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The inspiration behind the characters

Prologue – Rajam

The cramps began as a dull throb at the base of her belly and disturbed her sleep as they grew in intensity. Groaning aloud, she opened her eyes and sat up. The spasm had passed but she was wide awake. It was four o’ clock in the morning. The sun had not yet risen but the air was hot and muggy, making rivulets of sweat run down her forehead, dampening wisps of hair that had escaped from her tight bun.

“Rajam, fetch the water.” She heard the high-pitched drone of her mother-in-law, her daily morning alarm. Rolling up her thin mattress and blanket, she walked out into the courtyard. The moon was still visible low in the sky and she paused for a moment to admire the starry night. ‘The whole world is asleep, yet I have to awaken and attend to the morning chores,’ her mind protested. Rajam took slow, deliberate steps across the courtyard, breathing in deeply. She smelled the fragrance of the Night Queen still in full bloom, working to spread its perfume as she toiled to serve her family. Reaching the well, she picked up the bucket and guided it down until the splash of water broke the morning’s silence. As she pulled up the bucket, the cramps in her lower belly intensified. She stopped to take a breath and heaved on the rope, praying she was only dreaming. The spasms were stronger, and then she felt the stickiness between her legs.

There it was again. Her dreaded monthly period. She filled a pot with water and crossing the stony courtyard, hurried toward the bathroom. Her breath came in sharp shallow gasps, with churning emotions pumping through her veins. Unwittingly, hot tears streamed down her cheeks and combined with her glistening sweat to create an ocean of disillusionment.

Chapter 6 – Dharmu

Dharmu walked out onto the verandah where breakfast was served. The verandah ran all around the house; every room had access to it. The breakfast table was in the front of the house, from where one could see the rising sun and admire the brilliant green foliage of the nearby forest.

She sat down on the cushioned, white wicker chair and surveyed the spread. There was oatmeal porridge, toast with yellow butter and marmalade and plenty of fruits – melon, golden yellow papaya, apples and grapes. Everything had been laid out perfectly: the porcelain plates and side plates, crystal glasses and pitchers and silverware. How life had changed. She was no longer the village bumpkin squatting on the floor eating off a banana leaf with her fingers and licking the back of her hands. No, now she had almost become a British Memsahib.

As she spooned the warm porridge into her mouth, Dharmu smiled, thinking of the first time she had used a fork and knife, clamping her hands around them like a fist, trying to attack the food, flinging it in the general direction of her mouth. She didn’t get to eat much back then because Mahadevan’s instructions were she could only eat the food that went into her mouth using the fork. How strange these foreign implements were! Wouldn’t it be easier simply to use your fingers and put the food directly into your mouth than to try and juggle these strange tools, which were thoroughly useless to begin with? You could only stick the fork into a small morsel of food and by the time you got that fork to travel the distance to your mouth, the chunk would fall off. It was frustrating! Initially, she kept her face about an inch away from the plate, shoveling the meal into her waiting mouth to make sure the maximum amount entered her open and hungry orifice, but now she had learned to sit upright like a true English Mem and slide in delicate morsels through partly open lips. What an achievement! Finally, she could get up from the breakfast table with a full stomach.

CHAPTER 19 -Mahadevan

When the ship docked, Mahadevan lugged his suitcase up five flights of stairs to the arrival hall with no one to help him. He missed being able to call a coolie to do the heavy lifting, something he took for granted in India. While the Indians grappled with their luggage, the dock hands helped the white families. All the Indian boys gathered together on shore wondering what to do next, when an official told them they would have to walk down the street a couple of kilometers to take the bus to London. Mahadevan and Shanti were not excited about dragging their cases such a long distance. They noticed a dock hand at the end of the platform smoking a cigarette and decided to ask if he would do it for them. He was sitting on a bench, his sparse reddish brown hair uncombed, his clothes a shade between grey and brown, dotted with samples of all the food he had eaten in the last three months. He looked up as they approached and disdainfully informed them, “Sorry, I don’t talk to Darkies.”

The realization hit Mahadevan so hard he could not think clearly for several minutes. In this country it didn’t matter that you were a Brahmin. It didn’t matter that you hailed from generations of highly educated and spiritual people. It didn’t matter that you were racially so pure that you could trace your ancestry back five thousand years. It didn’t matter that you spoke the Queen’s English better than most Englishmen. It didn’t matter that you had your master’s degree in Mathematics. To every Englishman you were just a darkie, an outcast.

This was Mahadevan’s first lesson in humility and self-control. He was so angry he wanted to slap the sardonic grin off the dock hand’s blotchy, pink face, but he did not do that. He merely stepped back, turned around and walked away. There were many other similar incidents that made him realize his place in society, but this incident affected him most profoundly because it occurred almost as soon as they landed on British soil, making him apprehensive about what was to follow. As he dragged his brown leather suitcase down the street, he remembered his mother’s words.

“Never forget who you are and where you’re from because that will ground you and allow you to face any obstacle.” Nothing had ever sounded more true to him.

Examining his pocket watch, Mahadevan was amazed at how many memories one small watch could trigger.