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castes, he had explained, each striving to exploit those below. The
greatest exploiters called themselves Brahmin, probably Aryan invaders
who had arrived thousands of years past and now proclaimed themselves
"preservers of tradition." That tradition, which they invented, was
mainly subjugation of all the others. Next came the Kshatriya, the
warrior caste, which had been claimed by Rajput tribes who also had
invaded India, probably well after the Brahmins. The third caste, also
"high," was called Vaisya, and was supposed to be made up of society's
producers of foods and goods. Now it was the caste claimed by rich,
grasping Hindu merchants. Below all these were the Sudra, who were in
effect the servants and laborers for the powerful "high" castes. But
even the Sudra had someone to exploit, for beneath them were the
Untouchables, those unfortunates in whose veins probably ran the blood
of the original inhabitants of India. The Untouchables had no caste.
The part that annoyed Mukarrab Khan the most was that high-caste Hindus
regarded all Muslims as part of the mass of Untouchables.

"The four main castes are those prescribed in the order of the _varna_,
the ancient Aryan scriptures. But the world of the village has little
to do with the _varna_. Today there are many castes," Vasant Rao
continued, reflecting to himself how he loathed most Brahmins, who took
every opportunity to claim caste superiority over Rajputs. "For
example, the Brahmins here probably have two subcastes - one for the
priests, who think up ceremonies as an excuse to collect money, and the
other for the landowners, most of whom are also moneylenders. "There" -
he pointed - "that man is a Brahmin."

Hawksworth saw a shirtless man standing by one of the white plaster
homes. He wore a dingy loincloth beneath his enormous belly, and as
Hawksworth examined him he noticed a strand of thread that circled
around his neck and under his left arm.

"Why is he wearing a cord around his shoulder?"

"That's the sacred thread of the high castes. I wear one myself."
Vasant Rao opened his shirt to reveal a strand of three colored
threads, woven together. "It's consecrated and given to boys around age
ten at a very important ceremony. Before the thread ceremony a boy has
no caste. An orthodox Brahmin won't even eat with his son until after
the boy's thread ceremony."

Hawksworth examined the thread. It was the first time he'd noticed it.

"What about the men who don't wear a thread?"

"They're the middle castes, the ones who do the work in a village.
Carpenters, potters, weavers, barbers. They serve the high castes and
each other. The barber shaves the potter; the potter makes his vessels.
The Brahmins here probably won't sell them any land, so they'll always
be poor. That's why the middle castes live in houses of mud and thatch
instead of brick. And below them are the unclean castes. Sweepers,
servants, shoemakers."

And below them are the non-Hindus, Hawksworth thought. Me.

"What the hell's the reason for all this? It's worse than the class
system in England. I'll drink with any man, high or low. I have. And I
usually prefer to drink with the low."

"That may explain why most _feringhis_ seem so confused and unhappy.
Caste is the most important thing in life." Vasant Rao glanced over his
shoulder at the receding village. "It's the reason India's civilization
has lasted for thousands of years. I pity your misfortune, Captain
Hawksworth, not to have been born a Hindu. Perhaps you were once, and
will be again in some future life. I think you'll someday be reborn a
Kshatriya, a member of the warrior caste. Then you'll know who you are,
what you must do. Unlike the Moghuls and the other Muslims, who have no
caste and never know their purpose in life, a Rajput always knows."

As they rode on through the countryside Hawksworth tried to understand
the purpose of castes. Its absurdity annoyed him.

Mukarrab khan was right for once. It's just a class system, devised by
the highborn to keep the others in submission. But why do they all seem
to believe in it? Why don't the so-called lower castes just tell the
others to go to hell?

As they neared the next village, he decided to try to guess who was in
which caste. But the central road in the village was deserted. Instead
all the villagers, men and women, were clustered around a tall,
brightly painted pole that had been erected near one of the dingy
thatch homes. Vasant Rao's face brightened when he saw the pole.

"There must be a wedding here today. Have you ever seen one?"

"No. Not in India."

"This is a powerful moment, Captain, when you feel the force of
_prahna_, the life spirit."

Vasant Rao pointed toward a pavilion that had been erected next to the
marriage pole. From horseback Hawksworth could just make out the bride
and groom, both dressed in red wraps trimmed in silver. The groom wore
a high turban, on top of which were ceremonial decorations, and the
bride was so encrusted with precious metals she might have been a life-
size ornament: her hands, wrists, feet, ankles, and her head were all
adorned with elaborately worked silver rings, bracelets, medallions.
Her necklace was a string of large gold coins.

"Where'd she get all the silver and gold?"

"Her father is probably a big landowner. Those ornaments are her
savings and part of her dowry. Look, all the women wear thick bracelets
of silver on their ankles. There's much gold and silver in India,

As Hawksworth watched, a Brahmin priest, his forehead streaked with
white clay, finished lighting a fire in a central brazier and then
began to recite.

"The priest is reciting from the Vedas, Sanskrit scriptures thousands
of years old," Vasant Rao continued as they watched. "This is a ritual
going back to the dawn of time."

The couple began repeating the priest's verses, their faces intent and

"They're taking the marriage vows now. There are seven. The most
important is the wife's vow of complete obedience to her husband. See
the silver knife he carries? That's to symbolize his dominion over her.
But really, she will belong to his entire family when she finally comes
to live at his house."

"What do you mean by 'finally'?"

"These things take time. To begin with, a marriage proposal must come
from the family of the girl. As she approaches womenhood, her father
will hire a marriage broker, probably the village barber, to go to
surrounding villages to look for a suitable match. I remember when I
was young and they used to come to my village." Vasant Rao's face
assumed a faraway expression. "I didn't want to marry and I dreaded
seeing them, but unfortunately I was a good catch. My subcaste is high,
and I had many sisters, which meant more women to share the work in our
house. Then one day my father ordered the priest to cast my horoscope
and I knew I was lost. A broker had brought an inquiry from a girl who
had a compatible horoscope. Soon after, the engagement ceremony was
held in our house. The girl was not there, of course; I didn't see her
until three years later. When we finally had the ceremony you see

The bride and groom were standing together now, and they began to
circle the fire while the women standing nearby sang a monotonous,
repetitive song. Hawksworth counted seven turns of the fire. Then they
seated themselves and the priest placed a red dot on the forehead of
man and wife.

"They'll feast tonight, and then the groom will return to his village."
Vasant Rao spurred his mount to catch up with the caravan. "Later she
and her family will go there for more ceremonies. After that the groom
may not see her again for several years, until the day her father
decides she's ready for the _gauna_, the consummation of the marriage.
I didn't see my bride again for two years."

"What happened then?"

"She came to my village for a few days and stayed in the women's
quarters - the men and women sleep apart in these villages - and I had to
go there and try to find her cot. After that she went back home and it
was several months later before I saw her again. Then she came back,
for a longer time. Finally she moved to my village, but by then I was
nineteen and soon after I left on a campaign. She stayed with my
younger brother while I was gone, and when I returned, she was with
child. Who can say whether it was mine or his? But none of it matters,
for she died in childbirth." He spurred his horse past the line of
carts. "Let's try to make the river before sundown."

Hawksworth couldn't believe what he had heard, and he whipped his mount
to catch up.

"Your brother kept your wife while you were away?"

"Of course. I don't know how it is here, but in the part of India where
I was born, brothers normally share each other's wives. I used to go to
my older brother's house when he was gone and visit his wife. She
expected it and would have been upset if I hadn't come to her." Vasant
Rao was puzzled by Hawksworth's surprise. "Don't brothers share one
another's wives in England?"

"Well, not. . . usually. I mean . . . no. Hell no. It's damned close to
incest. The truth is a husband would have grounds to call out a man he
caught with his wife. And especially a brother."

"'Call him out,' Captain? What does that mean?"

"A duel. With swords. Or maybe pistols."

Vasant Rao was incredulous.

"But what if a man goes away on a campaign? His wife will grow
frustrated. Hindus believe a woman has seven times the sexual energy of
a man. She would start meeting other men in the village if a man didn't
have a brother to keep her satisfied. In the village where I grew up,
if a man and woman met together by chance in the forest, and they had
the same caste, we all assumed they would make the most of the
opportunity. So it's better for the honor of the family if your
brothers care for your wife. It's an important duty for brothers. And
besides, as long as a woman attends to her own husband's needs, what
does it matter if his brother enjoys her also?"

Hawksworth found himself astonished.

"How does . . . I mean, what about this brother's own wife? What does
she think about all this?"

"If her husband wants to visit his brothers' wives, what should she
care? It's normal. She'll also find ways to meet her husband's brothers
for the same purpose. Women married to brothers often try to send each
other away on errands, in order to enjoy the other's husband. So wives
have no reason to complain. In fact, if a woman returns to her own
village for a visit, she will probably seek out some of the men she
knew when she was young and enjoy them, since her husband is not around
and no one in her own village would tell him. Hindus in the villages
don't lock away their women the way the Muslims do, Captain Hawksworth.
And because they're free to enjoy whoever they wish, they aren't
frustrated and unhappy the way Muslim women are. Surely your England is
an advanced country where women have the same freedom."

Hawksworth puzzled for a minute before trying to answer. The truth is
there's a big difference between what's said and what's done. With
chastity praised from the pulpits and whores the length of London. And
highborn ladies thronging the playhouses, ready to cuckold their
husbands with any cavalier who'll give them a look. How can I explain

"I guess you'd say upper-class women have the most freedom to take
lovers. Usually young gallants or soldiers. And no one is surprised if
her husband makes full use of his serving wench."

"Are these soldiers and serving women from a lower caste?"

"Well, we don't exactly have . . ." Hawksworth paused for a moment.
"Actually I guess you could say they're a lower 'caste,' in a way."

Vasant reined in his mount and inspected Hawksworth for a moment in

"Please excuse me if I say yours must be a very immoral country.
Captain. Such a thing would never happen in India. No Rajput would
touch the body of a low caste. It would be pollution."

"You don't care what your women do? All that matters is who they do it
with?" Hawksworth suddenly realized he found it all too absurd to
believe. It sounds like another tale of the Indies. Concocted to
entertain credulous seamen. "All right, then, what about your own wife?
Did she have other men besides your brothers?"

"How would I know?" Vasant Rao waved his hand, dismissing the question
as insignificant. "I suppose it's possible. But after she died I
decided I'd had enough of wives and women. I took a vow of chastity.
There's the legend of a god named Hanumanji, who took on the flesh of a
monkey and who gained insuperable strength by retaining his semen. It
made him invulnerable." Vasant Rao smiled. "So far it's worked for me
as well. But to protect the charm, I eat no meat and drink a glass of
opium each day."

The Rajput suddenly spurred his mount toward the head of the caravan.
The sun had disappeared behind a heavy bank of storm clouds in the
west, and the road had already begun to darken. The river was probably
still another hour away, perhaps two hours.

Hawksworth studied Vasant Rao's tall, commanding form, sitting erect
and easy in the saddle.

Sweet Jesus, he thinks he's invulnerable because he avoids women and
drinks opium. Rajputs are even madder than the damned Turks. And he
thinks the high castes rule by the will of God. I wonder what the low
castes think?

Hawksworth puzzled through the Rajput's words and half-dozed in the
saddle until he realized they were finally approaching the river.
Ahead, past groves of mango trees, lay a sandy expanse leading down
toward the water's edge. As they approached, Vasant Rao sent some of
his horsemen to scout along the riverbank in both directions to find a
shallow spot for crossing. The caravan followed the stream for half a
_kos_, then halted on a sandy plain that sloped gradually down toward
the wide stream. The water rippled slightly all the way across,
signifying there were no lurking depths to swallow a cart.

The sun was dying, washing a veneer of gold over the high dark clouds
threatening in the east. The smell of rain hinted in the evening air.
Vasant Rao peered across the water's darkening surface for a time,
while the drivers waited patiently for orders to begin crossing, then
he turned to the waiting Rajputs.

"The light is too far gone." He stroked the mane of his gray stallion
and again studied the clouds building where the sun had been. "It's
safer to camp here and cross in the morning."

He signaled the head driver and pointed the Rajputs toward a sandy
expanse close to the water's edge. In moments the drivers were urging
their teams toward the spot, circling them in preparation for the

"The carts will go on the riverside, and we'll camp here." He specified
areas for the Rajputs and the drivers, and then he turned to Hawksworth
and pointed out a large mango tree. "Your tent can go there."

Hawksworth had been required by the Rajputs to keep a separate area for
his campfire and cooking. Vasant Rao had explained the reasons the
first evening of the journey.

"Food is merely an external part of the body, Captain, so naturally it
must be kept from pollution. Food is transformed into blood, and the
blood eventually turns to flesh, the flesh to fat, and the fat to
marrow. The marrow turns to semen, the life-force. Since you have no
caste, a Rajput would become polluted if he allowed you to touch his
food, or even the pots in which he cooked."

Hawksworth's driver, being a low caste, had no objection to cooking and
eating with the English ambassador. Their diet on the trip had been
simple. The Rajputs lived mainly on game they killed as they rode,
though some occasionally ate fish. A few seemed to subsist on rice,
wheat cakes, and boiled lentils. That night, as an experiment,
Hawksworth ordered his driver, Nayka, to prepare a dinner of whatever
he himself was having. Then he reclined against his saddle, poured
himself a tankard of brandy, and watched the preparations.

Nayka struck up a fire of twigs, to ignite the chips of dried

cow dung used for the real cooking, and then he began to heat a curved
pan containing _ghee_, butter that had been boiled and strained to
prevent rancidity. Although the Rajputs cooked in vegetable oil, Nayka
had insisted from the first that a personage as important as the
English _feringhi_ should eat only clarified butter. The smoldering
chips of dung took a long time to heat, but finally the ghee seemed
ready. Nayka had ground spices as he waited, and he began to throw them
into the hot fat to sputter. Then he chopped vegetables and dropped
them in to fry. In a separate pot he was already boiling lentils,
together with a yellow spice he called turmeric. As the meal neared
readiness, he began to fry _chappatis_, thin patties of unleavened
wheat flour mixed with water and ghee. Then Hawksworth watched in shock
as Nayka discreetly dropped a coal of burning cow dung into the pot of
cooking lentils.

"What the hell was that?"

"Flavoring, Captain Sahib." Nayka's Turkish had been learned through
procuring women for Turkish seamen, and it was heavily accented and
abrupt. "It's the secret of the flavor of our lentils."

"Is that 'high-caste' practice?"

"I think it is the same for all." Nayka examined him for a moment,
twisting his head deferentially. "Does the Sahib know about caste?"

"I know it's a damnable practice."

"The Sahib says what the Sahib says, but caste is a very good thing."

"How do you figure that?"

"Because I will be reborn a Brahmin. I went to a soothsayer who told
me. My next life will be marvelous."

"But what about this life?"

"My present birth was due to a very grave mistake. The soothsayer
explained it. He said that in my last life I was a Rajput. Once I
ordered my cook to prepare a gift for some Brahmins, to bake bread for
them, and inside the bread I had put gold. It was an act of great
merit. But the faithless cook betrayed me. He stole the gold and put
stones in its place. The Brahmins were very insulted, but no one ever
told me why. Because I had insulted Brahmins, I was reborn as I am. But
my next life will be different. I will be rich and have many women.
Like a Brahmin or a Rajput." Nayka's eyes gleamed in anticipation.

"The improvement in money I can understand." Hawksworth examined
Nayka's ragged dhoti. "But what does it matter when it comes to women?
There seems to be plenty of randy women to go around, in all castes."

"That's true if you are a Rajput or a Brahmin. Then no woman of any
caste can refuse you. But if you are a low caste, and you are caught
with a high-caste woman, you'll probably be beaten to death by the
Rajputs. They would say you were polluting her caste."

"Wait a minute. I thought Rajputs would have nothing to do with a low-
caste woman." Hawksworth remembered Vasant Rao's stern denial.

"Who told you that?" Nayka smiled at Hawksworth's naivete. "I would
guess a Rajput. They always deny it to strangers, so you won't form
unfavorable ideas about the high castes. Let me tell you that it is a
lie, Captain Sahib. They take our women all the time, and there is
nothing we can say. But a low-caste man with a high-caste woman is
another matter."

"But what about their 'ritual pollution'? They're not supposed to touch
the low castes."

"It's very simple. A Rajput can take one of our women if he chooses,
and then just take a bath afterward and he is clean again."

"But can't a high-caste woman do the same, if she's been with a low-
caste man?"

"No, Captain Sahib. Because they say her pollution is internal. She has
the polluting emissions of the low-caste man within her. So there is no
way she can be purified. It's the way the high castes control their
women. But if you're a man, you can have any woman you please, and
there's nothing anyone can say." Again Nayka's eyes brightened. "It
will be wonderful the day I am reborn. Caste is a wonderful thing."

Hawksworth studied the half-starved, almost toothless

man who stood before him barefoot, grinning happily.

Well, enjoy your dreams, you poor miserable son-of-a- bitch. I'll not
be the one to tell you this life is all you get.

He took a slug of brandy and returned to his dung-flavored lentils.
Taken with some of the charcoal-flavored bread they were actually
better than he'd expected.

Vasant Rao had already summoned the Rajputs and made assignments for
the evening guard duty. Guards were to be doubled. Hawksworth remained
astounded by the Rajput concept of security. A large kettledrum was set
up at the head of the camp and continually beaten from dusk to dawn. A
detail of Rajputs would march around the perimeter of the camp
throughout the night, and on the quarter hour a shout of "khabardar,"
meaning "take heed," would circle the camp. The first night Hawksworth
had found it impossible to sleep for the noise, but the second night
and thereafter his weariness overtook him.

He poured himself another brandy and watched as Nayka scrubbed out the
cooking pans with ashes and sand. Then the driver rolled a betel leaf
for Hawksworth and another for himself and set to work erecting the
tent, which was nothing more than four poles with a canopy. After this
he unloaded Hawksworth's cot, a foot-high wooden frame strung with
hemp. None of the Rajputs used cots; they preferred a thin pallet on
the ground.

Nayka seemed to work more slowly as he started unrolling the bedding
onto the hemp strings of the cot, and he began to glance nervously at
the sky. Suddenly he stopped and slipped quietly to where the other
drivers were encamped, seated on their haunches around a fire, passing
the mouthpiece of a hookah. A long discussion followed, with much
pointing at the sky. Then Nayka returned and approached Hawksworth,
twisting his head in the deferential bow all Indians seemed to use to
superiors. He stood for a moment in hesitation, and then summoned the
courage to speak.

"It is not well tonight. Sahib. We have traveled this road many times."
He pointed east into the dark, where new lightning played across the
hovering bank of clouds. "There has been rain near Chopda, farther east
where the river forks. In two _pahars_ time, six of your hours, the
river will begin to rise here."

"How much will it rise?"

"Only the gods can tell. But the river will spread beyond its banks and
reach this camp. I have seen it. And it will remain impassable for
three days."

"How can you be sure?"

"I have seen it before, Sahib. The drivers all know and they are
becoming afraid. We know the treachery of this river very well. But the
other bank is near high ground. If we crossed tonight we would be
safe." Again he shifted his head deferentially. "Will you please tell
the raja?"

To the drivers, Vasant Rao could only be a raja, a hereditary prince.
All important Rajputs were automatically called rajas.

"Tell him yourself."

"We would rather you tell him, Captain Sahib. He is a high caste. It
would not be right for us to tell a raja what to do."

Hawksworth watched for a moment as the Rajput guards began taking their
place around the perimeter of the camp, and then he looked sadly at his
waiting cot.

Damn. Crossing in the dark could be a needless risk. Why didn't the
drivers say something while we still had light? God curse them and
their castes.

Then with a shrug of resignation he rose and made his way to Vasant
Rao's tent.

The Rajput leader had already removed his helmet, but after listening
to Hawksworth he reluctantly strapped it back on and called for his
second in command. Together they examined the clouds and then walked
down to the river.

In the dark no one could tell if it had begun to rise. Vasant Rao
ordered three Rajputs to ride across carrying torches, to test the
depth and mark out a path. The river was wide, but it still was no more
than a foot or two deep. When the third Rajput finally reached the far
shore, over a hundred yards away, Vasant Rao issued orders to assemble
the convoy.

The drivers moved quickly to harness their bullocks, which had been
tethered to stakes near bundles of hay. The weary cattle tossed their
heads and sniffed suspiciously at the moist air as they were whipped
into harness. Meanwhile the Rajput guards began saddling their horses.

Hawksworth saddled his own mare and watched as his cot and tent were
rolled and strapped into the cart alongside his chest. He stared again
into the darkness that enveloped the river. Nothing could be seen
except the three torches on the distant shore. Suddenly he seemed to
hear a warning bell in the back of his mind.

Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 22 of 52)