Forbidden Jewel of India(2)

By: Louise Allen

 ‘He is different from the men I am used to, so I cannot decide if he is handsome or not. His hair is so pale and tied back tightly and his eyes are green and he is tall.’ She waved her hands to illustrate. ‘He is big all over—broad shoulders, long legs.’

 ‘Is he very white? I have never seen an angrezi before except from a long way away.’ Paravi was becoming interested.

 ‘His face and his hands are golden.’ Like my father’s were. ‘But the skin of all the Europeans goes brown in the sun, you know. Perhaps the rest of him is white.’

 Imagining all of the big Englishman produced a not-unpleasurable shiver which he did not merit. But any novelty was welcome in the restricted world of the

zanana, even if this novelty brought with him unsettling reminders of the world outside the fort. The faint sensual tingle was lost in a wave of something close to apprehension. This man made her uneasy.

 ‘Where has he gone now?’ Paravi uncoiled herself from the heap of cushions she had been occupying. The mongoose immediately dived into the warm spot she had created and curled up. ‘I would like to look on a man who makes all those expressions chase across your face.’

 ‘To the visitors’ wing—where else should he go?’ Anusha tried not to snap. It was not flattering to be told her face betrayed her. ‘He was very dusty from the road, he will not be seeking audience with my uncle like that.’ She gave herself a little shake to chase away the foolish fancies. ‘Come with me to the Sunset Terrace.’

 Anusha led the way through the familiar maze of passages, rooms and galleries that filled the western wing of the palace.

 ‘Your dupatta,’ her friend hissed as they left the women’s quarters to cross the wide terrace where the raja would sometimes sit to watch the sun sink over his kingdom. ‘There are no grilles here.’

 Anusha clicked her tongue in irritation, but unwound the neglected length of cerise gauze from her neck and draped it so it covered her face to the chin. She leaned on the inner balustrade of the terrace and looked down into the courtyard below. ‘There he is,’ she whispered.

 Below, on the edge of a garden threaded with rills of water in the Persian manner, the big angrezi was talking to a slender Indian she did not recognise. His body servant, no doubt. The man gestured towards a door.

 ‘He is telling him where the bath house is,’ Paravi whispered from behind her own dupatta of golden gauze. ‘There is your chance to see whether Englishmen are white all over.’

 ‘That is ridiculous. And immodest.’ She heard Paravi laugh softly and bristled. ‘Besides, I am not in the slightest bit interested.’ Just burningly, and inexplicably, curious. The two men had vanished into the guest rooms overlooking the garden. ‘But I suppose I had better see whether the water has been heated and someone is in attendance.’

 Paravi leaned one rounded hip against the parapet and glanced up as a flock of green parakeets screeched overhead. ‘This man must be important, do you not think? He is from the East India Company and they are all-powerful in the whole land now, my lord says. Far more important than the Emperor in Delhi, even if they do put the Emperor’s head on their coins. I wonder if he is to be the Resident here. My lord said nothing about that last night.’

 Anusha rested her elbows on the parapet and noted that her friend seemed to be in favour with her husband. ‘Why would we need a Resident? We do not do so very much trade with them.’ The intriguingly pale head appeared below as the man re-emerged from the door to the guest rooms. ‘I suppose we might be in a useful position for their expansion—that is what Mata used to say. Strategic.’ Her mother had much to say on most subjects, being both well read and greatly indulged by her brother the raja.

 ‘Your father is still a friend to my lord, even though he never comes here. They exchange letters. He is a great man in the Company: perhaps he thinks we are more important these days and deserving of a Resident.’

 ‘It must be a matter of great importance for him to bestir himself to think of us,’ Anusha said. Her father had not visited the state of Kalatwah since the day, twelve years ago, when he had sent his twelve-year-old daughter and her mother back, displaced from his home and his heart by the arrival of his English wife.

 He sent money, but that was all. Her uncle added it to her dowry chest when she refused to spend it. He told her that she was foolish, that her father had no choice but to send her and her mother home and that Sir George was an honourable man and a good ally of Kalatwah. But that was the talk of men, of politics, not of the love that broke her mother’s heart, even while she agreed with her brother that there had been no other option.

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