct among myriad others. I will never forget that one of my students explained that, realistically, race made a formative difference when it came to how people were treated on a day to day basis, and so had an inescapable quality that rendered attempts to look beyond it evidence of privilege rather than insight. I spoke to the chefs about my time in Korea, the only other extended period of my life in which the majority of the people looked differently than I did. I spouted some clichés about the tragic power of superficial differences, and the fact that one only realizes its extent when he is in the minority. An old man opined that my education was limited, since whites were welcomed on the island and there was no negative stigma associated with them; the sting of prejudice, he said, was the only way to truly understand the experience of being a minority. But a younger man shook his head; muzungus were cheated on Zanzibar because they were uniformly considered wealthy; this, he said, was an education in itself. I found his insight to be revelatory. Somehow I’d not made the connection between my race and the fact that I was charged 300 dollars for a repair to my camera I was subsequently assured would have cost a native 20. Still, I understood that poverty is often a more compelling force than hospitality when it came to determining the texture of one’s interactions in a developing country.

The entire first portion of my journey to Africa was cursed by nausea. I’d thrown up in Egypt when our car got stuck in the Sahara and we were forced to push it down the road for kilometers in the midday sun. Then I’d thrown up again with equal violence while searching for dolphins on the Red Sea; by the time we reached them I was too exhausted by retching to jump in the water with them. I fully expected to puke on Kilimanjaro too, but was delivered from this fate by the kindness of my guides, who constantly reminded me to go slowly and helped me to bear my physical and emotional loads along they way. I spoke with them about their families and probed some of their hopes and dreams; I was more reticent about my own. The mountain taught me its lessons—to focus on each individual step and not be daunted by the distance to the destination; to realize that the tortoise beats the hare when others fitter than I became ill from exhaustion who were once faster than me on my first days on the mountain; to step in the footprints of those who knew the path better than I. A woman at the peak asked me if climbing Kilimanjaro was on my bucket list, a lifelong dream. I told her honestly that I’d never even thought of climbing it until I realized I’d be passing in its vicinity, and since it was there, I might as well test my limits. I regretted parting from the guides; I also regretted not being able to tip them more, as did they.

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I headed to the wilderness next. The parks of Northern Tanzania are justifiably famous: Tarangire and its swarms of elephants; the Serengeti and its countless miles of hideous wildebeests, Ngornongoro crater and its menagerie of creatures trapped in the largest pothole on the planet; Lake Manyara (Hemingway’s favorite) choked with birdlife. Since Tanzania was my first experience on a game drive, I didn’t realize just how rare the sheer density of wild animals was. The effect was not equally impressive on all visitors, though. I saw a jaded kid yawn when he saw a lion. “We could have gone to the zoo,” he said, going on to lament the unstable Wifi at his lodge.

But it was different for me, caught up in a days-long version of Where’s Waldo seeking out animals against the silhouettes of baobab and acacia trees. More than one lion turned out to be a tree stub, but the skill of my driver amply compensated for my well-meaning incompetence. (Perhaps I’m too caught up in my own imagination to be a very good spotter.) This driver pitied me when I invented the story that my long-term girlfriend had broken up with me to avoid explaining why I was traveling alone—it was too complicated to explain that most of the kids my age had kids of their own and couldn’t afford two months in the bush, to say nothing of untangling the tortuous vagaries of my private life. But my story was grounded enough in truth to prove poignant, and he felt so badly for me that he drove me to the north Serengeti to see the Great Migration even though technically it was off our itinerary.

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Somewhere along the way, we saw an eagle snatch up a mongoose. A troop of monkeys subsequently chased after the pair screaming bloody murder. The raptor plunged from the sky like a bolt of lightning; the violence was too instantaneous to film. This would prove to be the most action I’d see in the Serengeti. Spoiled by National Geographic documentaries, we are, I suppose, conditioned to believe that the wilderness is one great adventure, with mating, murder, and life-or-death chases visible at every angle. Only in the wild do you realize that nature is a state of war—and like all wars, the majority of time is spent sitting, waiting, and watching. I thought to myself that the trip was teaching me discipline and patience again after the dizzying hedonism of grad school. I wondered if I had anything more to learn.

Then I left Tanzania and headed for Uganda by way of three stopovers, arriving in the middle of the night and heading to bed for just three hours before visiting an orphanage on the outskirts of Kampala.

Part 3: Uganda

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Two weeks into my trip to Uganda, I found myself hanging onto a 70 degree incline on a glacier on the Mountain of the Moon, clinging to its grimy surface by nothing but my ice axe and a single crampon. The one on my left foot, improperly adjusted, had plummeted down the sheer face of Mt. Stanley. As I sensed the energy draining from every tendon, my guide began the long clamber below me to retrieve and reattach the other shoe. I had no choice but to cling to the frozen surface of the mountain for over half an hour listening to the crackling of the melting ice, a casualty of climate change. I was secured by nothing but a carabineer and a flimsy rope attached to the man dozens of meters beneath me, with little but his strength to save me if I plunged below his unsecured position (after al, fixed stakes are impossible given the rapidly shifting and increasingly steep surface of the glacier, which will soon become impassable). I found it odd that I felt no rush of adrenaline. I was reminded of a debate trip where a car almost careened into my side of the van and I did nothing but sigh, “Well, that was unpleasant.” One of the students said he could imagine me as a Roman general nonchalantly surveying the carnage of an ancient battlefield, an observation I found a great compliment at the time. Now, I wondered whether growing up with cats had addled my mind (they evidently secrete a parasite that makes men more daring and women more nurturing, or so I had read online.) Gradually succumbing to enervation, I stared at the pale band of the Milky Way in a strange combination of exhaustion, anxiety, and wonder. No country had ever tested my physical and spiritual limits as Uganda did. Even Kilimanjaro was a cakewalk by comparison.

On my first day in the country, I’d felt the most acute sense of culture shock I’d ever experienced when I saw more than one van plastered with Osama Bin Laden bumper stickers. Having only slept three hours, my frayed nerves drove me to a greater sense of intolerance than that to which I’m accustomed either when abroad or otherwise, and I found myself truly insulted by the tasteless display. I dwelled internally on what kind of a combination of ignorance and malevolence would lead to such a choice of decoration until I reached an orphanage. Then anger gave way to self-consciousness when I met a dozen children ranging from three to 14 who had lost their parents to AIDS, many of whom were suffering from HIV themselves. When I arrived, they spontaneously surrounded the car and began to embrace me. I reciprocated the gesture after half a moment of hesitation, reminded of when Princess Diana startled the paparazzi and the world by hugging ill children, confounding the rumors that this was enough to spread the virus. I was later informed that not every tourist was so accommodating, and could only imagine the psychic wounds the young might have incurred in the wake of people physically recoiling from them.

I had expected to meet older children and lecture about debate, but many of these kids were toddlers with limited English skills. I served them soft drinks and told them each “Shikamoo,” an honorific Swahili greeting usually reserved for one’s elders and superiors. Eager to connect on at least some level, I sang Rogers and Hammerstein songs to them. This proved to have an almost magical effect, and soon, they were singing for me as well, even breaking into indigenous dances far surpassing my rudimentary abilities at rhythmic movement. When our time was up, a little girl who was initially afraid to embrace me scampered in my direction and threw her arms around my neck. My own self-consciousness had given way to a very different feeling, though not, as might be expected, a sense of appreciation for how lucky I was relative to certain people; after all, pity implies condescension, which I did not feel toward my equals, and true sympathy was beyond my power because I could never understand and access anything like their worldview and body of experience. Rather, I felt a sense of non-judgmental comradeship bound to our common love of music, which transcended age and culture. I promised to send them holy water from Israel and was silent on the car ride home.

Over the course of the subsequent days, I ventured to the source of the Nile and white-water rafted on Grade 5 rapids there, figuring that the risk of bilharzia was worth the adventure and ultimately benefiting from the ballast on the boat supplied by the hulking English rugby players who constituted the remainder of its crew; I stumbled on an endangered Shoebill Stork on a canoe in the bogs of Lake Victoria; I clambered over the Murchison Falls and saw the Nile squeezed into a gorge barely wider than my body, resulting in a magnificent display of power shooting spray and rainbows into the air; I tracked elusive leopards and tree climbing lions in the savannas of Queen Elizabeth Park; I spent an entire day working with researchers to habituate a troop of wild chimpanzees until the animals trusted me enough to descend from the canopy and join me by a puddle for a drink of water. The experiences and strangers I met along the way are too numerous to fully remember, let along capture in a Facebook post. I can only hope that some of the pictures do them justice.

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But the Mountains of the Moon tested me as no other destination did. My crampon re-secured to my leg, I eventually reached Margarita Peak straddling the border with the Congo at about 5200 meters above Sea Level. After my photo opportunity, I succumbed to a combination of weariness and altitude sickness and made the decision to descend back to the base camp as quickly as possible, facing two days worth of 15 hour hikes. I braced myself for my next destination, which had inspired my entire journey in the first place: the Congo, a world teetering on the brink of the unthinkable. I planned to climb the Nyiragongo Volcano and track gorillas in the Virunga Park, the oldest natural preserve in Africa and its most imperiled by a harrowing combination of climactic and political turmoil.

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Part 4: The Congo

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Check the timeworn myth that the Congo is the heart of darkness. I’ve never been to a country more luminous—the russet glow of lava in the Nyiragongo Volcano, the rainbow colored squawkers of the tropical forest, the teal and vermillion gowns of village-women, the canopies of dense jungles so green they might as well be blue, the glimmer of stars so numerous one can’t tell at times if the sky is black or white at night. It was the DRC which had inspired this trip in the first place. I reread Conrad and for some reason was inexorably drawn to the hellish landscape he described—I wondered if there was more to the country than the misery he immortalized. On the cusp of my journey, the news filled me with dread. All I found were warnings about Ebola and cholera, butchered do-gooders in Kasai, ambushed rangers, guerillas encroaching on the territory of gorillas; in short, a country on the brink of collapse. Remember, warned a friend, that everything and everyone there wants to kill you. What I discovered defied such prophecies. I can’t deny the Congo is cursed by political fragmentation, disease, poverty, and corruption. But it’s also the soul of Africa, a sprawling landscape the size of Western Europe, home to millions of peace-loving dreamers, the breeding ground for the continent’s most magnificent art and music (forbearers of abstract art and rock and roll), and a testing-ground for heroes who defy the darkness and stand all the brighter for the shadows surrounding them.

It was only in the Congo that I had the time to breathe deeply for a moment and consider the full scope of this impractical odyssey I can in no way afford, promising to imprison me in credit card debt for the foreseeable future. Did I really climb Kilimanjaro and the Mountains of the Moon, raft the foaming rapids at the mouth of the Nile, traverse the scorched plains of the Serengeti, and all on my own too? Did I actually track tribes of gorillas in the Virunga mountains and stare at the bubbling molten rock inside the calderas of volcanoes until mists obscured the lava and all that remained were bursting ribbons of color of the kind you see when you squeeze your eyes closed with all your might? Did I dance with pygmies before carving through the waves of the poisonous Lake Kivu? Had I galloped on a horse through the dusty villages and undulating emerald hills of Masisi (the locals had improbably promised me a ride on “sheep,” but apparently mistranslated the word)? It all seemed like some kind of feverish reverie, but it was a dream which I had made my reality for a fleeting moment, living for the present rather than the past and future where my thoughts are accustomed to linger as an ancient historian and transhumanist.

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When I left the DRC for Rwanda, I met a couple from Canada who told me about some associates they’d met who’d just returned from Goma. These friends had regaled them about an unusual traveller they’d encountered who’d climbed Mt. Stanley despite the danger of the melting glaciers and made the trek up Nyriagongo without a sleeping bag, and who, back in the real world, went to Yale, writing his dissertation on Roman orgies; they wondered whether he hadn’t brought the sleeping bag deliberately so that he could engage in research for his thesis. My heart skipped a beat when I heard myself described by strangers as if I were a stranger. I sounded like a cool guy, and when I examined myself in the mirror, dressed in filthy khaki, face bronzed by mud and sunshine, for the first time in a long time, I actually felt like one. I’d begun the trip considering that I was about to graduate with no idea of what to do next, that I was no longer the debate coach, or the president of a publishing company, or any other specific social-role. But now I discovered that I was more than an actor going through the motions defining his public persona. It was sufficient for me to be myself—a lone adventurer and the author of his own novel. I’d originally considered the trip a kind of escape from a world I’d outgrown, but it unexpectedly braced me to face the uncertainties of the future as an adventure in their own right. For this, above all other places I have traveled, I will forever be grateful to the Congo.

I crossed the border overland at Cyangugu and headed to Rwanda and Ethiopia next, the final destinations on a journey of a natural-born storyteller with an enraptured audience of one.

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Part 5: Rwanda and Ethiopia

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When I was a little boy, I recall reading a book called Uncle Wiggily’s Fortune in which the eponymous rabbit discovers at the end of his adventures, Ulysses-like, that the greatest treasure is a long awaited homecoming. As a child, I remember considering that this was hokey, so I fixated on the crop of oversized carrots that had grown up in his absence as his real fortune. Yet my thoughts turned to the novel when I finally returned to Israel after one last week in Africa exploring the sources of the White Nile in Rwanda and the Blue in Ethiopia. My father and sister met me at the airport and drove me to my grandmother’s house. There, I found a framed photograph of me at the summit of Kilimanjaro hanging over my bed. After my safe return, Safta’s doubts about my trip melted away, I suppose, in the face of admiration for its successful completion and happiness that I’d lived to tell the tale. Of all my relatives, it was only she who expressed any interest in seeing my full album.

I could assure her now that she was quite right when she suggested several months ago that many whites had historically gone to Africa looking for trouble—“scratch the surface of any catastrophe here,” one Congolese man had told me, “and you’ll find a white man profiting.” I now knew more than ever about the Machiavellian dealings of Portuguese slave traders, the depredations of Stanley’s entourage across central Africa, and the horrors of Leopold’s rubber-hungry minions in the Belgian Congo. But I also learned of Dr. Livingstone’s crusade to end the East African slave trade, Mark Twain’s sponsorship of humanitarian organizations to check the excesses of the imperialists, Dian Fossey’s ultimate sacrifice to habituate mountain gorillas, and Emmanuel Merode’s decision to relinquish his wealth and status as a prince in Belgium to lead the rangers of the Virunga Park. I was neither so villainous nor heroic—just a mundane tourist peeking over the edge of the cradle of humanity in search of Experience with a capital E, which I was privileged to discover before the trip receded into the indistinct annals of my memory, memorialized only on Facebook.

I wasn’t in Rwanda and Ethiopia for long, but was moved by the experience of traveling among some of the most resilient people of modern history, survivors of famine and genocide. Ethiopia defied my expectations. Conditioned by the Western media, I expected a parched wasteland and instead discovered a nation so lush and green you might have told me I was in Ireland. The country was a sensory overload, from the unmistakable taste of injira pregnant with yeast, the magnificent glare of the ivory garb of Orthodox priests, and the pungent scent of frankincense and myrrh wafting through rainbow colored churches. I was particularly struck and, to be honest, somewhat flattered by the appropriation of Israeli history on a national scale, with the royal family said to have descended from Solomon and the Ark of the Covenant to be hidden in a northern monastery. “We are cousins,” I was told more than once, though this enthusiasm usually waned when they pressed me about Jewish opinions about Jesus in modern Israel.

As for Rwanda, Kigali was at least superficially the most developed city I’d visited on my travels, boasting modern infrastructure and spick-and-span streets, plastic bags even banned by law. But I came to consider that these shows of modernity were just that—glossy scar tissue over deep and persistent psychic wounds incurred by the unimaginable slaughter of the 1990s. The country is exemplary for the proven capacity of its population to forgive each other and cooperate toward a better future, at least superficially shunning the former alliances exacerbated by European colonial overlords that led to catastrophe. But Kagame’s rule, however welcomed by the majority, seems founded as much on fear as love in many circles, and Tutsis (whether members of a “tribe” or a “social class,” as opinions seem to vary passionately and widely on this most politically incorrect question) seem to monopolize positions of power. Many, fearing the harassment that the visibly impoverished face from police officers, limit their daily wardrobe to a single unsullied suit. I appreciated, though, the urge to push beyond “tribal” identity politics in favor of embracing a nationalist ideology, particularly given the xenophobic arrogance with which the word “tribe” was often misused in academic and political circles alike.

I learned a great deal from Africa: to be disciplined, to be patient, to be observant, to be tolerant, to live for the moment, to be daring, to be resilient, to be silent, to be alone, to be proud. Sometimes late at night, though, as I struggle to replay the adventure in my mind, I wonder, what did Africa learn from me? I don’t mean that I poetically ponder, as Karen Blixen did, whether the lion casts a shadow that resembles my head, or the wind rushes through the branches of the acacia tree with a whisper like mine. Rather, I wonder, was my halting eloquence enough to disprove theories about reptilians and the Illuminati, the detritus of Youtube mashed together with traditional animist beliefs and taken for the flower of truth? Was I at all convincing when I defended the equality of women and men, told more than once that the former’s proper role was to look after the home, that short skirts were invitations for assault, and that rape was a surefire cure for lesbianism? Did my words have any impact when I opined that God was wherever love and peace were, and that literal belief in ancient testaments caused more suffering than joy? And were my thoughts at all memorable when I tried to counter the adage “If you want to hide something from an African, put it in writing” with references to Achebe and Emecheta and Marechera? For all that inspired me, there was also a great deal that shocked and angered me, beginning in Egypt where I recoiled at physical violence against children and animals. I realized the truth in Tennessee Williams’ suggestion that deliberate cruelty meant solely to uphold the power of the strong at the expense of the weak was unforgivable in any time or place, and considered that battles won in my own neck of the woods by the Susan B Anthony’s and Martin Luther King’s and Audre Lorde’s of the world would have to be refought from scratch by the heroes of an as-yet anonymous generation raging against the dying of the light.

I will surely forget a great deal of my odyssey, and will have no one with shared experiences to resurrect the fading memories either. But above all, I will try to remember the Nile in all its glory, where the tide of the Mediterranean was at war with its northern current, where it clung as snow to the Mountains of the Moon, where it poured out of Lake Victoria and tripped and fell over rapids which I challenged on a raft, where it dripped one droplet at a time from its most remote source in Rwanda and I swallowed the totality of the river, and where if flowed gently from Lake Tana in a great muddy puddle before spilling over the cliffs of the Blue Nile Falls and carving through the highlands with all the insistence of fate. As a boy, I swam here when I sailed on a felucca through Upper Egypt. Now I returned and found inspiration: the realization that writing was my calling and that the sense of malaise haunting me at the beginning of the trip was largely grounded in having no audience. But every river, even the greatest, I learned, begins with a single drop.

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Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter IX (A Tragic History)

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On our way to the library, I passed beside a weathered portrait of my father. I recognized the painting from my childhood, though I remembered it being more colorful than it actually was. I resembled him closely right down to our upswept auburn hair, though he was, admittedly, quite pale.

I suppose that I should say a bit more about his exploits and the circumstances of my childhood, although I honestly despise the kind of books that spill ink over long tangential asides as if their authors were paid by the letter. Ultimately, however, I consider it better to include a few pages of exposition than to potentially confuse my readers by restricting myself to hints and innuendo about the past, as I’ve done until now.

When I first began to consider the prospect of writing this book, I thought that I would make it a lengthy third-person epic beginning with my father’s birth in Scotland. But two considerations ultimately dissuaded me from this course of action. The first was that I would have been compelled to write at length about people and places unfamiliar to me personally, which would have ruined the honesty of this account. How, for example, would I have portrayed my mother, a woman whom I’d never met nor even seen in a daguerreotype? My second concern was that I didn’t wish to seem to be casting judgment on the India of my father’s youth, a civilization I never knew beyond stories of cock-fights, native mistresses, and drunken brawls, a broken but rambunctious dreamscape that saw the British hungrily engorging themselves on the carcass of a dying aboriginal culture. I was born just as that old India was being torched and a new, gentrified colonial holding was taking its place on the funeral pyre.

My father John Maxwell first came to India in 1806 when he was only 16 years old. He was ostensibly seeking adventure and fortune, but I think it was more likely that he was escaping the influence of his father, a Presbyterian minister from Aberdeen who, I was told by my aunts, used to beat all of his children regularly to the point of bleeding. He began his career in Calcutta working as a Europe-shopkeeper on Court House Street. Europe-shops sold all sorts of goods in those days from carriages to coffins and could turn a great deal of profit if properly managed. My father’s store was evidently one of the finest in the city, celebrated for its Portuguese wines.

Independently of his partners in the shop, he soon made a small fortune for himself supplying goods to what were then the remote settlements of Cawnpore and Fatehgurh. In those days, budgerows would only make the trip upcountry a few times per month and there was great profit to be made servicing the more inaccessible stations of the Doab. His work made him the acquaintance of Captain Nathan Blenkinsopp, an elderly English commander of one of the several native infantry divisions at Cawnpore. Appreciative of both my father’s wit and talent for consuming copious amounts of liquor without collapsing, Captain Blenkinsopp eventually arranged for him to become Agent to the Army and Military Store Contractor. Needless to say, these proved to be most lucrative commissions.

Rupee Pandit, my grandmother, was a Nagar Brahmin and an ayah in Captain Blenkinsopp’s household. Her given-name at birth was of course not Rupee, but this is what Captain Blenkinsopp always called her, and the moniker stuck. It was remarkable to me that she was able to transform that sardonic name into an endearing one. In fact, I don’t know her original name even now, though I always knew the family to be called Pandit. She told me many times that our ancestors were descended from officers in the army of Alexander the Great who’d come to India two millennia ago to fight the elephants of King Porus. The blue eyes of several members of the Pandit clan were considered proof of this theory. Although I would have loved to have believed this tale, in my heart, I knew that the aforementioned color more likely came by way of Liverpool than Pella.

Rupee’s daughter, my mother Elizabeth, had such a fair complexion that most people assumed that she was the product of an affair with Captain Blenkinsopp, whose English wife was long since dead and whose son by his first marriage, Daniel, was then away at school in England. This rumor about Elizabeth’s parentage was only fortified by her being raised as the Captain’s ward, to say nothing of the open prominence which my grandmother enjoyed in that household. It was never made clear to me whether or not my mother formally married my father, though the silence on this subject leads me to assume that there was in fact no ceremony. Still, they certainly lived together as husband and wife until her death in childbirth in 1830. Afterward, Rupee left Captain Blenkinsopp’s villa and came to live with my father, eventually becoming something like his personal secretary, an extraordinary role for a native woman. Captain Blenkinsopp evidently cared enough about her interests to ensure that she was well-educated despite her station and well compensated upon his death. He even found sporadic employment for her brother Pulkit as a drummer in the 56th Native Infantry. The poor man was not of sound mind, but he was well meaning and incapable of malice.

I do not know if my father loved my mother. By the same token, I don’t have any especial recollection of much warmth between him and Molly either. This is not to say that my stepmother was a frigid or unkind woman. She invariably did her best to behave with as much compassion and consideration toward me as toward Vivian when I was a child, and she allowed Rupee to continue living with us at the Highlands as buriah ayah along with Pulkit. Still, it was always somewhat of a stuffy household that my father and stepmother kept, even after the birth of Peter in 1832. I remember wondering if they ever visited each other’s bedrooms.

In those days, there was still an old law in force in India forbidding Europeans from owning substantial amounts of land in their own right. Since I was native-born, my enterprising father was able to use my name to accumulate a great deal of property. After he died suddenly from an apoplectic fit after a tiger hunt in 1836—just one year before the law was changed, incidentally—I   inherited controlling interest in five indigo factories in addition to outright ownership of 36 villages, several cotton presses, indigo vats, and even a rum distillery at Jajmau and an opium clipper called the Nereid docked at Calcutta. Altogether, the property was valued at 13 lakhs.

Since I was only six years old when I came into this inheritance, my father’s will stipulated that my property be put under the management of Daniel, the son of Captain Blenkinsopp. He had recently returned from England after his father suffered a sudden bout of paralysis. Daniel’s display of filial piety as he cared for his dying parent evidently made a strong impression on my own father, who promised to look after Daniel following Captain Blenkinsopp’s death. It took place but one year before his own. His final testament actualized his promise.

Daniel, whom everyone assumed to be my mother Elizabeth’s half-brother, promptly formed a company called Blenkinsopp and Co. and managed my inheritance during my upbringing in Scotland. Vivian and I lived with my father’s spinster sisters, their father, the brutal minister, having long since died, choked to death on haggis. By the time that we sailed back to India in 1847, Daniel was a regular nabob. The family’s wealth seemed unlimited. Returning as I was to the District after so long an absence in an abstemious Scottish household, needless to say, I began to positively hemorrhage money.

What followed were the happiest two years of my life, at least before a sudden fit of coldness descended upon Vivian that all the intensity of my love for her could not thaw. Christopher, Daniel, and I spent a fortune together gambling, buying carriages, and throwing enormous burra khanas on my estates. I remember how often Peter would beg to accompany us on our nightly adventures. We treated him like a child, though, and often took malicious pleasure in holding out hope and then ignoring him. The conviction with which I felt him to be my junior is somewhat ludicrous in retrospect. After all, he was only two years younger than I was. Daniel was much older than anyone else in my circle of friends, already in his late forties. Perhaps it made him feel young again to spend time with Christopher and me. It was our private joke that we never smoked ganja with him.

My readers will wonder about the ramifications of this wasteful state of affairs. Vivian, who had evidently taken a childhood fancy to Daniel before we left for Scotland and allowed the wound to suppurate, of course said nothing to criticize us. Molly, a woman of the old order, similarly did not ask any questions, particularly because she favored Daniel very highly. Besides, Peter had inherited a great deal of money from my father which she herself was responsible for managing, so she likely had troubles of her own to occupy her attentions. For all of these reasons, no one supervised Daniel or inquired after his motives too closely. He had by then effectively managed my estates for nearly two decades in my absence. Besides, reckless spending was commonplace among young aristocrats in the District. We all competed with each other in heedlessness, and I had more to prove than anyone because I was self-conscious about my parentage.

After Vivian announced that she was going to marry Daniel, life suddenly became altogether grimmer for me at the Highlands. I spent most of my time smoking ganja and charas with Christopher. I abandoned India for Scotland soon after Julia was born in 1849 and lived the life of a hermit among my old haunts.  Only two years later, though, I was compelled to return to the Highlands again when news of a disaster broke.

What happened, in brief, was this. In March of 1850, Daniel vanished. He claimed to have gone off to Singapore to visit his uncle, Admiral Brandon Blenkinsopp. He never reached his destination, however, and it was presumed that he was robbed on the open road and killed. Then, only weeks after his disappearance, out of the blue, news broke that Blenkinsopp and Co. had failed for 15 lakhs. Native and European creditors alike began to swarm around the carcass of my holdings like eye flies, all demanding their share of the decaying rot. I soon learned that most of my land had been heavily mortgaged by Daniel, but thankfully, property technically in my name could not be auctioned off to rectify the debts of Blenkinsopp and Co. For this reason, I believed that I still had a chance to salvage my inheritance.

By the time that I returned in 1851, the sircars and shroffs and virtually the entire native staff of Blenkinsopp and Co. had vanished. The Sub-Deputy Collector of Revenue (E. A. Reade-I’ll never forget his name) wished to make a severe example out of me and threatened to seize the entirety of my property unless I could immediately pay what was owed to the Government in back taxes. This man was an ancient enemy of my father’s, and since I was my mother’s son, he saw me as less than his equal, to say the least. I wrote to the Commissioner of Revenue at Allahabad begging for more time, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. When I urged my native collectors to demand rent more scrupulously from our ryots than they had in the past, Reade accused me of bullying and terrorizing them simply because we’d seized some cattle from a raving old man and sold it outright for profit. The farmer in question had paid irregular taxes for years and dared to be surly to my men when they reached his farm. He certainly would have gotten much worse treatment under a native Indian zamindar. But I cannot dwell on this topic at length. It pains me to remember how corrupt and confused the state of my estates had become.

Completely unable to pay back what was owed, I was forced to watch in silence as the bulk of my property was put up for auction. Most of my farms and villages were bought up by one Kullulooddeen Khan, who agreed to provide me the insulting allowance of 29 pounds a month. I passed Reade on the road soon after this, and he made a sarcastic remark under his breath loudly enough for me to hear it. When I told him to go to hell, I caught the attention of several native passersby who began to whisper to each other. So he noisily called me a “bankrupt nigger” to show them he meant business and continued on his way. It was soon after this that I left India again. I thought that I would never return.

The Maxwells lost everything but the Highlands. Peter, recently married and a father for the first time, was put in charge of the estate by Cruttenden and Co. of Cawnpore, to whom the property had been mortgaged. Molly personally appealed to the director of the company and his wife for mercy and sacrificed a great deal of the family’s remaining money as collateral (effectively impoverishing me completely, incidentally). Compared to me, I suppose Cruttenden and Co. saw Peter as the true heir to what was left of the magic of the Maxwell name in the District. As a matter of fact, over the period of the next few years, he managed to pay off everything that was owed on the estate, using the remainder of his inheritance and increasingly meager profits from the yearly indigo harvests to do so. He was even eventually named Deputy Opium Agent in charge of all the East India Company’s poppy fields in the vicinity of Cawnpore, a singular honor.  The family was still far from prosperous, however. Clans like the Churchers and Joneses had long since eclipsed our own in the District.

Here, then, as I wrote at the beginning of this account, were the leavings of my father’s kingdom: a run-down mansion with a red tiled roof and a fanciful name, two stories high on a lonely plain. There was also a factory with some vats that was close by, a drying house, and the assistant’s bungalow where Christopher lived. The rest was only a fading memory. I was fortunate to still own the opium clipper Nereid, which was beyond Molly’s grasp when she liquidated the family’s holdings.

Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VIII (Parlor Songs)

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Julia and Thomas sang for the assembled family in the parlor before supper. My stepmother Molly accompanied them ploddingly on the piano-forte.

Ho-ro, my nut brown maiden.

Hee-ree, my nut brown maiden.

Ho-ro-ro, maiden.

For she’s the maid for me.

Her eye so mildly beaming

Her look so frank and free

In waking and in dreaming

Is evermore with me.

We broke into applause at the conclusion of the second verse to avoid an interminable punishment. Thomas bowed, and Julia curtsied repeatedly, cradling her gray kitten, Ms. Google, too tightly for comfort in her arms. The poor creature bore this indignity with patience, however. She was evidently good natured for a cat.

“That was just enchanting,” said Vivian, ethereal in yards of turquoise muslin, her hair unbound. “But skip the verses about mild-eyed Mary, please.”

“But why?” cried Julia. “That’s my favorite part of the song. It’s so emotional.”

“You’re liable to move us to tears,” said Christopher.

“Shall we eat our dinners out on the chabutra?” said Vivian. “It’s scalding in here!” Then she turned to me and dexterously avoiding even a moment’s pause in the conversation, said, “We’re all thrilled to have you home again, Maximilian. I only wish that Andrea could be moved downstairs to see you.”

“I wouldn’t want to trouble her,” I stammered.

“I’m sure that she would be very pleased to visit with you if it were possible,” said Molly, joining us. “You know that you’ll always be a welcome guest here at the Highlands, Maxim. One can always add more water to the soup.”

My eyes happened to be on Christopher as she spoke. He squinted. I wondered what sort of face I was making.

“Maxim knows that he will always be more than a guest here, mother,” ventured Peter, his breath reeking of brandy. He loathed polite conversation and very rarely shared his thoughts, so whenever he chose to say anything, he commanded great attention.

“Of course, my dear,” said Molly, adjusting the sleeves of her funereal ebony bombazine. “I misspoke.”

“Have you any interest in Company paintings, Maximilian?” improvised Vivian in a rapid voice. “I’ve been obsessed with them recently. They show such a fascinating mix…a wonderful mélange of styles.”

“Darling,” said Molly, “Maxim must be exhausted. Let him save his voice for later, when he tells your brother about his adventures in the jungle.”

“Oh nonsense, mother!” she answered, taking my arm. “Tell me, what do you think of the Daniells?”

“The Daniells?”

“Thomas Daniell and his nephew, William. They paint the most beautiful landscapes. They’re my second favorite painters.”

“They count collectively, do they?”

“Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I can hardly distinguish between their styles, to be honest! Can you guess who my very favorite artist is?”

“Michelangelo?”

“No, no—we were discussing Indian art!”

I chuckled and shrugged and must have seemed like a perfect fool. In fact, I had just downed a great quantity of bhang with Christopher on the sly and I couldn’t have cared less about Indian art. As my father’s eldest son and head of the household, I was eager to discuss several important matters with Peter such as evacuation plans for the family and the great secret I’d discovered on my travels which had inspired my return, to say nothing of my need for money. Since my arrival, though, no one had breathed a word about the mutiny to me. They all seemed more concerned about Andrea’s health than anything else. But they were all denying the plain truth. The family couldn’t remain at the Highlands for much longer or everyone there was likely to be unceremoniously slaughtered should the mutiny spread to the District.

The company moved outside onto the raised chabutra where a long table draped with a peach colored cloth had been set up. A native girl with an aquiline nose and a paunch who’d brought me a change of clothing when I first arrived had been doubling as a punkah wallah inside the house. She was presently transformed into a server. Peter’s khitmatgar was also on hand. He was a scrawny, acne-scarred fellow who looked no older than sixteen. His jacket, I observed, was at least two sizes too large for him about the sleeves. He probably inherited it from someone dead, I thought.

“We’re having pish pash and chupatties for dinner, among other things” said Peter quietly. “Jesminder tried her hand at Ayah Rupee’s old recipe—your favorite, I remember. Ever since Daniel’s death, things have been somber here at the Highlands. It’s refreshing to have an excuse to be happy again, brother.”

These were the first words that Peter had directly addressed to me since I met him on the porch earlier that evening and he’d enigmatically whispered, “Say nothing now. We’ll discuss everything later.” I’d noticed that his breath smelled faintly of spirits even then.

At first, I appreciated the illusion of domesticity so busily manufactured for me that night. Here, with the exception of my deceased father and my aunts in Scotland, was the only family that I’d ever known. My mother, Elizabeth, died in childbirth, and my father married my stepmother, an Irish cabinet-maker’s daughter, when I was only five years old. I never ventured to call her daughter Vivian my sister, though my father and stepmother had originally encouraged me to do so; for whatever reason, these exhortations ended with the birth of Peter.

Vivian was so incandescent that I knew from the moment we met that I wanted to marry her. My affection for my stepsister was fortified by the long years we spent together as Anglo-Indian expatriates in Scotland. I’ve mentioned already that we were sent to my father’s ancestral home near Inverness to receive a proper education under the supervision of his sisters. I was seven at the time, and Vivian was ten. I recalled the heartbreak of saying goodbye to Peter, who was only four and remained in India with his mother. He was always Molly’s pet and was never sent to Europe, a great rarity in those days. India was all he ever knew.

We reached the table and all joined hands, Vivian on my left and Christopher on my right.

“Maximilian should do the honors,” said Vivian, squeezing my palm. “Make it the Selkirk Grace, in honor of your father.”

Some hae meat and canna eat,” I intoned awkwardly, thinking of nothing but the moisture of my hand in Vivian’s tight grip. “And some wad eat that want it…” My pulse quickened and its rhythm throbbed in my temples. “But we hae meat and we can eat…so sae…so sae…”

So sae the Lord be thank-ed,” concluded Christopher, releasing my hand and making an exaggerated show of wiping off his own. “Sorry Maxim, but it felt like I was shaking hands with the Little Mermaid there for a minute.”

We began to eat, and for some time there was no sound but the unpleasant scratching of metal on glass. The promised pish-pash and chupatties were on the menu, along with Julienne soup, yellow rice, a curry made with some sort of meat, and bottled peas—always bottled peas. Half of us were seated before decorated porcelain, and the rest ate from plain white ceramic plates. My plate happened to have been ceramic, but so was Peter’s, so I wasn’t jealous. Our wine glasses too were mismatched. My awareness of the gauche assembly of tableware cast a pathetic air over the entire meal, an ambiance only enhanced by the fact that half of our seats lacked antimacassars. Ayah Rupee ran a tighter ship once upon a time.

To make matters worse, the wine was too dry. Just as I was secretly considering the prospect of stealing some sips from Thomas’s lassi, Vivian revived the conversation. I considered that while her mother’s serene demeanor could almost be mistaken for coldness, her daughter’s character was forged of altogether different stuff, traces of her dead father’s nature, perhaps. She was the belle of every burra khana and the most popular woman in the District, forever the volatile center of attention.

“Shaykh Muhammad Amir of Karraya is my favorite Indian artist,” she said quickly and loudly, ignoring the fifteen minute interval separating this revelation from our previous conversation.

“I would never have guessed,” I said. “You were right.”

“In fact, I quite prefer him to Michelangelo.”

“Land sakes,” said Christopher. “That’s sacrilege. Now I’ll take everything you say about art with an ocean’s worth of salt, Vivian.”

“I’m sorry to shock you, Christopher. Michelangelo was a fine sculptor and painter so long as he was capturing the male figure. But he had no range. His women all look like muscular men! And his themes were completely monotonous, never touching on everyday life.”

“Then why is he universally considered a genius?”

“Commercial concerns.”

“Oh?”

“Ever since the invention of the aquatint, there’s existed this gauche trend of celebrating geniuses like the old Italian masters and fainting over Michelangelo. But it’s only a commercial strategy to sell prints—a way to highlight individual dead artists in a marketplace oversaturated with them. What’s genius, anyway? An excuse to be temperamental, and to take full credit for lazy work! Give me elegance and truth over genius any day.”

“Well, if you ask me, nothing is more inane than the genre scenes that you idealize so much. There isn’t anything profound or uplifting about them.”

“You’re so wrong. There’s great beauty to everyday life if you know how to see it. But some haven’t the sensitivity.”

“This is all nonsense,” slurred Peter, providing yet another rare contribution to the conversation, “The idea that you would even compare Sheik What’s His Name and Michelangelo is ludicrous. Michelangelo was a white man.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, brother. Race has nothing at all to do with matters of art.”

Molly arched her right eyebrow. I knew by the way Christopher was grinding his teeth that he’d thought of some witticism and was aching to reveal it, but he held his tongue. In his defense, he usually did his best to behave as politely as possible to everyone in my family, whose formality likely stood in stark contrast to the liveliness of his American household. The only exception was when political debates were on the docket. Then he would not only invariably venture strong opinions, whatever his audience, but even serve as a provocateur.

“Amir deserves every bit of praise that I can heap on him,” continued Vivian determinedly. “He captures the smallest details of everyday life in his paintings with amazing precision, just as Jane Austen did in her novels. I just adore his sketches of residences, carriages, hunting parties…all sorts of elegant scenes in the countryside. There’s so much truth to his style…”

“He certainly sounds talented,” I offered stupidly.

“Well, I suppose I have to admit that he’s something of a rarity. Art schools these days force native artists overwhelmingly toward portraiture, and everyone is taught the same tedious, formal style. It’s a shame, really. There was a certain beauty to that old, courtly Mogul look. Primitive but expressive.”

The room fell silent again. Evidently no one had anything else to add to the conversation about Company paintings. I reflected that even after Vivian announced that she was going to marry Daniel, I’d never stooped to treating her with anything less than the greatest warmth. But it was an enervating charade, and I’d long since succumbed to an obsession with attempting to make her feel guilty for choosing him over me. I thought that my only hope was to shame her into loving me again, so that her pity for me would overpower any lingering loyalty to her illusion of Daniel. I knew she had loved me in more uncomplicated days in Scotland when we’d shared enough kisses to lose count of them all. But after our return to India, the only time she ever touched her lips to mine again—once, softly and briefly—was on her wedding day, when I burst into tears at the sight of her in her mother’s ivory gown.

We’d all finished eating by now and the atmosphere had become positively eerie. Insects roared in the background. We all plastered lying smiles onto our faces. Only the children seemed to take their elders’ calmness at face value. They argued playfully among themselves throughout the meal.

“Shall we have a party for your birthday tomorrow, father?” asked Thomas as the plates were being cleared away by the maid and the khitmatgar.

“Of course we shall,” said Julia. “After all, it’s the Queen’s birthday as well.”

Peter, Christopher, and I stole grave glances at each other. Molly kept her eyes on her plate.

Orchid presently appeared in the doorway with Rob hiding behind her. Once again, I hadn’t heard her approach, and once again she startled me. I noticed that Molly didn’t even lift her eyes to meet her. Vivian nodded graciously at her, though. Peter’s face turned even brighter than his hair, which was auburn as my own.

She was wearing a Regency-style, close-fitting gown that flattered her form splendidly. Though the dress would have been some forty years out of fashion in London, necessity has always compelled families in the District to be open-minded on the subject of popular attire. Given what was likely a limited wardrobe, I considered that she’d made a wise selection. And the rouge that she was wearing had a similarly impressive transformative effect. I wondered why she’d gone through the trouble of adorning herself so meticulously that night.

The children would have scrambled directly off to their rooms, but she caught them and whispered something to them in a huddle. Julia objected at first, but I saw Orchid stroke her hair and coax her into acquiescence. Orchid then whispered to Thomas for a second time and then disappeared into the parlor along with Rob. The long-suffering Ms. Google took the opportunity to scurry out of the room.

We presently all focused our attention on Thomas and soon heard the sound of a violin coming from within. The boy stepped forward with what seemed like genuine reluctance and sang:

O where and o where is my Highland laddie gone?

O where and o where is my Highland laddie gone?

He’s gone to fight the French for King George upon the throne,

And it’s oh in my heart that I wish him safe at home.

 

Oh where and o where did your Highland laddie dwell?

O where and o where did your Highland laddie dwell?

He dwelt in merry Scotland at the sign of the blue bell

And it’s oh in my heart that I love my laddie well.

 

Suppose and suppose that your Highland lad should die.

Suppose and suppose that your Highland lad should die.

The bagpipes should play o’er him, and I’d sit me down to cry.

And it’s oh in my heart that I wish he may not die.

Though I was initially planning to tease my nephew for singing a woman’s song, I restrained myself, for his voice was almost as pure and melodious as Christopher’s. I realized that the child had been something of a little gentleman to have deliberately lowered the quality of his song to match Julia’s faint attempts at music earlier in the night. His true voice was as tremulous and delicate as a nightingale’s. It would be a sin, I thought, when Nature re-christened him a baritone.

I wondered how it was that Orchid played the violin so well. Unless the untalented Molly had instructed her, which I most gravely doubted, I guessed that she must have been self-taught. I later discovered that I was in fact correct in this assumption. She’d even arranged the abridged version of The Bluebells of Scotland that Thomas sang for us without the use of a published broadside.

We applauded Thomas heartily. He didn’t bow this time, but blushed and retreated behind his grandmother’s chair. Orchid, Julia, and Robert emerged from the parlor and we all clapped again. Julia embraced her cousin. It was to her credit that she behaved with nothing but friendliness toward him in the aftermath of his song, though the thought of her being upstaged had, I’d seen, originally broken her heart for a moment or two. Still, whatever this redeeming characteristic, the child had yet to speak to me, though I caught her staring mutely at me with a searching expression on her face more than once during the meal.

The children were now sent to bed and the women excused themselves from the table to tend to Andrea. Orchid did not reappear. Molly made me promise to detail my experiences to her in the morning. I convinced myself that her interests were sincere and that Vivian was similarly honest in her more verbose professions of sorrow for taking her leave from me so early in the night. At length, Christopher, my brother, and I entered the house to share a hookah and candid conversation in the library. It was the moment for which I’d been waiting.

Remember Cawnpore, A Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VII (An Introduction and a Reunion)

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“Lord, this is a scandalous first impression,” I said.

The woman cocked her head to the side and stared at me. I began to wonder if her knowledge of the English language was in fact poor and she was only able to deliver certain stock snide words and phrases in it.

“I assume that you are these children’s ayah?” I exclaimed loudly and with what she must have interpreted as humiliating slowness.

“That’s what Andrea and Molly call me,” she answered fluently, setting Robert down. The child stared at me in mute terror for a moment and then scrambled indoors.

“Are all of you on a first name basis, then?”

“Get off your high horse, Maxim,” said Christopher. “Things aren’t so formal around here anymore. The little boy alone has said enough this afternoon to give a vicar apoplexy.”

“Stay out of this.”

There was an awkward pause. The woman remedied it.

“I apologize—I should have said their royal highnesses Andrea and Molly.”

“Your English is impeccable, Yulan,” I told her quietly and close to her face, so that the children wouldn’t hear me, “and since I know it not to be your native tongue, I imagine that you must have a lively intellect. But you’ve given me the immediate opinion that you are unprofessional, madam.”

Christopher cackled at this, but the woman only stared at me again in an odd sort of way. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking.  Her eyes seemed to be soulless, and she was breathing hard. At length, she smiled.

“Please call me Orchid. To be honest, only the little girl and her mother have the talent to pronounce my proper name correctly, so it’s better that you didn’t even try. Butchering the Chinese language is beneath you.”

“As teaching duties are evidently beneath you?”

“Thomas,” she said in a bored voice, “Recite your history lesson. Or are you too dense?”

“I am not!”

“Then prove it and tell your Uncle Maxim the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta.”

“The stranger thinks we have to be sent to Scotland,” whispered Julia urgently. “So do it right.” I realized that the children were completely oblivious to the danger of the mutiny. The worst horror that either of their little minds could conjure up was probably being separated from their mother, the gut-wrenching fate of all well-bred Anglo-Indian children. I couldn’t quite bring myself to sympathize with them, though, because both of my parents were dead when I left India for the first time, and I knew that worse fates existed than grammar school in Aberdeen.

“Watch me, Uncle Maxim,” Thomas sighed. He proceeded to rapidly recite, “Once upon a time there was an evil Indian prince named Sir Roger Dowlett. In seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-six the Brits were in an awful fix. Sir Roger captured Calcutta. He put 146 of her majesty’s royal…sorry…loyal subjects into a jail cell 18 feet long by 14 feet wide. Only 23 people survived the night. 123 people were crushed to death inside the cell. So, in seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-seven, Sir Roger Dowlett was sent to heaven. We beat him and his Frenchy helpers at the Battle of Plassey a hundred years ago this June, and that’s how we won India.”

“Perfect,” said Orchid. “Now run off and play.”

“Oh boy!” said Christopher excitedly in anticipation of a debate. “You’ve got the story all wrong there, Thomas.”

“I know why,” said Julia. “The prince’s name wasn’t Sir Roger Dowlett at all. It was Siraj Ud Daula. Sir Roger Dowlett was just a nickname.”

“Excellent,” said Orchid. “Now everyone has contributed to today’s history lesson. See? Was it so wrong of me to indulge the children with recess, Mr. Maxwell? It’s remarkable how erudite the baba logue are.”

As far as I was concerned, the woman’s surliness was an insult to the sacredness of her position. I knew intuitively that her fluency didn’t help matters. I guessed that she fancied herself a persecuted intellectual. But I thought she had no call to describe a child as dense to his face, particularly one so high-spirited as Thomas. I could understand why he disliked her. I suppose she was attempting to make an impression of some kind on me. But in my mind, I thought of Rupee, my grandmother, a buriah ayah of the old order, the compassionate true head of the household whatever the men of the family might think or have thought of her, shrewd, patient, and nurturing. This woman was no match for her.

I sat down beside a row of rose hedges, motioning for Julia and Thomas to join me. Julia of course remained in place, but Thomas edged forward.

“Siraj Ud Daula, or Sir Roger Dowlett as you called him, was the last Nawab of Bengal,” I explained authoritatively.  “Now, why did he attack the East India Company’s forces?”

“Because they were Brits?”

“No. It was because they defied his orders and began stockpiling weapons in Fort William in Calcutta. Fine bubble there, incidentally.”

“Why did they stockpile weapons?” he asked guiltily. (I’d just caught him blowing bubbles of saliva in boredom.)

“They were afraid of the French, who were causing trouble, as they always do in world history. Anyway, after Siraj…after he captured Fort William, some angry Europeans assaulted the native soldiers assigned to guard them. It was only then that Siraj’s officers threw all 146 prisoners into the Black Hole as punishment. When the guards told the prisoners to get inside, everyone thought it was all a joke, at first. But then their laugher transformed into terrified screams and pleas.”

I hoped that my effective use of hyperbole was proving entertaining to my audience.

“So, Siraj’s officers did it,” yawned Thomas, “and not Siraj himself?”

“Siraj was asleep—that was his excuse. Anyway, the soldiers might not have meant for the prisoners to die…when they began to die. But everyone was too afraid to wake up the prince and ask permission to unlock the doors. And so the native guards stood by as 123 people were smothered and trampled to death.”

“That’s just what I said,” said Thomas. “You’re only making the story longer, Uncle Maxim.”

“You missed the moral of the story.”

“Oh?”

“It teaches us what happens when small-minded people use the excuse of following orders to justify their evil actions. Besides, you lacked details. For example, you didn’t even mention Robert Clive, the man who avenged the Black Hole at the Battle of Plassey. When it was all over, Siraj was betrayed by his own troops, and then he was killed.”

“And what happened to Robert Clive?”

“As a matter of fact,” interrupted Christopher, “he stuck a pen-knife into his neck in middle age. Thomas was absolutely right, Maxim! Your version of the story was no different from his. Show the kids that they can question history—that they can change the meaning of the story in retrospect, and make up their own morals. What if I told you, Tom, that Siraj Ud Daula was right to defy the British?”

“Right to defy the British?” screamed Thomas.

“From Siraj Ud Daula’s perspective, yes,” said Christopher.

“Right to suffocate all those people?” cried Julia, willing to join the conversation now that Christopher was in it.

“Christopher,” I said, “you’re ruining the lesson.” I had meant to set a calm example of the Socratic method to Orchid and was instead being upstaged.

“Wasn’t Siraj right to fight for his people’s freedom?”

“I don’t care what he was fighting for,” said Julia decisively to Christopher. “He was wrong to throw all of those people into the Black Hole. Those helpless prisoners were his responsibility, and their murder only made the British seek revenge. He didn’t help anybody, least of all his own people. But history will have its revenge on him. He’ll be remembered for all time as a villain.”

“Some people,” said Christopher, “argue that the Black Hole never really existed.”

“Oh, it existed,” I said. “There’s a plaque commemorating it somewhere in Calcutta.”

“This is an interesting history lesson,” said Thomas.

“You see, Maxim?” said Christopher. “I didn’t ruin anything. I was helping your lesson along, though you were too caught up in yourself to realize it.”

“These children need to be packed off to Scotland,” I repeated, secretly enjoying the visible effect that this threat had on them. It suppose it made me feel powerful in a petty kind of way. Admit it or not, but it can be pleasurable to be malicious to the weak when you can get away with it sometimes.

“If we were lucky, we’d all be sent far away from this place,” said Orchid. “Come along now, children, and go inside. It’s too hot to be out here.” She turned to me. “Your brother is away just now inspecting the vats, Mr. Maxwell. Andrea—I mean Mrs. Maxwell the Younger—is bed-ridden, and your stepmother, Mrs. Maxwell the Elder, is tending to her.”

“You know,” I said, “there’s no shame in being a governess. And certainly none in being a teacher.”

“Well, I’m afraid I’m no pedagogue. You found me out.” She smiled for a moment, and then became serious. “You’ve been unfriendly and formal with me from the start, Mr. Maxwell, and I confess that I’ve also been less than polite. But you needn’t think of me as your enemy. There’s no place for either of us here.”

“Speak for yourself. You certainly have a lot to say for a stranger. This is my home. My family is here.”

She rolled her eyes.

“I thought I had it on good authority,” I offered as a parting shot, “that your people respected family ties, though perhaps I was mistaken.”

Orchid’s mouth tightened.

“I didn’t ask to be an ayah, Mr. Maxwell. You know, I was a person of some importance in my world before it was destroyed. I am of pure Tartar blood. My father was a bannerman in the emperor’s army. Now, the truth is I’m practically a slave in this household. You have no call to put on airs with me to show off for your friend.”

She turned to Christopher,

“I was impressed by your lesson,” she said awkwardly, the first words she had spoken directly to him since our arrival.

I remember that the sense of desperation in her voice was offset by a certain kind of self-assured dignity, a sort of nobility of bearing that I couldn’t help but admire. Anglo-Indian manners were nothing to this woman.

Christopher only wrinkled his brow in response to her compliment. She turned away and walked slowly toward the house. I watched her leave, studying the swaying motion of her body as she moved. I wondered where she kept herself during the day.

“Some pumpkins…” muttered Christopher. “She’s off her rocker on laudanum, you understand. There’s no telling what she’ll say when she’s on the stuff.”

“Of course,” I said. “What else could account for such insolence?”

The truth was, though, that I hadn’t realized this nor even considered the possibility of this.

It was then that I heard the sound of galloping. I turned and saw Vivian riding side-saddle toward me with reckless speed.

“I’m not bald, by the way,” said Christopher, retreating reluctantly toward the house. “I’m balding. And only ever so slightly.”

I was no longer listening.

Vivian leapt from the horse. Her sea-green eyes were accentuated by the emerald ribbons of her riding habit. She was ungloved, but she took my palms in hers, shaming me. My hands were filthy, and they always became embarrassingly clammy whenever I was around her.

“I don’t know what to say,” she whispered tearfully, and embraced me. My lips grazed her cheek, excruciatingly soft. I’d almost forgotten the impossible beauty of her face, snow white in a frame of jet.

The state of my costume was not lost on her. She even shuddered at the sight of it, quickly but visibly. This pleased me immensely. Yet I couldn’t help but notice a silver locket around her neck which I knew contained a maudlin daguerreotype of Daniel, and so I too shuddered.

Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VI (The World Turned Upside Down)

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I turned Thomas onto his head, swinging him around in circles by his feet for a while.

“The world’s turned upside down!” he shrieked to the rhythm if not the tune of the popular song.

I set him down and ruffled his hair. Then I continued speaking with him about the family. Perhaps I could steal further truths from the mouths of these babes.

“So why did your parents appoint you two wee sentinels to wait for me?”

“Well, we weren’t exactly waiting for you,” said Thomas, obliviously contradicting what he’d said a moment ago. “Orchid said that we could recite our lessons outside today. We make too much noise indoors. Mama is going to have her baby any day now and has to stay in bed all the time… Besides, the parlor has been even hotter than the garden since Fuad left us.”

“Fuad?”

“The boy who swings the ceiling fan. He’s my friend, even though he is just a punkah wallah. Nanna Molly says that he’s run off. But the truth is that his parents forced him to stop coming to the Highlands. Everyone’s afraid of what will happen if the mutiny comes here… Anyway, I like being outside! Julia and me are lucky.”

“Julia and I, dummy!” she said, unable to resist the urge to correct someone.

“Who cares? It’s a holiday in the garden today instead of boring history lessons!”

“So you weren’t waiting for me?”

“Not exactly. But Christopher has been driving back and forth between here and Cawnpore ever since we heard you’d come back to India. The Grand Trunk Road is dangerous, Uncle Maxim. No one travels overland anymore—not even by bullock cart.”

This answer pleased me. At least it provided a justification for the lack of a proper reception. After all, my family couldn’t have known precisely when I’d be back. And there was a crisis afoot. For a moment, I’d almost forgotten about that. No one would take the trouble to pretend to be caught off-guard by my arrival. No one but Christopher, anyway, who would never admit that he was out looking for me every day.

Just then, I heard him humming Loch Lomond. He’d evidently settled his accounts with the bullock and was ready to join us.

“Hey baldy, where’s these children’s ayah?” I said as soon as he arrived. His nostrils flared in response to my taunt.

“You aren’t bald,” cried Julia, running to embrace him. “It’s only that you have a high forehead. You’re the most handsome man in the District. Yulan told me that everybody thinks so!”

“It’s outrageous for these children to be left alone like this,” I said. “The heat alone could kill them. I thought I saw their ayah on the verandah when I was getting out of the hackery, but she seems to have vanished.”

“Orchid says that she has a headache,” said Thomas, responding before Christopher had a chance to do so (he was still fuming, by the way; my insult had been a simple but effective one). “She always pretends to have headaches. I hate her.”

“How can you speak that way in front of a stranger?” said Julia. “And her name isn’t Orchid. It’s Yulan.”

“You’re the only one who calls her by that name. And besides, I’m just telling the truth. That’s what General Washington always did. Isn’t that right, Christopher?”

“Christopher!” said Julia, “explain to Thomas that he shouldn’t speak so rudely about Yulan. She’s wonderful. Besides, tell him that it doesn’t matter what he thinks about her. He should never let anybody know. Explain to him that he has to learn to be a better liar if he wants to be a proper English gentleman.”

“Bloody hell!” cried Christopher, sending the children into peals of laughter. “Don’t tell your mothers I said that.”

Julia was pleased that her words had managed to provoke such a scandalous reaction. She proceeded to speak with decreasing reluctance. Christopher’s being there gave her an excuse to be talkative. But she had yet to address even a single sentence to me directly.

“Yulan taught me all about English manners. She said that if there’s one thing she’s realized since leaving China, it’s that the art of being an English gentleman is the same as the art of being a good liar.”

“What jaded nonsense!” I said. “Your parents should send you both off to school in Scotland.”

“Oh never!” gasped Thomas as if I’d just wished a tumor on him.

“You need better teachers than what you can find here.” Then, I addressed Christopher with a wink. “Auntie Francis and Auntie Marie could take them in, as they did Vivian and me. Why, I wager that Thomas can’t even read.”

“I can so read!”

“And I can read too!” said Julia to Christopher, childishly eager to reclaim the interest of the group but still pointedly ignoring me. “Yulan taught me two years ago. I was so smart that I didn’t even need to be sent to Mr. Shiels’ school in Fatehgurh. And I can even read some Chinese too. Can’t I, Christopher?”

“Who cares about Chinese?” laughed Thomas. “Orchid is a Celestial, but even she speaks English.”

“Her name is Yulan!”

“I don’t care! Chinese is useless. And by the way, Julia,  by the time that we grow up everybody in the world will speak English because Britannia rules the waves! Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! Britons, never never never never never…” his boyish satisfaction intoning the song in a mechanical monotone overcame his desire to complete the verse.

“This is all horribly irresponsible,” I took the opportunity to say to Christopher, scratching Thomas playfully on his head as he continued to intone never never never. “It is scalding out here, and the baba logue are completely unsupervised.”

“Don’t repeat yourself when you have nothing interesting to say, Maxim. And anyway, what does the heat have to do with the importance of supervision?”

“Well, suppose that the little girl should faint.”

“She seems wakeful enough to me,” said Christopher as Julia tugged energetically on Thomas’ hair. Instinctively aware that she was a subject of interest again, she released her victim and threw her arms about Christopher, catching sneaking glances at me as she did so. I knew that her flirtatious playfulness with him was a way of torturing me. She resembled her mother closely.

“Oh, Christopher!”

“Yes?”

“I wish that Uncle Peter would throw a burra khana for you.”

“A burra khana for me? Aren’t there other people around here a little more deserving of the honor of a party, Julia? Someone who’s been away a long time?”

“I don’t care who he throws it for…”

“You mean, you don’t care whom he throws it for, bitch,” chimed Thomas. Then he immediately turned to me and pleaded, “Please don’t tell Nana Molly that I called her a bitch, but she’s being a great big one!”

“I want us to have a burra khana very badly,” continued Julia angrily. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had any fun in the District. I went to a burra khana thrown by Mr. Hillersdon last February in Cawnpore and wore a real taffeta gown. Mother sewed it for me, and I still have it in my wardrobe.”

“How boring!” cried Thomas. “Uncle Maxim doesn’t give a shit about taffeta gowns, do you Uncle Maxim?”

“Thomas, your language!” screamed Julia. “That’s enough.”

“He curses like a third mate on shore leave these days,” said Christopher. “Of course, Molly is livid, but Peter finds it all too amusing to really discipline him.”

“But gentlemen shouldn’t swear in the presence of ladies, should they, Thomas?” I asked in imitation of my father at his most patronizing.

“Julia’s no lady,” he laughed. “And didn’t Christopher say bloody hell? Besides, I wouldn’t ever talk like this in front of Nanna Molly or Mama or Ayah Rupee. Im not stupid. They’d box my ears.”

“Would you dance with me at a burra khana if we threw one?” continued Julia sweetly to Christopher. “I’ve been practicing the quadrille with mother, you know.”

“After the dance, maybe Uncle Christopher could do magic tricks,” said Thomas. “What he did with the cards just now is better than anything I saw at Rob’s birthday party, when we had that scary snake charmer who made me want to cry.”

“I’m afraid that you’re describing me like a professional clown.”

“You are sort of a clown with your magic tricks and red hair and tan face and blue eyes!”

I grabbed the boy and mercilessly tickled him. He squealed before squirming out of my grip.

“I was only telling you the truth, Uncle Maxim, just like General Washington always did. Uncle Maxim?

“Yes?

“What did you get me from China?”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

“Who told you that I was in China?”

“Papa. He said that you were probably a moonshee there.”

“I was in Nicaragua,” I yelped. “I was a freebooter.”

“What did you get me?”

“The deck of trick cards.”

“Is that all?”

“I’d be too afraid of catching fleas to touch any of his gifts,” said Julia.

“Who asked you?” bellowed the little boy. “Most women go mad once a month, but you’re daft every day!”

“Be quiet, or I’ll push you over!”

“Be quiet, or I’ll pull out all your hair!”

Suddenly, Julia whispered something into Thomas’ ear. She was wearing a calico dress I recalled as having once belonged to Vivian. I struggled to resurrect my memory of her mother as a child. I searched for Vivian in her daughter’s eyes and recognized the shadow of my beloved. But her mother’s complexion, I thought to myself, was even more achingly white.

“Listen, Christopher!” chirped Julia, tugging at his sleeve.  “I want to show you what a good teacher Yulan is… better than any professor in Scotland. Thomas, recite the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta.”

“I hate my history lessons!”

“Recite the story… or I’ll pinch you.”

“The blind are leading the blind,” I sighed. “Honestly, it’s like a crime to leave two kids to their own devices like this with a mutiny festering in the District. The ayah needs to learn her place.”

“I quite agree with you, Mr. Maxwell,” suddenly rang a pure English voice. “If I saw that damned Johnny, I’d slap her face.”

A young Chinese woman presently approached us, little Rob in her arms. When we first drove up to the garden, I thought that I’d seen her in the distance cooling herself on the verandah with a bone fan, but she’d disappeared by the time that I met the children. In the meantime she’d crept up on us with such suddenness that she quite startled me. I recall that she smelled of vetiver, even then. Her race blinded me to her beauty.

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.

Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter IV (We Reach the Highlands)

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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.”

“Oh?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“So you were lying about filibustering in Nicaragua too, I see.”

“You misunderstand me. I simply came to Calcutta via Canton.”

“Ah.”

“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.

Remember Cawnpore, A Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter III (A Prodigious Amount of Ganja and Charas Is Ingested)

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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.”

Silence.

“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.”

“Excuse me?”

“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-”

“I’m Scotch.”

“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-”

“Who?”

“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.”

“So what?”

“In other words, it wasn’t anonymous folk music that they created. It was something greater than that—something defiant and patriotic.”

“And?”

“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.”

“Utter nonsense.”

“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.”

“Were we?”

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.

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.

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.