Jack Steele, an innocent abroad, arrives in the India of the British Raj.
The place? Punjab, its dusty plains. The time our story comes alive?
A time gone by, a day’s remains, India, 1935. Our hero? He’s a lad called Jack. Just that. Not John. Alas, alack, that single name will be a weight around his neck, a heavy fate.
Before we reach our final word he’ll curse this name that is his own. A name, he thinks, not his alone but a killer’s, though unheard. A killer Jack – it’s much to ask – will find his duty to unmask.
But there’s another boy who’ll play a major part in this our tale.
A very different lad. Let’s say a pole apart. Yes, he’s male, but that is all that links the two. Our Jack is one who’s going to rule the land where he’s arrived. The other’s one who hasn’t thrived in any way, not half Jack’s age, an orphan kid with just one gift, one talent, one, that just will lift the little boy on to our page. But there he’ll have a major part. You’ll find him at the story’s heart.
‘Little Brown Gramophone’, that’s what he’s called by one and all. All hangs on him, on him alone, upon his gift, however small.
It is a trick he’s always had, the mimic’s gift for good or bad. Yes, bad or good, the fact remains: words heard just once he then retains, whether in English or Punjabi, or even both together blended.
Quite often scarcely comprehended (the sahib’s shout ‘Bring whisky pani‘), whatever words this chhokra heard he’d parrot back, the boy a bird.
And that is all the worldly wealth the boy, aged eight, or nine, or seven, has to his name. Not cash, nor health (already a cough’s predicting heaven, or, as a Hindu, one more life). His gift, then, perched upon a knife- edge. But his gift’s the single clue to the black puzzle shortly due to confront our hero, Jack.
And Jack, be sure, is still unskilled (it’s not enough just to have willed) in sahibdom, still to learn the knack of ruling a whole sub-continent by guile, by force, by sentiment.
For these three strains in far-off days combined in India to uphold a master race. The steady gaze of just one man, unbending, bold, would quail a thousand, kind yet stern. This gaze Jack Steele has still to learn, just six months here. A mere nineteen, he must not think what he has been, a boy immured at boarding school. Oh yes, he was a leader then, yet those he led were scarcely men. But now he’s being trained to rule, to act the sahib, to be a god, nor fear, nor favour. Wield the rod.
And who’s he got as trainer guide? A sahib of sahibs, a gentleman, an India hand in wool deep-dyed, the sahibest sahib in all the clan. Yes, though young Jack is quite at sea, he is not left to wander free.
No, India’s Imperial Police, keeper of King-Emperor’s peace, provides as shepherd, ward and watch, one Mr Guthrie, ‘F.H.R.’ or ‘R.H.F.’ or ‘H.F.R.’ By those initials (placed hotch-potch as often as the right way round) he’s called by all. And he is sound.
So watch Jack as he bells the cat.
Let’s eavesdrop on the master’s teaching, which Guthrie Sahib describes as ‘chat’. Teaching? Well, perhaps it’s preaching. So, see him there spoonfeeding Jack, pipe in mouth, chair tilted back. A man of forty, not much more, blue-eyed, lean, hard to the core, red-armed, red-legged, in shorts and shirt, thick yellow hair on both, a pelt. Across his chest his Sam Browne belt. And nowhere any spot of dirt.
That’s Guthrie Sahib, called F.H.R., who prides himself on seeing far.
We’ve found them in the police daftar, Jack newly here, no lessons read, now learning not from his Papa but from this quasi-Dad instead. Guthrie’s now parentis loco, saying what’s ‘done’ and what is no go. ‘You’ve been out riding? Excellent, lad. Keep fit, keep fit. Or you’ll go bad.
By saying bad don’t think I mean you’ll lose your tone, or lose your zest. I mean that soon – don’t think I jest – you’ll take to drink, or find you’ve been eyeing black bints with evil thoughts. Worse, letting John T. escape your shorts.
Talking of that, of, you know, sex, don’t think that every lady here – just as well to clear the decks – always wears, well, her underwear. Most, of course, are pukka mems, jewels in the Crown, just perfect gems. But, listen, lad, yet don’t repeat it, if Milly beckons, smile – and beat it. Milly Marchbanks, widow lady, should have gone Home when old Mike died. But you be warned: she’s pretty shady, a shady lady, now untied from marriage bonds, if ever heeded. Ask me, lad, a spanking’s needed.’
Guthrie stops short. He’s said too much. He coughs, looks down, picks up a file. ‘Excuse me, lad, if like a Dutch uncle I go on.’ A smile.
‘But I’ll be frank. There was last year a boy like you and stationed here, not in the Police, but Forestry.
And into Milly’s claws, well, he fell. Or jumped. I don’t know which. Milly the Man-eater, her claws are hid, but eat that boy was what she did. A suicide. Hushed up. The bitch still lives, with no regrets. That’s her.
I could say more, but – but, well, – er .
Word to the wise, eh, my son John? ‘nough said. Now, first things first.
Your topee. Out-of-doors without that on – and sunstroke. Yes, with that we’re cursed. Of course, the natives never wear them, or just a cloth. But the sun don’t scare ’em. They’re different from us. Remember, Jack: we are White and they are Black.
‘Yes, sir. But – Well …’ ‘Come, spit it out.’ ‘Well, back Home some that I met seemed decent sorts.’ ‘Oh, yes, I bet that’s what they seemed. But, make no doubt, there underneath they, every one, of your kind heart were making fun.’ Jack Steele feels now it’s time to go. He’s on the point of leaving, but ‘Just one thing more you need to know: bowels open, lad, and mouth kept shut. Remember: natives everywhere.
Watch p’s and q’s, and be aware. You’re on show, lad, from dawn till dusk. Yes. Look at that, that mounted tusk. I shot that beast. Do you know why?
A crowd of natives waited there to see if I would funk the dare. They waited just to see if I lacked the guts to kneel and shoot. No other course: I killed the brute.’
Outside, Jack stands, topee askew. He needs some time for solid thought. What Guthrie’s told him’s hardly new it’s new in detail, not import. From his earliest days at school he knew that Britain’s there to rule. He knew, as true, that ones like one are there to say what’s to be done. The Empire, let no foe defile.
The Union Jack, the red-marked map, a task God gave to every chap born within the sacred isle. But till this moment he had not wholly realised where he’d got.
His feeling of dread at the role he has to shoulder.
To India. Where the schoolboy Jack is all at once more than a man. The Empire’s weight is on my back. Now I am my country’s spokesman. Yes, all of that and even more. (Jack shifts, as if his shoulder’s sore.) Prestige is what I must uphold.
Without that life’s just ‘bought and sold’. Now every day it’s Empire’s gift I must live life up to that mark whether in sun or in night’s dark. Never to know the burden lift. He feels oppressed, a pinning weight. Lifts hands to put his topee straight.
And what has placed the burden there? Fifteen years of reading stories.
Tales and texts in classrooms where they spoke of all the Empire’s glories. Kipling, held up as fixed in marble, then Henty’s With Roberts to Kabul, a hundred yarns of derring-do, Ballantyne, Stevenson, the whole crew. And music, Elgar’s martial thumping (plus England’s countryside evoked. ‘None of your Germans,’ Dad had joked.)
Accounts of loyal natives humping in some brave explorer’s wake, striding out for Britain’s sake.
Finding his feet, he does well in the Club tennis tournament.
Move on. Move on some months or more. And we now see a tennis court where Jack’s in play, not quite so raw. The Club is where this battle’s fought. The Club, the hub of British life. For every Briton, man and wife, it is their centre, safe, secure, where talk’s unbuttoned, sport is pure. The tournament, the year’s highlight, is taking place as it has done year after year since 1901.
The winner’s Cup is shining bright. ‘Guthrie’, its last two shields proclaim. Victory today will seal his fame.
But Jack’s the one who now is playing his Burra Sahib. The semi-final.
And to him it’s most dismaying (he’d love to hide in the urinal). Because, thanks to his well-honed skill, he’s ended here, against his will, on pretty sharp dilemma horns.
To lose on purpose? Or tread corns by playing well and, most like, winning? Knock out his boss? He thinks he could (the fact is that he’s very good) but Guthrie Sahib, he knows, is pinning all his hopes on this last chance.
At his back the years advance.
The Cup, or ‘pot’ as Guthrie dubs it, but Jack has glimpsed, a daunting sight, Guthrie yearning as he rubs it means for him Time’s speeding flight. So (Jack thinks) should I now quit? Lose, though make a fight of it?
Then the man who is my chief can feel, yes, still, he is Time’s thief. But if I play as I was taught, play up, play up and play the game, I’ll put my boss to inner shame.
No, though I know well what I ought to do, I won’t. I’ll let him win.
Losing, is it such a sin?
First set, Guthrie. Score: 6-4. The second’s Jack’s, a quick 6-2.
Now the decider. Ten games more, Jack thinks. Lose six, win four. Then who tomorrow? Yes, just Edward Carter.
He’ll play the Final. I’ll be a martyr. Carter’s quite good but much too flash, the sort that F.H.R. could thrash with one hand tied behind his back. But Guthrie seems to lose his fire. Several of his serves are dire. So is he tiring, wonders Jack. And if he is, how can I lose?
He racks his brains for some excuse.
Then Guthrie serves a double fault, and misses next an easy hit.
But now the Umpire calls a halt. A servant has brought out a chit. The Umpire – it is Dr Prosser – reads, then calls across a puzzled Guthrie, who in turn reads and frowns. ‘No, don’t adjourn,’ he’s heard to say, and back he comes to face Jack’s serve, which he gets back. He seems in better form, thinks Jack.
But, no. Again he soon succumbs to Jack’s assault. Now, here’s the catch. Ten minutes more, he’s lost the match.
Yet Guthrie takes defeat with grace, an Englishman seen at his best. ‘Can’t win ’em all, old chap. The race to the strong. Now, be my guest. A burra peg? You’ve earned a drink.’ Jack does not know quite what to think. He has a sort of under-sense that this is false. The man’s too tense. How did he come to lose the match? And now without another word he’s gone. Off like a shot. Absurd. Absurd. Yet where’s the catch? I thought he’d stay a bit and chat. Why has he just gone off like that?
He remembers a talk with Guthrie a few hours earlier.
And then a thought: at just past noon when at the Club all were asleep (and those at home, this is a boon, the midday snooze, oblivion deep) Jack with his boss was hard at work. ‘Lad,’ Guthrie’d said, ‘I never shirk when duty calls, and you should not.’ (Yet Jack once saw him rub that ‘pot’.)
Report came in at the daftar an elephant had snapped its chain (a beast in musth one must restrain), a rumour rumbling from afar. And Guthrie’d said, ‘I hate to kill, but if I must, well then, I will.’
Jack thought it all was bazaar gup. But say it’s true? Had Guthrie heard? The chit that servant boy brought up? A beast to shoot? And he deterred?
Yes, only earlier today I learnt that killing’s not his way. That’s something I can feel for, too. It’s not a thing I’d like to do.
All right, when once a beast’s gone wild you have to stop it. That’s the rule.
But this I even learnt at school, I’d read it even as a child not every elephant stays mad. The musth goes off, however bad. A single shot, if it’s done right, four tons of life just blown out.
And let the thought peep out to light it’s dangerous, too. Have any doubt of when to fire or where to aim and then you learn: big game’s no game. A wounded beast will tread you down, shake you to death, a sawdust clown.
No wonder Guthrie went off form thinking of that, and how before he’d faced that task, obeyed the law of British grit, the White Man’s norm. While on the court, as shots were clapped, he’d think: once more they’ve got me trapped.
They’ve got me trapped. But who those they? The natives watching for a fall?
Or Britons braying ‘British way’?
Jack shakes his head. That’s not at all what he should think. Back Home perhaps thinking that would be no lapse, but here beneath the Indian sun it’s one for all, and all for one. Another drink? No. Whisky’s out.
That way, he warned me, trouble lies. A nimbu pani will suffice.
Soda and lime, and damn all doubt. Jack sips, accepts congratulations, and smiles away felicitations.
An hour goes by. The drink flows free. ‘Another one?’ ‘Well, down the hatch.’ ‘Will Steele J beat Carter E?’
The talk is of tomorrow’s match. No word that Guthrie’s not a sport, but Jack wonders if the thought is here and there allowed to rise. His disappearance caused surprise. But all the while a crisis hides.
Do not forget young Gramophone. He’s waiting there, as yet unknown.
Laugh, Jack, and joke. Your fate abides. That other chhokra’s time is near.
His hour will come. Its footfalls hear.