To mountains of the moon
Alvarez survived that night, and partly thanks to Shankar’s care, was on his feet within a couple of weeks. Another week later, he said it was time to move on. Shankar knew what he wanted. He said: Do you remember what you said that night? About the yellow diamond?
The old man had been silent about his past after the first night. In fact, most of the time Alvarez just sat there silently. He replied: You know, it’s not that I haven’t thought about it. But are you brave enough to chase the rainbow?
Shankar: May be I am, may be not. Only one way to find out. If you’re game then I’ll wire the company today to find a replacement for me.
Alvarez: Wire them then. But think about it first. Prospecting more often than not leads to nothing. I know an eighty years old who found nothing — but every time he claimed to have come close. Spent his entire life prospecting Australian deserts and African veldts.
Apropos nothing, let me talk about alternate history — you know, those fantastic tales where this or that even had or had not happened, leading to a very, or not so very, different history.
As the regular readers would know, there are at least two such series, perhaps three, running in this blog where Bengal, or India, had never been partitioned, or where partition had meant a different kind of Pakistan. There was even a post about had there been a battle in Plassey. But when it comes to the subcontinent, the big alternative history subject is about Mughal Empire continuing on beyond the 17th century. Since the Empire exhausted itself during Aurangzeb’s reign, perhaps had his brother Dara Shikoh had been the emperor, things might have been different?
The tale of brave Alvarez
Young man, what’s your age? Twenty-two? When you were just a toddler, back in 1889, that’s when my story begins. I was prospecting for gold beyond the forest and the ranges to the north of the Cape Colony. I was young then, and cared for no danger.
I started from Bulawayo, alone, with two donkeys carrying my luggage. I crossed the Zambezi, beyond which the maps were marked with the words ‘unknown region’. I’d cross rolling hills, tall grasses, small Bantu villages. Then eventually Bantu villages became less frequent. I had reached a place that was never before visited by a white man.
Wherever I saw a river or creek, or a hill, I looked for gold. How many had become rich in the southern part of Africa with gold or diamond? I had heard those tales since when I was a little boy. That’s what I came to Africa for. But I found nothing in two years of roaming around. Two years of hardship, and nothing to show for it. Actually, once I came very close.
Shankar was safe from snakes after that. But he faced another, more mundane, trouble. There wasn’t enough water. What he got from the train was barely enough for drinking, not for a bath. And with the summer heat, the well dried up. Then he was told that about three miles to the east there was a small lake, where the water was drinkable, and the lake even contained fish.
Fishing and a proper bath were incentives enough for Shankar to venture eastwards. He got fishing rods delivered from Mombassa, and a Somali coolie showed him the way. The lake was actually not that small, with tall grasses around it, and a hillock a few yards away. There was a lone baobab tree on the hillock. He enjoyed a long bath and swim — first time in Africa — before fishing for a couple of hours. He caught a lot of small fish. He was looking forward to frying them back at the station. He wanted to stay a lot longer, but duty called.
… one feels like 1970s kung fu mixed with futuristic dystopia…..
The fragrant harbour is like Blade Runner, where …
I’ve been intermittently posting two series of alternate histories, one with a Pakistan where Bengal, not Punjab, experienced communal cleansing (latest post) and the other is an India that was never partitioned (latest post). As it happens, even in the unpartitioned India, I imagine Bengal partitioned on communal line.
Does that mean I believe Bengal was always destined to be divided?
No. I don’t believe there is anything inevitable about history. There are specific reasons why key players make particular choices, which together with external shocks (sometimes truly random), shape the course of history. It’s not that hard to imagine a history where Bengal remained undivided, whether as part of India or Pakistan, or as an independent, sovereign state.
So, what if Bengal had not been partitioned?
It is a cabaret where the scene is set. A scantily clad temptress dances seductively on a raised platform to earthy and sensuous music. Men crowd around the stage and cheer her on. Others sit at the back, smoking hashish in their sheeshas. The lighting is all wicks and candles. The air is smoky dense and hallucinatory.
The black mamba station
It was about 3pm when an excited Shankar arrived at the station. The station ‘office’ was little bigger than a wardrobe. The ‘platform’ was just a barb wired area. Behind the office room was his ‘quarter’, a little bit bigger. After dropping him off, the train left for Kisumu.
There was a train in the morning from Kisumu, and one in the afternoon towards it. There are only two trains a day. It wasn’t much work, he would have a lot of time in his hand. And it didn’t take him long to take charge from his predecessor. The previous stationmaster was a Gujerati man, he spoke English pretty well. He made Shankar tea. There wasn’t much to explain to Shankar. But it appeared that the poor chap didn’t have anyone to talk to for a long while. He was very happy to see Shankar. After a cup of tea, the two walked around the station.