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.)