Isolation Tales 2: The Mistake At The Monsoon Palace

Reading & Writing

Changing the tone from the previous story, which was written very early on in my career, this tale was based on something that actually happened to me in India. It was first published in the collection ‘Red Gloves’ in 2011. The edition was small press, but a very beautiful hardback volume of 25 new stories, half from around the world, half from the UK.

 

The Mistake at the Monsoon Palace

‘Iska kyadaam hal?’

            ‘How much does this cost?’

Marion Wilson gave up trying to memorise the phrases. She looked up from her guidebook, switching her attention to the driver. ‘Sorry, what did you say?’

‘I said my cousin owns the best pashmina shop in Jaipur,’ Shere told her. ‘He will be honoured to make you a special deal because you are my valued client.’

            Sure, she thought, this guy is your cousin, your brother, your uncle, anyone other than some creep you cut deals with to rob rich, gullible Americans. She impatiently tapped the guidebook with her forefinger, recalling the page about touts and conmen.

‘I assure you, you will not find finer materials in all of India.’

‘Forget it, Shere, it’s not going to happen,’ she told him. ‘Trust me, I bought enough stuff yesterday to fill an extra suitcase.’ In the three days that Shere had been appointed as her driver, they had visited jewelry stores selling silver bracelets that broke in half the first time you wore them, ‘hand-woven’ scarves produced by children in a Mumbai sweatshop and wooden statues of Ganesh that looked like they’d been speed-carved in the dark. ‘Let’s get on, it’s already ten.’

‘But Madam, this shop is of highest quality, government approved, everyone goes there, Richard Gere, everyone.’ The driver was wobbling his head amiably. ‘We stop for five minutes, no longer, and you do not have to buy if you do not wish.’

‘Well, I do not wish.’ She pulled a small plastic bottle of antiseptic wash from her trousers and poured a little of the blue liquid into her hands. She had been touching rupees so soft and brown that they looked as if they’d been used for – she dreaded to think what. She silently repeated the hygiene rule; right hand for taking money and greeting, because here the left hand was used as a substitute for toilet paper. Not that she was as pernickety as some. Iris, her companion from Ohio, had arrived in Delhi with an entire suitcase full of bottled water, which was taking things a little too far.

The little white taxi nosed its way back out of the crowded market square toward the main road, a dusty two-lane highway filled with overladen trucks, hay carts and sleeping cows. It was the end of the first week in July, and the monsoon season had yet to start, but the sky was dark with sinister cumulus. The ever-present pink mists that softened the views in every town they had visited had gone now, to be replaced by hot clear stillness. Marion wanted to open the window, to breathe something other than filtered freezing air, but could see black clouds of mosquitoes rising from ditches of dead water as the car passed.

Her attention drifted back to the guide book, which had fallen open on a list of Indian gods. The text was accompanied by tiny pastel drawings which made them all look the same. Bhairav. Ganesha. Hanuman. Rama. Shiva. Surya. Vishnu. Arrayed in lilac and yellow, blue and pink they rode birds, bore swords, cups, fire, tridents and bows, a vast network of deities who still seemed to hold some kind of power over the lives of ordinary people…she felt her eyes closing as the car swayed, and saw for a moment a bejeweled god lit by a curved prism of rubies and sapphires, spangling and spinning from his head. Feeling faint, she blinked the colours away.

She glanced up to the scenes rolling beyond the glass. Azure, crimson and sunflower bolts of cloth were stacked on the dirty pavement like a disassembled rainbow. The traffic was detouring around a buffalo that stood in the middle of the road, patiently chewing a plastic bag. It wore a gold-trimmed dress, its horns painted blue, its pierced ears laced with bells.

An ancient, bony man in a pink turban was squatting on the hard shoulder, cooking a chicken over an upright burning tyre.

A motorized rickshaw overtook them with two children and a piebald goat wedged inside it.

An elephant driver was asleep in a faded red houdah, waiting for tourist coaches that would not arrive – the latest wave of terrorist bombings had seen to that.        A wedding band in yellow and silver uniforms were wearily donning the jackets they had dried on a row of thorn bushes.

A quartet of girls in identical yellow saris walked by, all listening to the same song on their mobile phones.

What do they think when they see me? Marion thought. Do they even see me? Am I as invisible to them as they are in my country?

What she first thought was a sparkling blue lake turned out to be a great ditch filled with empty plastic bottles.

‘Where you want to go now?’ the driver asked. Marion looked down at the guidebook in her lap and squinted at endless pages of forts and markets. Despite the low temperature in the vehicle, she felt overheated and fractious. She was still angry with Iris for deserting her five days into the trip. A few bouts of diarrhoea and she was calling her husband, making arrangements to return home. The secret was to keep tackling the spicy food until your stomach adjusted, Marion had been told. You’ve an iron constitution, her father had always said, you’re made of stronger stuff than your mother. You just have too much imagination.

The driver had pulled the car over to the side of the road, and was talking to two young men with old faces, nondescript Indians of the type you saw everywhere, skinny and serious to the point of appearing mournful, with side partings and brown sweaters and baggy suit trousers hiding thin legs. Most of the men seemed to do nothing but sit around drinking chai while the women wielded pick-axes in rubble-filled vacant lots.

She tried to listen in on the conversation but realized they were speaking Hindi. ‘Who are these people?’ she asked, leaning forward between the headrests.

‘My brothers. They would like to get a lift. It is not far to their town.’

‘I met your brothers three days ago, Shere, and these are not the same guys. You think everyone looks the same to foreigners? They don’t, not anymore. Those days are over. These guys are not your brothers and cannot come in the car, it’s out of the question. Besides, I thought we had to get to Jodhpur?’

‘That is tomorrow. Today you may choose where you would like to go.’

To be honest, she was not entirely sure where they were going next. Everything on the itinerary sounded the same. She had picked it from four others on her travel agent’s website. According to the schedule, she was staying in an old Maharajah’s palace, a vast amber fortress that looked like a child’s sandcastle in the photograph, now converted into a luxury hotel. She was tired of eating in ornate, deserted dining rooms. The only other tourists she had seen on the entire trip were a pair of elderly British ladies who seemed to be duplicating her trip town by town. Their reasons for coming to India mystified her, because she often overheard them sharply asking the waiters for poached eggs or sausages and toast, anything but Indian food.

She studied the arguing men from the window. Perhaps they were really his brothers. Everything here was designed to confuse, and everyone, it seemed had the same first impressions; the colours, the mess, the filth, the lost grandeur, the blurred light, the beautiful children…part of her wanted to explore the narrow backstreets alone, but the touts and beggars were simply too exhausting, and Shere insisted on remained by her side wherever she went. It was clearly considered too dangerous to let tourists explore for themselves. It seemed that they had to be brought in and unloaded, like boats being towed to docks.

But oh, the children. Tiny boys with withered feet or hands, dragging themselves along the central reservation of the road on little carts, kohl-eyed girls balancing crying babies on their hips, boys twirling coloured strings on their caps to attract attention or tapping with endless patience on the windows of idling cars, selling copies of Vogue, a grotesquely ironic choice of periodical to assign to a beggar. The country was a smashed mirror with some pieces reflecting the past, others the future. Between the tower blocks and tin-roofed slums a Dickensian tapestry was being endlessly unpicked and rewoven, a world where nothing could be achieved without carbon papers and rubber stamps, where ten did the work of one and one the work of ten.

Shere crunched the gears and pulled away from the men in some anger, swinging into the traffic without looking, so that trucks and rickshaws had to swerve from his path. ‘So where do you want to go?’ he asked, glancing at her in the mirror.

‘I hadn’t really – ‘

My relationship with this man has changed over the past week, she thought, holding onto the door strap. He’s so bored that he barely sees me. I thought I was in control, but now I wouldn’t be able to do anything without him, and the further we get away from tourist spots, the more I am forced to rely on his services. The drivers run everything here.

‘Could you turn the air conditioning down for a while?’ She flapped the guidebook at her breast.

He looked horrified by the idea, but did as she requested. She tried to study the book as they bounced through a convoy of trucks painted the shades of children’s toys. Phrases swam up at her. ‘Once known as the Land of Death’. ‘Funeral pyres at dusk’. ‘Nausea, cramps and exhaustion.’ The pictures of the forts and palaces all looked the same; crenellated battlements, archways, turrets and domes. She turned the page. Singh Pohl Monsoon Palace. An ochre pavilion, perfectly proportioned, overgrown, surrounded by sandstone walkways and set on a perfectly square lake, the green water so still that it mirrored the building, doubling its size. She raised the book and pointed. ‘I think I’d like to go here.’

He looked over his shoulder and studied the directions impassively. ‘Forty five kilometers, maybe more. It is not on our route.’

She read from the guidebook. Vishnu, the most human of all gods, still haunts the forests around the Singh Pohl Palace. A flute, a peacock feather and the colour blue announce his presence. An earlier temple to the god Parjanya exists upon this site.

‘Yeah, that’s where I want to go.’ A decision had been made. She could sleep for a while. Ted never came with her on vacations. He said he wanted to travel, but the truth was that he hated leaving the US, and complained so much when he did that he destroyed any pleasure in the trip. Ted was never around these days.

Her mouth was dry. Shere had provided iced water and hand-towels for her, but she wanted something else. She had bought a bag of pedas and fruit candies studded with cardamom seeds in the market. They had the kind of sharply spiced flavours you would never find at home.

They passed a partially constructed motorway on which just two men were working, slowing raking gravel in a manner that spread it across each other’s paths, each undoing the other’s work. How does anything run at all? She wondered. Over a billion people here, half of them shopkeepers selling nothing.

Without the air conditioning she began to sweat. Her watch was gripping her wrist in a hot band, so she undid the clasp and dropped it in the bag at her feet. Pressing her head back into the rest, she studied the half-finished buildings of a small town slide by. Did no-one ever think to finish one house before starting another, or to plan the roads and pavements in such a way that prevented people from considering them interchangeable?

She liked the markets, the running and fetching, the tumble and bustle and sheer connectedness of everything. No-one seemed to be entirely alone, no matter how poor they were. Everyone had some kind of support system. At home she and Ted barricaded themselves in their gated community unlocked with an electronic key fob, and only saw the neighbours departing or arriving at holiday seasons. If I needed help and couldn’t get to the phone, I’d have to lie there until Ted got home, she thought, even assuming he was in town.

The car screeched to a stop. In the road ahead, two half-starved dogs were fighting. One had buried its teeth in the other’s left haunch. Loops of blood and spittle flecked the sidewalk as they rolled over each other. She opened the window an inch and the oppressive heat leaked in. Shere could not understand why his passenger was refusing the comfort of refrigerated air. This place disgusts and frightens me, she thought, and yet I am drawn in. It makes me dream again.

She was touring with three large pieces of Louis Vitton luggage. The driver did not seem to think this unusual. He was probably used to the strange habits of westerners, who toured as though they were moving house. Shere knew a place where they could stop for something to eat. A wall of oven-heat touched her as she stepped stiffly from the car. Ahead was a low white block in a bare, dusty yard. The straight road passed it, but there was nothing to see in either direction.

An ancient fiddle player witnessed her arrival, stood up and began to play a painful dirge until she had passed. The restaurant looked shut, but Shere waved her ahead.

‘You don’t want to come eat with me?’ she asked.

‘I have my own lunch.’ Shere smiled and wobbled his head in apology. As she approached the restaurant doors she saw the lights flicker on in the dark interior.  Waiters were scurrying to don their white coats. She ate Butter Chicken and Pashwari Nan alone beside a window with cracked panes of plastic that had been stuffed with toilet paper to keep out the dust. The food was sensational, the bathroom after, horrific. She sat in the car with a gurgling stomach as the roads grew dustier, browner, emptier. On the horizon, a line of wooded hills appeared. Finally, the road curved and climbed. It grew hotter and closer, until she felt as if she was suffocating.

‘The rains are coming,’ he said, reading her thoughts, ‘maybe tonight.’

‘How much further?’ she asked, but received no reply. I shouldn’t have picked this place, she admonished herself, too far away, and even the driver doesn’t seem to be sure of its whereabouts.

They reached a string of small villages where everything glistened with marble dust. Outside every house and shop stood large carved statues of Hindu gods. Men sat cross-legged on their forecourts, chipping away at great white blocks from which the gods were slowly breaking free. She could differentiate some now; Ganesha, Hanuman, Brahma, Shakti and Shiva, but the rest still looked the same. A guide had told her that there were over 330,000 to choose from. Who on earth bought these huge statues? They stood in rows like sentries on guard duty, ignored by children who probably found them as familiar as relatives.

A low brick wall – half finished, of course – ran around the edge of the town. She caught a glimpse of a sandstone building between the trees. ‘I think the palace is over there,’ said Shere. ‘My friend tells me the World Heritage people, they came to look, and were going to make it a site of special significance. Good for tourism. But they decided not to.’

‘Why?’

‘Politics. I don’t know.’

‘Any tourists here now?’

‘No, none. Not since the bombings. This is a ghost palace. Nobody comes here at night. Only the spirits live here now. You will want to walk in the palace?’

‘Yes, I think so.’

‘There is no guide for you.’

Good, she thought, I’ve had enough of standing in the heat listening to earnest men reeling off building statistics.‘Do you have any more cold water I can take with me?’

‘We can stop.’ He pulled up beside a small shop and purchased a bottle of water for her. While she waited in the car, a handful of children ran to the window and started tapping on the glass with distracted insistence. When she’d first arrived in the country, she had given all her small change to these hollow-eyed creatures, but the driver had stopped her, explaining that they were forced to pay their earnings back to gang-runners in the slums. After a few days she realized that her generosity could change nothing and would do nobody good in the long run.

Shere returned and they drove toward the palace. He swung the car off the main highway onto a back road, between tall dusty trees whose branches bent into arches from the weight of their own high leaves. A flock of green parrots blasted screeching into the air above them. Then there was only heat and silence.

She looked for a sign or a ticket booth, but there was nothing to mark the entrance to the palace. A single kitchen chair stood by a gap in the wall, where a guard usually sat. Drawn by the sound of the car, a few tiny children appeared, scampering toward her as they drew to a stop. Shere turned off the engine, then took a call on his mobile.

One small boy remained against the wall, holding back from the group. He watched Marion with the kind of sad resignation one usually only saw in disappointed old men. When the boy realized that he had gained her attention, he pushed away from the wall and bunched his fingertips, gesturing to his mouth. Ignoring the others, she beckoned him over.

Her belongings were grouped around her on the back seat. She found the brown paper bag of candies and waited. His shyness surprised her. He seemed to be waiting for some kind of a sign. She realized she was frowning, and smiled instead.

He came a little nearer, then stopped. She held the sweets up against the window, remaining motionless. The other children saw that she was not looking at them, and gradually dispersed. I choose you, she thought, because you are trying hard not to look as if you care.

Shere finished his phonecall and turned to see what was happening.

The boy remained with his hands by his sides, studying her, as if trying to see a friendly spirit within. He cautiously approached, but two little girls remained at the window with their hands outstretched, blocking his way.

Marion handed them each a silver-wrapped sweet, then passed the bag through the window to the boy. Clutching it to his chest, his serious eyes briefly locked with hers, and he ran away. She watched him go with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. What did you expect, that he would show gratitude?

‘You are ready to visit?’

‘I’m ready,’ she sighed, feeling suddenly empty. ‘You don’t have to come with me, I can find it.’

‘I can come with you.’ He didn’t sound keen.

‘It’s fine, I have this. It’s all I need.’ She held up the guide and tapped the cover, then slipped out of the car.

‘I’ll be here.’ Shere got out, opened her door, then took the opportunity to light a cigarette.

‘I know you will. I won’t be long.’

Slipping the guide into her back pocket, she followed the overgrown path into the complex. Ahead, a family of white-haired monkeys with triangular black faces scattered at her approach. Everyone’s a part of something here, she thought, even the monkeys. I’d like to be part of something. Would Ted even notice if I didn’t come back? The incline to the palace was low but steady, and the heat was dense, tangible. Sweat formed on her face, in the small of her back. Something must break soon, she thought, this is unbearable.

The first building she reached was a pillared pavilion containing a bull shrine. The carved black bull was life-sized and kneeling, garlanded with artificial jasmine flowers, so perhaps the villagers were still worshipping here. Beyond this, though, came disappointment. The lake had dried out, and appeared as a shallow rubble-strewn cavity in the ground, littered with plastic bottles. Due to global warming, she had read, the shrinking monsoon season means that lakes and rivers all over India are drying up, many to vanish forever.

The shattered remains of a pair of marble lions guarded the arched entrance to a platformed complex, and a tall Mughal swing had been placed by rooms that she knew would have once have housed a harem. But the swing itself had fallen into disrepair, and the semi-precious gems that should have been inset in the arch had long ago been prised out by robbers. The main pavilion was complete, but in a sorry state. Instead of the smooth amber and ochre walls in the photographs, she found herself looking at colours that had faded and died to streaked greys and dirty browns. The inset mirrors and plaster carvings of the interior walls were ruined, and the ornate jaali screens were nowhere to be seen. Nothing was as it appeared in the guide-book. Next time buy a recent edition, she reminded herself. Like there’ll be a next time. Ted wouldn’t allow it again.

Set at right-angles to the pavilion was a structure raised on four great fluted plinths, each beset by a pair of squat lotus urns, but the building did not look safe enough to enter. In the quadrangle formed by the buildings, bathing tanks and a complex network of stone gullies must once have been filled with water, but were now dried out and dead. She cupped her hands to shield out the sunlight, and looked to the roof, which was lined with terracotta pitchers. Somewhere in the woods beyond, a bird thrashed and screamed.

There were other buildings to explore, a small mosque with dried-out marigold garlands on its steps, a partially ruined tomb, but she did not have the energy to investigate them all. Outside the royal apartments, peacocks pecked at the sunbleached ground. Clearly the villagers had been here, for the birds’ tail-feathers had been plucked, presumably to sell at the market.

In the shadows of the tomb’s canopy she saw a small seated figure, and immediately recognized the boy. He’s different to the others, she thought, quiet and more thoughtful. Through the trees she could make out the far edge of the village. After studying the scene for a few more moments, she turned to make her way back. If I had seen this ten days ago I’d have been more impressed, but I’ve walked through too many of them now. They’re all the same. They lack life.

She tore open a moist tissue and wiped her forehead. She found Shere leaning beside the car, smoking. Surprised by her fast return, he went to grind out the cigarette. ‘It’s okay,’ she told him, ‘take your time.’

She opened the passenger door and slid onto the back seat. The sun was still high. They had stopped early for lunch. Surely it could only be about two o’clock. She fished on the floor for the sweet bag containing her watch, then remembered that she had given the bag to the boy.

How could she have been so stupid? What had she been thinking? The watch had been a gift from Ted, solemnly presented in order to make amends for his behaviour. The damned thing was encrusted with diamonds and worth around fourteen thousand dollars, even now. She had never really liked it, but that was less to do with its appearance and more because it represented an expensive apology. Over the years she had grown so blasé about wearing it that she had become careless.

The boy had been sitting in one of the temples in the palace. She had to go back and find him.

Shere caught her alarm. ‘Where are you going?’

‘My watch. The boy.’ It was not an explanation, but all that she could manage right now. The monkeys scattered as she strode back up the path thinking Insurance, sales receipt, Ted, how will he ever be persuaded to give it back –

As she approached the palace’s large central pavilion, she became aware of the change in light all around her. The gardens had lost the little colour they possessed, darkening to olive, the walls deepening to camelskin.

She crossed a cracked courtyard and climbed the palace platforms, peering through the stone latticework in search of the child. She had her purse; she would offer him rupees and have him return the watch. After all, what would he want with such a thing?

She became aware of a presence behind her, a tall figure bisected by shadows. She turned, startled, and found herself facing a huge stone statue of a god wearing a strange cloud-crown. He was holding an eight-petalled plant in each hand. On the floor was a wooden plaque written in English. It read;

‘PARJANYA is the Old God of The Heavens. He rules lightning, thunder and rain. He controls the procreation of plants and animals, but can also punish sinners. His powers are a mighty wonder to behold.’

She studied his wind-damaged face. A faint but defiant smile played on his lips, as if he wished to play a game, or be challenged. As if he was waiting to show his strength. She shivered. A wind had risen. Dry leaves scuttled across the terrazzo floor. In the last few minutes a wall of rolling cloud had appeared on the horizon and was sliding across the sky like a steel shutter.

Stepping back from the statue, which seemed to be smiling at her in the half-light, she headed from one building to the next until she reached the sunken groves of the charbargh, the walled paradise garden divided in four quarters to represent the four parts of life, but the boy was nowhere to be found.

The only thing she could do now was persuade Shere to take her to the village and ask the shopkeepers if they had seen him, but already she sensed that they would unite behind the child and her mission would fail.

The first fat drop stained the dust at her feet like ink falling from a pen nib. It made an audible ploc as it landed. A second, tac, hit the steps. Looking up, she saw that the clouds entirely covered the sky. Moments later the droplets multiplied by tens, hundreds, thousands, millions, from a shower to a roaring downpour, to a thunderous cascade, to a sound like the end of the world. Visibility dropped to zero and she stumbled up the steps into the open-sided pavilion, watching in wonder as rain unlike any she had ever seen deluged the palace.

At his car, Shere swore and threw down his cigarette as the first drops fell. He heard raised voices; a massive cheer of excitement filtered through the trees from the village. His client would already be soaked unless she had managed to take shelter. If she complained to the tour company, they would dock his pay or worse, place him on a circuit where he could make no money from the shops and restaurants he recommended.

There was no point in looking for her; the uphill path was already turning into a mudslide. She would have to wait for a break and return as best she could.

A change was sweeping over the monsoon palace. The dried out walls had blossomed into bright ambers, ochres and fiery reds. Tiles were washed of their dust to reveal fierce blue glaze beneath. Mosaic panels covered with geometric lapis motifs sprouted and bloomed like orchids, glistening ornamental patterns emerging on the chhatris of the pavilions. Grey walls revealed hidden blues, yellows and greens. Earth was washed from the courtyard to reveal a polished marble floor inlaid with designs; floral bouquets, fruit trees and wine decanters. The gutters filled with rivulets that became gurgling streams, then pounding torrents, water shooting out of stonework spouts as the fountains sputtered into life. Marion grabbed the wet pages of the guidebook and searched for the pictures of the palace.

But it is the magic of the monsoon that restores the Palace’, she read, ‘for this forgotten complex of sandstone buildings and gardens was created to activate special effects during the rainy season that would delight the Bharatpur kings. The palace’s reservoirs are designed to fill instantly, fed by water-steps which pump streams through pipes to the peacock fountains.’

Following the guide’s floor plan, she looked straight ahead and saw that what she had mistaken for piles of pale stones were in fact great marble peacocks. Rain was rushing down the steep gullies to be forced into the narrow stone pipes surrounding the birds. Water gushed from behind their long necks in shimmering rainbow fans, perfectly replicating the bird’s plumage. Marion was stunned. All about her, pipes and pillars were spouting water shapes, birds, animals, flowers. The pavilion’s overhanging balconies and kiosks channeled rain into intricate patterns that held formation for a moment before breaking apart and falling to earth.

The palace had been built to provide royal delight during the monsoon. It needed heavy rain to come alive. Water swelled and saturated the parched earth and the arched halls around her, filling them with colour and vigour. She walked, then ran through the white cascades between the inundated pools and reservoirs.

A long low belch of thunder sounded from somewhere between the ground and the clouds. Looking to the roof of the opposite pavilion, she saw a series of heavy lithic balls forced by sprays and jets of water to roll slowly across the concave roof, then back from the far side, artificially producing the sounds of a storm. The ditches around her were filling fast. Shielded from the downpour, they formed graceful mirror geometries that reflected the falling rain. She looked to where she had last seen the boy sitting. The curiously curved roof of the tomb now made sense; its upturned reflection was that of a boat, ferrying its precious cargo to safety.

She was crying uncontrollably now, tears pouring down her cheeks in an unstoppable flow. Her white shirt was stuck to her shoulders, her breasts. She fought the urge to tear the transparent material from her body and wade into the lake. A sense of understanding flooded through her, filling her with compassion. She no longer cared about her watch, her luggage, her husband, her home. The trappings of her life had vanished in the revelation of the tempest. Unashamed of crying or calling to the gods, her voice joined the thousands of others who celebrated the coming of the monsoon.

The boy splashed through the streets with the paper bag clutched in his fist, and found his uncle closing because of the rains. Uncle Javed’s decision to delay the repairs to his roof would cost him dearly. Later on this very night, part of the shop’s ceiling would fall in and ruin his new stock of winter jackets and saris.

The boy showed his uncle the watch, and received a clip across the ear for his trouble. ‘Oh Karan, you will cause your mother to die of despair,’ he scolded, ‘for producing another little thief like your brother. Hasn’t the poor woman had enough trouble in her miserable life? Why do you want to see her suffer further?’

‘I didn’t steal it,’ Karan insisted. ‘A rich American lady opened the window of her car and handed it to me.’

‘Such a little liar!’ Uncle Javed cried, trying to seize the boy’s thin neck. ‘What kind of monster have we raised that he should steal from the very people who come here in trust? Was she very rich?’

‘You steal from them all the time,’ said Karan, stepping back from his uncle’s grabbing hands, ‘every time you sell them a shawl and tell them it was sewn by a lady who took twenty months to make it all by hand.’

‘That is the art of business, you rude child. Every woman wants to be told the story behind her purchase, in order to make it more of a bargain.’

‘But your stories aren’t true.’

‘They are exactly what people wish to believe. Price has nothing to do with value. And this – ’ he held the glittering watch aloft, ‘ – must go back to the tourist you stole it from.’

‘But I’m sure she has gone.’

‘Did you look for her?’

‘No.’

‘Well, that is a blessing. My heart aches to think of the trouble you would have caused by making her think you were a thief. Come on, we have to visit old Mister Chauhan. He will be able to tell us how much the watch is worth. We must know how big a thief you have become, in order to find the right penance for your sin.’

Karan reluctantly agreed to go along, but first he made sure that Uncle Javed returned the bag to him.

The boys in the village said that Mister Chauhan was about five hundred years old, and had once been introduced to Queen Victoria in Old Bombay. His skin was so wrinkled, it looked to Karan as if someone had magically transferred his features to a brown paper bag, then screwed the bag up and flattened it out imperfectly. Mister Chauhan owned a brass-rimmed magnifying glass the size of a hotel dinner plate. He raised it by a pair of horn handles and held it over the watch on his cluttered desk. For several minutes there was complete silence in the cramped antique shop. Finally he set down the glass and turned to the boy.

‘There are thirty six diamonds of extremely high quality inside this watch-casing, but there is also something missing.’

‘Missing?’ Uncle Javed looked at his nephew in puzzlement.

‘No serial number,’ said Mister Chauhan. ‘On Cartier watches of this type there are two types of authentication. On the downward stroke of the Roman numeral seven one can see, with the aid of a strong magnifier, the word ‘Cartier’ written in script. That is one sign. The other is the serial number on the back of the casing, but there is none.’

‘So typical that my thieving nephew should choose to steal a worthless fake, ‘ Uncle Javed complained, giving the boy another clip around the ear.

‘I did not say it was a fake,’ Mister Chauhan continued. ‘This watch is very genuine indeed. It is extremely rare, so rare that someone has erased the number to prevent it from being traced. Every Cartier can be traced by its number.’

‘Why would somebody remove it?’ asked Uncle Javed.

Uncle Chauhan sucked his teeth and thought for a moment. “I can think of two very good reasons. Either the person who bought it did not wish it to be found, because he made the purchase with bad money.’

‘He avoids his taxes. He is a crook.’

‘Something like that.’

‘What is the other reason?’

‘A man might make such a purchase for his mistress, whose name he does not wish to be recorded on papers as the watch’s owner.’

‘The lady was not a mistress,’ said Karan, ‘she was a wife.’

‘Then perhaps her husband repents and gives the watch he buys his mistress to his wife, after first taking the precautionary measure of removing the serial number.’

Uncle Javed looked as if he had just seen a fortune fly out of the window.

‘Mister Chauhan, you make a fine storyteller,’ laughed Karan. ‘If I did not know you better, I might be tempted to think that you were inventing such a marvelous story so that I might agree to sell it for a small amount.’

‘The watch cannot be repaired or serviced by Cartier,’ Mister Chauhan explained. ‘And this is the very thing that any prospective buyer would want.’

But even as he looked into the boy’s unblinking brown eyes, Mister Chauhan knew he had lost. For this was India, where the past was not important, and anything could be repaired. He sighed and ordered the chai to be brewed, knowing that it would be a long evening. The bargaining began in earnest. Karan had seen the greedy fire in Mister Chauhan’s eyes, and knew that the process of negotiation would be lengthy and arduous.

In fact, the formalities took three days and involved one boy and five men from two villages. Part of the problem was that the arrangement had to be kept away from the knowledge of the local police constabulary in order to avoid an unacceptable level of commission being deducted from the sale. At the conclusion of the deal much money was assembled, assurances were written out, whisky and masala tea was poured, everyone involved was sworn to silence, and Karan rode the train to Bangalore, to begin a new life.

Shere Banjara, the driver for Jacaranda Tours, fifty two years old and married with five children, was severely reprimanded and fined for the loss of his charge. The paperwork involved took over a year to sort out. Finally he was moved from his base in Delhi to Kolkotta, where he quickly learned that the new circuit could reap him unexpected rewards from a fresh generation of middle-class businessmen looking to buy carpets and tapestries for their second homes.

As the years passed, the dry and rainy seasons replaced each other like cards falling upon a gaming table. The monsoon palace was denied world heritage status due to a dispute over the ownership of its land, and remained overgrown and forgotten by all except the monkeys, doves and peacocks, who lived within its evening shadows. Parjanya sat in the dusty shadows and bided his time.

Then, one overheated day, just before the arrival of the monsoon, when the air was so scorched that it felt like you might carve a hole in it to breathe, some workers angrily threw their pickaxes and shovels down onto the hard dry soil and started shouting at one another.

‘What the bloody hell is going on here?’ asked the project foreman, striding over. Work had fallen behind, and it was starting to look as if they would not be finished before the rains came, which would be disastrous because the road had not yet been sealed and they needed to take the shack down now.

‘The villagers tell us we cannot remove Maran or we will bring bad luck to the area,’ said one of the workmen. ‘We need to dismantle any obstacle today.’

‘Wait, you are talking about this? This?’ The foreman pointed to the chaotic arrangement of tin huts that stood in their path and began to laugh. ‘Bulldoze it flat. Pass me a pickaxe and I’ll do it myself.’ He spat paan on the ground dismissively.

‘You don’t understand. A promise was made that Maran would never be moved.’

‘Who was this promise made to?’

‘An old man called Javed who lived in the village.’

‘Javed? That scoundrel? He has been dead for over five years! The past is the past. Knock it down.’

The workmen reluctantly moved toward their tools, but before they could continue their work, a horn sounded and they were forced to move to the sides of the road to allow for the arrival of a white Mercedes. Everyone agreed that the man who emerged from the rear seat looked like a younger version of Shahrukh Kahn, the Bollywood superstar. He walked over to the tin huts, examined them and beckoned the foreman.

‘How far over the boundary line?’

The foreman looked at the ground and thought. ‘Twenty feet, at least.’

‘You know how long Maran has lived here?’

‘The men tell me fifteen years.’

‘Sixteen. You know why?’

‘Something to do with guarding the palace and keeping it in good repair, but there’s no paperwork – ‘

‘You don’t need paperwork for everything. Let me deal with this.’ As he approached the huts, a pair of green parrots screamed and rocked the ornate wire cage that hung from the lintel above the front door. He tapped respectfully and stepped back, waiting.

The grey-haired woman who appeared in the doorway studied her visitor and smiled. ‘Come inside,’ she instructed. ‘I wasn’t sure if you would get here in time. The chai is almost ready. I’ve learned to like it sweet. I never took sugar at home. Have that chair in the corner, but be careful, the leg is broken.’

The interior of the hut was crowded with decorative ornaments that had been presented to her by the villagers over the years, mostly Hindu gods. ‘Let me look at you.’

Karan adjusted his collar and slicked back his hair, ready for inspection. ‘I did not believe you would stay, Maran.’

‘Marion,’ she corrected. ‘Oh, I come from a long line of very determined women. Besides, if I deserted my palace, who else would do the job? You people are losing respect for your past, all this rushing toward the future.’

‘And ‘you people’ have not done the same?’ asked Karan. ‘This is not your palace. It is not a cause you can simply adopt, like a child.’

In the soft light Marion looked younger than her years, the way she had been when he first saw her. ‘You’re right, of course. I can’t explain what I feel. But I know you can’t take his land.’ She touched her bare tanned neck, remembering. ‘I wanted to look nice for you but the damned monkey took my necklace. He’s probably buried it out by the jharna.’

‘The gardens of the monsoon palace have never been accurately measured, you know. We could go beyond their walls right now, trim a hundred yards off and no-one would ever know.’

‘Shame on you, to even think of such a thing. He will know. Parjanya will know.’

‘I have no other choice. But you, do you really want to stay on here?’

‘I have no other choice either. I burned my bridges long ago.’

‘Where is your husband?’

‘Maybe he stayed with his mistress,’ she said carelessly. ‘I wrote him some letters. I don’t know if he got them.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be, I’m not. I’ll become like the old British ladies who still live on in Delhi, complaining about their landlords and going slowly crazy. Something about this place encourages the irrational…’

‘I could move you back into the village. Javed’s children have offered you a home.’

‘No,’ she said firmly, ‘I need to be within sight of the pavilion. I’ve seen the designs for your little housing project, Karan. A gated community? I stayed here to get away from such things. Don’t tell me it’s progress, because it’s nothing of the kind.’

‘It’s what people want.’ Karan smiled. ‘Didn’t you know, we’re all middle class now, even if our castes can never change.’

‘Well, it seems to me that we have to strike a deal, but I have no cards to play. Are you hungry? I could make you some paneer.’

‘No, I had a pizza.’

‘You could have me thrown off the site tonight, if that’s what you want.’

‘I could, but you know I would never do it.’ He sipped his masala. ‘You make this better than my mother used to. So, this is what we’ll do. You stay here. I’ll shift the boundary back, everyone’s happy.’

‘Everyone except Parjanya.’

‘It is the only solution I can offer.’

‘It sounds like you already had that in mind. You can’t do it without changing the planning application, can you?’

‘I can change the application with a few handfuls of rupees. We need to reduce the size of the estate because the surveyors are arriving from Delhi next week.’

‘It’s a shame. I thought the monsoon palace would eventually be accepted as a world heritage site. Now, more than ever, Parjanya needs a guardian here.’ Marion laughed softly to herself.

‘What is funny?’ Karan asked.

‘I was foolish enough to think that such an ancient, magnificent monument might be saved by a bag of sweets,’ she replied.

‘The palace will be protected, but the condition is the partial surrender of its grounds,’ said Karan.

‘He will not let you take his land,’ she said simply.

‘Listen, Marion, I have respect for you, but you cannot change what must be done.’ Enough. She exasperated him. Karan rose and took his leave. Outside, as he spoke to his foreman, she imagined the dessicated ground receiving fat drops of quenching rain.

The men moved in. The yellow bulldozers and earthmovers backed away from the hut, but surged toward the low dry-stone walls and pushed straight through them, gouging channels in the soft red earth. The workmen marched forward behind the vehicles, an advancing army clad in bright protective jackets.

Marion stood in the doorway and watched, smiling to herself.

They cannot steal the land you have protected for me, Parjanya hissed in her ear. They are arrogant enough to think that their machines will make a difference, but they forget I control the Heavens.

Parjanya made the rains come. She looked up into the sky and saw it cloud over within a few seconds. The first bolt of lightning split the air and hit the cabin of the lead earthmover. Men swarmed around the stalled vehicle as smoke billowed from its electrics.

It was the heaviest monsoon squall she had ever witnessed. The rain increased until nothing could be discerned from the door of the hut. She heard an ominous rumble of earth as a torrent of mud poured over like brown treacle over the broken walls, punching the workmen’s legs from under them, swallowing them in dense effluvium. The men were choked and drowned, crushed and buried. Their machines were overturned on top of them, hammering them flat, slipping easily into the bubbling cauldron of mud. The bulldozers continued to sink until they had completely vanished from sight. The monkeys stared out from the shelter of the palace, hooting in triumph. Soon the mud would dry again and it would be as if the workmen were never here.

A beatific smile crept over Marion’s face as she returned to make fresh tea.

Karan unknotted his tie and fanned himself in the blast-furnace heat. He watched Marion slowly retreat into the shadows, lost inside her visions. One of the workmen jammed his shovel into the hard dry earth, leaned back and caught his eye, grinning knowingly. Pāgala aurata. Crazy lady.

Karan wondered what was going through Marion’s head. It was a funny thing about those who came to stay; the ones who didn’t believe often ended up believing a little too much.

Let her keep her dreams, he thought. I’ll only take eighty yards from the garden. No-one will notice. If they ask, I’ll tell them it was a mistake.

Somewhere in the dense treetops behind him, the first cool Monsoon breezes rose.

 

6 comments on “Isolation Tales 2: The Mistake At The Monsoon Palace”

  1. Davem says:

    I have this volume, wonderful

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Was your exploratory canceled, Chris? Going out to plant some peonies before I read these two stories. The sun is shining, spring is officially here and outside is calling as long as I stay away from people. Enjoy the day, everyone.

  3. Barbara Allan says:

    Thank you so much for transporting me to India.

  4. Brian says:

    A vast improvement over your 1992 effort.

    Admin, you say this was based on something that happened to you in India so I’m wondering if this incident is linked to your association with early James Bond films?

    The Monsoon Palace is actually the Sajjan Garh Palace in Udaipur. It is quite an impressive place atop a hill to be close to the monsoon clouds. It appeared in one of the early Bond films.

  5. SimonB says:

    That was wonderful.

  6. Rachel Green says:

    Astonishingly detailed. Thank you.

Comments are closed.