He thought of his wife often. They had been married in great haste, and the wife’s family were promised that he would return soon with riches. She was tall, going by the girls of her age, and she would probably have put on a few more inches by the time she returned- he had been told. She was still angular and bony, and he in particular had been promised that she would fill out by the time he would return. It was her face that he brought to mind on the ship: a pale round face, a narrow chin and a widow’s peak- and the details of Akhilesh’s letters. They were his encyclopaedia, his guide book. With his pen, he circled and underlined things that he thought were important and not to be missed. Constantly reading and re-reading, like there was an exam that awaited him upon docking.
He spent the early days of the journey on the prow, watching the waters of the Arabian Sea flicker its goodbyes at him as Bombay became smaller and smaller. He was not superstitious, but he had never seen salty, shimmering water in such an expanse. It filled him with awe that there were creatures who could thrive in these waters- a solution that he drank only when he had to throw up. These were poisonous waters that caused a mutiny of the body. This was the thing that the Brahmins feared above all, the dreaded kala pani, that contributed towards the mutiny of 1824 in Barrackpore. He expected something to happen: for lightning to come out of the sky and strike him, taking away his twice born status. His mother had made him carry a small sealed flask of the Ganga with him to ensure reincarnation even beyond the sea. “Luckily, there has been a death in one of our neighbour’s house, so I could ask them “, she had commented to him. “Otherwise I don’t know who I would have solicited.” She had packed his trunk tearfully, putting his bedding into hold alls- a structure made out of sacking which rolled out like a paint brush holder. She sprinkled dried neem leaves each time she folded the bedding. One of the folds also contained a pouch with all the money he was taking with him. Akhilesh’s father had, along with the letters given him three rupees, pressing them into his palm, and refused to take them back. It was a princely sum, since for one paisa, a child could be educated at the local school.
This is what he had with him: one trunk, woollens. One trunk, his suit and waistcoats. One pair of shoes with laces that his brother had arranged for from Delhi. Some small bags of pickle and chutney that his mother had promised would not spoil. It was the shoes that were stolen away as he slept. He was in his bunk, one arm thrown over his eyes. When he woke, his trunk was open, and the shoes were gone. The shoes that he had practiced lacing over and over with his brother watching over him. His brother, being a military man, was more familiar with laces than anyone could be. As he taught him, he told him stories of soldiers who would crawl on the ground and feel the laces of the soldiers they encountered to determine if they were friend or foe. The British Army employed bar lacing, he said, showing him how to create parallel lines.
He spent mornings on the prow with his bunkmates. By then they had shifted from the Arabian Sea into the Red sea. The direction in which Jerusalem lay was pointed out to him: the holy city of another religion. His bunkmates consisted of a Sikh man from Jalandhar, Huverdas. Another who was from a city in what would become Pakistan in thirty years, but in 1917 was still part of India. His name was Amir, and he had been travelling from Karachi. While Madhusudan was going for law, Amir was going to be an engineer. Madhusudan worked in district courts, and unlike him, Amir did not have to please the British. While Huverdas was headed towards London, Amir was also going to Heidelberg, Madhusudan was delighted to realise. Despite his anticipation, he was nervous, and glad to find someone with whom he could stumble along with. He learned that unlike him, Amir had no fear of the sea, and narrated portions of his childhood where he had gone, bare-chested into Arabian Sea. They celebrated Eid together on the ship, on the evening of twenty seventh of September. Amir had carried with him a handful of rice, and some leaves of mint, which they went into the galleys and pleaded for a cook to let them boil. Madhusudan, used to arguing cases in front of juries, convinced the cook to turn a blind eye for twenty minutes. They ate together- Amir had meat and rice, and Madhusudan had only plain rice.
“Are you married?” Amir asked him, while they ate. The sun had sunk, and the wind was a whisper of moisture in the air. The moon was a silver curve in a sky that continued into the sea.
“Yes. It’s pretty recent.”
“Me too. Ammi arranged a nikaah for me as soon as she could. I’m not entirely sure what my wife even looks like. ” He told Madhusudan that the ceremony took place the night before going to catch the train at Lahore. The only reason that he was married was because his father believed that nothing else could bring him back. The girl in question was a cousin that he had met before, but she was so much younger than him that she had dissolved into the many faces that only reached his knees and shoulders.
“In a couple of months, I am going to start expecting a letter about my first child or something.” Amir shrugged. “My family is pretty manipulative. If Europe is everything I’ve been told it is, then I don’t think I’m going to come back.”
“And your wife?” Madhusudan asked, intrigued at his way of thinking.
“Would I really care about someone who I’ve never met before in my life?” Amir picked up an unused spoon and began to rub the back of his hands, deep in thought. Already imagining it in his head. Unlike Madhusudan, he was the first of his family to go to Europe. To them, it was still a mythical land: where dragons might as well exist in tall dark forests. Everything about that world was giant: the machines, the animals, the people. To match him in absurdity, Madhusudan told Amir that his mother had counselled him to manage the cold as much as he could with the woollens that he had. To avoid wearing leather and fur as much as possible– the priest had told him that suffering was inescapable, and that the body was a prison. Amir thought it was ridiculous, and laughed before stopping to apologize.
“He would rather that you freeze to death instead?”
“I think so.”