Monday, May 26, 2014

Sophie, in Shadow: where the story begins


“You must expect to be disappointed,” the other passengers told Sophie. Taking refuge in India was sensible now that Europe was at war, but nonetheless it was an experience to be suffered and endured. “The Taj Mahal by moonlight, pale hands beside the Shalimar — romantic balderdash,” pronounced a bronzed and leathery colonel who was on his way back to the Frontier. India, everyone agreed, meant dirt and poverty, smothering heat, bad smells and indigestible food. “Not to mention revolting heathen practices,” added the colonel’s memsahib, declining to elaborate.

Of all this, Sophie was well aware. She had not much patience with romantic novels. She’d prepared for this journey, in her usual methodical way, by reading histories of the Raj and the Moghul Empire, and Himalayan travellers’ tales. Though even those held out the promise of exotic splendours — minarets and gilded palaces, gardens in Kashmir. In any event, whatever horrors awaited her in Calcutta, it would be a huge relief to disembark. Perhaps, out of reach of English newspapers, she would no longer be an object of such fascination.

Just today she had come up on deck to hear a snatch of conversation, hastily broken off.  "To have both her parents drown when she was — how old? Fourteen? And now to be packed off to this godforsakencountry, to live with relatives she’s never met . . . ”

For two years now Sophie had been made to feel like public property — the survivor of a famous disaster, a name miraculously entered on the right side of a list, a curiosity to be interviewed and
photographed and discussed. She yearned to be once again plain Sophie Pritchard, whose life was nobody’s business but her own.

The river was crowded with every sort of craft — paddle steamers, big, solid square-sailed vessels and little fishing boats with upturned bows, barges and launches and bamboo rafts. Along the near bank were factories and warehouses, temples and walled riverside gardens, burning-ghats and
derelict mansions, weed-covered skeletons of boats, and crowds of people standing knee-deep, waist-deep in the murky waterof the bathing ghats, dressed in long robes, or loin-cloths, or nothing at all.

Now they were through the Floating Bridge, and here at last was Calcutta. India, Sophie suspected, was every bit as noisy, and chaotic, and bad-smelling, and bewildering as the colonel had described; but what mattered was that she would soon set foot on solid ground.

The wheel turns, and turns again. That, thought Sophie, is what Hindus believed. Her old life had ended on that disastrous April night in the North Atlantic. Now, for better or worse, as their ship ploughed its way up this swarming,clamorous Indian river, a new one was about to begin.

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