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 Bhithor.
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 anything harsher than
Persian carpets and cool
polished marble trod slowly and steadily, marking the burning
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 day.
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
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 not afraid.'
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 something that is
only happening in her mind. A part she is playing.'
'You mean she is
drugged? I don't believe it.'
'Not in the way you mean, but with
emotion - and desperation and shock.
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
remembered then that Shushila's
mother, in the days before her beauty captured the
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.
Shushila, Goddess of Bhithor, beautiful as
the dawn and glittering with gold
was a triumph.
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
who were hailing her with the same words. 'Oh, well done - !'
Beside him, 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 be quiet.
His mind was once
again in a turmoil and torn with doubts.
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 the Diwan.
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
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 returned there.
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
The water sparkled in the low sunlight as she shook the bright
drops from her fingers, and the assembled priests began to intone in chorus. . .
To the 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 spices.
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.
She arranged 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 him.
'Now,' breathed Anjuli in a
whisper that broke in a sob -
'Do it now. . . quickly, before - before
she starts to be afraid.'
'Don't be a fool!'
The retort cracked like a whip in the
'It would make as much noise as a cannon and bring them all
down on us like hornets.'
He had 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 whole 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 decision.
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
Brahmin 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 into
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.
The brightness of that flame
was a sharp reminder that evening was already drawing near.
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
The 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 life.
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.
had been a whole 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.
fair. It isn't fair!'
He 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.
He 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
It drew a gasping echo from Anjuli, and Ash lifted his aim and
The 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
Brahma flung the torch on the pyre, and flames gushed up from the oil drenched
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 dazed.
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 understand?'
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.
'Shu-shu was frantic with
grief and 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 Anjuli.
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.
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. . .
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.
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 everything: how she had hated me from the moment she fell in compassion
with her husband, because I too was his whole and she could not
endure the 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
remember my existence, he would turn from me in disgust: that she had ordered
the killing of my two serving-maids, and of old Geeta . . .
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 suffer?
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 life in
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
compassion - but at
that she laughed, and summoning the eunuchs, had me dragged , away ...
Her voice 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 oil.
M. M. Kaye, from Far
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 forged through
her magic Yogic powers after her father insulted her husband, the god
Shiva-Nataraja. This is a
ritual reenactment of the initial self-sacrifice of the Hindu
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
The 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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