Excerpt from The Strangler Vine by Miranda J. Carter, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Strangler Vine

by Miranda J. Carter

The Strangler Vine by Miranda J. Carter X
The Strangler Vine by Miranda J. Carter
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 384 pages

    Feb 2016, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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Calcutta, September 1837

The palanquin lurched again to the left and I felt a fresh wave of nausea. I pushed the curtains aside in the vain hope of a current of cool air, and waited for the moment to pass. The perspiration started anew from my neck and my back, then soaked into the chafing serge of my second-best dress uniform. The dull, sour odour filled me with dejection. Our uniforms were not washed quite as often as I would have liked as it caused the fabric to disintegrate even more swiftly than it would otherwise have done.

'Khabadur you soor!' Take care, you swine! I shouted at the bearers, more to relieve my feelings than anything else.

'William,' said Frank Macpherson, 'it will make no difference.' Nor did it. There was no response, nor had I expected one.

Calcutta was hot. Not the infernal, burning heat of May, but rather the sticky, enervating sultriness of September. We were the only thing in the empty afternoon streets of Whitetown—it was too hot as yet for afternoon calls. It had been a relief when the monsoon had arrived in June, but the rain had persisted and persisted and now, after three months, the depredations of damp and standing water had become almost as tiresome as the raging heat before it. The city existed in a permanent state of soupy dampness. Books and possessions rotted. Diseases lurked in its miasma. Most of my acquaintances were down with fever or boils. At the Company barracks, where the walls gushed dirty brown water when it rained, there was said to be an outbreak of cholera.

Even in Tank Square, the grand heart of the city, one could smell mould in the air. As our palanquin left the square to make for the Hooghly River ghats, it semed that even the adjutant birds perching one-legged on the parapets of Government House drooped in the heat.

'I reckon the temperature is about ninety-five degrees,' said Frank, who knew about such things.

We were on our way to Blacktown. I had been ordered—by the Governor General's office, no less—to deliver a letter to a civilian called Jeremiah Blake. Frank had decided to come too, for he was curious and we had neither of us ever been into Blacktown proper: it was not the place for an English gentleman. Even on its outskirts, the sides of the roads were piled with filth and refuse and gave on to open ditches carrying all imaginable kinds of effluent. It was not unusual to find animal corpses rotting in the street and rats scuttling over one's feet.

I was ambivalent about the commission. On the one hand, any recognition from the senior ranks of the Company was gratifying, and any relief from the tedium of barrack life to be welcomed. On the other, carrying a message to some civilian gone native felt like yet another demeaning, irksome, pointless task. Besides which, I had dipped deep into my cups the night before and was suffering greatly from the consequences.

'Damn me, it is too much,' I said, for the millionth time, pulling again at my collar to absolutely no effect. We shifted ourselves about a little. There was not quite room enough for two in the palanquin.

'My, my, we are ill-tempered and sore-headed this morning,' Frank said. 'Must have been the fish. Certainly nothing to do with the gallon of claret, nor the ten pounds you lost.'

For nine months I had been kicking my heels in Calcutta, waiting to be summoned by a cavalry regiment in north Bengal which had shown no inclination to avail itself of my services, and I was not far off hating the city. One might have supposed that being an officer in the army of the Honourable East India Company would have its compensations. But after nine months they seemed dispiritingly few, while its deficiencies were unignorable: the monstrous climate, the casual barbarities of the native population and the stiff unfriendliness of the European society. Calcutta was a city in thrall to form, status and wealth, and Frank and I were at the bottom of the pile. Keeping up appearances, whatever the expense, appeared to be the most pressing duty. We drilled in the mornings before it got too hot, and studied for the Hindoostanee diploma – which no one took very seriously. Most of the officers got by with soldier bat, a few words of Hindoostanee, and in Calcutta it was not really the thing to be seen speaking the local lingo too well. The only man I knew who had actually learnt any was sitting next to me, and Frank Macpherson had no desire to fight or command troops. He had just effected a transfer to the Political Department and his ambition was to become a magistrate or some such, running a station somewhere up country. He had already passed his diploma in Hindoostanee and was now studying Persian. He had been managing his company's accounts and administering to his sepoys' welfare since shortly after he had arrived. Now I envied his activity. Idleness left me enervated, lethargic and irritable.

Excerpted from The Strangler Vine by Miranda J Carter. Copyright © 2015 by Miranda J Carter. Excerpted by permission of Putnam Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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