“Your move,” Shivani announced, deftly taking out Paul’s white knight with her black rook. The older man reflexively brought his hand to his face.
“They’ve changed the rules since I last played, I swear,” he muttered. He cast a rueful glance at the young sepoy. Shivani grinned and rolled onto her back.
In the first month of deployment, Shivani found that she needed to squint whenever her gaze turned towards the sky. The island had an extravagance of sunlight. Dawns crept ominous, in the wake of bedazzled seashores. They left in sunsets slunk away with promises of bloodened horizons.
The sea which surrounded them was no better. Shivani discovered quite soon that the shimmering waters reflected the sunlight even more and made it easier for them to get sunburned. The humidity was so bad that her long hair, normally tied into a knot under her sepoy cap, needed to be washed almost every day, with the amount of sweat that accumulated all around it.
Now, all her eyes needed were a thin veneer of muslin held taut by poles and tied to the raised parapet of their wall. The waves continued to crash, almost as if in frustration, upon the outer side of the walls; their ferocity stemmed by the jagged, rocky perimeters of the island. But Shivani was accustomed to this as well; even the occasional crab that bravely climbed over the wall garnered little interest. It scuttled away in its sideways gait, its bulbous eyes twitching rapidly. She started counting.
Seconds later, a flurry of flapping wings and squawks descended on the creature. Shivani lost sight of the crab for a moment amidst the crowd of gulls that were trying to nip at the poor thing with their beaks. Paul shifted behind her; he was also watching.
One of the smaller, niftier gulls seemed to have succeeded; it hopped away frantically, with a large chunk of the crab’s descarated body clasped in its mouth. The others gave chase of course, but Shivani had figured out these birds by now. The scraps and bits of crab that were left behind were more important, more assured chunks of food. Pursuit was a gamble in the wild; it could lead to nothing.
“Go on now. Finish it off”, Shivani urged silently. Make your escape.
But that didn’t happen. Whether it had been late to the party or it had been waiting all along for the right moment to strike, an albatross plunged at the little gull carrying the bulk of the crab. That made Shivani sit up; even Paul, who was watching closely, let out a tch. The albatross cowed the gull to the floor of their parapet. It pulled the crab with its powerful beak and in one swift, graceful motion, it leapt into the sky.
Shivani stared at the sky, as the calls of the gulls grew distant. She watched as the little gull pecked at leftover scraps in lonely silence.
Paul cleared his throat, “Your move, lad.”
“No,” he added, as he watched Shivani reach into her pouch of rations. “Got enough problems out here without starting a zoo of our own.” Slowly, Shivani turned to look at her commanding officer. She was about to disobey and toss a biscuit out for the gull, but after a moment, her hand dropped back into her lap.
Time was insignificant on the island. Some of the white officers had an inkling of the current year and date. But most of the sepoys remained ignorant, and as long as they were paid, they preferred this ignorance. Paul probably had a vague idea; and from their hours on the night watch and playing chess, Shivani inferred that he was firmly interested in what is only the practical world. Dates and hours made little difference to him, or his routine – one often saw him drinking strong palm liquor on religious holidays.
Even so, he was still their sergeant and one of the ‘white’ men, so he had to visit the town occasionally, to report on incidents of note. Mostly, these trips passed without incident,, but sometimes Paul would return in a sour mood. Shivani had to bear the brunt of his irritation during those occasions. Usually, he would go about berating her for the most painfully, minor affairs. A small nick on her boots, an improperly swept corner of the guard tower. It was as if he constantly needed to find faults in her, to push her around as a kind of catharsis.
Things came to a head when Paul laid into her, over a poorly adjusted water gourd strap in Shivani’s combat kit.
“Do you want to die?” he demanded. “Even the stupidest man could accomplish these sorts of tasks.” Shivani remained silent, “Perhaps we should sell your uniform and buy a petticoat instead!” he snapped. “That would suit you more!”
Shivani bent over to examine her kit and readjusted the strap holding her water gourd. She held her tongue until their game of chess during that night’s watch.
“Why does white get to start first?” She asked Paul as they tried to move their pieces under the fickle light of the moon. Paul mulled over it for a while and said “Well. That’s them rules, what have you.” He shook his head to indicate ignorance. She looked at him then, with careful deliberation, and moved her white pawn into a set of Paul’s pieces.
“And why does a white keep running away from his kind, to wander with the coloureds all the time?”
“Sir?” she prodded, making sure that he understood that she was referring to him. Paul was astonished, and remained silent. The very idea that one of the sepoys under him could talk like that seemed novel for him. He opened his mouth to speak, but faltered.
In a low voice, he uttered, “Even half of what you said would have earned you the whip, private.” They stared at each other, impassively, the magnitude of their words sinking into each other. Paul got up abruptly, leaving Shivani alone in the dark.
Shivani felt herself being reminded of all the good that Sgt. Paul had done for her, making her gasp in the sweltering wetness of her bunk. While he was uncompromising over routine, he had never been outrightly cruel to any of them.
Secretly, she had to admit that he was even helping them along by giving them a sense of order and purpose. But it was too late to change the momentary lapse of yesterday’s judgement; the little charade that Shivani had pulled off, cost her three days of her allowance. It was not a terrible punishment, but it was clear that the words had hit home; Paul had refused to meet her gaze even once since that night. Their interactions had been brief and exceedingly formal. Their chessboard lay untouched, beneath the muslin shade.
“Perhaps it is time for a truce,” Shivani thought tersely, standing guard near their mule cart. Her unit was allowed to visit the town once every two weeks for basic provisions – oil, sugar and tea. It had now been three weeks since their falling out and there were no signs of possible reconciliation anytime soon. She sighed and wished they could return to the guard tower. The heat and humidity would be less oppressive there; she would be able to watch the gulls gliding in the sky. Preferably with Paul. It would set the right mood for an apology. If only he didn’t treat me like his wife, she scowled.
Preoccupied, she did not see another sepoy coming towards her until he grasped her shoulder in an iron grip. Shivani was startled by the sudden appearance of this stranger. Upon closer inspection, she noticed the tattoos on his face, indicating their shared nativity. She also realised to her dismay that he outranked her; he had the insignia of a Corporal.
A familiar feeling surfaced within Shivani. How many years had it been. she wondered. Not enough; she could feel fear rising up her throat. She hadn’t anticipated meeting someone from her place all the way out here.
The man’s eyes were sharp and narrowed in by the band of turban he wore. He studied her with a broad smile on his lips.
In their native tongue, he asked. “Why do I find a brother from our shared courtyard, so many miles away in this forsaken land?”
It seemed like he wanted a decidedly specific answer. Shivani had heard about this before, about the way in which communities confirmed the identities of other members in the military through code words or questions known only to them.
She had no idea what to say, a sense of discomfort took over her. She shrank back, hoping for a distraction that did not come. The Corporal raised his eyebrows expectantly.
“I,” she said, hesitantly. Pushing aside her inner turmoil, she said with a shrug, “I joined because the pay is good.” She gestured broadly at her tunic. “I think there is good honour in tilling my father’s soil and caring for him in his later years. But I needed to send money back home to support them.” She said, looking the man in the eye.
The curtness seemed to displease him. He gave her a reluctant nod. “True, little brother. But this island can offer us something more as well, don’t you think?” he raised his arms. “This is a world hidden from the world,” he paused, and reached out to trace the empty, clean strip of skin that lay above Shivani’s lips – right where a moustache would have been, had she not taken care to constantly shave it off. “An escape, perhaps?” he whispered.
Shivani flinched at his touch, and the Corporal’s expression changed. He appeared to have confirmed something about her.
“Ah,” he said craftily, wagging the same finger at her face. “I see who you are, now”. His broad smile grew wider. “You should come with me,” he turned around expecting her to follow without question.
“But I have my duties here.” Shivani said, grasping at straws. The Corporal sighed, and simply pointed at his Corporal insignia. Shivani folded her hands behind her back, her mind racing. He was not giving her a command, but a firm enough suggestion that it would be very unwise for her to outrightly disobey him.
Sgt. Paul chose that exact moment to interrupt. “What in bloody hell is going on here?” he snarled, pushing Shivani away from the Corporal. “Is this the army or a gaggle of milksops?” He glared at Shivani, frightening her with his ferocity. Then he turned his attention to the corporal. “You,” Paul looked at him in annoyance. “Off with your unit or I’ll have a word with the captain-sahib about your dilly-dallying.”
The man smiled at Paul, seemingly unmoved by the white man’s outburst. “I was just having a word with your man here, Sergeant-sahib.” He indicated Shivani with a loose gesture of his hand. “Tell me. Is he your man in bed as well?”
A loud crack rang out in the air. The voices in the market hushed down, Sgt. Paul had slapped the Corporal right across his face.
“It looks that the captain-sahib will be hearing about this after all, at the earliest.” Paul said coldly. He turned to the sepoys under his command, who were trailing about, and shouted at them.
“Well, why are you standing there like buffaloes? Get on with it!” He indicated Shivani to follow them, but still refused to meet her gaze. She stumbled, as she trudged behind her fellow sepoys.
Her body was trembling; had her secret been this easy to uncover? A terrible sense of unease had washed over her after hearing the Corporal’s words. As she glanced back, she saw him smiling, while Paul was frowning.
Paul returned late that night. Shivani was expecting him to reprimand her. But instead, he came bearing some unexpected news. “The Captain has informed me that the Civil Guardian of the island will be hosting a dinner at his residence tomorrow.”
There was a calculated pause, as Paul gauged their reactions before continuing, “We have also been invited. I will be asked to stand with the white officers. The rest of you will have to take up miscellaneous duties.”
Then he looked down and studied his boots, “Shiv will be reporting to the Captain directly. They have some special arrangements for you.” He looked at her with a strange expression. She thought she caught a touch of worry in it, but it vanished as quickly as it appeared.
The moon was dead that night, so they wouldn’t have been able to play chess even if they wanted to. Normally, on a night like this, Shivani wouldn’t have been surprised if she fell asleep to the steady rush of the waves in darkness. But there was a pit of fear in her gut – the question over this ‘special arrangement’ that they had planned for her – churned and kept her awake. Still, the privacy of the dark afforded her the opportunity to let her hair down. She let the strands flap in the salt-licked wind, allowing them to brush over her face like soothing hands.
“It’s not that I dislike the other white officers,” Paul’s voice came through the darkness, quiet. She felt the larger man stir. In her mind, he was standing, as he always did, watching over the parapet. “I’m only a half-white anyway,” he paused. “Mother’s side. Never met her though; they sent her off to England for sleeping with a dirty native.” Their muslin shade flapped as a low wind sallied across the wall.
“You won’t find it,” Shivani said.
“Find what?” he asked.
“Whatever you hope to see in all your hours standing there,” came the reply. There was a long pause where neither of them spoke.
“Perhaps,” he said finally. He crossed over to where she sat and settled down beside her. Shivani had not anticipated this; she froze, suddenly concerned about her hair that was let down, like a woman’s. She worried him falling asleep, leaning into her body.
“I don’t understand the pieces on the chessboard,” he said, looking into the dark. “Even the white pawns won’t accept me. And the coloured ones escape my understanding – they fight for an Empire that isn’t theirs? They believe what the whites tell them – that they’re inferior.”
“We build our roads,” Shivani said with a shrug. “Then we find signs to remind ourselves why we built them that way.” She couldn’t see Paul’s expression in the darkness, but his words reflected his outrage.
“But that is what is inherently wrong in all of this. It’s just – wrong!” The words simmered in the air for a while. A burst of spittle from another large wave showered over them.
The sergeant was a good man, Shivani thought. She already knew this of course, but perhaps the realisation had crept in recently. They were both prisoners on their own islands. He was white, but he treated them as equals. She had a man’s appearance, yet she felt the femininity stirring inside her at the sound of his words.
“I don’t know what they have in store for you tomorrow,” Paul said, after another long pause. “Nothing too pleasant, I imagine.” He looked at her face, and continued, “I probably won’t be allowed too close to the Civil Guardian. Likely to be surrounded by white men proper… And there’s your man. The Corporal.”
Shivani jerked upwards at the mention of him. Paul smiled grimly. “Well-connected chap. Knew the Captain quite well. Should have anticipated that.” A sigh escaped his lips.
A hush fell over them and Shivani knew it would probably be the one which lulls them to sleep. But right before she winked out, she distinctly heard Paul say, “The stars are quite bright today.” And he had seen her with her hair down. There simply was no way to unpave roads already laid out.
The wind swirled around in highs and lows as they assembled outside. The clouds marred the sun with their hands, painting them over in shadow. The buzzing of insects marred the cries of gulls, forecasting rain. Paul surveyed the sky for a moment, then wordlessly climbed into the cart. Shivani sat beside him and almost immediately, she felt conscious of his presence. She had a strong urge to press her hand against his and to look into his eyes for assurance. But everytime she worked herself up to it, her courage wilted away.
Paul, for his part, said little. He seemed alert, continuously asking their driver and a couple of other sepoys about the landscape. There wasn’t much to see – kilometres of sand, rock and sparse vegetation. Occasionally, they saw indentured workers shuffling past, carrying tools and machetes. “Time for the sugar harvest,” said the driver with a nod.
The Corporal was waiting for them when they arrived at the Civil Guardian’s residence. As they trooped up the small hill upon which the villa was situated, he gaily peppered Paul and Shivani with information. “The Spanish sahibs built this style of villa a few years after the Moorish reconquest back in Iberia. As you can see,” he pointed to shrubs and small trees that populated the slope, “there is greenery from England, some parts of Spain and even the Americas”.
“I see.” Paul said, “Place does seem nice enough. Might be able to wrangle a fiefdom out of it if a man’s capable enough.”
The Corporal nodded knowingly, “Very astute, Sergeant-sahib,” he lowered his voice so that only the two of them could hear. “The Civil Guardian is an old, hobbled man. Sent here because he accumulated a considerable amount of debt in the old world. He is much like you and your bed-man – an escapist.” The corporal laughed.
As they crossed a line of porticoed fences that surrounded the house, Shivani noted the quaintess of the place. It definitely did not give an impression of imperial power. Paul touched her hand just then, and she looked up to see him looking concerned. She felt a tightness in her chest just then. They had truly bared their souls to each other last night, the vulnerability that it had left was still fresh on her mind. She touched the tight knot of her hair again. An illusion of manliness.
“He’d gotten a good look at her in the morning,” she thought. The Sergeant was taller, had a stronger physique compared to her; and it had only dawned on her now. . Instinctively, she had to suppress the urge to bite her lips for fear that it would send a definite and irreversible signal to others standing nearby. “I’ll be alright,” she told him. “Whatever happens, will happen.”
“Aye,” he muttered.
The dinner was a leisurely, sleep-inducing affair. Most of the white officers and their staff merely stood about chatting with one another, while the sepoys and domestic staff waited on them. Shivani was shuttled around, assigned to a middle-aged clerk and his wife first. Then, she was ordered to hold a tray of cigarettes for an East African gun merchant, as he engaged in a shooting contest with a Colonial officer.
“So far so good,” she thought. Perhaps they had called off this planned ‘special arrangement’. She searched out for Paul. After a few minutes, she spotted him and her heart sank. He was bouncing around as he had predicted. A few white officers did engage in conversation with him. But every time he appeared to be getting involved into a discussion, he was ignored politely.
As she struggled over this, the Corporal called her over. “Go inside and head upstairs. The Civil Guardian is waiting for you.”
The interior of the house was as tasteful as the exterior. Shivani climbed the narrow staircase of wood and looked around, uncertainly. There were several rooms in there, but she wasn’t sure which was the right one.
“Oh! There you are!” She turned to see an older woman striding towards her. “You look even better than what they described! How wonderful” Without breaking a step, she clasped Shivani’s hand and led her into one of the rooms.
Once they were inside, the woman closed the door behind them and took care to latch it. “Don’t want anyone to interrupt us,” she giggled. Then, putting her hands on her hips, she regarded Shivani closely. “Yes. Nice, full lips. Show me your arms, love?”
She appraised Shivani’s hands and gave a nod, “I quite like the shape of your jaw as well, dear. We have quite a lot to work with. Why don’t you sit down over there?” Shivani wavered at first, but then meekly complied. She found herself on a stool in front of an old mirror. In it, she could clearly see the harsh, masculine lines of her face. The bushiness of her brows. The roughness of her cheeks. She choked. She was clearly a man from just a coarse glance.
“Now now. I’ve handled my looks for years now. And I’m no spring chicken myself” Shivani looked incredulously at the old woman, unable to believe this was actually a man in woman’s clothing. “Oh!” she said, cupping her face. “Where are my manners! Please call me Mary. And you would be?”
“Shivani,” she replied shyly.
“Shivani, is it?” Mary said kindly, “Shivani. Vani,” and nodded to herself. “Well Vani. I like to meet a lot of girls like you and I like to spend my time passing a little wisdom to them. But before that,” she lifted a small brush from the table, “I would like to have the honour of drawing out your inner woman”.
Shivani felt impatient, but it was a delicious kind of impatience. The kind where you lose track of time, but feel its grip anyway because you’re so eager. Slowly, meticulously, Mary helped remove the hair from her chest, arms and legs using a razor and bowl of water. They treated her skin with a few poultices and concoctions to get rid of the years of blocked pores and lack of care.
For her lips, Mary smeared beeswax over the cracked skin and kissed her when she was done. Shivani’s eyes widened as she experienced something differently glorious.
Mary smiled. “It’s always worth it when I see the realisation on their face.” Mary cupped Shivani’s cheek and said, “Remember this. Our lives are not a sin. We’re all worthy of love, no matter what.”
“You have a man out there, don’t you?” Shivani gave a halting nod in reply. Mary kissed her again. “Well. Let’s spruce you up for him some more, then.”
Her eyebrows receded to thinned-lines. Her hair was freed from its prison and left to bask in its rightful place, on the flanks of her face. Mary even added some ground up rock-paste for her eyelids and some mild ink for her lashes. “There we go,” Mary said softly. They were still only halfway done when someone knocked on the door loudly. Shivani panicked and half-arose from her stool, but Mary shushed and walked towards the door gracefully.
Sergeant Paul stood on the other side. The first thing he saw, right in front oh him, was Shivani. “What in – ” he started, eyes bulging in their sockets.
“Oh quiet now,” Mary said sharply, in a very headmistress voice. “Did they not teach you to be respectful of ladies back in officer school, hm?” Paul looked like he wanted to say something. He was completely transfixed by what he saw in Shivani.
“Is this your man, then, Vani?” Mary asked in amusement. “He seems to be just as shy as you are!” When their mutual silence confirmed her guess, Mary burst into laughter.
“Oh the two of you remind me so much of my husband and I, when we were young and in London.” She shooed Paul away. “And honestly speaking, London was not ready for us,” she said, with a shrug.
Shivani still found it hard to believe that this person used to wear men’s clothes. Mary had a certain statuesque demeanour. Her grace, the tilt of her head, the gestures she made were all so feminine. This woman was the Civil Guardian of the island?
The next thing was the dress; they picked a suitably bright-coloured one to match Vani’s skin after which Mary slyly added padding to her chest. And though she blushed, it was then that Shivani felt that she was reasonably ready to be seen by Paul. Mary patted her back gently and said, “You poor little thing. I can see that you’ve suffered quite a bit from all the close-minded folk you’ve come across. It’s quite alright to feel this way.” She beamed at Shivani. “I’ll call Paul inside and let you two have some alone time?”
Shivani hadn’t said much in the past couple of hours. Everything had been so overwhelming and unexpected. This incredible woman had, in a few minutes, made her feel accepted. She had settled her confusions towards herself, and importantly – the hopes that she had threaded to a future with Paul.
“I owe you so much, you have no idea..”
“Oh quiet now,” Mary said airily. “You owe the world nothing for being who you are. I’m just someone who doesn’t want someone else to go through what I did.”
Shivani swallowed hard. “I think I am ready to see Paul.”
Mary nodded kindly and headed towards the door.
“Wait!” Shivani cried, “I need a bindi. Do you have one?”
“Hold on, dear. I have a box of them right here.” With a sigh of relief, Shivani opened the box to place a small bindi on her forehead.
As she closed the lid, she saw that it had been embossed in the shape of a seagull. She hesitated, wondering what it meant. Behind her, she heard the door being unlatched; and Paul walked inside cautiously. Seeing her focused on the lid, he peered over to see inside. An albatross screeched past their window just then, drawing their attention away from the box. And when their eyes turned back, their gaze fell on the mirror in front of them where they saw themselves together for one fleeting moment.
A The Bombay Review Creative Writing Workshop Piece
Abinesh Kumar is the sort of chap you’d want by your side when you don’t have a radio and you need an endless supply of pointless facts. He listens to harsh black metal and thinks that Bergatt was one of the best metal albums ever made. You can often find him chasing cats to the despair of his parents and wearing black t-shirts in spite of the heat of Chennai’s sun. He has lived in Tamil Nadu all his life though he was born in Bangalore and is one more Indian woven from this coloured tapestry of a country.