Mountains of the Moon – 4
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.
He regularly walked to the lake, some days with train coolies, other days he went by himself. Fishing was good, swimming too.
Meanwhile, the late summer had started. Some days it was unbearable — too hot to walk in the sun after 9am, by 11am the heat wave would start. But he was told that this was nothing compared with central and southern Africa.
Then something happened that turned Shankar’s world around. It was one of those days when the heat was not too oppressive. He went fishing in the morning. On the way back, at about 3pm, about a mile or so from the station, Shankar heard a voice from the shade of a tall tree.
Shankar walked towards him. An European, wearing old and torn shirt and trousers, face full of red beard, large eyes, tall-ish, and once well-built but now very frail, probably from hunger and thirst. He was leaning on the tree trunk. He didn’t have a gun, but there was a bag next to him.
Shankar asked in English: Where are you from?
The man didn’t answer the question. Instead, raising his cupped palm, he said: Water, water please.
Shankar said: There is water a mile or so away, can you come with me?
Leaning on Shankar, practically carried by him, the man reached the station. It took them a long while to get to the station, the afternoon train had left in Shankar’s absence. Shankar made a bed for the stranger in the station room. With water, he gave him some food. The man was suffering from fever. And whatever ailed him, it seemed that he would need a long rest for recuperating.
A while later the man gave his name: Diego Alvarez, from Portugal, but has been in Africa for decades.
What would Shankar do? If they had gotten the afternoon train then Alvarez would be in a town by now, with doctors and nurses and proper medicine. But the next train is in the morning. Could Alvarez survive the night? Shankar stayed up whole night to look after the stranger.
The moon started rising in the north-eastern quadrant, behind the small mountain range. The stranger had just gone to sleep it seemed when the lions roared. The stranger got up, looking bewildered. Shankar said: Lions. Outside. Door is closed. Don’t be afraid.
Shankar went outside after putting the stranger back to bed. The African night still gave him a strange sensation. The moonlight, the savannah, tall shadows of those tree — sure there was a lion within 500 yards, but he had gotten used to lions by now, lions didn’t keep him from enjoying the night.
When the clock struck two, he returned to the room. He saw that the stranger was sitting up. Please give me some water.
His English was rather good. Shankar gave him water, and some biscuits.
His fever was down, and he spoke more clearly. You thought I was afraid? Me, fear? Young man, you don’t know Diego Alvarez! He fell back to the bed, but there was a smile on his face — a strange mix of anger, sorrow and sarcasm. The tone of his voice and the smile suggested that this was no ordinary man. The short and thick fingers, a strong wrist, signs of a strong jaw behind the beard — this was a hard man before hunger and thirst got him.
The man continued: Come here. You have done a lot for me tonight. If I had a son, he wouldn’t have done more. But I don’t think I’ll survive. I think my time is up. But I don’t want to die indebted. Let me tell you something. You’re from India? How much you make here? For this pittance you’ve left home? No? For adventure? So you’re brave? You can take pain? Okay then, listen to me very carefully. But first promise me that you will not tell anyone a word of what I say before my death.
Shankar promised him thus. As the night turned into light, the stranger told Shankar his tale, a strange and exciting tale that is usually found only in novels.