That something is no more than a mile off as the crow flies, though with the undulations of the dirt track, the distance is probably doubled. As the sun sinks lower, Forrester makes out a glint of light on metal and a flash of pink against the dun-colored earth. He halts and watches, feeling his jaw become inexplicably tight, stiffening in the saddle like a cavalryman on parade. He has seen no one for the last day and a half. Gradually he discerns a party of men, Rajput villagers by the looks of them, leading camels and escorting a curtained palanquin, bumpily carried at shoulder height by four of their number.
By the time the party is within hailing distance, the sun has dipped almost to the horizon. Bands of angry red show against a wall of thick gray cloud. Forrester waits, his horse stamping its hooves on one bank of a dried-up stream bed. The palanquin bearers stop a little way off and put down their load. Heads swathed in enormous pink turbans, mustaches teased out to extravagant length, they appraise the sweating Englishman like buyers eyeing up a bullock. Eight sets of black eyes, curious and impassive. Forrester's hand flutters involuntarily up to his neck.
From the rear pops up a lean middle-aged man, clad in a dhoti and a grubby white shirt, a black umbrella under his arm. He looks like a railway clerk, or a personal tutor, his appearance strange and jarring against the wasteland. He is clearly in charge, and just as clearly irked that his servants have not waited for instructions to halt. Shouldering his way forward he salaams Forrester, who touches the brim of his topi in response. Forrester is about to speak to him in Hindi, when the man salutes him in English.
"Looks like rain, what?"
They both peer up at the sky. As if in response a fat drop of water lands on Forrester's face.
Fire and water. Earth and air. Meditate on these oppositions and reconcile them. Collapse them in on themselves, send them spiraling down a tunnel of blackness to reemerge whole, one with the all, mere aspects of the great unity of things whose name is God. Thought can travel on in this manner, from part to whole, smooth as the touch of the masseur's oiled hands in the hammam. Amrita wishes she could carry on thinking forever. That would be true sweetness! But she is only a woman, and forever will not be granted her. In the absence of infinity she will settle for spinning out what time she has, teasing it into a fine thread.
Inside the palanquin it is hot and close, the smells of food and stale sweat and rosewater mingling with another smell, sharp and bitter. Once again Amrita's hand reaches out for the little sandalwood box of pills. She watches the hand as she would a snake sliding across a flagstone floor, with detachment and an edge of revulsion. Yes, it is her hand, but only for now, only for a while. Amrita knows that she is not her body. This crablike object, fiddling with box and key and pellets of sticky black resin, belongs to her only as does a shawl, or a piece of jewelry.
A bump. They have stopped. Outside there are voices. Amrita rejoices. At nineteen years old, this is will be her last journey, and any delay is cause for celebration. She swallows another opium pellet, tasting the bitter resin on her tongue.
Just as it does every year, the wind has blown steadily out of the southwest, rolling its cargo of doughy air across the plain to slap hard against the mountains. For days, weeks, the air has funneled upward, cooling as it rises, spinning vast towers of condensation over the peaks. Now these hanging gardens of cloud have ripened to the point where they can no longer maintain themselves.
So, the rain.
It falls first over the mountains, an unimaginable shock of water. Caught in the open, herdsmen and woodcutters pull their shawls over their heads and run for shelter. Then in a chain reaction, cloud speaking to cloud, the rain rolls over the foothills, dousing fires, battering on roofs, bringing smiles to the faces of the people who run outside to greet it, the water for which they have been waiting so long.
Reprinted from The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002 by Hari Kunzru. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.
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