Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Shadow of the Babul

I. Sundown Coming
Through the windows, Irene and Peter could see the sun setting across the Sindh – not orange as they had once dreamed of the Indian sun, but a bright yellow ball, hefting light across the steppes even as it was impelled down, down behind the Earth. As the light filtered through the branches of the lone babul tree in the front garden of the hospital, shadows seemed to pull themselves off the tree's boughs. They strained and stretched into the windows of Peter's room and the hallway, waving and undulating like the black fingers of the spinster tree's nighttime self. Down the hallway, past Ayub's empty office, past the now also empty room where the dead intruder had been laid, past another room where the injured soldier had been staying, and past yet another, the door to Mumbles' chamber was cracked open. Inside, Peter and Irene could hear a voice. A breeze blew through the open window and the shadow boughs seemed to caress Mumbles' door. Irene could smell smoke from outside – acrid, unidentifiable smoke. She had been on an anthropomorphizing streak lately, and she fancied that the tree's shadow was reaching towards the captured intruder, and that the smoke was somehow the odor of its nighttime form. Perhaps it should be let into his room? She wondered how the man would react to seeing her. When Peter caught a whiff of the smoke, he covered his nose – it was, he knew, the last remnant of the other intruder's funeral pyre.

As the pair approached the room, it became clear that the voice belonged to Mukherjee and, from the noise of boots shuffling, that there were several soldiers inside. At the threshold, the pair could hear Mukherjee, reading: "Main, Krishna, jo Gay ki Rakshee hai, yah qabul deta hoon. Kosh ke vinash evm hatya ke iraadaa rakhkr Angrezee padaav pahonchaane ka irada, jo apne aparaadhe hain, main sveekaar kartaa hoon. Angrezeeon ko maara, kuch lajjaa nahin mera. Jay Mata Bhaarat."

[For Peter: "I, Krishna, the Protector of Cows, give this confession. I admit to my crimes of entering the English camp with the intention of murder and destroying treasures. Death to the English, I have no shame. Hail Mother India."]

Karan had departed from Peter's side to allow a private meeting with Irene. He was in the room with the other soldiers, standing near the door. Looking over his shoulder, he noticed Peter in the hallway and opened the door for him. "Ji," he nodded. "Miss Howell." Shadows slid from the door as it opened and seemed to climb up the legs and shoulders and faces of the soldiers. "Mukherjee has just finished . . . interrogating the prisoner. His name is Krishna." Mumbles – Krishna – lay on his bed, surrounded by Mukherjee and three other soldiers.

The Sergeant finished Karan's narrative for him. "I say, he wanted a beating. So I gave it to him. We have our confession. This will be sufficient to see him off to Kala Pani!" He peered around the room. The threat of imprisonment in the Andamans was not a pleasant thought. "We're done. Saagar, secure him again, everyone else out. Saagar - God's sake, crack the window a little for some wind. It's time to show him some mercy." The soldiers – four counting Mukherjee, Karan, Mandeep, and Arjun – shuffled through the door, Mukherjee last of them. "Were you planning on seeing him?" he asked. "Quite sorry, then, but I think he's had enough for tonight. We shall see in the morning. Nurse!" In short time one of the nurses, Anita, responded to the call. In brusque Urdu, Mukherjee ordered her to prepare to stay the night in the corridor in case of an emergency, and explained that he had been required to beat the man, but that he did not wish to see him worsen. He assured her that Private Saagar would be in the room with Krishna.

II. Nighttime
Irene's room was situated between Peter's own and Doctor Ayub's office. When the door was open, she could see clear across the hallway and through a window. She had a very good view of the babul tree. Though she was a relative newcomer to the Empire's Jewel and its flora, she was already familiar with the character of the babul. It was rather like an acacia tree, and Irene had spent many an afternoon reading and writing in the shade of her trusty friend, the Acacia nilotica. The babuls of India were Acacia arabica, at least according to a brief she had read in Mumbai, where she had enjoyed the opportunity of climbing a steep hill to meet with Babulnath, Lord Shiva in the form of a Babul tree. That tree in Mumbai, she was told, was an earthly incarnation of the world tree shared by Buddhists and Hindus, as well as by the Germanic tribes and the Slavs. As a friendly presence and as the centerpiece of an urban temple, Irene felt that acacias and babuls were just fine as trees and that they made attractive figures in the landscape. This one tree, though; this tree of Ayub's: there had been something about the play of the light through its broad, flattened boughs, something strange about the shadows it had cast. Like it was tangibly touching whatever its shadow happened to fall upon. Surely, it had only been the lingering wariness from the violent events of two nights ago, and the strange conversation she had had with Peter – a cult! To think of it! Irene decided that Ayub's tree was a fine tree too and that she should leave it at that.

Now, it was night, and there was no way to distinguish a shadow from the darkness. Irene carefully closed her door, took her dress off and folded it neatly in a chair. She stretched out in her bed, and finally lay her head on her hands and closed her eyes to sleep. She drifted in and out of a temple on a hilltop, surrounded by a throng of devotees to the world tree.

When we sleep, we fall into suspension. As we sleep we take no notice of how delicately our senses hang, but if, in the single moment of falling into the sling of dreams, we are awoken, we struggle to come to our senses, to right our drifting bodies. It was in this moment that Irene heard a knocking on her door and a sob. She felt as if she had been dropped from some height, but without any impact, just a confusing sweep into the arms of the solid world, now dark all around her.

Peter, who had sat up running theory after theory through his mind, was only half-asleep. He heard the muffled sound of a knock on Irene's door.

(Peter passed a listen check.)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Jackals of the Indus

I. Tuesday

The remainder of the day of the 22nd goes by slowly. Peter and Irene find themselves crowded from the trench by Humphries and Daniel, who are busy extracting and cataloguing yet more bricks, and by the grosser excavations of the Sindhi laborers. "Don't worry Ma'am-ji, Peter," Daniel cheerily assures them. "I'm quite sure that there will be plenty of dirt for both of you to dig tomorrow. Ha! – if you so please, Miss Howell!"

And so Peter and Irene pass the remainder of the hot day by themselves. At a loss for other things to do, Peter spends some time helping Irene to unpack and organize the veritable library of archaeological catalogs and other scholarly references that she has brought with her. And what a mass of ink and paper it is! In these books, there are countless descriptions of materials unearthed from sites throughout Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, South Asia, and North America. For all the economic, political, and strategic troubles inherent in managing such a vast dominion, one of the greatest outcomes of the British Empire is the accumulation and disciplining of such disparate sources of historical and pre-historical knowledge. Truly, without the heaving machinery that is the Imperial bureaucracy, the collation of such an extensive collection of comparative materials from the far corners of the planet might have been impossible.

For his part, the Major spends the rest of his time in his tent with the flap closed, permitting only his right-hand man, Mukherjee to enter. Late in the afternoon, as the Sergeant brings some chai to the excluded duo, he explains that, "Major McCormick is very busy writing letters to his family. And to Sir Marshall and Banerji as well." He leaves it at that.

II. That Night

It is cold tonight; surprisingly so. In their respective tents, Peter and Irene have bundled themselves in harsh wool blankets to fight off the unexpected chill.

Tonight, it seems, something has unnerved the jackals. They yap and chatter in the dark night, their squealing voices echoing across the Indus and into the camp, making it difficult to sleep. Are they hunting? Do they seek mates? Are they mourning? The Westerners in the camp hear nothing but cackling and screeching, and the jackals' voices tell no stories.

It is nearly three o'clock in the morning when the jackals suddenly and conspicuously cease their prattling. Perhaps there are wolves about? The larger canines are known to hunt their diminutive brethren.

If only! After some minutes, the jackals resume their galling chorus, howling more loudly and more madly before. Such a cacophony, neither Peter nor Irene have ever heard before – not in Egypt, not in the Sindh. The pitch of their feral cries climbs and climbs, escalating into a racket of whistles, not unlike the whining of worn brakes on a train, but staccato and even harsher to the ear. Something must be very wrong in the world of the jackals.

Irene, who is already a bit worried about her standing at the camp, finds it very difficult to ignore the jackals' cries. It seems to her that the jackals are speaking – but not to one another. To whom, then? She cannot seem to get the idea out of her head that there is some message in the frustratingly uninterpretable shrieks of the little beasts. Her mind strains against her will to decipher it. Perhaps her rationale has been aggravated by her linguistic hallucination earlier in the day, or perhaps she is simply over-tired and half-dreaming. Sleep comes to her only in brief fits.

She closes her eyes once again. In the space between two yelps, Irene hears something moving amongst the tents – some animal, she senses. Have the jackals come to scavenge?

Then – a sound like wood straining and splitting – and a crash! The source of the noise is just outside the front flaps of Peter's and Irene's respective tents.

Something is happening in the antiquities tent!

(Peter passes his sanity check vs. the jackals' unnatural chatter. Irene fails hers: -1 sanity point. Actions that have taken place between sections one and two may be privately emailed to me – but only if they would substantially interrupt continuity or if it is absolutely necessary that they be concealed from other players. Action picks up at the crashing sound, which both Peter and Irene hear. I will wait for responses from both players before commenting.)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Diminutive Planet

Having received the summons to India in February, Irene Howell arrived only shortly before the excavation was to resume in earnest. After spending a day in Lahore to shop for supplies, she hailed a rickshaw only to find it already occupied by one of her old acquaintances: none other than the shy but fashionable Peter Cox!

Peter was somewhere between average and handsome. His eyes were blue behind his spectacles and his dark blond hair was slicked back against his skull with pomade. His frame was tall and sturdy, and his face bore classically Anglo features. Though he was plainly dressed in utilitarian clothing, his neck sported a silk scarf that he appeared to have acquired locally.

As for Irene, she wore a stylish dark blue pants suit, remarkably clean in light of the fact that she had been wandering the streets shopping. Her hair was very similar in style to when Peter had last seen her; preferring to keep it short so as not to have to worry about it. She was certainly an attractive young woman, especially if one cared for dark-haired, willowy women. (She had been told that she looked like Louise Brooks, but was more annoyed rather than flattered by that, as she had the hairstyle before the actress.)

Irene's memory for faces did not fail her, nor did it seem that Peter had forgotten hers (though, with some embarrassment, he struggled for a brief moment to recall her name). After finding it he said, "Miss Howell? My word!" He scooted aside to make room for her on the seat beside him and exclaimed, "What a small world we share!"

For her part, Irene looked truly shocked to see a man she had met in Egypt sitting in the rickshaw that she had just hailed. She paused for a split-second before stepping up and taking the empty seat. She carefully arranged the parcels that she was carrying on her lap and put a protective hand on top of them. "A small world indeed, Mr. Cox," she replied with a warm smile. "Why, I cannot tell you how surprised I am to see you, but I am always happy to meet an old friend in an unexpected place. Are you here for work or for pleasure?" It did cross her mind that they might be in India for the same reason, but she did not dare suggest such a grand coincidence, lest she be wrong.

Peter reciprocated Irene's smile with one of his own, though it was somewhat more awkward than hers. "Work," he answered, "with the Archaeological Survey of India. There are two Indus sites to be excavated shortly, and Mr. Car--" He quickly corrected himself, hoping to circumvent a tender subject. "Er, it was recommended that I join the Mohenjo-daro enterprise," he said simply. Then, quickly deflecting, he asked: "And you, Madam: have you been well? And is it business or pleasure that has delivered you to this hot, dusty corner of the Empire?" Noting her various parcels, he added in jest, "If I may say, you seem to have had no difficulty securing supplies for your visit!"

Irene's eyes flickered to the door when Peter accidentally mentioned Howard Carter, but she did not look upset. Mentions of Howard always reminded her of what a fool she'd been, and that is not a bad thing to remember. It was just not something she wanted to think about all the time.

Her eyes widened when Peter mentioned the very same project that she was helping to fund and was to be working on. "I am very well, thank you for inquiring. And, please, you must address me as Irene…especially since we are to be working together," she said with a bright smile. She disliked formalities among friends and, if she liked them well enough, acquaintances as well. "I have come here to work at Mohenjo-Daro as well. It was a quick decision, so I did not have time to acquire everything that I needed before I left Egypt, hence the shopping."

She frowned ever so slightly. "I am not sure how I will be received by the director, though. I do not know him personally, and I am sure that he will be unwilling to believe at first that I do actually know what I am doing." She may not have asked outright, but she clearly wanted to know what Peter thought about the man.

"Indeed!" Peter exclaimed when he learned that she would be joining the excavation. "Very good then," he said, then added, "Irene," experimenting with addressing her on a first-name basis. Picking up on her implied question, he replied, "Ah, the Major is a jovial enough chap, and he seems rather excited about the project. Between you and I, though, he is something of an amateur, and certainly not much of a laborer. Not once have I seen him so much as even pick up a trowel or sieve, lest his fingernails acquire dirt!" Peter then backed off, and so as not to disparage his boss too severely, attempted to redeem him by adding, "But, from what I have observed, he seems capable enough in his role as overseer, and excels at maintaining discipline among the workers. Being a rather traditional fellow, it may take him some convincing to recognize that you might know your way around a dig, but I've no doubt that your experiences in Egypt will assure him of your credibility."

Irene looked suitably disappointed to hear that the Major did not care to physically take part in the excavation. Even though a director was not always supposed to dig, he was still required to step into trenches once in a while in order to check out a find, or use his brush or trowel to clean a particularly important feature. There were too many men who preferred to be haughty overseers, but at least Peter thought that his fellow was a sensible man. Since she remembered Peter as being quite sensible himself, she was happy to trust his opinion.

Peter cleared his throat of street-dust. "So, Irene... would it be too presumptuous of me to inquire as to your recent purchases? I recall your highly refined taste in attire, and I'm curious what discoveries you might have already made in the marketplace. Admittedly, I lack the savvy to find anything that might flatter the female physique among this labyrinth of vendors; perhaps you might be able to direct me to something appropriate for a lady-friend?"

"You flatter me, my dear sir," Irene replied, "but I fear that these purchases are practical in nature. Let me see…I bought a new pith helmet, two pairs of sturdy gloves and several replacement items for my first aid kit," she recounted, tapping each package in turn as she spoke.

She recalled that Peter was divorced, and thus was pleased to hear that he might have found another woman to share his life with. Irene was not much of a romantic when it came to her own life, but she found love charming when it concerned others. Never one to evade an inquiry just because it might make some persons uncomfortable, she said, "I would be happy to advise you, but I would need to know just what sort of message you wish to send. For, as you surely know, a pretty scarf and a set of fine silver jewelry convey very different messages!"

As Irene surmised, her inquiry into Peter's personal life did appear to make him a tad uncomfortable. "Ah, hm," he stammered, "perhaps it is too soon to woo her with such gifts. I would not want to give her the impression that I am attempting to purchase her affection." He then changed the subject to just about anything else, talking about the other archaeologists working at the site - Humphries and Daniel - and prattling on about the illness he suffered when he first arrived on the subcontinent and his subsequent slow recovery. "Perhaps it was the Pharaoh's curse," he chuckled, alluding to the rumors making rounds in the press regarding the various misfortunes befalling those who were present at the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb.

Peter whittled away the rest of their ride with such idle banter, always steering the conversation away from discussions of more consequential matters. Irene listened politely, expressing her horror at his illness and her relief that he is once again well. She was more than happy to join in the friendly chatter until they arrived at camp. When at last the two arrived back at Ihsaan Waahaan, Peter escorted Irene to her tent and encouraged her to approach him should she require any assistance, offering to introduce her to the Major at her convenience.

Irene was pleased to see that her possessions had arrived safely ahead of her, though she did frown a little bit at the sight of the tent. She had been lucky enough to have a dig house available to her excavation team for the past couple years, and had grown used to that small but significant amount of comfort. She was able to rough it when necessary, though, so merely shrugged and smiled a little. At least she would not be bored. She thanked Peter for his delightful company on their journey and his offer and requested a short amount of time to get settled before meeting the Major, but was clearly eager to do so.


Early the next morning, Peter checked on Irene to make sure that she had settled in to her accommodations (humble as they were) and to bring her a cup of tea. "I trust you had a restful evening?" He inquired, deciding not to mention that a krait was discovered in the camp while they slept. "I'll introduce you to the Major just as soon as you are ready."

That day, Irene was wearing a long, tan skirt and a crisp, surprisingly unwrinkled white shirt. Her shoes were brown, flat and sturdy, and they did not look like anything that Peter had seen in a store window. They were specially made for Irene, and they offered comfort, support and durability in difficult conditions.

"It was a very pleasant evening, thank you for inquiring, and also for the tea," Irene replied with a chipper smile. She was most definitely a morning person and appeared as energetic as ever. "I hope that you also slept well. I for one find that I sleep better when I am so close to nature. Even the air is fresher and more invigorating here." She took a sip of her tea and smiled down at her cup, apparently pleased with it. When she looked up, she shrugged a little. "If you have no objection, why don't we seek him out now? I would not want him to think that I am hiding from him; that would not at all be appropriate, now would it? We only corresponded briefly and I want to be sure that there is a meeting of minds on certain important issues."

(text by Elizabeth and HomoDM)

Thursday, September 11, 2008


More than a month at the dig site and the question persists – Is it worth it? The piddling trench that represents the entirety of three seasons' labor has grown by a mere three or four feet in either direction. Dozens of little nooks protrude into the soil on either side of the main trench – mere shelves for what trinkets and bricks found fit to reveal themselves in the coarsely dug ditch. But that's relative progress, for the excavated area is now twice as long as it was in the Autumn.

The potential for boredom is yet vast. "Autumn" and "Spring" are almost meaningless here: the Sindh is not beholden to the temperate, regular seasons of Western Europe and the Isles. Even the fabled Monsoons are shy of this great dusty expanse and fail to train the year into any sensibly punctuated passage of time. There are cold months and there are hot months; April has been one of the hot ones. There are no rains and only the flooding of the Indus – swollen, one might imagine, somewhere among the peaks of Kashmir – offers any indication that precipitation falls anywhere in the subcontinent. Indeed, the thought may cross one's mind that what gods lie buried here beside the river are taunting you. The rains never come, but in the wake of every flood – there have been three since March – the groundwater seeps into the trench and fills it like a trough. This is how the Sindh maintains its fertility.

"Heaven for the climate, hell for the company," Twain said. This place must be somewhere in between – perhaps a Limbo or one of the sundry transitional heavens of which the occasional Buddhist pilgrim traveling through Ihsaan Waahaan speaks. There are the workmen; rough sorts who speak no English and very little Urdu. When not occupied with bucketfuls of dirt and stone, they rest behind a tarp and drink thinly flavored tea, which they seem to relish. Five times a day these men face Mecca and bow, and three times a day they goad their camels into hauling earth from the slowly growing piles at each end of the trench.

Then there are the other archaeologists. Jim Humphries is a quiet, unobtrusive man in his mid-thirties from McGill University in Montreal. Perpetually clothed in khakis, he has been at the dig only since the 10th of April. Though he socializes very little and complains even less, it is clear that he is not at home in the heat. He refrains from speaking to anyone except McCormick and John Daniel, and then only when he must – this may very well be because of his apparently limited linguistic capabilities.

On the other hand, the Bombay-born John Daniel, who has been at work at the site since Pete and Irene's arrival, has tried his very best to befriend every person and beast at the camp. He is fluent in several languages, apparently including Sindhi and the Punjabi spoken by McCormick's men. He is an admirer of Gandhi-ji, and is always quick to espouse the merits of Swaraj – self-rule, independence – but he is not without respect for the British in India. "Well," he jokes, "they do make the trains run on time!" He views the dig as more than an exploration into one of the oldest cities known to science; for him, it is an opportunity to confirm the antiquity and achievements of Indian culture.

The sepoys and their officer are another matter. The soldiers – mostly Sikhs, it seems – mix with neither the workers nor the scientists, though they seem to enjoy many of the same pastimes as the former. McCormick is chatty and eternally jovial – a good match for Daniel, with whom he has had countless heated, though courteous, exchanges. Despite his many years in the subcontinent, McCormick seems to have less command of Urdu than even Humphries – whether by attitude or training, the only verb tense he ever seems to use is that of the diminutive command.

The most common artifacts found thus far are bricks, which are striking in that they are of uniform size, indicating some degree of standardization in design. About twenty-five of these have been found. Besides these a number of amulets have been uncovered. Most depict animals such as bulls and rhinoceroses, but one includes a seated man. His adornments seem to indicate some status or wealth, and the long, antelope-like horns protruding from his head could be a priestly headdress. Daniel immediately suggests a connection with Rudra, the terrible form of Lord Shiva, and suggests that the horns represent virility, fertility, or . . .
The interpretations could go on and on.