A Passage to India CHAPTER XXXV

Long before he discovered Mau, another young Mohammedan had retired there—a saint. His mother said to him, “Free prisoners.” So he took a sword and went up to the fort. He unlocked a door, and the prisoners streamed out and resumed their previous occupations, but the police were too much annoyed and cut off the young man’s head. Ignoring its absence, he made his way over the rocks that separate the fort and the town, killing policemen as he went, and he fell outside his mother’s house, having accomplished her orders. Consequently there are two shrines to him to-day—that of the Head above, and that of the Body below—and they are worshipped by the few Mohammedans who live near, and by Hindus also. “There is no God but God”; that symmetrical injunction melts in the mild airs of Mau; it belongs to pilgrimages and universities, not to feudalism and agriculture. When Aziz arrived, and found that even Islam was idolatrous, he grew scornful, and longed to purify the place, like Alamgir. But soon he didn’t mind, like Akbar. After all, this saint had freed prisoners, and he himself had lain in prison. The Shrine of the Body lay in his own garden and produced a weekly crop of lamps and flowers, and when he saw them he recalled his sufferings. The Shrine of the Head made a nice short walk for the children. He was off duty the morning after the great pujah, and he told them to come. Jemila held his hand. Ahmed and Karim ran in front, arguing what the body looked like as it came staggering down, and whether they would have been frightened if they met it. He didn’t want them to grow up superstitious, so he rebuked them, and they answered yes father, for they were well brought up, but, like himself, they were impervious to argument, and after a polite pause they continued saying what their natures compelled them to say.

A slim, tall eight-sided building stood at the top of the slope, among some bushes. This was the Shrine of the Head. It had not been roofed, and was indeed merely a screen. Inside it crouched a humble dome, and inside that, visible through a grille, was a truncated gravestone, swathed in calico. The inner angles of the screen were cumbered with bees’ nests, and a gentle shower of broken wings and other aerial oddments kept falling, and had strewn the damp pavement with their flue. Ahmed, apprized by Mohammed Latif of the character of the bee, said, “They will not hurt us, whose lives are chaste,” and pushed boldly in; his sister was more cautious. From the shrine they went to a mosque, which, in size and design, resembled a fire-screen; the arcades of Chandrapore had shrunk to a flat piece of ornamental stucco, with protuberances at either end to suggest minarets. The funny little thing didn’t even stand straight, for the rock on which it had been put was slipping down the hill. It, and the shrine, were a strange outcome of the protests of Arabia.

They wandered over the old fort, now deserted, and admired the various views. The scenery, according to their standards, was delightful—the sky grey and black, bellyfuls of rain all over it, the earth pocked with pools of water and slimy with mud. A magnificent monsoon—the best for three years, the tanks already full, bumper crops possible. Out towards the river (the route by which the Fieldings had escaped from Deora) the downpour had been enormous, the mails had to be pulled across by ropes. They could just see the break in the forest trees where the gorge came through, and the rocks above that marked the site of the diamond mine, glistening with wet. Close beneath was the suburban residence of the Junior Rani, isolated by floods, and Her Highness, lax about purdah, to be seen paddling with her handmaidens in the garden and waving her sari at the monkeys on the roof. But better not look close beneath, perhaps—nor towards the European Guest House either. Beyond the Guest House rose another grey-green gloom of hills, covered with temples like little white flames. There were over two hundred gods in that direction alone, who visited each other constantly, and owned numerous cows, and all the betel-leaf industry, besides having shares in the Asirgarh motor omnibus. Many of them were in the palace at this moment, having the time of their lives; others, too large or proud to travel, had sent symbols to represent them. The air was thick with religion and rain.

Their white shirts fluttering, Ahmed and Karim ran about over the fort, shrieking with joy. Presently they intersected a line of prisoners, who were looking aimlessly at an old bronze gun. “Which of you is to be pardoned?” they asked. For to-night was the procession of the Chief God, when He would leave the palace, escorted by the whole power of the State, and pass by the Jail, which stood down in the town now. As He did so, troubling the waters of our civilization, one prisoner would be released, and then He would proceed to the great Mau tank that stretched as far as the Guest House garden, where something else would happen, some final or subsidiary apotheosis, after which He would submit to the experience of sleep. The Aziz family did not grasp as much as this, being Moslem, but the visit to the Jail was common knowledge. Smiling, with downcast eyes, the prisoners discussed with the gentry their chances of salvation. Except for the irons on their legs, they resembled other men, nor did they feel different. Five of them, who had not yet been brought to trial, could expect no pardon, but all who had been convicted were full of hope. They did not distinguish between the God and the Rajah in their minds, both were too far above them; but the guard was better educated, and ventured to enquire after His Highness’s health.

“It always improves,” replied the medicine man. As a matter of fact, the Rajah was dead, the ceremony overnight had overtaxed his strength. His death was being concealed lest the glory of the festival were dimmed. The Hindu physician, the Private Secretary, and a confidential servant remained with the corpse, while Aziz had assumed the duty of being seen in public, and misleading people. He had liked the ruler very much, and might not prosper under his successor, yet he could not worry over such problems yet, for he was involved in the illusion he helped to create. The children continued to run about, hunting for a frog to put in Mohammed Latif’s bed, the little fools. Hundreds of frogs lived in their own garden, but they must needs catch one up on the fort. They reported two topis below. Fielding and his brother-in-law, instead of resting after their journey, were climbing the slope to the saint’s tomb!

“Throw stones?” asked Karim.

“Put powdered glass in their pan?”

“Ahmed, come here for such wickedness.” He raised his hand to smite his firstborn, but allowed it to be kissed instead. It was sweet to have his sons with him at this moment, and to know they were affectionate and brave. He pointed out that the Englishmen were State guests, so must not be poisoned, and received, as always, gentle yet enthusiastic assent to his words.

The two visitors entered the octagon, but rushed out at once pursued by some bees. Hither and thither they ran, beating their heads; the children shrieked with derision, and out of heaven, as if a plug had been pulled, fell a jolly dollop of rain. Aziz had not meant to greet his former friend, but the incident put him into an excellent temper. He felt compact and strong. He shouted out, “Hullo, gentlemen, are you in trouble?”

The brother-in-law exclaimed; a bee had got him.

“Lie down in a pool of water, my dear sir—here are plenty. Don’t come near me. . . . I cannot control them, they are State bees; complain to His Highness of their behaviour.” There was no real danger, for the rain was increasing. The swarm retired to the shrine. He went up to the stranger and pulled a couple of stings out of his wrist, remarking, “Come, pull yourself together and be a man.”

“How do you do, Aziz, after all this time? I heard you were settled in here,” Fielding called to him, but not in friendly tones. “I suppose a couple of stings don’t signify.”

“Not the least. I’ll send an embrocation over to the Guest House. I heard you were settled in there.”

“Why have you not answered my letters?” he asked, going straight for the point, but not reaching it, owing to buckets of rain. His companion, new to the country, cried, as the drops drummed on his topi, that the bees were renewing their attack. Fielding checked his antics rather sharply, then said: “Is there a short cut down to our carriage? We must give up our walk. The weather’s pestilential.”

“Yes. That way.”

“Are you not coming down yourself?”

Aziz sketched a comic salaam; like all Indians, he was skilful in the slighter impertinences. “I tremble, I obey,” the gesture said, and it was not lost upon Fielding. They walked down a rough path to the road—the two men first; the brother-in-law (boy rather than man) next, in a state over his arm, which hurt; the three Indian children last, noisy and impudent—all six wet through.

“How goes it, Aziz?”

“In my usual health.”

“Are you making anything out of your life here?”

“How much do you make out of yours?”

“Who is in charge of the Guest House?” he asked, giving up his slight effort to recapture their intimacy, and growing more official; he was older and sterner.

“His Highness’s Private Secretary, probably.”

“Where is he, then?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because not a soul’s been near us since we arrived.”


“I wrote beforehand to the Durbar, and asked if a visit was convenient. I was told it was, and arranged my tour accordingly; but the Guest House servants appear to have no definite instructions, we can’t get any eggs, also my wife wants to go out in the boat.”

“There are two boats.”

“Exactly, and no oars.”

“Colonel Maggs broke the oars when here last.”

“All four?”

“He is a most powerful man.”

“If the weather lifts, we want to see your torchlight procession from the water this evening,” he pursued. “I wrote to Godbole about it, but he has taken no notice; it’s a place of the dead.”

“Perhaps your letter never reached the Minister in question.”

“Will there be any objection to English people watching the procession?”

“I know nothing at all about the religion here. I should never think of watching it myself.”

“We had a very different reception both at Mudkul and Deora, they were kindness itself at Deora, the Maharajah and Maharani wanted us to see everything.”

“You should never have left them.”

“Jump in, Ralph”—they had reached the carriage.

“Jump in, Mr. Quested, and Mr. Fielding.”

“Who on earth is Mr. Quested?”

“Do I mispronounce that well known name? Is he not your wife’s brother?”

“Who on earth do you suppose I’ve married?”

“I’m only Ralph Moore,” said the boy, blushing, and at that moment there fell another pailful of the rain, and made a mist round their feet. Aziz tried to withdraw, but it was too late.

“Quested? Quested? Don’t you know that my wife was Mrs. Moore’s daughter?”

He trembled, and went purplish grey; he hated the news, hated hearing the name Moore.

“Perhaps this explains your odd attitude?”

“And pray what is wrong with my attitude?”

“The preposterous letter you allowed Mahmoud Ali to write for you.”

“This is a very useless conversation, I consider.”

“However did you make such a mistake?” said Fielding, more friendly than before, but scathing and scornful. “It’s almost unbelievable. I should think I wrote you half a dozen times, mentioning my wife by name. Miss Quested! What an extraordinary notion!” From his smile, Aziz guessed that Stella was beautiful. “Miss Quested is our best friend, she introduced us, but . . . what an amazing notion. Aziz, we must thrash this misunderstanding out later on. It is clearly some devilry of Mahmoud Ali’s. He knows perfectly well I married Miss Moore. He called her ‘Heaslop’s sister’ in his insolent letter to me.”

The name woke furies in him. “So she is, and here is Heaslop’s brother, and you his brother-in-law, and good-bye.” Shame turned into a rage that brought back his self-respect. “What does it matter to me who you marry? Don’t trouble me here at Mau is all I ask. I do not want you, I do not want one of you in my private life, with my dying breath I say it. Yes, yes, I made a foolish blunder; despise me and feel cold. I thought you married my enemy. I never read your letter. Mahmoud Ali deceived me. I thought you’d stolen my money, but”—he clapped his hands together, and his children gathered round him—“it’s as if you stole it. I forgive Mahmoud Ali all things, because he loved me.” Then pausing, while the rain exploded like pistols, he said, “My heart is for my own people henceforward,” and turned away. Cyril followed him through the mud, apologizing, laughing a little, wanting to argue and reconstruct, pointing out with irrefragable logic that he had married, not Heaslop’s betrothed, but Heaslop’s sister. What difference did it make at this hour of the day? He had built his life on a mistake, but he had built it. Speaking in Urdu, that the children might understand, he said: “Please do not follow us, whomever you marry. I wish no Englishman or Englishwoman to be my friend.”

He returned to the house excited and happy. It had been an uneasy, uncanny moment when Mrs. Moore’s name was mentioned, stirring memories. “Esmiss Esmoor . . .”—as though she was coming to help him. She had always been so good, and that youth whom he had scarcely looked at was her son, Ralph Moore, Stella and Ralph, whom he had promised to be kind to, and Stella had married Cyril.