A Far Horizon - 2001
Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd
From Chapter One
The news arrived late in Calcutta and was brought to the Chief Magistrate by the Governor himself. Relations between the two men were strained. For the purpose of work they managed a cool but civil environment, circling each other like two prize beetles that might one day be forced to fight. Governor Drake extended his evening walk within Fort William, descending by the East Gate to pass the Reserve Battery until he arrived at the Chief Magistrate’s door. Given a choice, he would not have skirted the cemetery at night, nor have been persuaded inside Holwell’s house which, by the placement of the Governor’s apartments within the fort, he was forced to observe day and night. He was surprised to find himself doing both these things. It convinced him of the seriousness of the occasion…
The Chief Magistrate leaned back in his chair, listening to the soft slap of the river at the bottom of his garden. He had chosen to build his house on the bank of the Hoogly not only for the coolness it afforded, but also for the bittersweet memory. The thick odour of the water threw him back, if only for a moment, to the place where he had been born; he had grown up beside a river. On summer nights the scent had pervaded his dreams, with the distant rush of water spilling through the weir. There was no denying the pain when he had to put aside these memories and open his eyes to a ragged fringe of coconut palms. Exile obliged him to forget while forcing him to remember in order to survive. Holwell shifted in his chair. The lapping of water from the nearby Hoogly came to him again. The river was like no other he could remember.
Beyond the veranda the trees were alight with fireflies, the moon streaked the Hoogly bronze. Crickets and bullfrogs still battled in the night, but even this din sank into the silence of the great river. This monstrous silence both drew and repelled the Chief Magistrate, much as India itself drew and repelled him. The very soil of the place seemed possessed of a wily, murderous soul and his life was a battle against it. The river exuded the dank odour of decay, of things that festered, hidden away. The corpses of thousands were dumped in its waters, the defecation of millions coloured its tide. It ate its meal of death and rot and opened its mouth for more, as did India herself. In this land everything decayed. Flesh sickened, devoured by maggots, worms and parasites even as it lived. Death waited for its victims in the air, the grass, the sweetest fruit or the waters of the well. If not buried or burned within a few hours, a body would swell and sometimes burst with the speed of its own destruction.
This voracious need to destroy and assimilate was the nature of the country, thought the Chief Magistrate, and shivered in the balmy night. If India had taught him one thing, it was a view of his own identity he might otherwise not have learned.