He hesitated about taking the boy to Fatehpur Sikri right after their lunchtime tour of the Taj Mahal; two major Mughal monuments in one afternoon could be considered excessive. But it was less than an hour’s drive away, he reasoned, and to fit the two sites into one day was the generally accepted practice. They could be back at their hotel in Agra by early evening and after an early night with the television and room service they could leave for Delhi, refreshed, the following morning. The reasoning prevailed.
When he mentioned part of this plan to the driver of his hired car, the young man, all longish hair and golden chain around his neck and golden wristlet and chunky watch, took it as a veiled order to go about the business in record time. He revelled in the opportunity to drive through the dusty, cratered slip road to Fatehpur Sikri at organ-jostling speed, punctuated by abrupt jerking into rest when impeded and then launching as suddenly into motion again. They passed a string of dingy roadside eateries, teashops, cigarette-and-snack shacks. The bigger ones boasted signboards and names. There were the predictable ‘Akbar’, ‘Shahjahan’, ‘Shahenshah’, a ‘Jodha Bai’, even a ‘Tansen’, which was ‘100% VAGETARIAN’. There had been a speed-warning sign earlier, while leaving Agra: ‘Batter late than never.’ Not for the first time he wondered, in a country given over to a dizzying plenitude of signs, how unsettled their orthography was. A Coca-Cola hoarding adorned the top of one small shop, the brand name and shout line written in Hindi script.
‘Coca-Cola,’ the boy said, able to read that trademark universal wave even though he couldn’t read the language.
‘We can have one after we’ve done our tour,’ he said, his mind occupied by trying to work out if another order to the driver to slow down to prevent their incipient motion sickness would be taken as wilfully contradictory; he worried about these things.
The boy seemed subdued; he didn’t move from the bare identification of the familiar brand to wanting it. Ordinarily, he would have been compulsively rattling off the names written in English on shopfronts and billboards. While he was grateful for his son’s uncharacteristic placidity, he wondered if he hadn’t imposed too much on a six-year-old, dragging him from one historical monument to another. He now read a kind of polite forbearance in the boy’s quietness, a way of letting him know that this kind of tourism was wholly outside his sphere of interest but he was going to tolerate his father’s indulging in it. After a few questions at the Taj Mahal which began as enthusiastic then quickly burned out into perfunctory – ‘Baba, what is a mau-so-le-um?’, ‘Is Moom-taz under this building?’, ‘Was she walking and moving and talking when Shajjy-han built this over her?’ – they had stopped altogether. Was it wonder that had silenced him or boredom? He had tried to keep the child interested by spinning stories that he thought would catch the boy’s imagination: ‘Do you see how white the building is? Do you know that the emperor who had it built, Shah Jahan, had banquets on the terrace on full-moon nights where everything was white? The moonlight, the clothes the courtiers and the guests wore, the flowers, the food – everything was white, to go with the white of the marble and the white light of the full moon.’ The boy had nodded, seemingly absorbing the information, but had betrayed no further curiosity, had followed with no questions.
Now he wondered if his son had not found all this business of tombs and erecting memorials to the dead and immortal grief macabre, unsettling. His son was American, so he was not growing up, as he had, with the gift of ghost stories, first heard sitting on the laps of servants and aunts in his childhood home in Calcutta, then, when he was a little older, read in children’s books. As a result, he did not understand quite what went on inside the child’s head when novelties, such as the notion of an order of things created by the imagination residing under the visible world and as vivid as the real one, were introduced to him. He made a mental note to stick to historical facts only when they reached Fatehpur Sikri.
Or could it have been the terrible accident they had narrowly avoided witnessing yesterday at the moment of their arrival at the hotel? A huge multi-storey building was going up across the road, directly opposite their hotel, and a construction worker had apparently fallen to his death just as their car was getting into the slip lane for the hotel entrance. As they waited in the queue to get in, people had come running from all directions to congregate about twenty metres from where they were. Something about the urgency of the swarming and the indescribable sound that emanated from that swiftly engorging clot of people, a tense noise between buzzing and truculent murmuring, instantly transmitted the message that a disaster had occurred. Otherwise how else would the child have known to ask, ‘Baba, people running, look. What’s happening there?’ And how else could the driver have answered, mercifully in Hindi, ‘A man’s just fallen from the top of that building under construction. A labourer. Instant death, poor man.’
He had refused to translate, had tried to pull his son back from craning his neck out, but as the queue of cars moved forward, through a chance aperture in the hive of people around the death, he saw, for the briefest of flashes, a patch of dusty earth stained the colour of old scab from the blood it had thirstily drunk. Then the slit closed, the car started advancing inch by inch and the vision ended. He saw his son turning his head to continue to stare at the spot. But had he really seen the earth welt like that, or had he just imagined it? There was no way he could ask the boy to corroborate. As soon as he thought that, all the worries came stampeding in: had the child seen it? Was he going to be affected by it? How could he establish if he had without planting the idea in the boy’s head?
All of last night his mind had been a pincushion to these sharp questions until he had fallen asleep. They returned again now, summoned by the boy’s unnatural quietness. By the time they got off at Agra Gate, having shaved all of ten minutes from the journey, the boy was looking decidedly peaky and he felt that his own lunch had risen up to somewhere just behind his sternum in rebellion.
The driver grinned: there was just the right touch of the adversarial in the gleam of self-satisfaction. More than twenty years of life in the academic communities of the East Coast of the USA had defanged him of the easy Indian ability to bark at people considered servants, so he swallowed his irritation, even the intention to ask the driver to take it more gently on the journey back in case he couldn’t control the tone and it was interpreted as a peremptory order. Instead, he said in Hindi, ‘We won’t be more than an hour.’
The driver said, ‘OK, sir,’ nodding vigorously. ‘I will be here.’
He checked the car to see if he had taken everything – a bottle of water, his wallet and passport, the guidebook, his small backpack, his phone, his son’s little knapsack – then shut the car door and held out his hand. The boy’s meek silence bothered him. Where was the usual firework display of chatter and fidgety energy, the constant soundtrack of his aliveness?
He kneeled down to be on level with the boy and asked, tenderly, ‘Are you tired? Do you want to go back to the hotel? We don’t have to see this.’
The boy shook his head.
‘Do you want a Parle’s Orange Kream?’ he asked, widening and rolling his eyes to simulate the representation of temptation in the advertisements.
The boy shook his head again. Behind him, on a grass verge, a hoopoe was flitting across. He said, ‘Look!’ and turned the boy around.
The boy looked dutifully but didn’t ask what it was.
‘It’s a hoopoe. You won’t see this bird in New York,’ he supplied the answer gratuitously.
The boy asked, ‘Is this a moss-o-moll-lom?’
‘No, sweetheart,’ his father laughed, ‘it’s not a mausoleum. It’s a palace. You know what a palace is, don’t you? A very good and powerful king lived here. His name was Akbar. I told you about him last night, remember?’
‘That was Shajjy-han, who built a big big marble stone on his wife and she died and he was very sad and cried all the time.’ The innocence of his American accent suddenly moved his father.
‘No, this is different. Akbar was his grandfather. Come, we’ll look at it. It’s a different colour, see? All red and brown and orange, not the white that we saw earlier.’
They passed some ruined cloisters, then a triple-arched inner gateway, solidly restored, and, slightly further from it, a big domed building that was awaiting restoration work. Touts, who had noticed a man and a small boy get out of the car, descended on them.
‘Guide, sir, guide? Good English, sir. Full history, you won’t find in book.’ Not from one voice but from an entire choir.
Beggars, crippled in various ways, materialized. From the simplest pleading, with a hand repeatedly brought up to the lips to signify hunger, to hideous displays of amputated and bandaged limbs, even an inert, entirely limbless, alive torso laid out flat on a board with wheels – this extreme end of the spectrum of human agony filled him with horror, shame, pity, embarrassment, repulsion, but, above all, a desire to protect his son from seeing them. How did all these other people drifting around him appear to be so sheathed in indifference and blindness? Or was the same churning going on inside them? Truth was, he felt he was no longer a proper Indian; making a life in the plush West had made him skinless like a good, sheltered First World liberal. He was now a tourist in his own country; no longer ‘his own country’, he corrected himself fastidiously. He suppressed the impulse to cover the boy’s eyes with his hands and said impatiently, ‘Sweetie, can we move a bit faster please.’ It came out as a command, the interrogative missing.
Men came up with accordions of postcards, maps, guidebooks, magazines, photos, toys, current best-sellers in pirated editions, snacks, rattles, drinks, confectionery, tinsel, dolls, plastic replicas of historical buildings, books, whistles and flutes . . . He kept shaking his head stoically, a tight half-smile on his lips, and ushered his boy along.
The child, distracted one moment by a tray of carved soapstone figures, then another instant by a flashing, crudely copied replica of an inflatable Superman toy, kept stalling to stare.
‘Baba, Baba, look!’
‘Yes, I know. Let’s keep moving.’ He was so relieved – and grateful – that the cheap toys had diverted the child’s attention away from the suppuration and misery that he almost broke step to buy one of those baubles.
That small manifestation of interest was enough. The loose, dispersed assembly of touts and pedlars now tightened into a purposeful circle.
‘Babu, my child is hungry, hasn’t eaten for four days.’ The shrivelled girl with matted hair in the woman’s arms looked like the living dead; she had no energy or will to swipe at the flies clustering on a sore at the corner of her mouth.
‘Here, look, babu, babu-sa’ab, look.’ A button was pressed and a toy came to mechanical life, emitting tinny games-arcade sounds of shooting guns as it teetered forward.
A man came up uncomfortably close and fanned open a deck of sepia prints of famous Indian historical buildings and temples with the dexterity of a seasoned card sharp. A picture of a naked woman appeared and disappeared so quickly that it could well have been the prestidigitator’s illusion. He was shocked; didn’t the man see that he had a small child with him? Or did he not care?
The surrounding gardens, well tended by Indian standards, shone in the white-gold light of the January afternoon, yet, looked at closely, all that riot of cannas and marigolds and manicured grass lawns could not really disguise their irredeemable municipal souls. There was the typical shoddiness – straggly borders; lines that could not keep straight; a certain patchiness to the planting, revealing the scalp of soil through the thinning hair of vegetation; the inevitable truculence of nature against the methodizing human hand – and underpinning all this amateurish attempt at imposing order and beauty he could feel, no, almost see, what a battle it was to keep the earth, wet and dark now, from reverting to red dust in the obliterating heat of the Northern Plains in the summer. He bought tickets and entered the great courtyard of the Diwan-i-Am. The world transformed – in the burnished gold of the winter-afternoon sun, the umber-red sandstone used for the whole complex at Fatehpur Sikri seemed like carved fire, something the sun had magicked out of the red soil in their combined image and likeness.
He looked at his son, expecting to see a reflection of his own wonder on the child’s face, but all he could discern in that mostly unreadable expression was . . . was what? Boredom? Across another courtyard, all blazing copper in the light, lay the palace buildings. He backtracked to consult the map etched onto a stone block towards the entrance, but with no reference point to indicate you are here he felt confused.
While retrieving the camera and the guidebook from his backpack, he said to his son, ‘Stay still for a moment, don’t run off. We’ll go to all those beautiful little palaces, do you see?’ By the time he had slung the camera around his neck and opened the guidebook to the correct page, he could tell that the boy was itching to run across the courtyard. He tried to keep an eye on him while skimreading the relevant page. Yes, he had found it – this must be the Mahal-i-Khas, the private palaces of Akbar. His head bobbed back and forth, like a foraging bird’s, from page to surrounding environment. When he had established beyond any doubt that the two-and-a-half-storeyed building on the left, which had a touch of incompleteness to it, was Akbar’s private apartments, he caught hold of his son’s hand and made to enter the building.
But he had been spotted leafing through the travel guide, his hesitation and momentary lostness read shrewdly. A man materialized behind him and began to speak as if he was in the middle of a lecture he had been giving. ‘The recesses in the ground floor that you will see were meant for his books and papers and documents . . .’
He wheeled round. The sun caught his eyes and dazzled him. All he could make out was a dark, almost black, sharply pointed face, a human face on its way to becoming a fox’s; or was it the other way round?
‘If you go up to his sleeping chamber, the khwabgah, on the top floor,’ the man continued, ‘you will see fine stone latticework screens along the corridor leading to the women’s quarters, the harem. These jalis protected the women from the public gaze as they went back and forth from the khwabgah.’
The man spoke with practised fluency. If he was trying to advertise his skills as a guide to get hired, then there was nothing in his manner or his speech that betrayed this purposive bent. If anything, the man seemed almost oblivious of his presence and his child’s. The sun had blinded him so he turned his head away, both to face his son, whom he was afraid to let out of his field of vision for any duration, and to signal to the man that he was not going to be needing his services. The buildings that lay in the slanted shade were an earthen matt pink. Elsewhere, the red sandstone that caught the sun burned a coppery gold. When he turned around to see if he had shaken off the tout, there was no one to be seen.
In the rooms on the ground floor of the emperor’s private quarters he was held by the flaky painted decorations depicting flowers and foliage; these faded ghosts still managed to carry a fraction of their original life-spirit. They had been touched up, restored, but with a brutal mugger’s hand. From the vantage point of the courtyard, the interior had looked poky and pitch dark and he had wondered about the smallness of the chambers and, correspondingly, the physical stature of those sixteenth-century people: did they have to huddle and stoop inside? Was it light enough to see things by in there during the daytime? Why were there no doors and windows? What did they do for privacy? And then, the crowning question: did he know just too little about the architectural and domestic history of the Mughals?
Now that they were inside, the idea that the rooms were cramped somewhat diminished, but the feeling that they were, or could be, dark remained. Was it something to do with his vision, or from having just come in from the brightness outside? He blinked several times. The interior seemed to shrink, expand and then shrink again, as if he were in the almost imperceptibly pulsating belly of a giant beast. In the pavilion at the top, where Akbar used to sleep, faded frescoes, nibbled away by time with a slow but tenacious voracity, covered the walls. But the fragments seemed to be under some kind of wash; a protective varnish, perhaps, but it had the effect of occluding them under a milky mist. A winged creature, holding an infant in front of a cave in a rock face, looked down at him from above a doorway. It looked as if it had been assembled from large flakes of once-coloured dandruff. His heart boiled against the cage of his chest.
‘Baba, look, an angel!’ the child said.
He closed his eyes, gripped his son’s hand, turned his face away, then back again and opened his eyes. The angel continued to stare at him. There was intent in those eyes, and even the very first touch of a smile in those delicately upturned corners, as if Persian artists had brought forth a Chinese angel. He shut his eyes again; the face of the fox-guide, accompanied by shifting confetti-links of floaters, flickered across his retina.
Outside, the courtyard, large enough to be the central square in a city where the crowd inciting a revolution congregated, held widely scattered groups of colourfully clothed visitors. The spiky phalanx of red cannas blazed in their plots. A square stone platform, bordered by jalis, rose from the centre of a rectangular pool filled with stagnant water, virulent green with algae. Four raised narrow walkways, bisecting each side of the rectangle, led to the platform. The musical rigour that the Mughals brought to the quadrangular form struck him again; he riffled through his guidebook to read something illuminating about this pool, Anup Talao.
‘Baba, can we go to the middle? There are lanes,’ the boy said.
‘I don’t think we are allowed to,’ he said, then tried to distract him by summarizing the few lines on the feature: ‘Look, it says here that musicians used to sit in the centre there, on that platform, and perform concerts for the emperor and his court.’ After a few beats of silence he added, ‘Wasn’t that interesting?’, hearing his own need to keep the boy interested fraying with exhaustion.
‘Why aren’t we allowed to?’
‘Well –’ he thought for a second or two – ‘if people were allowed in, we would see a lot of tourists here walking in and out, posing on the platform, taking pictures . . . but there’s none of that, do you see?’
It was better outside in the sun – the relative darkness inside on a day like this had, oddly, unnerved him. But the pressure of tourism was relentless, bullying. Surely they hadn’t come all this way to stand in the sun and look at pretty buildings from a distance, when they could be inside them, poring over the details, going into every room of every palace, absorbing what the guidebook had to say about each and then relooking, armed with new knowledge?
In the strange and beautiful five-storey Panch Mahal, each ascending floor diminishing in size – eighty-four, fifty-six, twenty, twelve and four columns on each level, respectively, his guidebook told him – until there was only a small kiosk surmounted by a dome on top, arches between columns took the place of walls and he was glad of the light and the breeze that came in unimpeded.
Outside once again, he noticed the squares marked on the courtyard, with a raised stone seat at the centre of the regular cross formed by the squares, and pointed them out to his son. ‘Do you see the squares in the four directions, making the four arms of a big plus sign?’ he asked, tapping a few with his feet and indicating the rest with his pointing hand. ‘Here, and here, and this . . . do you see?’
The boy nodded.
‘Show me the plus sign then,’ he asked.
The child danced around, stamping on each square, repeating his father’s ‘Here . . . and here, and this one . . .’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Do you know what they are for?’
‘This square has X on it, and this one,’ the boy said, jumping on each of them.
‘Yes, so they do. Do you know what these squares are doing here?’
The boy shook his head and looked at him expectantly.
‘This is a board game, like ludo or chess. It’s called pachisi. Instead of having a small board at the centre, which is surrounded by a circle of a few players, they had a big one marked out permanently in this courtyard.’
His son stared silently, as if digesting the information.
‘But do you know why it’s so big? I mean, so much bigger than a ludo or a chess board?’ He was hoping the child was not going to ask what ludo was: why should the ubiquitous board game of the endless afternoons and evenings of his Calcutta childhood mean anything to an American boy? That worn question of his son’s disconnection with his father’s culture reared its head again, but weakly. He pushed it down, easily enough, and offered the answer to the question he had asked by reading an excerpt from a nineteenth-century book quoted in his travel guide: ‘“The game of pachisi was played by Akbar in a truly regal manner. The Court itself, divided into red and white squares, being the board, and an enormous stone raised on four feet, representing the central point. It was here that Akbar and his courtiers played this game; sixteen young slaves from the harem wearing the players’ colours, represented the pieces, and moved to the squares according to the throw of dice. It is said that the Emperor took such a fancy to playing the game on this grand scale that he had a court for pachisi constructed in all his palaces . . .”’
Again, that expression of wide-eyed nothingness on the boy’s face. He explained the quotation slowly, in simple words, pointing to the squares and the stone seat, to spark some interest in the boy. The child’s face lit up for an instant. He hopped from one square to another, then another, finally sat, cross-legged, on one of them and chirped, ‘Am I a piece in this game?’
‘You could be,’ he laughed.
‘What will happen when you throw the dice? Will my head be chopped off ?’
Before he could answer, a voice behind him intervened sharply. ‘Get that child out of that square!’
He wheeled round. It was the man with the face of a fox. His eyes glittered. The moustache looked animal too.
‘Don’t you know it’s bad luck to have children sit in these squares? Do you know what happened here? Don’t you know the stories?’
He was annoyed enough by the man’s hectoring tone to protest, ‘Show me a sign that says children are not allowed on this board. It’s part of the courtyard, anyone can walk on it. And who are you, anyway?’
‘Look around you – do you see any children?’
Almost involuntarily he turned around: to his right, the extraordinary symmetry of the detached building of the Diwan-i-Khas; behind him, the jewel box of the Turkish Sultana’s House; and in the huge courtyard on which these structures stood not a single child to be spotted. All those colourfully dressed tourists he had seen earlier seemed to have vanished. There were one or two to be seen standing in the shapely arches of buildings or colonnaded walkways but there was no one in the courtyard and certainly no children. Incredulous, he turned a full circle to be sure he had let his gaze take in everything. No, no children. The man too was gone. There was a sudden, brief vacuum in his chest; then the sensation left.
‘D-did you see the . . . the man who was just here? Where did he go?’ he asked his son.
The boy shook his head.
‘But . . . but you saw him speaking to me, didn’t you?’ He was nearly shouting.
‘Speaking? What?’ the boy asked.
Of course, the child wouldn’t have understood a word; the man had been speaking in Hindi.
‘B-but . . . but . . .’ he began, and then that futility was inside him again, making him feel weightless.
He extended his hand to his son and caught the warm little palm and fingers in his grip and wanted to hold on to it to moor himself and at the same time to scrunch it, so fierce was the wave of love and terror that suddenly threatened to unbalance him. He took the boy and ran into the Turkish Sultana’s House but was blind to the ways craftsmen had made every available surface blossom into teeming life with dense carvings of gardens, trees, leaves, flowers, geometric patterns, birds, animals, abstract designs. At another time he would have been rooted to the spot, marvelling, but now his senses were disengaged and distant and all he saw was the frozen work of artisans and their tools. In one of the lower panels, the heads of the birds of paradise sitting in trees had been destroyed. An animal, crouching below, had been defaced too, making it look much like the lower half of a human child, decapitated in the act of squatting; it brought to mind ritual sacrifice. A small thrill of repulsion went through him. The mutilated carvings had the nature of fantastical creatures from Bosch’s sick imagination; left untouched, they would have been simply beautiful. Then the dimness started to play havoc with his perception. Shapes and colours got unmoored and coalesced in different configurations. It was like discovering a camel smoking a pipe formed in clouds in the sky, then watching it shift and morph into a crawling baby held in the cradling trunk of an elephant, except there was no movement here, no external change of shape to warrant one thing becoming another.
He forced himself to read a few lines from the relevant section of his guidebook but they remained locked too; signs without meanings. He asked his son, ‘Do you like what you see? Can you tell me what these are?’ He couldn’t make the words come out animated.
The boy shook his head.
‘All right, let’s go look at something else.’ No amount of beauty could counter the permanent twilight of the interiors.
The baize-table lawns and the begonia bushes radiated light like a merciless weapon. A ripple passed through the blazing froth of shrubbery, as if the vegetation had sensed him and shuddered. Almost dragging his son along, he ran towards a small, perfectly formed building, standing in the flag of shade that it flung on the pied stones of the courtyard. Maryam-ki-Kothi, the guidebook said. It was the colour of something that had been sluiced indelibly in blood in its distant past. Under the stone awning three-quarters of the way up, the ventilation slots – surely they were too small to be windows? – looked like blinded eyes, yet the house gave the effect of looking watchful. It struck him then, suddenly, a feeling that the walls and stones and cupolas and courtyards were all, as one organism, watching him and his son.
And something was: another angel, this time above a doorway. Barely discernible through the slow, colourless disappearing act that time and the well-intentioned but wrong kind of preservative varnish had together enforced on it, it still managed, through some inexplicable resurrection, to fix him with its eye. It was like looking into the face of an ancient light transmitted back from the beginnings of time.
He took hold of his son’s hand to return to the car, moving as fast as having a six-year-old physically attached to him would allow. The larger half of the site remained unvisited; he had had enough. The very air of the place seemed unsettled, as if it had slipped into some avenue where ordinary time and ordinary circumstance did not press against it. Then, with rising anxiety, he knew what was going to happen next, and it did. From the dark inside of a square building, the fox-man came out and stood under the domed canopy of a platform at one corner of the building. He could see the man so clearly, so close, that it was as if all the distance between them across the courtyard had been telescoped into nothing. Then the man retreated into the dark again. He had known the exact sequence of events beforehand, even known the bending of distance that would occur, known that the platform on which the man had stood was called the Astrologer’s Seat even though he had not visited that section of the palace quadrangle. He felt himself pursued by the place as they ran out, retracing the route through which they had made their way into and through the palace complex.
While waiting for the car, he dared to look up: the sky was an immense canvas of orange and red, not from the setting sun, it seemed to him, but from the red sandstone that burned, without decaying, under it. Everything was ablaze.
On the road back, a huge, slow procession of shouting men, hundreds and hundreds of them, coming from the direction in which they were travelling, stalled all traffic. The car windows were rolled up instantly; the people were within touching distance. The vast, crawling snake seemed to be an election rally although he could not tell – the posters were all in Urdu, a language he couldn’t read, and he couldn’t make out a single word amid the shouting of slogans. They could have been in an utterly foreign country. The boy had his nose pressed to the window; he had never seen anything like this. There was no telling how far back it went, for how long the people would keep coming in an infinitely renewing stream.
‘We just have to wait until it passes, right?’ he asked the driver.
A pointless question.
The driver shrugged. Time in this country flowed in a different way from the rest of the world. It was the flow that carried him a long time ago, when he was a boy, growing up in Calcutta, but now he could no longer step into it: it was an alien and treacherous stream.
The rally seemed endless. Occasionally, it stopped altogether. After forty minutes of sitting inside the car, the driver said, ‘They’re moving.’
A brave taxi up ahead had decided to cut through a narrow road on the left – a dust-and-straggling-dead-grass path, really – with the hope of rejoining the main one at a point further up where it would already have been traversed by the rally. Like mechanical sheep, cars started leaving the main route and entering this side lane. Their driver was quick – he manoeuvred the car sideways with manic energy and was into the path before the rush to get in there created a total gridlock. But he was still behind a few vehicles and the juddering stop-start stop-start stop-start movement down an unmetalled alley was the modern equivalent of running the gauntlet. Soon they came to a complete halt. The procession, well behind them, still seemed to be in full spate but at least they were now not in the stream of something volatile and unpredictable.
He must have dozed off. The next thing he knew was a shadow blooming inside the car at the same time as he heard a timid pattering on the window next to the boy. A bear, standing on its hind legs, was looking in, its muzzle almost pressed to the glass. There was an irregular patch of mist that changed shape in rhythm to the animal’s breathing. Its pelt was a dark slate-grey shag-cushion of dust and tiny insects and bits of straw and grass. Up close, the hairs looked coarse and thick, somewhat like the quills of a hedgehog. Behind him, a man extended his arm forward and tapped on the glass with his black fingernails. The child pushed back on the heels of his palms and moved backwards, trying to burrow into his father’s lap, but couldn’t turn his fascinated head away. The man outside looked eerily familiar – he had the sharp, pointy face of a rodent and a moustache that seemed alive. Surely he must be dreaming? They were still in the country lane, and the terracotta late-afternoon light had turned to ashy dusk, but that . . . that man at the car window . . . He felt that the spinning of the earth was carrying him like a ball in the slot of a roulette wheel and delivering him to destinations that were endlessly repeatable, each ever so slightly different from the other, all more or less the same.
Encouraged by the unblinking gaze of father and son, the bear-wallah tapped on the glass again, and made a shallow bowl of his palm to beg. Those glittering, scaly eyes indicated a sickness that would finish him soon. Inside, he was too frozen to even shake his head in disapproval. At a signal from his keeper, the bear lifted its paw and replicated the human’s begging gesture. The chain attached to the animal and run through the space between two of its fingers obliged clinkingly. He saw the head of a huge iron nail driven through the paw – or was it a callus? The claws at the end were open brackets of dirty gunmetal. The paw could easily smash the window, reach in, and tear out the child’s entrails. He tried to ask the driver to shoo the man away but no sound emerged from his throat. He tried again.
‘Driver, ask them to move on,’ he said in a kind of low rasp. He couldn’t bring up his arm to mime ‘Go away’ to the beggar.
The driver lowered his window and barked, ‘Ei, buzz off.’
The man paid no heed; the begging from both creatures continued. Presumably at another signal from the man the bear nodded, then grinned. Where it met the teeth the gum was a bright pink, but further up the colour of cooked liver with a violet tinge. There were sticky threads of saliva gleaming whitely against all that dirty ivory and raw flesh. Then the animal started shaking, as if it was having a malarial fit. The boy screamed, once, twice.
He shouted, ‘Driver, why isn’t he going? Ask him again, now. Ask!’
The driver complied, his command issuing more forcefully this time. The traffic unclotted. As the car came to life, the pinning gaze of those scaly eyes receding backwards seemed to have become a solid, unfrayable rope. Then motion and the gathering dark severed it.
The boy coughed all night and kept him awake. Occasionally, he cried out in his sleep loudly enough for him to turn on his bedside lamp, get out of his bed and go to his son’s to see what was wrong, to soothe his nightmares away.
Towards the end of the night, the child woke up with what he could only call a howl and continued to cry with an abandonment that brought back to mind the inexplicable and seemingly endless runs of crying during infancy. He couldn’t establish now if the boy was still lodged in his world of dreams during this fit or whether something in the real world, an onset of some sickness, was making him scream like this. Questions had yielded nothing. Should he ring for room service and ask for a doctor? Surely a hotel of this class would have one? The boy’s forehead and neck were not hot.
‘What is it? Tell me, what is it?’ he asked over and over again, reaching the edge of anger on the other side of his helplessness.
Then, a tiny chink in this wall of repetition: ‘I feel afraid,’ the boy managed to articulate.
He bobbed afloat on a swell of relief. ‘Afraid?’ he asked. ‘Afraid of what? There’s nothing to be afraid of, I’m here with you. Here, I’ll sleep in your bed, my arms around you. Everything will be all right.’
But the child wouldn’t stop. He caught something in his son’s gaze, a brief focusing of his eyes on something behind his shoulder, as if he had seen something behind his father, something that made him wail louder, before the focus dissolved.
He turned his head to look. There could be nothing outside the wall of windows – they were on the sixteenth floor of the hotel. The dark glass reflected back at him a dramatically lit and shadowed scene of his staring face, twisted around on the stalk of his neck; his son lying on the bed with his mouth open in a rictus of horror and pain; the white bedlinen twisted and roped and peaked in the great turbulence that was being enacted upon it; the whole tableau shading off into the darkness that framed it. As his vision moved away from that sharp chiaroscuro foreground of the reflection he could see, in the refracted light from the hotel grounds, the skeleton of the skyscraper on the other side of the road. On the very top few floors, he could make out the scaffolding – was it still the bamboo and coir rope of his childhood or had they moved on to something more reliable and advanced nowadays? – and the billowing pieces of sackcloth or plastic or whatever it was that the workers had set up there. He wondered, not for the first time, what purpose those sheets served. A safety net, perhaps? They had certainly not prevented one of them from meeting a terrible end yesterday.
By the early hours, not far off from dawn, his son exhausted himself to sleep. He drifted off too, one arm around the boy. The light woke him; he had forgotten to draw the curtains in the night. Next to him, the child was dead.
Artwork © Riddhi Shah, Untitled, 2014, Courtesy of Exhibit320 Gallery, New Delhi