At first Bahadur thinks the light—orange-red and insistent and warm on his eyelids—is part of the dream. Then he hears Amah's feet splatting shoelessly on the terrazzo floor, drawing nearer.
Not the dream, then.
Her fingers, as fat as cucumbers, press against his shoulder, and he swims slowly up to wakefulness. One side of his face is soaking wet. He tries to turn over, but all he can do is flail his left arm and snort into his pillow.
'Oh, look now,' she says.
'I dreamt,' mumbles Bahadur. 'About her.'
Amah wipes the drool from his face and rolls him onto his back. She inspects him from head to toe and then she puffs her way round the other side of the bed. The world comes blaring in through the window when she is gone. Bahadur can see across the rambling concrete roofs, uneven and decked with jumbled antennas like metal skeletons, and out across the roof-gardens, glittering emerald and silver. Beyond that the smog and dust hang thick in the still summer air and somewhere in that golden murk, he knows, are the Red Fort and the Emperor and the sweet pink minarets of Shahjahanabad, the Navel of the Universe. But today he can see none of it.
Amah grips his right arm and squeezes but he cannot feel anything, except that he is drooling again. 'This side?'
'Yes,' he says.
'What've you done?'
'You're off all hours, that's why.'
'I was. Home. By sundown.'
'Ah, so? What were you doing all day, then?'
She kneads him as she's speaking. Iron fingers pressing his flesh until finally sensation comes creeping down his veins like a swarm of hot little claws.
'I dreamt about her.'
'You're always dreaming about her.'
'This one was different.'
Amah comes around to the foot of the bed and rolls her sleeves up over her forearms, each the size of a piglet. She picks up one of his feet and gently bends his leg up to his chest, grinning, and her teeth are clashing shades of yellow and white and red between her mahogany lips. 'Dirty dream?'
'You need a wife. Then you won't be dreaming of women in the night.' She pushes. Bahadur puffs and tries to push back. 'So?'
'We were in Shahjahanabad, but everything was ruined.'
'God is Great. God is Great.'
'I was looking for her. They called her the healing-woman.'
'What were they doing?'
'Loitering around near Jama Masjid.'
Amah snorts. 'What kind of dream is this?'
'But she was there.'
'Ah, ah, and so? What was she doing? I reckon she was the cause of all that ruin. It's her eyes, you know.'
'She was standing by a window. In a house surrounded by blue flowers. She was wearing a red dress.' He bites his lip. 'She smiled when she saw me.'
He can move now. They go out onto the balcony, Amah leading the way, wheezing. Bahadur lowers himself into a wicker chair and rests his chin on the balustrade and watches the crowds jostling through the street three storeys down like blood cells in an artery, little cars trapped in their midst like phagocytes, hawkers ululating and beggars begging and stray dogs curled up in the shortening shadows.
Amah squats by the side table and pulls a small lacquer box from her bodice. She takes four smaller boxes out of it, and some leaves, and some wrinkled nuts half the size of her palm. She cracks one and crumbles its insides, red like rouge, onto the leaf. She smears some pink paste on it, and then some white, and adds some old tobacco leaves, shriveled and as crumbly as pencil lead. Then she pops it all into her mouth and chews. 'Well, well? What did she do?'
'That was it.'
'That was it?' Amah harrumphs. 'What a rubbish dream.'
'It was no dream. It felt like a memory.'
Amah snorts. 'How can it be a memory if it hasn't happened? You know, this is what happens when people mess with God's creation. Like picking at the seams of a dress. And then it all comes apart and people ask Him to save them and—'
Bahadur waves his hand. 'Breakfast.'
Amah heaves herself to her feet and waddles into his room. Then she comes back out, scowling. 'Why don't you go and see that lovely Sikh girl? Her father's looking, you know. Minister and all.'
'Can't be lying around waiting for an old woman like me to rub your feet. When am I going to have puppies to look after?'
'I can get you some from the market.'
Amah shakes her head. 'I suppose you'll be off again today, then? No matter you couldn't get up?'
'I am perfectly capable of being at the Padishah-e-Ghazi's service.'
'Service your toto, you silly boy,' says Amah, and slouches back into the house.
The whole district of Alamgir's Wall is so crowded and stifling that within it even time seems to congeal into a slow and viscous flow. Up above are advertising banners, slung from facade to crowded facade, limp and gaudy in the windless valleys between buildings. Above those are drying laundry, tattered black silhouettes against little slivers of glum grey sky.
They find the address Malhotra provided them with—a shambolic coffee den, peeling walls painted light blue, patches of black-and-green mold creeping up from the slimy gutters outside. Amah scowls and clears the way in with fierce thrusts of her forearms. Bahadur follows, limping. Malhotra's glassy-eyed eunuch, Devdas, is standing under a fluorescent light against the far wall. He smiles and bows low, eyes fixed on Bahadur. It is like being licked by a cold tongue. He pulls back a curtain and Amah squeezes in and a few seconds later she comes out and stands on Devdas' foot. He squeals.
'He's there, alright,' she says. 'No aircon, little master. You'll be sweating like a buffalo.'
'Buffalo don't sweat,' says Devdas.
'It will suffice,' says Bahadur.
He steps into the dark and an instant later Malhotra approaches, bowing, fingers twitching.
'Sir, sir,' he says. 'Sir, the Buddha must not be allowed to smile.'
Amah glances at Bahadur. He waves her away and she takes up position by the entrance. With her frame sprawling across the doorway nothing leaks in but glaring blue gashes of fluorescent light and one bisects Malhotra like a luminous blade.
'Professor Malhotra,' says Bahadur. 'Let us at least have a drink before we commence.'
'Drink?' Malhotra blinks rapidly. 'Ah. Ah, yes. Devdas! Tea!'
'In the Chinese style for me, if you would,' says Bahadur.
They sit on either side of a flimsy aluminium and formica table and Malhotra glances about the room sporadically, flicking his lower lip over his teeth. A boy comes in with two hot glasses and the moment he sees Bahadur he puts them down on the table and falls onto his hands and knees and touches his head to the floor. 'Mantriji,' he says. 'Mantriji.'
'Just the leave the tea and go, will you?' says Malhotra.
The boy scuttles out, bowing.
'Dammit, now everyone will know,' says Malhotra.
'This is no place for a secret rendezvous, Professor Malhotra.'
'My lord.' He shuffles. 'Sir, we must not let the Buddha smile.'
Bahadur sips his tea, and grimaces, and puts it down.
'Because Because, sir, it wants to be used.' His face crumples. Tears gush from his eyes like juice from a crushed fruit. 'Please, my lord. You think I'm mad, but I'm not.'
'Truly? For I could swear you just told me that your device wants to be used.'
'I'm sane.' He leans forward. 'My lord, you are of sound mind. You've been against this from the start. You have to stop them. The Buddha cannot smile.'
'The Buddha's already smiled.'
'Yes, yes, but not in anger.'
'Not in anger. Not in anger. Iran, my lord.'
'What of Iran?'
'My lord, if the war goes ill, the Vizier will make the Buddha smile on the Iranians.'
Bahadur sips his tea again, and grimaces again, and puts it back down on the table. He slides the glass away from him, slowly, as far he can reach. Then he leans back, and sighs.
'Is it not so?' says Malhotra.
'It may be something we have discussed. What of it?'
'My lord! You were always against it!'
'I see no reason not to use it now that we have it.'
'Have you gone mad?'
'Watch your tone, Malhotra.'
'Do you know what will happen?'
'When the Buddha smiles?'
'No. You don't. Because I didn't. I still don't, not fully.'
'What do you mean? You designed it. We've tested it six times already. What've you been doing out in the desert all this time if you don't know how it works?'
'Yes, my lord, but—what will happen to the Bulk? What will happen to causality?'
Malhotra stares out the door for a while, digging in his ear.
'My lord, it is one thing to make something like this. The theory all works. But what of the consequences? We're channeling power from some other world, to kill people in our own. It all makes sense until it doesn't. There has to be a price to pay and the price '
'Yes, my lord?'
'You are not making any sense.'
Malhotra is silent for a while. When he speaks he speaks very quietly, so quietly Bahadur can barely understand what he is saying.
'If we use it, sir, it will fall on Shahjahanabad.'
'On Shahjahanabad? Do the Iranians have such a device?'
'I am not knowing that, sir.'
'I know. I don't understand how. Maybe there is leakage. Through the Bulk and into our world and it manifests to us as dreams but my lord, I know. I know.'
Bahadur gets up.
'You need a holiday, Professor Malhotra.'
Malhotra clamps one giant hand over Bahadur's and looks up at him, face slick with sweat and tears.
'My lord, please. Please, think on what I've said. Think of what will happen if we use this thing. I called you today because I thought you were an ally. What has changed your mind?'
'Let me go, if you would, please,' says Bahadur.
Malhotra leaps halfway across the table and wraps his arms around Bahadur and whispers something in his ear. An instant later Amah bursts in, growling, and wrestles him off. He collapses into Devdas's hands, wailing. Amah sweeps Bahadur out of the coffee shop as fast as she can and out into the street.
'I told you we should have brought the bodyguards,' she growls.
'He's a maniac. What did he want?'
'I haven't a clue,' says Bahadur. 'Call the Vizier's office when we get home, will you? And Chenglary as well.'
'But what did he say? When he hugged you?'
Bahadur shrugs. 'He was quoting the Bhagavad Gita, can you believe? He just said, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. Over and over. Until you made him let go.'
He is walking to the turquoise and pearl confection that is Bibi Jawindi's tomb. The wind is from the north and it is cold and whispers of far flat reaches full of swift horsemen and heartless kings.
He is barefoot and the sandy ground is as soft and pliable as flesh beneath his soles. He is in a garden, but there is no garden in Uch Sharif such as this. This he knows—this, and also that he is dreaming. But he has no desire to do other than what the dream requires, and it requires that he walk.
So he walks. His shadow distending razor-sharp over the low green hedges and across the ponds beyond. The fountains in them are dead. The water is as still as the night sky. He enters the tomb through the crimson-rimmed door with its double arch. He walks around the sarcophagus and realizes he is going clockwise and reverses direction. At the far exit is a man holding a gun, green-uniformed and glowering, and he comes towards Bahadur, weapon in one hand and unrecognizable insignia on his chest, hissing something in Farsi.
Bahadur holds up his hands. He tries to speak, but can only gape like a fish yanked out of the water. The soldier says something and grabs Bahadur by his hair and drags him out. Through the garden and onto the street, where the shops are empty and the windows black like empty eye sockets.
The soldier pushes Bahadur down onto his knees and yells something. Now Bahadur does not want to comply with the dream. But he still cannot do anything else. The soldier lifts his gun. Shouting, now, and jabbing the barrel on the side of Bahadur's head. Crack, crack, crack against his skull.
Bahadur looks up at Bibi Jawindi's tomb. Then he sees a flag fluttering over its dome. Green and emblazoned with a lion and a rising sun.
But not his lion. Not his rising sun.
The soldier pulls the trigger.
Amah hovers suspiciously over Bahadur's shoulder, scratching her chin and shaking her head as he flings one silk achkan after another onto his bed. 'All for that woman,' she says. 'She won't even notice you.'
'She will,' says Bahadur.
'Why dress so well for another man's wife?'
Bahadur turns to respond, but Chenglary appears at the door, immaculate and diminutive and fretting like a mouse. There is already a thin film of sweat on his forehead.
'Sir, it is time,' he says.
'Fine,' says Bahadur, clicking his fingers. 'I'll wear the red. No, the other red. The one that looks like blood.'
Amah slips a coat on him and looks him up and down in the mirror. Then she begins to cry. Bahadur glances at Chenglary, and the secretary disappears with a nod.
'No, no.' Amah waddles over to the door and buries her face in the doorframe. 'No, no.'
'You're so old now.' She shakes her head. 'God is Great. What will become of us?'
'What are you talking about?'
'Oh, all this killing and fighting.' She sobs. 'Don't go chasing after other men's wives, little master. Your parents raised you better than that.'
Bahadur goes over to her and wraps his arms around her. She is pungent and her grey hair is thinning and he feels, like he always does when he holds her, that he has wrapped his arms around his entire life. She squirms, but he does not let go.
'I lost that battle a long time ago, Amah.'
'But you're better than all this swooning.'
'Do you want to come with me, then?'
She is silent for a moment, and then he feels her nodding against his chest. Bahadur lets go and a few seconds later she goes clattering down the stairs like an elephant, waving her arms, sending the other servants scattering with a barrage of orders.
When they descend to the car Amah wrestles Chenglary out of the way and squeezes herself into the driver's seat. By the time they arrive at Jahanara Begum's Caravanserai they are surrounded by a swarm of white outriders and doused in the squabbling red-and-blue-and-white lights of security details.
They slow to a crawl when they hit the crowd outside the Caravanserai. Angry faces appear leering through the windows of the car, pointing fingers and yelling. Amah keeps the car going and after a few moments policemen descend, swinging their lathis, and drive the men back.
Once inside, Bahadur and Amah head up through an avalanche of dignitaries and coteries to the bleachers. Outside, beyond the mesh fences and machine guns and lancers on horseback, is a profusion of humanity, a sweltering and funereal mass, like he has never seen. There is not a single smiling face, not a single beating drum, not a single trumpet wailing. Someone unfurls an orange-and-white flag and on it a tiger has a lion by the throat. Someone else pulls it down and fists fly and men in khaki uniforms wade in like divers in an angry sea.
Bahadur bows to the Minister of Plantations and the Minister of Justice as he squeezes past and finds his seat. Amah plonks herself down at his feet. In front of them is a vast square, dusted with sand, almost too bright to look at in the afternoon glare, and beyond that is the Begum's Caravanserai, its plumeria-pink facade a delicate vista of shadow and arch. On a small raised dais in the middle of the square in front of it is a little stone chopping block.
After a moment a huge helicopter, green-liveried and emblazoned with the imperial lion-with-sword-and-rising-sun, descends groaning over the stands and settles like a giant insect in a storm of sand. A platoon of crimson-skirted walashahi spills out across the square, unrolling a great carpet as they go. Then the back of the machine gapes and twelve giants emerge carrying a palanquin. They march way up to the stand, smooth-skinned and expressionless. Then they gently settle the palanquin and pull back the curtains. Deep within, eyes drooping, fanning himself furiously, is a teenage boy.
'Padshah,' whispers the crowd, and lower itself to its knees, a prostration propagating in a great ripple from the burning field of the Caravanserai and out through the sullen mass. Eventually the Emperor of India raises one thin-fingered hand, and everyone rises.
An instant later, someone whispers in Bahadur's ear.
He glances to the left, and there she is. Thin-nosed and green-eyed and golden-brown like burnt sugar. A great golden hoop in one nostril and an elaborate bindi between her eyes. She is unveiled and her hair is scraped back into a glossy blue-black sheet across her scalp.
Bahadur says nothing and the woman watches him, smiling.
'The Minister for Science has lost his tongue,' says the woman. 'My lord Hajizadeh, perhaps you should spare some money for him to find it.'
The Minister for Plantations titters. 'Oh, really, lady Goswami. You are altogether too much.'
Bahadur is still thinking what to say when Amah brushes past him and clamps both her hands on the woman's face.
'Oh, Lady Aniseh!' she says. 'Oh my, you look so well! Oh my!'
Aniseh chuckles. 'Yet not nearly as charming as Bahadur's Gem.'
'Is that what they call me?' Amah looks at Bahadur, eyes wide. Her smile stutters like a tube light. 'Well, yes. Yes.' She returns to his feet. As they sit Aniseh crosses her legs and the tip of her toes brush against Bahadur's shin.
'Quite the spectacle, is it not, cousin?' she says.
She smells of rose oil today, Bahadur thinks, and the thought clanks about in his head like a stray bird in a bell.
'Yes,' he says.
'And the crowd does not look happy.'
'Perhaps they wonder.'
'About what the future holds. About this war.'
'We all worry about the war, cousin.'
They lock eyes for a moment.
'Why are you here, Ani?' says Bahadur, quietly.
'Why, to see the execution of the traitor, racist, and terrorist Subash Chandra Bose. Why are you here, cousin?'
Before Bahadur can reply, a troupe of drummers and soldiers marches out towards the little stone stump. Flitting about them are men with cameras perched on their shoulders like fat black vultures. In the midst of all this is a balding man in white robes, heavy-cheeked and almost blind in the sun, shuffling with as much dignity as he can muster in his chains. After him comes a shirtless giant, muscled and glistening. His face is covered in a black scarf but his great scimitar is not, and it glints like a lost sliver of the moon.
'No,' says Bahadur. 'I meant, why are you here, sitting next to me? Should you not be with your husband?'
'I go where I choose.'
The executioner and his victim ascend the stage with four soldiers. Bose mutters something to one and the soldier pulls out a pair of glasses and gives them to him. He puts them on and peers at the emperor for a long time. In the dark beneath his canopy, the emperor stares back.
'What does he want?'
'Oh, cousin, you do me such a disservice.'
'What does he want?'
Aniseh sighs. Bose returns his glasses to the soldier and nods. Then he takes his position by the pillar. The executioner points at it, but Bose shakes his head. After a moment one of the soldiers steps forward and brings the butt of his rifle up into the old man's stomach. Onlookers gasp and he crumples onto the execution block.
A few moments pass. Then the executioner raises his blade, and the whole of Shahjahanabad falls silent.
'He wants to know how you'll vote.'
'He knows how I intend to vote.'
'Apparently you told Malhotra you'd changed your mind.'
'I said no such thing.'
'Well? How will you vote?'
Bose raises his head and shouts 'Azad Hind! Azad Hind!'
The executioner swings. The burning silver connects with the back of his neck and his head goes spinning through the air, trailing crimson, and lands with a thud on the floor. Policemen's hands twitch and soldiers' fingers tighten on their triggers.
Then someone shouts, 'Azad Hind!'. Someone else joins in. The chanting spreads and with it, scuffles. Policemen wade in waving lathis, but they get punched and pushed back. Soldiers unsling their weapons and lick their lips and look at their officers.
Aniseh grips Bahadur's hand and fixes her eyes on him.
'You must vote no,' she hisses. 'You cannot use that thing. It will be a sin beyond forgiving.'
'Have you told your husband what you think?'
She runs her hand down her neck. 'You know what he thinks of me and my opinions.'
The soldiers open fire and on the heels of the gunfire come screams and bellows and missiles hurled through the air at the bleachers. Security details swarm forward, black-suited and sunglassed, and cover the emperor. The crowd groans and swarms but there is no blood and Bahadur realizes the soldiers are shooting into the air. A moment later the emperor's helicopter ascends and the fury of its rotors blows Bose's glasses off his slack face and sprays bloodstained sand all over the guards tending to his body.
'Let's go,' he says. 'Before they start lowering their guns.'
Aniseh weaves her fingers through his and squeezes his hand. A brief moment of delirious contact, and then she is gone. Amah herds Bahadur to the car, and they take off through the crowd with a host of other vehicles, sirens blaring, outriders vigilant.
Bahadur points at Amah and says, 'You're terrible.'
'You spend all day slagging her off, and then the moment you see her you're like a stray puppy.'
Amah pouts and stares out the window.
'She's very pretty, is all,' she says.
He is in Chandni Chowk, and it is utterly silent. Every alleyway forlorn, every shop abandoned. Hawkerless fruit stands buzz with flies. Flags hang limp in the still air. It could be early morning, but this is no dawn like Bahadur has ever seen before. A dawn without witnesses in a city without souls.
Of course this is a dream, he tells himself. Hasn't this happened before? He can't recall. His memories are obscured like the foothills in the monsoon. But why else would the parakeets on the rooftops be following him in chattering blue-and-red contingents? Why else would there be three suns in the bronze sky—one so large he cannot look at it, and two others, smaller, and shuddering wildly? They are screaming, those other suns. Faintly and very far away, but still, he can hear it. A shrill and insistent wail, like they knew they were burning, and did not want to be.
He wanders towards the Red Fort. A herd of cats joins him. Then other beasts too—rats and chickens and a troupe of rag-furred monkeys. All moving in solemn procession, heads bowed, skinny and silent but for the shuffle of their feet.
They come to the gate of the Red Fort, and there are things hanging from the walls leaking crimson liquid. At first he thinks they are gourds or perhaps bells, but then he looks closer and sees that they are heads. Amah, eyes closed, cheeks flaccid. Dr. Malhotra. His mother. The emperor. And piled up against the wall, bodies. Twisted human wreckage, limbs interlaced, so mangled that he cannot tell where one ends and another begins.
The mute herd comes to stop around him, shivering, their eyes huge in their skulls. They are all staring up at the sky, where one of the suns is inflating, its banshee wail climbing, its heat hitting the ground in shimmering billows. Something nuzzles Bahadur—a great blue cow. It fixes one mournful black eye on his.
'The brightness of the sun, which lights up the world, the brightness of the moon and of fire—these are my glory,' it says. 'But these are ghoulish things, come to devour creation.'
Aniseh comes running out of the Red Fort. It is almost too bright to see now. She runs into his arms, too hot to hold, but he does not care. The sand is melting beneath their feet. Her scorching lips touch his blistering neck.
'I'm yours', she says.
The animals scream.
The sun hits the earth.
The riots begin in Kolkata. They set fire to Muslim ships in the port and drove Malays into the sea, and then converted Bengalis too. The crowds plough through the alleyways and raid the mansions and the pleasure gardens. Sherbet mingles with blood on the paving stones. The army storms in, but it is like hunting mice with a grenade in a maze.
The disorder spreads along the Ganges. The rebel banner is a saffron rectangle emblazoned with a tiger, its mouth clamped over a prone lion's neck, the sun and the moon both witness to its victory. It appears on trucks and in windows and on police station walls.
The emperor bans it, and it appears graffitied all over Shahjahanabad the next day.
On the sixth day, someone hurls a Molotov cocktail at Bahadur's house. It clips the spikes at the top of the wall and tumbles into the courtyard, spawning more smoke than flame and petering out quickly. But it is enough to send Amah rushing at the door waving a rifle and the rest of the staff have to hold her back.
Bahadur watches the crowd surging through the street below, chanting 'Azad Hind! Azad Hind!'. Eventually a contingent of policemen make their way into his compound and bundle him into a jeep. The convoy screams away just as the mob breaks into his garden.
They blaze through the city. Near the Red Fort Bahadur glimpses six men blindfolded and on their knees by the roadside, surrounded by others with guns. They turn to watch his motorcade zoom past, tight-lipped and malicious and eyes glinting with reflected flame. He closes his eyes and breathes deep. Eventually all he can hear is Amah slopping betel around in her mouth and muttering to herself about fists and guts. It has been so long, he thinks, since he has heard birdsong. It has been so long since he has smelled anything without the tang of ash.
'Please, Amah,' he says.
She falls silent.
The Red Fort is a frenzied mess, but Chenglary and his secretaries find him and whisk him to Purple Divan. Crowded around the table, sweating and panicked, is the cabinet. Of course the Most High is not there himself. But the Grand Vizier is, and does, and she peers at him like a bird of prey until he is settled. Then she touches the broad bleached strip in her bouffant and speaks.
'Good of you to join us, Bahadur.'
'You've been filled in, I trust?'
Across from him is a large man with a small head inflated by a manicured beard. He catches Bahadur's eye and cracks his knuckles, slowly.
'I believe,' says Bahadur. 'That their next strike will fall at Uch Sharif, not Peshawar.'
The man guffaws.
'Come on,' he says, shaking his head. 'Come on.'
'Something to share, Goswami?' says the Vizier.
'Madam. The Iranians are sure to attack Peshawar. It is the only way into the Punjab.'
Bahadur shakes his head.
'It is only a hunch, madam Vizier.'
'We need more than hunches, madam Vizier,' says Goswami. 'Every report we get says the Iranians are heading for Peshawar. The Shah himself said he will drink the sweet waters of Peshawar within the week. With all due respect,'—he says this as if Bahadur deserves no respect at all—'the Minister for Science and Technology is mistaken.'
The Vizier points at Bahadur.
'It is strange,' says Bahadur slowly, 'That the Iranians are broadcasting so loudly that they're headed to Peshawar when they've not mobilized a single unit out of Kabul. And yet they've mobilized but every unit out of Kandahar.'
'Well, why not Multan, then?' says Goswami. 'Why Uch Sharif?'
'Could be. But I suspect they'd aim for somewhere symbolic. The Shah would like nothing better, surely, than to seize the Shia tombs from the kafirs.'
'He's not going to pass up the opportunity to seize the fifth biggest city in the empire for a bunch of mouldy tombs,' says Goswami. 'And in any case, we're not all kafirs in their eyes. The emperor is not a kafir. You are not a kafir, Lord Bahadur.'
'The Shahsevan's bullets make no distinction between Hindu and Muslim.'
'Well,' says Goswami, sneering. 'You would know a lot more about the Shahsevan's bullets than I would.'
Bahadur pauses and breathes deep. The Vizier waits, and watches.
'Yes, I do,' he says. 'And I would wager too that Field Marshal Manekshaw knows more about them, and I'm certain he'd agree that these troop movements are suspicious, at very least. As somebody else who has been in war, and bled for his country, that is. As somebody who knows what he is talking about.'
Goswami frowns and opens his mouth. But the Vizier taps the table with her finger and he leans back, riposte strangled. She stares at Bahadur for a while, eyelids drooping, as still as the vapour-choked air.
'Right,' she says eventually. 'Send in the Field Marshal. Let's see what he has to say.'
It is after dark when the meeting breaks up. There are fires burning on the shadowy horizon, out in the west, and down by the river. Sirens howling and the streets are scoured clean by curfew. As they whiz in sleek black convoy past an army checkpoint, Bahadur sees the six blindfolded men. But now they are hanging by their necks from lamp-posts, limp and twisting slowly in the glowering firelight. Their hands are still tied behind their backs.
He is climbing a pebbly path in the mountains. To his right is a brown-grey slope, bereft of tree or bush, heaving thunderously up to the bone-white sky. To his left is a sliver of ravine, half lost in brutal black shadow. And he can hear birdsong. A solitary raptor, distant and shrill, so far away he cannot even see it.
He is following someone. He cannot remember who, but they are just up ahead. He picks up the pace, marching on nothing but the depleted air, thin stuff through which he can see a horizon veiled in a gossamer beige lamina of dust.
He comes to a small valley and in its depths is a temple. A looming and black thing with great, fussy towers. He has seen them before, in the south, where the communists had a left a few standing. 'Opiates in stone,' they called them.
There is a figure standing by the door, rendered tiny by distance. It waves and disappears into the dark of the temple. Bahadur follows and it is snowing by the time he makes his way there. He is cold, fever-cold, and shivering.
His quarry flits silently through the building. He follows from courtyard to chamber to courtyard beyond. All about them are wide-eyed gods, gods like he has never seen, gods he knows are not worshipped any more in Hindustan, if ever they were. Gods brandishing butchered torsos. Gods with heads in their mouths. Gods trampling on screaming children. The farther they go the more obscene they become. Now the great carvings show them eating each other. This one with that one's leg in her mouth, and her arm in turn half-eaten by a great snake. Another one with his guts spilling all over the floor, and little figures clambering all over them. These are not like the ancient carvings, empty-eyed and cryptic, at Karnak, at Ellora. In these sinew is depicted in twisted detail, flesh ripped in vivid and dripping shreds, faces livid with anguish and horror.
Finally he comes to a room with a great pool, glossy black waters as still as stone. The roof above carved with a vista of butchery and in its midst is a single skylight filled with cold grey light.
Bahadur stops, panting.
The figure is standing by the pool in front of him. It begins to strip, and Bahadur realizes it is a woman. She wades in, long black hair trailing on the surface, ripples propagating with perfect geometry in her wake. She walks towards the light. When she is there, she turns.
It is Aniseh.
She lifts her hand, and beckons him over. The water is freezing, but he wades in nonetheless.
He wakes on their second night in Agra to the sound of someone thumping on the front door. He hears sporadic voices, and then the sound of Amah wheezing and puffing her way to his room. By the time she walks in without knocking and turns on the light, he is already sitting up. He squints and covers his eyes.
'Sorry, sorry,' says Amah, turning the light off.
'No, leave it on.' Bahadur drops his hands. 'Who is it?'
'Aniseh?' His leg twitches.
Amah nods, lips pursed. 'Yes. At two o'clock in the morning.'
'Help me up.'
'Help me up.'
'If you're going to be dallying with women in the middle of the night I'll have you decently dressed.'
'What do you think we're going to do? Have at it in the library?'
She spins him around and pushes him onto his shoes. 'You're not meeting her in the library.'
'So help me, little master,' she says, lip quivering, 'If you start sneaking around with other people's wives, I'll leave.'
'Amah, I'm not sneaking around.'
'You can see her in the courtyard.'
Bahadur shakes his head. 'No. I'll see her in my office.'
'And you can wait right outside the door.'
She is not content, but she complies.
Aniseh's eunuch is waiting outside the office door when Bahadur arrives. Amah glares at him and he gazes back, placid and enormous, before stepping aside. Bahadur slips past and closes the door before Amah can wedge her way in.
Aniseh is in the shadows by the window. Her veil is up and she does not drop it when he approaches. Instead, she holds up one henna'd hand and bows.
'Please, cousin,' she says, voice unsteady. 'Won't you sit?'
'Such hospitality,' says Bahadur, 'In my own home.'
She slides around the opposite side of the table from him, face averted, and sits down.
'I'm sorry to disturb you so late.'
'I assume Lord Goswami has a message?'
'Not him. Me.'
'Yes.' She breathes deep. 'Promise me you'll vote against using the Malhotra device.'
She looks up at him, all but her eyes hidden behind her veil, a veil such vivid red it is as if it were woven from strings of blood.
'Promise me you'll vote against using the bomb.'
'Cousin, the decision to use it or not isn't up to me. The Emperor will decide. Or rather, the Vizier will. You know this.'
'Your vote matters.'
Bahadur sits back.
'Is this what you came to discuss with me? At two o'clock in the morning?'
'Promise me, first.'
'Ani, if you're so against this bomb, why did you help build it?'
She holds his gaze for a few moments. 'Hope,' she says.
'I beg your pardon?'
'Hope.' She puts her hands on the table, nails ragged. 'It's not so hard to imagine, is it, cousin? Have you never done something you knew to be bad, in the hopes that some good would come of it?'
'What good did you think would come of the Malhotra device?'
'Free energy. A stick to wave at the Safavids. Safety for us all.' She closes her eyes. 'I once had a dream. I dreamt there was a deer in the forest, and it had just given birth to a foal. But no sooner had the little one slipped out than a leopard pounced. The mother fled and the leopard took the baby—seconds old—and crushed it hard in its jaws.' She leans forwards. 'Now, imagine. Imagine if its mother had had fangs. Imagine if she had horns. Imagine if she had been brave enough, with those things, to drive the leopard away. I thought we would give the deer horns.'
Two dark patches forming on her veil, either side of her nose.
'But we didn't give it horns. We gave it venom, and now it's coursing through its veins. Now all the deer's children will be stillborn.'
'Will you not show me your face?'
'Show me your face.'
She pauses for a moment. Then she reaches up and drops her veil. Her left cheek is swollen and red and riven with jagged cracks, glossy in the light, and still oozing. Her right eye is puffed aubergine-black and half-shut. She will not look him in the face.
Bahadur closes his eyes.
'God in heaven. Why this time?'
'You contradicted him on Multan. And then you were right.' She sniffs. 'I am not to see you again.'
'You heard me.' She gets up, so quickly that Bahadur thinks something has happened, and springs to his feet too. 'I've stayed too long. I came only to tell you this.'
'I don't expect it to last. But in case it does, I wanted to see you.'
Bahadur stands there, mouth working, but the words will not come. There is no reason for it, he knows, but the certainty that he will never see her again closes in on him like a black haze. He cannot breathe and he cannot think and the words when they come are not what he intends to say. But that does not stop him saying them.
'I dream of you,' he says.
'Yes. Just you and me together, in a temple in the mountains, and by the Red Fort. There were animals there. There was a blue cow.' Bahadur looks down at his feet. 'Forget it.'
'What did you say?'
When he looks up she is staring at him, perfect lips slack, gemstone eyes wide.
'What did you just say you dreamt?' she says, voice rising. 'A temple? Animals?'
'Yes. We were in the mountains. I was following you into this big temple. And the other one, we were at the Red Fort. All these animals—are you alright?'
Aniseh holds up both her hands.
'You must forget about those dreams, you hear me?'
'Forget them!' She lifts her veil and now he can see nothing of her but her narrowed eyes. 'They're just dreams, you understand? Maybe in some other world you and I could have been happy. But we live in this one, Bahadur. This one, where my husband has forbidden me from seeing you, and all is about to fall to fire and ruin. Forget the dreams. Stop the nightmare that'll come to pass if we drop that bomb instead.'
She runs out before he can ask her anything else. He follows her into the courtyard and watches her sweep through the front door, golden jewelry jangling, crimson robes trailing. In the street lights, for a moment, she looks like she is on fire.
The front settles in a jagged and bloody line from Ludhiana to Ahmedabad. Then one evening, when even the walls were slick, Chenglary appears by Bahadur's side just as he has sat down on the balcony. He is shaking.
'Yes?' says Bahadur.
'The Vizier is dead, sir,' Chenglary says.
Bahadur peers across the city. Years later he will wonder at how mundane this moment was. This moment when, on hindsight, the world began to end. He will remember feeling nothing. He will remember wondering only how it is that such news is accompanied by nothing more than the city lights pushing softly on the underbelly of clouds above in drab orange miasma. For a long time, he doesn't say anything. Then, quietly:
'Killed by her own bodyguards, sir.'
'Yes, sir.' Chenglary takes a long and quivering breath through his nose. 'It would appear the Shah's offer has worked.'
'Make sure anyone in our staff with a turban gets looked after, will you?'
Chenglary leaves. Abruptly there are sirens, off in the distance, and scything anti-aircraft lights. Bahadur sits there a while longer, wondering why he can't bring himself to return to the air-conditioned interior. Wondering why, for now, all walls feel like the walls of a prison.
The door to the balcony slides open again, and Chenglary returns. He whispers something in Bahadur's ear.
'You may tell the Vizier,' Bahadur says, 'That I shall serve him as loyally as I served his mother.'
Chenglary nods, and leaves.
He has swum for an eternity in the abyss, beyond the tips of the sun's golden fingers. His only encounters with others are fleeting moments of violence. When it is something bigger than him, he flees. When it is something smaller than him, he jerks it to his mouth with one spasm of his tentacles, and it is inside him before it knows that it is dead.
Recently, though, there have also been lights. Beautiful and burning blue-white in the depthless murk. Like stars, he thinks, though he should not know what stars are. Some time ago—he wants to think days, but he cannot recall what exactly a day is—there was one near him. In the glare he saw that he was above a vast abyss, miles wide. Falling all about him was a ghostly rain of dead flecks. He had never seen his world in such detail. He had never known how bare and jagged and colourless it all was.
And now, there were things drifting down through the waters. The bodies of creatures he has never seen. Their bodies are ill-suited to life in the water, and they are all dead. They are full of fat, though, and he lingers by one a while, pecking at it.
He hits a current and glides over the mouth of the abyss. It swoops below the rim, and he lets it take him. There is a scent down there, intoxicating, and growing stronger. He remembers that he was looking for someone when he first came here. He remembers that she smelled just like this. Then, up ahead, a shimmering fluorescence—two, three little buds, burning electric blue and green. Then more. Not a predator, then. He comes closer, tingling and a little dizzy, the scent so strong in the water he can taste it with his whole body.
And then, with the tips of his tentacles, he touches her. Soft and rippling and deliriously alive. She twitches, once, and glides away. There is a flash of light directly above and he sees her. Briefly, but it is unmistakably Aniseh. Nude and pale, her hair radiating from her head in great green tentacles flecked with lights.
She smiles and reaches out for him.
Their tentacles brush against each other, and then the shockwave hits them. Down into the abyss they go. Even when they realize it is too late and that they have fallen too far, they do not let go. Instead, they draw close, and hold each other. Together, they fall into the crushing blackness.
They cram, sour with tension, into the makeshift cabinet room. Through the gaping windows to the left is the Ganges, swollen and grey-green and sluggish. A thick haze on the far bank strangles the horizon and renders the great battleships tiny. They disappear at the slightest shift of the wind.
Bahadur sits wilting between two other ministers. In his mind he is in the darkness of the sea. He was in the mountains. He was looking for a temple, wasn't he? He can't remember. He looks over at Goswami. The Minister of War is scratching his beard furiously and staring at the ceiling. His eyes glimmer like trapped moons in his dark face.
The clock strikes ten and the vizier marches in. He sits down at the head of the table and waits, head bowed, while his secretaries bustle around him. When they are done they retire, taking the ministers' assistants and body slaves too. And then everything is quiet.
'Right,' says the Vizier. 'We all know why we're here. The decision on the Malhotra device needs to be made and I will inform his Majesty of our recommendation as soon as this meeting is over. No questions, please, and no comments. We have all spoken about this at length, already.' He points down the table, and the Minister of Plantations, sitting next to Bahadur, stiffens. 'Deepthi, you go first. Yes or no?'
'Yes, to use the bomb, or no, to not, is that right, sir?'
'That is correct.'
'Then, sir yes. Use it.'
And so they move around the table. Yes, no, yes, no, no, no, yes, no—you are all barbarians who vote yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. They skip the Vizier. Bahadur realizes that the votes are neck and neck and as it sweeps towards him all he can see is Aniseh standing before the burning Red Fort and then her face cracked and bleeding and then other things too, things he does not even know he remembered, things going back so deep into his past it is like dropping a blazing torch into a well.
Bahadur breathes deep. He is a creature in the insensate depths. He is pleading for something in a lonely temple. He is looking for something and that something is Aniseh and that something is in some other world and that, therefore, is where he will go.
'Yes,' he says.
Silence. Goswami peers at him. The Vizier purses his lips and says, 'Are you sure?'
'Right. It is nineteen against, and twenty-one for. I shall inform the Emperor and the field marshal of our recommendation.'
He stands up. An instant later someone leaps bellowing onto the table. Someone else grabs the Vizier and yanks him over the table and then guards burst into the room. Ministers fly at each other, shouting and punching. Chairs crack and the table trembles and Bahadur tries to slip out as quietly as he can. He nearly makes it out unnoticed, but then he crashes into Goswami. The Minister of War grabs him with iron-fingered hands and holds him tight.
'What changed your mind?' he asks.
Goswami glowers at him.
'Tell me what changed your mind. I know you went to see Malhotra. I know he's gone mad. Is it the dreams?'
Goswami grins. 'What did you see? Did you see her, like she saw you?'
Bahadur's eyes widen. 'She saw me?'
'So it was the dreams. Do you know what I saw?'
Goswami leans in and whispers.
'I saw the sun fall over Shahjahanabad and burn you and yours to ash. I saw Hindustan returned to those it belongs to. I saw true victory.'
Bahadur cannot speak. Goswami lets him go and he hobbles out into the street, sweat soaking through his suit, legs trembling. He makes it to the main road, and his legs give way. Chenglary comes sprinting out of the shadows and reaches him, just in time to catch him before he falls to the ground like a shot bird.
It is hard to tell the man's age, but he walks as if he were old. He is swathed in dirty rags that were once magnificent and stalks along without raising his eyes from the ground. He walks along the blasted edge of the Ganges, as do most people these days, for it is only here that the rubble is clear enough to find a way forward. It is hard, but he is grateful. At least he does not have to pick his way past bodies anymore.
Slowly he makes his way through the suburbs—or at least, the shattered expanses where the suburbs once were—towards the city centre. He finds a quiet spot in the lee of a giant slab of concrete and fishes out a small plastic bag. Within it are two chunks of naan and a small tub full of red stuff. He thinks briefly of Amah, sitting on his balcony, chewing her betel. Those heavy arms that settled around him like pillows. He cries for a while, and then he looks at the bread in his hands as if he has never seen it before.
After a while, a boat sails up the river. It changes course towards him and someone on the deck waves and shouts. He gets up, and walks off.
There are still people camped out in the ruins of Jama Masjid, most of them with their hair falling out, and some, also, their teeth. In one corner of the courtyard is a shrine to a god, and next to it another. He looks around and sees that there are many, scattered about, some even in the ruins of the mosque itself, where the cloud-filtered sunlight oozes through the gaps in the ceiling.
He approaches a young man with one leg sitting by the wall, eyes glazed and skin pale and hair a dusty mess.
'Hey,' he says. 'Where is the healing woman?'
The young man squints. 'Ah, who?'
'The healing woman. The woman in the red dress.'
'What do you want with her, uncle?'
'Uncle? I'm not that old.'
'Yeah you are. You're old.'
'Well? Where is she?'
The man points vaguely down the street. 'That way.'
'Be more specific.'
'Ah, uncle, come on, don't be so rude. Give us something to eat, would you?'
'I don't have anything.'
'You sound like a rich man.'
The old man straightens up and looks up at the sky. The other day he saw sunlight in the distance. At a shop on the outskirts he sat listening to the radio and the woman on it said that in some places it was beginning to clear. But there is no hint of that today. Just an endless grey undulation stretching from horizon to bleak horizon.
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a silvery coin. 'Here.'
The young man seizes it and sits up, eyes snapping into focus. 'Where'd you get that?'
'Where is she?'
'Ah, what, uncle, come on. Share. Don't you know we all have to share?'
'Tell me where she is.'
The young man stares at the coin. 'Go down the road and take the third left. She's in the house with the flowers.'
The old man heads off and when he looks back the young man is following him, leaning against the walls for support. He whistles and two other men emerge from one of the shattered houses. The old man picks up the pace and reaches the third left and it is a long dark alleyway with no light at the end and empty windows on either side and long forgotten washing fluttering like bandages from clotheslines above. It does not look right at all.
He looks back and the two men are just a few feet away and he reaches into his pocket, hand settling on the hilt of his knife. He is about to draw when a pickup comes roaring down the road with two soldiers on its back. His stalkers turn tail and flee but the men on the truck are armed and they open fire and the other two tumble over amidst little puffs of red and brown. One of them lies there twitching and only stops when one of the militiamen wanders over and puts a bullet in the back of his head.
They leave the bodies on the street.
The man keeps on and just before sundown he comes to a small square, shocking in its tidiness, rimmed with little pots full of blue flowers. Just beyond is a little house and the window is open and in it there is a woman. Grey-faced and skeleton-thin but those eyes, those eyes, he can feel them on his skin. Green fire.
He stops, and stares. The woman looks at him.
'Bahadur?' she says, unsmiling.
He breathes deep, and walks towards her.
Bio: I have been writing speculative fiction for over fifteen years and have had pieces appear in Lamplight, The Future Fire, The Colored Lens, Liquid Imagination, Kzine, and Expanded Horizons. I also have two shorts due to appear in anthologies this year, including Rosarium Publishing's Sunspot Jungle.
My short story collection Tales from the Stone Lotus was released by Writingale Press last October, and is currently available on Amazon.
E-mail: Subodhana Wijeyeratne