Finally it comes to the desert. As it starts to fall, Forrester listens to the grubby Brahmin's chit-chat, and hears himself tetchily agreeing that now would be a good time and here a good place to camp. Perhaps this Moti Lal is offended by his brusqueness, but Forrester can't worry about that. His eyes are fixed on the palanquin, the grumpy maid fussing around its embroidered curtain. Its occupant has not even ventured a peek outside. He wonders if she is ill, or very old.
Soon the rain is falling steadily, swollen droplets splashing into the dust like little bombs. Camels fidget and grumble as they are hobbled. Servants run around unpacking bags. Moti Lal keeps up a steady stream of conversation as Forrester dismounts and unsaddles his horse. Moti Lal is not the master here, oh no, just a trusted family retainer. It has fallen to him, the duty of escorting the young mistress to her uncle's house in Agra. Most unusual, of course, but there are extenuating circumstances.
Extenuating circumstances? What is the bloody fool on about? Forrester asks where they have come from, and the man names a small town at least two hundred miles west of where they stand.
"And you have walked all the way?"
"Yes, sir. The young mistress says walk only."
"Why on earth didn't you go by rail? Agra is hundreds of miles from here."
"Unfortunately train is out of the question. Such are extenuating circumstances, you see."
Forrester does not see, but at the moment he is far more concerned with erecting his tent before the rain worsens. It seems to be getting stronger by the second. Moti Lal puts up his umbrella and stands over the Englishman as he bashes in pegs, just close enough to get in his way without actually offering any shelter. Forrester curses under his breath, while all the time the thought circulates in his head; so she is a young woman.
Rain drips through the ceiling and lands in her lap, darkening red silk with circles of black. Amrita turns her face upward and sticks out her tongue. The rain sounds heavy. Outside it is dark and perhaps, though she is not sure, she feels cold. To ward off the feeling she imagines heat, calling up memories of walking on the roof of her father's haveli in summertime. Vividly she senses the burning air on her arms and face. She hears the thud of carpets being beaten and the swish of brooms as the maids sweep sand from the floors. But heat leads on to thoughts of her father, of walking around the pyre as the priest throws on ghee to make it flame, and she recoils back to the dark and cold. Drops of water land on her forehead, on one cheek, on her tongue. Soon the rain is pouring through in a constant stream. The soaked curtains start to flap limply against her side. The wind is rising, and still no one has come for her. No one has even told her what is happening. With no mother or father she is mistress now. If only she could gather the energy to assert herself.
Amrita unlocks her box, shielding it from the water. She is to be delivered to her uncle, and that will be an end. He writes that he has already found her a husband. At least, said the old women, she will arrive with a good dowry. So much better off than other girls. She should thank God.
Within half an hour the dust has turned to mud. Despite his tent Forrester is drenched. He clambers to the top of a hill and looks out over the desert, scored by a fingerprint whorl of valleys and ridges. There is no shelter. As the wind tugs at his topi and forked lightning divides the sky into fleeting segments, he is struck by the thought that perhaps he has been a fool. His red-brown world has turned gray, solid curtains of water obscuring the horizon. Here he is, out in the middle of it, not a tree in sight. He is the tallest thing in this barren landscape, and he feels exposed. Looking back down at his tent, set at the bottom of a deep gully, he wonders how long the storm will last. The Indians are still struggling to put up their own shelters, fumbling with rope and pegs. Amazingly, the palanquin is still where they discarded it. If he had not been told otherwise, he would have sworn the thing must be empty.
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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