by DAMON GALGUT
“Orgies are so important, and they are things
one knows nothing about”
E.M. Forster to P.N. Furbank, 1953
In October of 1912, the SS City of Birmingham was travelling through the Red Sea, midway on her journey to India, when two men found themselves together on the forward deck. Each had come there separately, hoping to escape a concert that some of the other passengers were organising, but they were slightly acquainted by now and not unhappy to have company. It was the middle of the afternoon. They were sitting in a spot that offered sun and shade, as well as seclusion from the wind. Both carried books with them, which they politely set aside when they began to speak.
The first man, Morgan Forster, was thirty-three years of age and had come to think of himself as a writer. The recent publication of his fourth novel had been so successful that he felt financially able to make this journey. The six months that he planned to be away marked his first departure from Europe, and only his second extended absence from his mother. The other man was an army officer, returning to where he was stationed on the North- West Frontier. He was a few years younger than Morgan, a handsome fellow with backswept golden hair and numerous white teeth. His name was Kenneth Searight.
The two men had conversed a few times before and Morgan had found himself liking Searight, though he hadn’t expected to. The ship was full of military types and their ghastly wives, but this man was different. For one thing, he was travelling alone. For another, Morgan had seen him behave with kindness towards the single Indian passenger on board, a kindness that was otherwise in short supply, and he had been touched by it. These small signs suggested they might have more in common than he had at first supposed.
Although he had only come aboard a week ago, Morgan was beginning to feel that he had been on the ship for too long. He was travelling with three friends, but even their company sometimes wore thin. His thoughts strayed constantly outwards, into the encircling sea. He would pace the deck for hours at a stretch, or sit at the rail, lost in aimless reverie over the flying fish that leaped at the bow, or the other creatures – jellyfish, sharks, dolphins – that sometimes showed themselves. He could sink very deep at moments like these. Once he had seen tracts of scarlet, billowing in the swell, which he was told were fish spawn, waiting to hatch. Life that wasn’t human life, maturing and breaking out and expending itself, in a medium that wasn’t human either.
He was stuck with the humans, however. The same set of faces awaited him each day. The ship was like a tiny piece of England, Tunbridge Wells in particular, that had broken off and been set in motion. For some reason, perhaps because they spoke more, the women were hardest to deal with. They assumed that he shared their feelings, when most of the time he did not. One of them, a young lady in search of a husband, had made a couple of sidling approaches, till his stony face repelled her.
But it was the casual vilenesses, flung out in airy asides at the dining table, that upset him most. He had set some of these down in his diary and brooded on them afterwards. On one occasion a matronly woman, who had been a nurse in the Bhopal Purdahs, had lectured him between courses on how deplorable Mohammedan home life was. And if English children stopped in India, they learned to speak like halfcastes, which was such a stigma. “And this young Indian man who’s on board,” she added in a low voice. “Well, he’s a Mohammedan, isn’t he? He has been to public school in England, but has it improved him? He thinks he’s one of us, but of course he never will be.”
The Indian man in question, whose name he could never quite remember, had some acquaintances in common with Morgan, but he was a trying fellow whose company was unrewarding. Morgan had also begun to avoid him lately, but he knew that his table-companion meant something different by her aversion, and he disliked her for it. Though she was not in any way unusual: almost every other passenger treated the poor man with polite contempt. Only the day before, one of the army wives, a Mrs Turton, had remarked, “They tell me that young Indian’s lonely. Well, he ought to be. They won’t let us know their wives, why should we know them? If we’re pleasant to them, they only despise us.” Morgan had wanted to reply, but held off, and felt bad about it afterwards.
So this chance encounter with the golden young officer held a tinge of promise in it. Something about Kenneth Searight – though it was hard to say what – did not belong in uniform, or with his air of impeccable politeness.
To begin with, they talked in a desultory way about the voyage. They had recently passed through the Suez Canal and the experience, for Morgan, had been curiously reminiscent of a picture gallery. And he had been disappointed by Port Said: it was, so everyone had told him, one’s first vision of the East, yet it had none of the smell and vibrancy and colour he’d been expecting. There were no minarets and only a single dome, and the statue of de Lesseps, despite pointing commandingly towards the canal, appeared to be holding a string of sausages in his other hand. He had gone ashore, of course, and some of the Arabs were beautiful, but they had spoiled it by trying to sell him smutty postcards. (“Do you wa’ to see something filthy? Noah? Well, perhaps after tea.”) All in all, it hadn’t been an uplifting experience. “Except for the coaling barge,” Searight said.
“Yes,” Morgan answered. “Except for that.” The memory of the barge came back strongly to him. More specifically, it was the figures on top that continued to trouble him: black with coal-dust, they had woken from a death-like torpor into a frenzy of activity, singing and squabbling as they carried their baskets on board. One of these figures, of indeterminate age and sex, had stood by the plankway after dark, holding a lamp, and the image, with its deep shadows and contrasting yellow glow, had seemed both hopeful and frightening to him.
Searight had also been there, Morgan remembered now; they had been standing close to one another at the rail, watching the scene. Although they had not yet met or spoken, the moment seemed in retrospect like a kind of complicity.
They began to speak now about their plans after landing at Bombay. They agreed they might travel as far as Agra together, after which Searight would head off towards Lahore and Morgan to Aligarh.
“You are staying with a friend there?”
“Yes,” Morgan said, and then dared to admit, “He’s a native.”
“Ah,” Searight said. “I thought that might be the case. I’m gladto hear it, very glad to hear it. You won’t learn anything about Indiaunless you mingle with the Indians, whatever anyone else might tellyou. I myself have been close to many of them. Ah, yes. Very close.”
“I can’t imagine all your brother officers approve.”
“There is more understanding than you might think, but of courseyou have to be careful. It’s a matter of knowing your time and place.”He laughed shortly. “Is your friend a Hindu?”
“He’s a Mohammedan, in fact.”
“Ah, yes. The Mohammedans. People think of the Hindus as sensual, because of all the decadent religious imagery. On the other hand, the Mohammedans are People of the Book, just like us. Well, I can tell you, the Pathans are a breed of young savages, and I intend to make friends with many of them. It’s one of the delights of being transferred to Peshawar. I used to be in Bengal, you know, in Darjeeling, and I had a ripping time there. But I’m looking forward to the future.”
Morgan had the uneasy feeling that the topic had slid away from him and that they were talking about different things. Nevertheless, he said, “So am I.”
“You’re looking forward to seeing your friend?”
“You’ve been missing him? How well I know this feeling, how well. And then I’m driven to seek consolation elsewhere. Fortunately one doesn’t have to look far, not in India. More difficult in England, as you know.”
“Consolation.” He looked meaningfully at Morgan. “I did meet a horse guard in Hyde Park. Just a couple of weeks ago.”
Alerted and alarmed by the turn the conversation had taken, Morgan decided to make a non-committal noise in his throat and to stare out at the water. Searight had turned towards him in his chair, his whole attitude confidential. After a pause, he began to speak about the heat. This seemed like a new topic, but it grew stealthily out of the preceding one. Over the last few days the temperature had risen dramatically; many of the passengers had taken to sleeping on deck. And had Morgan noticed how some of the men were wearing short pants? The older ones should not be allowed to do so, Searight said, their legs were not attractive. Very few Englishmen had attractive legs, it had something to do with their knees. But in India there were a great many attractive legs. Legs were everywhere on display, as Morgan would see. Flesh was generally more visible in India than at home; that was how they did things out there.
Morgan thought it best not to answer, but to wait and see what happened next.
Eventually Searight sighed and murmured, “I blame it on the heat.”
“Yes,” Morgan said carefully.
“One thing leads to another. It undoes people. I’ve seen it over and over. People go out there, to India, I mean, and they start behaving as they never would in England. I blame it on the heat.”
“I shall wear my sola topi.”
“It will not protect you.”
“I assure you, it’s of the finest quality — ”
“No doubt. But it will not save you from yourself.” Something in Searight’s face had imperceptibly altered; his expression had become a little coarse and sensual.
“I’m not quite sure I follow you.”
“Oh, I think you do.”
At this moment there was a flurry of sound from deep inside the ship, a faint uproar of music and voices, eclipsed by the rush of water at the bow – a reminder of the normal world close by. Morgan looked around quickly, to be sure they were alone. “Perhaps we had better go and get ready for dinner,” he said.
Before he could move, Searight leaned over and handed him the book he’d been holding on his lap. Morgan had barely glanced at it, assuming it to be a volume of poems like the one he himself was reading. But the fat bound notebook, green in colour, was something altogether more personal. It bore the mysterious word Paidikion on its front cover, and the many pages inside were filled with handwriting instead of print.
Though on the particular page that Searight’s forefinger held open, there seemed to be, after all, a poem.
… I passed
From sensuous Bengal to fierce Peshawar
An Asiatic stronghold where each flower
Of boyhood planted in its restless soil
Is – ipso facto – ready to despoil
(or to be despoiled by) someone else…
“Oh, dear me,” Morgan said. “What is this?”
“It is the story of my life, in verse.”
“You wrote this?”
… the yarn
Indeed so has it that the young Pathan
Thinks it peculiar if he would pass
Him by without some reference to his arse.
Each boy of certain age will let on hire
His charms to indiscriminate desire,
To wholesome buggery and perverse letches…
“I blame it on the heat,” Searight said, and laughed noisily.