Ash had not seen
her at first. His gaze had been fixed on the shrunken thing that had once been
his enemy. But a movement near him made him
turn his head and he saw that Anjuli had come to
stand beside him, and that she
was staring through the chik with an expression of shrinking
horror, as though she could not
bear to look and yet could not keep herself from looking.
direction of that agonized gaze, he saw Shushila. Not the Shushila he had
expected to see bowed, weeping and
half-crazed by terror, but a queen. . . a Rani of
Had he been asked, Ash would have insisted that Shu-shu would
never be able to walk to the burning
ground unassisted, and that if she
walked at all and did not have to be brought in a litter, it would only be
because she had been stupefied by drugs and then
half dragged and half carried there.
But the small, brilliant figure
walking behind the Rana's bier was not only alone, but walking upright and
unfaltering; and there was pride and dignity in every line of her slender body.
Her small head was erect and the little unshod feet that had never before
stepped on any thing harsher than Persian
carpets and cool polished marble trod slowly and steadily, marking the
dust with small neat foot- prints that
the adoring crowds behind her
pressed forward to obliterate with kisses.
She was dressed as Ash had
seen her at the marriage ceremony, in the scarlet and
gold wedding dress, and decked with
the same jewels as she had worn that
Pigeon's-blood rubies circled her throat and
wrists, glowed on her forehead and her fingers, and swung from her ears. There
were rubies too on the chinking
golden anklets, and the hard
sunlight glittered on the
gold embroidery of the full-skirted
Rajputani dress and flashed on the little jewelled bodice.
But this time she
wore no sari, and her long hair was unbound as though for her bridal
night. It rippled about her in a silky
black curtain that was more beautiful than
any sari made by man, and Ash could not drag his gaze from her, though his body
cringed from that tragic sight.
She seemed wholly
unconscious of the
jostling crowds who applauded her, calling on her to bless them and struggling
to touch the hem of her skirt as she
passed, or of the sea of eyes that stared avidly at her unveiled face.
Ash saw that her lips were moving in the age-old invocation that
accompanies the last journey of
the dead: Ram, Ram. . . Ram, Ram. . . Ram, Ram. . .
He said aloud and
incredulously: 'You were wrong. She is
The clamour from
below almost drowned his words, but Anjuli
heard them, and
imagining that they had been
addressed to her instead of to himself, she said:
'Not yet. It is still
only a game to her. No, not a game - I don't mean that. But some thing that is
only happening in her mind. A part she is playing.'
'You mean she is
drugged? I don't
'Not in the way you
mean, but with emotion - and desperation
And - and perhaps. .
. triumph. . .'
'Triumph!' thought Ash.
whole parade smacked more of a triumphal progress than a funeral.
A procession in honour of a
goddess who has deigned to show herself, for this
time only, to accept the homage of her
shouting, exultant and adoring worshippers.
remembered then that Shushila's
mother, in the
days before her
heart of a Rajah, had been one of a
troupe of entertainers:
men and women whose livelihood depended
upon their ability to capture the
attention and applause of an audience - as her
daughter was doing now.
Goddess of Bhithor,
beautiful as the dawn and glittering with
Yes, it was a
And even if
she was only playing a part, at least she was playing it superbly.
'Well done!' whispered Ash, in a heart
felt endorsement of all those
who were hailing her with the same words. 'Oh, well done - !'
Anjuli too was murmuring to herself, repeating the same invocation as Shushila:
'Ram, Ram - Ram, Ram. . .'
It was only a breath of
sound and barely audible in that tumult,
but it distracted Ash's attention, and though he knew that the
prayer was not for the dead man
but for her sister, he told her sharply to
His mind was once again in a turmoil and torn with
For watching the unfaltering
advance of that graceful scarlet and gold figure,
it seemed to him that
he had no right to
The cortege had
reached the pyre and the bier was placed on it.
Shushila began to
divest herself of her jewels, taking them
off one by one and handling them to
the child, who gave them in turn to
She stripped them off quickly, almost gaily, as though they
were no more than withered flowers or trinkets of no
value which she had tired and was impatient
to be rid of, and the silence was so
complete that all could hear the
clink of them as the new Rana received them and the late Rana's Prime Minister
stowed them away in an embroidered bag.
Even Ash in the curtained
enclosure heard it, and wondered
incuriously if the Diwan would ever relinquish them. Probably not; though they
had come from Karidkote, and being part of Shushila's dowry should have been
He thought it
unlikely that either Shu-shu's relatives or the new Rana would ever see them
again once the Diwan had got his hands on them. When all her ornaments
had been removed except for a necklace of sacred tulsi seeds, Shushila held out
her slender ringless hands to a
priest, who poured Ganges
water over them.
water sparkled in the low
sunlight as she shook the bright drops from
her fingers, and the assembled priests
began to intone in chorus. . .
sound of that chanting, she began to walk
round the pyre, circling it three times as once, on her wedding
day and wearing this same dress, she had
circled the sacred fire, tied by her
veil to the shrunken thing that now lay
waiting for her on a bridal bed of cedar-logs and
The chant ended
and once again the only sound in the grove was the cooing of
doves: that soft monotonous
sound that together with the throb of a
tom-tom and the creak of a well-wheel is the voice of
The silent crowds stood
motionless, and none stirred as the suttee
mounted the pyre and seated herself in the lotus posture.
the wide folds of her scarlet dress so as to show it to its best advantage, and
then gently lifted the dead man's head onto her lap, settling it with
infinite care, as though he
were asleep and she did not wish to wake
'Now,' breathed Anjuli in a whisper that broke in a sob -
'Do it now. . . quickly, before - before she starts to be
'Don't be a
The retort cracked like a whip in
the quiet room.
'It would make as much noise as a cannon and bring them
all down on us like hornets.'
meant to say 'I'm not going to fire', but
he did not do so.
There was no point in making things worse for Juli
than they were already.
The way in which Shu-shu had cradled that awful
head in her lap had made up his mind for him at last, and he had no
intention of firing. Juli took
too much upon herself: she forgot that her half-sister was no longer a sickly infant or
a frail and highly strung little girl
who must be protected and cosseted - or that she herself was no longer
responsible for her.
Shu-shu was a grown woman who knew what she was
She was also a wife and a
queen - and proving that she could
behave as one.
This time, for
good or ill, she should be allowed to make her own
The crowd outside
was still silent, but now a priest began
to swing a heavy temple bell that had been carried out from the
city, and its harsh
notes reverberated through the grove and awoke echoes from the walls and domes
of the many chattris.
One of the Brahmins was sprinkling the dead man
and his widow with
water brought from the sacred river
Ganges - 'Mother Gunga' - while others
poured more ghee and scented oil
upon the logs of cedar and
sandalwood and over the feet of the
Shushila did not move.
She sat composed and still,
looking down at the grey, skull-like face on her lap.
graven image in scarlet and
gold: remote, passionless and
The Diwan took the torch again and gave it into the
trembling hands of the
boy - Rana, who seemed about to burst
dangerously in the
child's grasp, being over heavy for
such small hands to hold, and one
of the Brahmins came to his assistance and helped to support it.
brightness of that
flame was a sharp reminder that evening
was already drawing near.
Only a short time ago it had been almost
invisible in the glaring
sunlight, but now the
sun was no longer fierce enough to dim that
plume of light.
shadows had begun to lengthen and
the day that had once seemed as though
it would never end would soon be over - and with it, Shushila's short
She had lost father and
mother, and the
brother who, for his own ends had given
her in marriage to a man who lived
so far away that it had taken months and not weeks to reach her new home.
She had been a wife and a queen,
had miscarried two children and borne a third who had
lived only a few
days; and now she had been
widowed, and must
die. . .
'She is only
sixteen -' thought Ash.
'It isn't fair. It isn't fair!'
could hear Sarji's quickened
breathing and the thump of his own
heart beats, and though
Anjuli was not touching him he knew,
without knowing how he knew, that she
was shivering violently as though she was
very cold or stricken with fever.
thought suddenly that if he fired a shot she would not
know if the bullet had done its
work or not, and that he had only to aim
over the heads of the crowd.
If it comforted Juli to
think that her
sister had been spared the
flames, then all he needed to do was pull
the trigger - ! she had thrust aside the head on her lap, and now, suddenly,
she was on her feet, staring at those flames and screaming - screaming
. . .
The sound of those screaming cut
through the clamour as the shriek of violin strings cuts through the full
tempest of drums and wind-instruments and brass.
It drew a gasping echo
from Anjuli, and Ash lifted his aim and fired.
screaming stopped short and the slender scarlet
and gold figure stretched, out one
hand gropingly as though searching
for support, and then crumpled at the knees and pitched forward across the
corpse at her feet.
As she fell the Brahmin flung the torch on the
pyre, and flames gushed up from the
wood and threw a shimmering veil of
heat and smoke between the watchers and
the recumbent figure of the girl who
now wore a glittering wedding dress of fire.
The crash of the shot had
sounded appallingly loud in that small confined
space, and Ash thrust the
revolver into the breast
of his robe and turning, said savagely:
'Well, what are you
waiting for? Get on - go on Sarji - you first.'
Anjuli still seemed
He pulled the cloth roughly across her nose and mouth and made
sure that it was secure, and having adjusted his own, caught her by the
shoulders and said: 'Listen to me, Juli. You've done all you can for Shushila.
She's gone. She has escaped; and if we hope to, we must stop
thinking of her and
think of ourselves. We come first now. All of us. Do you
Anjuli nodded dumbly.
'Good. Then turn around and go with
Gobind, and don't look back. I shall be behind you. Walk -!'
her about and pushed her ahead of him towards the heavy purdah that Manilal was
holding open for them, and she followed Sarji through it and down the marble
stairway that led to the terrace and the crowds below.
Juli revisits the past.
terror, and desperately in need of
support. She did not believe that there
would be any talk of suttee. But this time I did not go to her willingly,' said
Until recently Anjuli had been able to
believe, or had made herself
believe, that Shushila was innocent of
much that had been imputed to her; but now she knew better - not only with her
head but in her
Yet she could not
refuse the summons.
She had expected to find the new-made
widow weeping and
distraught, her hair and clothing torn and her women wailing about her.
There had been no sound from the Senior Rani's apartments, and when she
entered there was only one individual there: a small erect
figure that for a moment she did not
even recognize. . .
'I would not have believed that she could look like that.
Ugly, and evil and cruel. Cruel beyond
words. Even Janoo-Rani had never looked like
that, for Janoo had been beautiful and
this woman was not. Nor did it appear possible that she could ever have been
beautiful - or young.
She looked at me with a face of stone and asked
me how I dared come into her presence showing no
signs of grief.
For in this too I had
sinned: it was intolerable to her that I
should escape the agony of grief that was
tearing at her own heart. . .
'She said. . . she told me . . . she told me
every thing: how she had hated me from the
moment she fell in
love with her
husband, because I too was his
wife and she could not
thought of it;that she had had me
starved and imprisoned to make me pay for
that crime, and also in order that
I might look old and ugly so that if by
chance the Rana should
existence, he would turn from me in
disgust: that she had ordered the killing of my
two serving-maids, and of old Geeta . . .
She threw it all in my face
as though each word was a blow, and as
though it eased her own pain to see me
suffer - and how could I not
When - when she had
finished she told me that she had resolved to become suttee, and that the last
thing I would ever see would be the
flames uniting her body with her
husband's, because she had given orders
that when I had seen it my eyes were to be put out with
hot irons, and afterwards - afterwards I
would be taken back to the Zenana to spend the rest of my
darkness - as a drudge.
- I tried to reason with her. To plead
with her. I went on my knees to her and begged her in the name of all that lay
between us - the years . . . the tie of
blood and the
affection we had had for each other in the
past, the love - but at that she laughed, and summoning
the eunuchs, had me dragged , away ...
failed on the last
word, and in the
silence that followed Ash became
aware once more of the
sound of the sea and all the many small
ship noises; and that the cabin smelled
strongly of hot lamp
M. M. Kaye, from
sutteeSuttee, Sanskrit sati (good woman or chaste
wife), the ancient Hindu custom of a wife immolating herself on the
funeral pyre of her dead husband. The suttee ideal of womanly devotion was held
by certain Brahman and royal castes. The Hindu goddess Sati burned herself to
death in a fire that she created through her magic Yogic powers after her
father insulted her husband, the god Shiva. This is a ritual reenactment of the
initial self-sacrifice of the
Hindu goddess Sati.
It is surmised the ancent Rajput women of Rajasthan,
relying on the myth that the Hindu faithful feel no pain from the funeral pyre,
chose this way of preserving their and their husbands' honour when their
menfolk where conscripted to fight in the tyrant's war and sent to die on a
self-immolation of elite
Hindu wives on their husbands' funeral pyres confronted the British in India
with central questions about the
obligations of the
colonizer to the colonized, respect for other cultures, and questions of gender
that had important implications for British women. As well as raising
uncomfortable and challenging issues about the role and duties of the British
in India, it called into question the
self-abnegation expected of
women in Britain itself, prompting some reflections on the very nature of
service and self-sacrifice,
especially in the colonial context.
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