CITY OF PALACES
By Dev Agarwal
We’d just made our Last Big Score — a deal with Chowringhee Lal, the money man on Sudder Street. In return he sent his boys for us. I knew they were Lal’s when I saw Sulaman. Sulaman was Lal’s chief bullyboy, a sixteen stone Muslim with rotten, splayed teeth. When Amvir saw Sulaman he knocked those teeth from his mouth. Sixteen stone, but no brains.
We skipped out then, up Calcutta’s Canal East Road to the Syambazar Crossing. At the noisy, flowing junction we were temporarily safe, shoved and surrounded by throngs of dark Calcuttans.
“What’s occurin’, ‘Arry?” Amvir asked, cracking the knuckles in his sore fist.
“Good question. I know who to ask, too.”
Amvir grinned at me with uneven, crowded teeth. “Chowrie Lal…”
Sulaman had come with a pistol. But he hadn’t used it.
“I want a gun. A big one.”
Amvir nodded. “Got just the thing.”
“And get the money too. Get all the money. I think we have to move.”
Lal seemed to want us face-down in the river Hooghly. An unacceptable proposal. We weren’t either of us eighteen-year old Tommies, fresh out to India. Amvir was born here, and he was ex-Army with an accent to match, blended from two years in London’s Eastend. And I’m anything but fresh. I’m salty and jaded on spicy liquor and Sudder Street ladies who don’t know the word “no.”
So I sent Amvir to get the money and to bring a car over to Big Joes’ as soon as it got dark. Then I took a peddle rickshaw to Joes’. Killing time, I went the long way round, past the Jain temples on Chandra Road and under bridges laden with buses and horse-drawn carts. Turning west, the city grew ugly, blighted with the dull brown stations of the British Imperial railway. My rickshaw slowed to a crawl, clotted among the businessmen and beggars spewing from the station’s mouths. Every fragment of colonial life occupied that street. Chaingangs of deserters from Fort William tore at the black earth, watched over by Marines in the smart uniforms of the American colonies. That could be me, I thought with amusement, watching both sets of sweating, sunburnt men.
Secreted throughout the city other men would be watching too. French and German agents riddled Calcutta. You saw them pestering diplomats and haggling for information in Calcutta’s punchhouses and taverns. Fat-faced men in grubby white suits, they were ever hopeful of snatching away Britain’s hold on India.
They should give it up. Britain dominated this century: we won the Great War in 1919 and every fight since. Sixty years later and the Empire grasped Calcutta as securely as it did the Americas or Australia. To get the British out would take more than fat spies and deals with dodgy criminals like me and Lal.
But Lal always stayed in favour with the European powers.
Chowringhee Lal styled himself “just as wide and prosperous as Chowringhee Road,” and was one of Calcutta’s smarter babus. He ran guns and smuggled opium. He controlled brothels and obeyed no religion and kept no family. He owned a hundred street kids and used them to beg and pass information up and down the Hooghly.
Now he tried to kill us. But we’d see about that.
I paid my rickshaw off early and strolled to Big Joes’, looking like just another Westerner: a railway manager or office clerk after a Sudder Street prostitute.
Big Joes’ occupied a cramped cellar with broken ceiling fans and bad, brown lighting. Its sweatbox heat was packed with professional beggars and girls working the foreign businessmen from White Town and Fort William. The Sikh assassins and European ship-jumpers eyed me as I passed. I watched them dismiss me as harmless, with my waxed moustaches and a brown parcel under my arm. Perhaps I carried brasswork from Jadu Babu’s bazaar or silks from Kalighat Market. They might want to rip me off later, but now all they wanted was beer and young girls.
Behind the tavern lay a crumbled backlot and an industrial canal ringed with vendors’ fires that flickered in the summer wind. With the place still quiet, I sat with a stainless steel plate of rice, naan bread and a Tiger beer. I set my brown paper parcel on the iron chair beside me and sat back to wait for Lal. The industrial air of Calcutta, fuelling the Empire, settled on my cotton sleeves and khaki trousers with its sooty fingers.
Before I finished my beer, Lal arrived — a vision in scuffed white. As long as a King sat in England there’d be a skittle-shaped Chowringhee Lal going fat in Calcutta. He wobbled over the rough ground, his oddly dainty feet evading spatters of cow shit and spilled oil.
He had brought a new boy with him. A very squat Sikh with a turban and full beard.
“Mr Lal.” I put the parcel on my knee. “How’s Sulaman’s jaw?”
“Horry,” he said, mangling my name in reply. “Sulaman no longer work for me.” His voice was devoid of nuance.
“No?” I said. “Me neither.” When I ripped the paper of my parcel I tripped the breech bolt on the nine millimetre Uziel SMG. Its barrel peered over the table, cut to an ugly two inches.
Lal bobbed to a stop. Dust and insects descended onto his white caftan.
“You’re about to lose your entire leg,” I told him. “You have a lot to explain — who’s paying you to kill us?”
“So impatient for bad news.” His voice began to crack. Lal looked dissolute, his eager slyness gone completely. He raised a trembling, beringed finger at me. “You bring violence on me? You, who is so frightened you come with Uziel?” His eyes were wet pinpricks, sad and aged above his shiny lips. I’d never seen him this way before. He thrived off British India, off dealing and swindling. But now his face was deep with lines and his loose fat shone brightly. A well of pain and pity hovered over him tonight.
“Give it up, Horry. Pray they are quick with you.” He glanced to his boy — perhaps in deference. “Singh knows.”
“Well, I’m glad somebody bloody does. But keep going, Chowringhee. You still haven’t got to the part about why your boys tried to rip me off.”
He shook his head. “I would not kill you. You were to save me. But it is got too late.”
“Why? You finally sell the wrong body?”
His damp mouth flashed wetly as he shook his head again. “It is not business. I am chosen. The Thugs want me for Kali.” Almost in tears, he stood lost in hunch-shouldered despair. “They want us both, Horry. Both.”
Now I understood — and wished that I didn’t. He want to sell me in his place to the Thugs. My stomach turned in a sickening, vertiginous swerve. My heart pounded with fear and it seemed that all of Calcutta threatened to descend on me. The Thugee cult ran everywhere, in the corners and alleys of every city in India. Far more than criminals, they were a religion.
I had an ugly, vivid idea of what a Thug would do. A strangling if I was lucky; if not, then I’d end up like one of old Jack Ripper’s whores after a hard night’s work. I shook so hard the Uziel almost chewed Lal’s head off. Every knot and bone in my body locked with cramp.
Singh stared at me with eyes the colour and texture of wet mud, watching like I was a boot-black from under Howrah Bridge. His mouth twitched, perhaps about to speak for the first time — then he flew at me in a blur of speed and pain.
A rush of air tore at my ear and I bounced off the table, hard. Rice and beer splashed over me, and my temple ground into the scorching metal of an oil lamp till I screamed and twisted my head away.
“He is Kali,” Lal said. His lip trembled over his bad red teeth.
Fingers on my wrist pliered the bones till my hand sprang open. The Uziel tumbled away in a spasm so intense I choked on my scream. My thoughts spun round and round. Amvir would come. He’d come soon and we could escape together.
With the abruptness of a blown-out gaslamp, the skewer of pain vanished. The Thug faced Big Joes’. His impassive eyes scanned the globes of shadows and haloes of insects that clouded each blazing light. He stood patiently, palms folded on his thighs, the picture of the polite babu servant.
Even as I wondered what he searched for I heard an engine grumble, then brake sharply. Amvir had arrived. The Thug, Singh, spoke to Lal in Punjabi. His voice scraped over vocal chords that had been broken long ago.
A searchlight flipped on and we were swallowed by its huge yellow glare. Metallic parts ratcheted as it swivelled and an officer’s Sandhurst accent barked, “You, by the canal!”
Running feet punctuated the hot air, Indian soldiers in hobnailed boots. A winged insect with too many legs tumbled by as if propelled on the brilliant glare of light. As I followed its spiral flight I found that Singh had vanished. But where? The search beam lit the waste ground in a harsh moonscape of angles of light and shadow right up to the canal. Even without cover, Singh had slipped away like an opium phantom.
Lal began to blubber.
Before I could reconsider, I hauled the Uziel up, left-handed, and dug the slender trigger deep into the wood grip. The gun thundered, spouting white fire. A vendor’s barbecue exploded into the air like a Catherine Wheel, scattering soldiers. The Uziel’s clatter tore at my ears. Its steel hammers filled my head and glass shattered beneath its howl till the searchlight winked off. I ran backwards into the cheerless gloom between abandoned food stalls, oil drums and brambles till the land fell away and I tumbled into the canal.
Above the canal the soldiers closed in, cautious after meeting the Uziel. I cradled the black gun, fumbling sticky insulation tape off its spare magazine. My right wrist turned clumsy with pain.
“Nice one, ‘Arry,” someone said, sniggering. Amvir strolled along the near bank, swinging his muscle-fat arms. “Way you was waggin’ that Uziel about, you was in danger of deafenin’ some of those lads.” As usual his accent was straight off a building site in Stepney. But my ears rang so hard I could barely hear him.
I slumped, weak and tired. My mouth tasted of acid.
Ammie crouched beside me. He didn’t mention the vomit pooled in the brambles.
“You were supposed to be here ten minutes ago.”
“I saw this lot show up. Wonder who their squad leader is then?” His sun-bleached cotton jacket rode off his huge shoulders. He bulged with muscle in his long khaki shorts and vest.
I slapped the magazine home, my wrist twinging. “Right. Let’s clear off.” When I shook canal water from my hair my skull buzzed from the oil-lamp burn.
“We’ll ‘ave to walk it. The army sealed the bloody road up.” He stood, his jacket slipping off eighteen-inch biceps livid with bright tattoos.
“Have you got our money safe at least?”
“Calm down. It’s ‘ere. It’s ‘ere.” He slapped a fat leather satchel resting on his hip. It held everything, every scrap in rupees, pounds and sovereigns.
He stepped past me. “Better find Lal,” he said. “You know ‘e’s only got the fuckin’ Kali onto us?”
“I’ve heard it mentioned.” Glancing round all I saw were logs bobbing into the canal and white squares of sliced bread mulching on the bank. A dog’s carcass washed towards us in a parody of paddling. I tripped after Amvir’s rolling gait, cursing as my grazed knees stung.
Beside us on the canal’s surface lay the wavery reflection of a lime Ganesh from a shop front. The god’s elephant trunk rippled with a current that gave him age-lines in a ghostly shimmer. As with Singh, natural laws could not quite hold him.
“‘Arry. ‘Bout Lal…” Amvir said. I glanced up but couldn’t see anything until the shape of a wooden pier, dark and ill-defined, grew in clarity against the night’s greater dark. Lal’s eyes stared at me — eyes that would never appraise and calculate my worth again. The irresistible pressure of the blue cloth knotted to his neck had forced his tongue out like old leather. All of it hung at ankle level in his upside-down body, suspended from a sodden cross-piece of wood.
Ammie said, “Don’t think we ‘ave to worry ’bout Lal no more.”
It was a ritual Thugee slaying in Kali’s honour.
Everyone knew Kali as the most formidable of Siva’s wives. We pulled Lal down and I pictured her in her necklaces of white skulls and severed hands, sated for now. She was worshipped everywhere, but her heart was at Kalighat, in Calcutta. Kalikata, the House of Kali.
I wondered if the Thug had prayed as he went about his work, whispering guttural Punjabi, in awe of his own might as Kali’s essence possessed him and Lal’s eyes rolled whitely in his skull.
Sometimes I wanted to hate this country. I wished to be one with the rest of my generation, oblivious to Calcutta’s richness, unable to distinguish detail in its writhing wog mess. But whenever I tried to hate Calcutta, my passion for her hit twice as strong. She swelled with a thousand sensations, a thousand promises of ecstasy and fantasy fulfilled. They caressed me with their dizzying languor while we jumped between shadows from the canal to the city.
I needed rain. Just a spasm would do to wash off my sweat. I struggled with the heat from Amvir’s cotton jacket, but I wore it to hide the bulky Uziel. We walked down an alley full of rusted bicycles and mysterious coiled hoops. I scratched and scratched at my hand where I’d held Lal as Amvir stripped him from the pier’s framework.
“The Thugs do that to Lal?” I imagined a horde of them, inhumanly silent and identical to Mr Singh.
“One of ’em.” Amvir rubbed his sweaty armpit restlessly. His tattooed panther slid about on his arm. “Singh. Workin’ alone.”
“How do you know that?”
“You’d work with him, would ya?”
Horns blared nearby, a rickshaw buzzed past, its motor insect-high. We were close to the vardaan bazaar, all-night, pastel-bright and crowded with hawkers, beggars and baton-swinging police.
“They took a boy from my village in Kashmir ‘fore I signed up. They killed ‘is parents to make ‘im mean. Give ‘im magic.”
I wondered whether to laugh. “Let’s just get out of here.”
“I seen ’em on the Khyber, an’ in Libya.” He angled to an open drainpipe, letting the run-off wash the glossy ringlets in his hair. He looked at me. “You don’t ‘ave to stick around, ‘Arry. You can make Delhi in twenty-four hours by train.”
“I live here. No one’s driving me out.” My English self-regard steeled me. “But we can’t deal with Kali. We can’t buy them off.”
Ammie nodded. His brown eyes were an untroubled depth, fatal to any woman, black or white. “I ain’t gonna deal with Singh. I’m gonna ‘it ‘im so ‘ard.”
“But first, you’re going to get tooled up. You got any mates you can draft in? We’ve done the army a lot of favours. We’re entitled.”
He scuffed the gutter by a sleeping boy. “There is this one fella. ‘E’s not exactly a mate…”
We waited for them in the room’s only chairs. The one for him had a cushioned back and armrests. I draped a thigh over the arm and set the Uziel out in plain sight. The other chair was hers, appropriately small and in disrepair. She waited patiently all week for Lieutenant Harper-Borne’s Friday night visits. Tonight she waited with us, silent and afraid.
At ten past eight he strolled in.
“‘Ello sir,” Amvir said, his hands open and unthreatening. The Lieutenant glanced at Ammie, his long nose swinging like a sail. He didn’t have Amvir’s size, but he was still a toughnut, an officer who led from the front. We’d see what that would get us.
He looked at me and snorted. “Harry Lyle.” Lot of breeding in that nose.
“Can you ‘elp us, sir? We’ll give you good stuff,” Ammie said.
“Turn yourself in, Munasinga.” His face cut my way again. “Both of you.”
Now that he spoke I knew him too. “He’s already helped us,” I told Ammie. “At Big Joes’, right?”
“You, by the canal!”
Harper-Borne stared at me. He brushed the sneer on his nose with a coarsened palm and the light glittered down his gold wristwatch. The girl cowered behind him. She looked small and very pretty, literally a girl, playing dress-up in a grown woman’s red sari.
“As for you, Lyle, you should know better. We’re doing a job in India. Your obligation lies with the British race.”
“Ta very much.” I cracked wise, unable to deal with him. I was British and they were abandoning me.
Amvir towered off his chair, knocking it aside. “Right. I gave you five years, you stuckup English wanker.”
The Lieutenant’s neck swelled with blood. “You’re lucky we’re inside, babu!”
“We don’t ‘ave to be!” Amvir reddened too, huge with anger.
I leaned between them and tapped the Lieutenant on the chest with the Uziel. “We’ll be off unless you do want us inside with you?”
He flinched, his eyes fixing irresistibly to the Uziel’s mouth.
I slapped Ammie’s chest with my sore hand, feeling lock-solid muscle loosen. He broke his glare, body loosening more. “Wot? Am I the white man’s burden?”
“Na,” I drawled, matching accents. “You ain’t white man’s nothin’.”
“Christ. I’m actin’ like a fuckin’ babu,” he said and we walked back into the city.
Calcutta sprawled across the northeast of India on the tributaries of the Holy Ganges. Sweating and hazy with summer and the smoke of a thousand chimneys, she fuelled British shipping to Singapore, Hong Kong and beyond.
She had been British long before my birth. I was born in Cornwall among the teeming thousands eager to swap sterile, corseted England for India. We craved the rich tastes of Sudder Street and Native town. In the end that taste — with ten times the aroma of late-night Soho or a dirty weekend in Brighton — overpowered me.
You could escape England and its Victorian-made stagnancy by coming to India. But you still had to escape the English once you got here. You did that by going down to the Howrah Bridge.
The bridge sat on a row of pontoons laid side-by-side across the Hooghly. Their design hadn’t changed in the hundred years since they were built in 1874. The pontoons swayed on the holy river, a British stamp of authority over Calcuttan faith. The girders had grown old with the city, blackening with traffic fumes and blued with elegantly squared Hindustani graffiti: Vote Janta Party. British out of India.
“We’re goin’ to see the brown boys. Y’can be an honorary babu, mate.” Amvir slapped a mosquito off his bulging calf and spread river mud from his white ankle sock to the proud dragon tattooed there.
“Why’re we here?”
“‘Cause those slags in White Town won’t ‘elp.” He tightened with instant anger.
“And a pile of scavengers can?’
“They know stuff your mob don’t.”
In the dim light he picked over his words. “I don’t think you’d get it. There’s a charm you can use on the Thugs. Zoroastrian stuff — Tiger balm. Silver.” He fell silent.
We walked on, negotiating the mud slope to the river. Summer floods had swamped the banks so many times they were only fit for scrap iron, rotten wood and outcast untouchables. The police came here occasionally to toss street children into the river. As we approached the bridge, we came to rows of footfires burning in the mud — cooking fires and ghats for the night’s meal or the cremation of loved ones — and I saw a figure watching us. A child, I thought, he stood so short. But he was wide-shouldered and stumpy, a five foot adult. His eyes were big as saucers and spaced like a rabbit’s on the sides of his face.
Amvir called a cheerful greeting and splashed through the river shallows. Brown swirls of Hooghly water stuck my shoes to my feet.
Twenty or so larger figures, street toughs and hard-bitten whores, spread out to the lee of the bridge. They wore rags and filthy saris, but were posed almost formally, like a Durbar ceremony to welcome the Viceroy. Resisting my fear, I kept my hand clear of the Uziel, and gripped the money satchel instead.
Amvir shook hands with the short man, their palms flowed over each other in a street dealer’s flourish. “Billy Fish. This is my mate ‘Arry.”
“Fish?” I asked.
Billy Fish didn’t bow his head, or clasp his palms for the traditional greeting of nemestagi. But then I wasn’t a tourist. He peered through the light of oily campfires and the ghats rising above us with slow-witted concentration.
Then his eyes snapped into focus. “At Big Joes’. With Lal.”
“Spot of bother, Bill,” Ammie said. “Things got a bit sticky. Lal’s dead.”
Fish stared at the Uziel bulging my borrowed jacket open. “Army will come. Then what happen?”
“Don’t worry ’bout the army. We’ll be gone soon. ‘Ave to take care of sommin’ first though.”
Fish’s forehead knotted. Perhaps with the effort of holding his glaze of stupidity in place. Hidden intelligence flashed within the bland egg of his face. “You are not running from the soldiers. Who then? Put me picture-wise.”
“Bloke called Singh,” Amvir hedged. He stuck his hands in the pockets of his khaki shorts, a familiar give-away when he felt awkward. Billy Fish switched to Punjabi, his tone interrogational and fluid.
“Thugee,” I said.
Fish cocked his head. “Kali?” The rest of his hardened, scruffy tribe grew alert. Knives and steel pipes glinted among them.
“Do not like Kali. They hunt us.”
“‘E’s mine, Bill. I wanna ‘urt ‘im.” Amvir spat his name. “Mr Singh.”
“What if you do not?”
Ammie flashed him a smile of crowded teeth. Eyes scrunching, he slapped Fish’s shoulder. “That’s what we come ’bout. Need a little ‘elp. Needa bit of magic. Know what I mean?”
“What in this for us?” Fish asked.
I stepped forward, sinking in the mud. “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.” I kept the satchel hidden for now.
Fish carefully slipped his intelligence back under his trough-eyed stupidity. His head began to nod.
The Hooghly churned restlessly, rolling and yawing beside us. Its hot spatter smeared my cheek, rich and smothering. Above Howrah Bridge the sky at this hour between midnight and dawn turned so blue and luminous that I could pick out clotheslines above Strand Road. It was magically lit, perhaps just for my eyes, and I could almost believe Amvir and his unshakable faith in magic.
He surprised me. The Indians I knew scrubbed and scraped their culture away, becoming doggie-loyal to us. Babus, we called them. Mysticism repulsed them, made the English laugh. But I lived among the Indians because I feared being English — either as a straight-out loser, doing hard labour in the Wheel Jane penal tin mine back home; or even harder time, bank clerk or accountant, too stiff and chickenhearted to free myself. I ran away to India and found a million Indians begging to swap with me.
But there was one Indian who was no one’s babu. He patiently stepped through cows’ holy piss and the clutter of traffic on Strand Road. I knew he would come. Wherever we ran, he would be there: a magician, hunting us for his goddess.
We waited for him, the sticky Hooghly drying on me with the hot promise of a morning as moist and fevered as the secret part of a woman.
“You have not drunk.” Billy Fish flipped a hip flask into my gut, bullet smooth silver. I traced its engraving with a grimy finger. By Royal Appointment to H.M. King. Either ripped off some fat White Town resident or salvaged from the Hooghly.
I walked behind Fish while he spoke in loud spurts of Punjabi to Amvir, who nodded in agreement.
I sucked on the flask, whisky kissing fire into me. The purity of the malt almost shocked me, it was so silky smooth. The bridge dwellers were good scroungers; they stole only the best. We stood on wood boards sunk into the mud between their jury-rigged shacks and the first ribbon of cantilever arcing over the pontoons. The sky pulsed as it often does and without warning rain fell lightly from the darkening heavens.
“Mud. I need it to be muddy,” Ammie said. I limped after them, hearing the last exchange fragment into English. They added slang and the King’s English as it came more conveniently to them.
“Blessing,” Billy Fish said to Amvir. What did that mean? This town wasn’t for English blessings. She had a thousand religions jumbled within her walls. Every taste, every sensation, Calcutta satisfied them all. The Raj made her in its image — her workers were fawning wogs, her managers whites only and her ports flowed with opium by the chestfull. Tommies poured from her punch houses and brothels, duelling and brawling. But Thugs still walked her streets and owned the night, and the fabric of the city was a weave of ten thousand Indian threads.
The rain surged, a drum beat on the bridge’s cantilevers. It curtained from the sky across Calcutta. Night still cloaked the city, but Calcutta remained awake, restless. To the east, past the English outposts of Fort William and Maidan Station, Lieutenant Harper-Borne would be finishing with his woman-child, forgetting about us already, lost between her exotic thighs. Further east still, between Chowringhee Road and School Street, the Sikh and Hindu police would be interrogating Big Joes” regulars, looking for someone to hang for Lal’s murder. They would keep well away from Mr Singh. Kali’s sword dripped with his sacrifice, her eternal life secured for another thousand years. Tonight Mr Singh would honour her twice more if he could.
We’d managed to line up against them all. How could Calcutta ever be the same for us?
The burned flesh on my temple ached. The Uziel’s strap dragged my shoulder. I tried to dream myself into another part of Empire: New York Colony, Cairo, even London, whoring, drinking and dealing. But I couldn’t make it real. I was too scared. The Thug flowered in my mind, a dark bloom made from the murder of his own parents. Maybe Lal had been right: I showed my fear with my overreactions. But with a Thug on your back fear was the only sane choice.
Fish and Amvir stood on the centre of a pontoon above the slopping sea of mud. Rags of jute — Calcutta’s chief rope-making material — shimmered and hissed through the rain. Flotsam drifted by, junk even Fish’s crowd didn’t want, travelling from homes and gutters in Chandanagar and Calcutta and out into the Indian Ocean.
They drew up silently on the wood boards beside the river, the Howrah bridge dwellers. Urchins, bully-boys, and prostitutes grouped like a bus queue on the split-open yellow heartwood. I caught a girl staring at me through the folds of rain. She looked stunningly attractive beneath her layered filth and sun-reddened, knotted hair. Her brilliant smile threw her dark face into stark contrast. But in smiling, so open and genuine, she became Harper-Borne’s girl, forced into premature womanhood.
In response I drew the Uziel to me — because I was as white as him and we had made India what it was. I stood in a thicket of thieves and fighters and I was scared.
On the bridge, Billy Fish had something in his hand — a small brown pouch, its material venous and petal-fragile. When he passed it to Amvir he bowed reverently, protective of his offering in the growing downpour. It was the blessed charm. I didn’t really understand. I never had done since I’d come to Calcutta and now I grew too tired to try.
But I realised what had tired me. Pushed here, pushed there, I spent my whole life nudged and bent by those around me. Never in control, I was always reacting, and always wrong. Now I was sick of it.
I took a long drink from the silver flask to drown that thought. I felt immediately conspicuous. No one else had moved. When I looked up I found him: up there on the first pontoon of the bridge, above the wet lights of the city. Singh’s eyes found me and my temple throbbed. The burn stretched my scalp.
Fish backed away from the pontoon, the tension charging between Singh and Amvir.
Singh raised his palm to the thick canister of his throat. His hand twisted clockwise, then with an odd reverse loop his Thugee scarf unfurled. A coin glinted in one corner of the blue silk. He stepped out with an oily suppleness that perfectly matched the soft sway of the pontoon.
Amvir came through the shroud of rain and ramrodded a two-by-four into his ear. The blow ran through the tattoos on Amvir’s arms and the panther hissed in delight.
The board broke apart, fissuring in jagged halves on Singh’s head. The crowd came apart with it, bellowing a melange of market calls and football chants. But the Thug didn’t move beneath the blow. Amvir’s eyes went huge with surprise, then he nailed Singh’s jaw with a right. The crack of meat and bone knocked loose a deluge of memory: Amvir in Delhi, two years ago when I first found him. A clay boxing ring crowded by regiments of twenty-one year old Brits, their gaze following like glue as Ammie’s apple-red glove hooked out clean and smooth. Before us, for a night, Kipling’s Tommy Atkins turned real and triumphant and Indian in an explosive birth of cartilage and blood.
But Amvir was slower now, a clumsy brawler. And the Thug was a magician, consecrated by Kali.
Singh pivoted, snapping his weighted scarf through the black rain. The coin flashed in an oily blur in the jute fire light. The flames caught the details of an ugly finger-thick scar notched in his neck. Then I saw only pieces as my mind buzzed with adrenaline. Ammie struck again and again, pounding Singh’s body and sucking huge breaths into his lungs. A loose cantilever rattled above them and then Singh turned almost transparent, gliding inside Amvir’s next haymaker.
He shot Amvir into the pontoon’s overhead strut. Singh dented Ammie’s head on the ribbed metal before drawing him back, slack and loose-limbed. Then he embroidered a figure-eight in the air — a nifty silken swirl and the garrotte snapped tight around Ammie’s neck. He flipped Amvir in a pendulum swing, dangling him over the pontoon’s rounded side.
The crowd fell silent.
Amvir arched in Singh’s grip, his face red as Indian spice.
“The gun,” Billy Fish said into my ear. “You must shoot both them.”
I fitted the Uziel’s hatched wood into my palm, pressuring my injured wrist, and put the gun on the crowd. Billy Fish stared at me and his face became carefully stupid again.
Above the shallows, Ammie’s ankles flexed once. He stopped fighting and his face swelled like a ripe, gaseous fruit. I moved mechanically, turning the Uziel round, because if Amvir died then so did the Thug — my hate flashed so hot and sudden it incinerated my fear.
But Amvir had only stopped fighting to push at the barriers of his own muscle. He reached overhead and gave Singh’s mouth a gentle slap. He plastered a brown mess to Singh’s dark lips and ground it in as if squeezing oranges — forcing Tiger balm, holy cow manure and Zoroastrian silver deep into the Thug’s mouth.
Singh reared back, his spine locking in an agonised curve like a coat hanger. His cough ground so long and wrecking it must have torn all the way from his testicles. The crowd screamed Amvir’s name again, stamping their feet and making enough noise to wake all of Calcutta from their beds.
I staggered beneath their proud, raucous bellow — when I looked up I saw that Singh too had felt their assault — his head filled with the thunderclap of emotion and excitement. It scorched away his composure.
Amvir flexed like a cobra, luxuriating in his own brawn. With a sure grip, he yanked Singh into the river. The splash was lost beneath another roar of the crowd, but the double-slap of their bodies in Hooghly mud smacked fat and clear, piercing the night with its perfect sound.
Ammie made sure he landed on top. Still slow as ever, and beer-gutted and too long out of the ring, but hip-deep in Hooghly mud slow was all there was. They slogged together in the dark rain beyond the ring of torches, making great sucking sounds like a vendor at Big Joe’s spooning creamy kulfi from a tub.
Ammie jabbed at the Thug’s eyes, blacking and bleeding them as Singh fended him off weakly. Amvir’s beauty hook-off-the-jab brought a nod from a street tough and gasps from the children. Singh’s face looked raw. In the moonlight his blood looked quite black. I had expected to find amazement there as the unstoppable weight of fists rained on him, but something else appeared in his face. A new sensation burned through his devotions and penitent killings: excitement, he was finally about to lose.
The rain thinned and I saw Amvir’s fist hit solid as a Cornish miner’s hammer. Singh staggered. His turban askew and spitting up the Zoroastrian charm, he slouched, his knees wobbling together for support. His fists rose but his head hung. Singh’s strength vanished, only the gestures of defiance remained.
Ammie squelched over to him, his clenched fist a huge slab of granite for the broken man. Through the drizzle, his hand flowed, flowering into an open palm that shoved Singh’s chest and put him flat. The Thug sprawled into the mud’s embrace, defeated, dirty, and jeered at. What must have hurt most was that as he lay there he was released from Kali and unable to hide his relief.
The crowd screamed and stamped on the loose wood in a thunder to rival the Massacre at Cawnpore.
We dressed Ammie in his frayed cotton jacket and unwound the Thuggee scarf that clenched his throat like a tie. The red-haired girl snatched the coin as a battle souvenir and ran giggling into the crowd.
I wanted to go. Delhi in twenty-four hours. As Amvir laid a heavy arm on my shoulders, bathing me in sweat and mud, I knew he was ready too.
We were led away from the shadow of Howrah and the husk of the defeated Thug. Fish’s tribe ignored Singh; he was just another outcast now. In time he could join them, a nimble pickpocket or obedient bully-boy.
We climbed the narrow lane up to Strand Road Its washing lines were banners, flapping in Ammie’s honour. The rain had gone and dawn lit the horizon, a thin bronzing above the Grand Trunk Road that promised by morning to burn the city with its heat.
I never heard engines and there were no searchlights this time. They came down either end of the Strand with full barrelled Enfield rifles and heavy Maxim machine guns. A wide-shouldered silhouette detached from the Sikh soldiers and approached us, pointing a huge Webley revolver. Its lanyard curved in a perfect bowstring from his belt to the pistol’s butt.
“That’s far enough.” Harper-Borne stepped into the light. “There are rooms waiting in Fort William for you both.”
Fish’s youths were silent. Harper-Borne smirked until he saw the rising sunlight shine off oiled knives, then over elderly .303 bolt-action rifles and even the oiled discus-shape of an ancient Lewis gun’s magazine. The Lieutenant froze in place.
Fish stepped up with a knife and slashed the heavy Webley from its lanyard.
“Nice watch,” I pointed out and it went in an instant.
“You won’t get far, Lyle. No one in India will stand the sight of you.” Helpless, Harper-Borne began shouting.
“Who said we’re stayin’, ‘Arper?” Amvir called to him. I turned and heaved the Uziel to Fish in a low throw.
He caught the gun close to his body. “Want trade?” he asked.
“It’s yours.” I put the satchel of money in my hand and started walking. Ammie fell in beside me, matching my stride. This time we were leaving more than Harper-Borne behind. I knew if my feet faltered I’d never make it out of India at all.
Fish began laughing, cutting Harper-Borne’s pockets open as his bully-boys held the soldiers down. By the time we left Strand Road they’d even taken their uniforms. Within the hour they’d be on the backs of crippled beggars to ply their trade with.
Calcutta’s night hung black as velvet, soft like a Sudder Street woman and heavy as her demurest glance. This place is humid too. But when it rains it never dries out. We spend our days and our money in the terraced bars of Medan, Sumatra.
Amvir’s grown his hair out into a long ponytail and I’ve shaved those ridiculous handlebar moustaches off.
I made my big score. I should be happy. Perhaps in time I will be. I don’t deal, I’m not running, and we’re settled. It will be a long time, if ever, before we can go back to Calcutta. But in the meantime there’s the clubs and bars ringing Bootha Street and the opulent Hotel De Boer in Dutchtown. Or a new city whenever we want one. Even London if we’re ever mad enough to go.
Ammie’s getting religious. Zoroastrian magic may have saved both our lives, though already I’m not sure. What really did happen that night? Maybe I’ll try religion too, when the pain of separation from the City of Palaces grows too strong. But for now, I’ll stay in my fine timber Batak house, perched on its stilts, sipping lassi and idly watching Holland’s tough Ambonese troops as they square-bash and march. They’re not a patch on Calcutta’s resident Gurkhas.
Calcutta was my home and now I’m exiled. But here I’m free of the British Empire, free of its bullying and my fear of becoming part of it. I’ve laid my burden down.
When I go back to Calcutta I won’t be bearing it again.
Dev Agarwal is a science fiction and fantasy writer. He also is an editor for Ireland’s science fiction magazine, Albedo One. His fiction has appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies in Britain and America. Dev’s latest story is ‘Blight’ in Looking Landwards, published by Newcon Press. Come and say hello in between panels, if you’re at Loncon.