Mont Calme was where de Fleury had built his extravagant home. A massive wooden edifice, big enough to house an army barracks, painted shiny white, with windows and green blinds which he thought blended beautifully with the luxuriant green vegetation surrounding it. Granite steps, polished like they were semi-precious stones, leading to an open veranda resting on stone pillars, where he loved to receive his guests, had cost him a fortune, but Victor de Fleury was a man who did not let financial considerations limit the excesses of his dubious good taste. On the grounds were gardens of flowers and shrubs, and fountains and ponds where submerged rainbows could be seen swimming lazily. His pride and joy was the maze made entirely of bougainvilleas of all colours. A man of strong dislikes, he enjoyed leading guests who he deemed to have offended him there, and allow them to get lost for a whole afternoon. His ambition was to have marble statues of Greek goddesses placed randomly among the shrubs, and planned a voyage to his homeland as soon as he could find the time in order to commission them. But who to rely on in this godforsaken place? Where to find someone he could trust to run his many concerns with something which even remotely resembled common sense?
Victor de Fleury had been an ordinary matelot from Lorient, a ship’s carpenter, on the pride of the Royal French Navy, the Jean-Baptiste Colbert. When the ship cast anchor in Mahébourg Harbour, he had liked what he saw and on an impulse decided to jump ship. He changed his name to de Fleury, reinvented his past as nobility and promised himself that he would make his fortune on this island, after which he would return to France and live like a prince on the Brittany Coast.
In no time at all everybody was talking about the man of mystery. The governor who had received confidential intelligence about the man and had heard of his flair for business, invited him to a gala reception at Villebagues, and looking for the opportunity, had managed to draw him to a corner of his grand salon.
‘De Fleury,’ he said to him point blank, ‘you are a prime rascal, and we know that your name is Férailler. You are just a vulgar little matelot, but we can help each other.’
‘Causes toujours, excellence, causes toujours,’ said the man from Lorient. Keep talking.
‘I don’t believe in taking four different routes to get to my destination… it’s clear that you and I we warm ourselves from the same wood, so why don’t we join forces?’
‘Causes toujours, tu m’intéresses.’
‘Fifty percent,’ his excellency said blandly.
‘I am not greedy,’ lied Victor. It was not that he was not greedy, but he understood that if he had the governor as an ally, the sky was the limit.
It was thus that the most profitable — if also the most disreputable — partnership in the history of the island was born. The governor granted to the man from Lorient land rights which he then sold at excessive profit, sharing the spoils with his accomplice, then got given more land, did the same, until the pair of scoundrels had more money than they knew what to do with even after the edification of his opulent mansion. When Son Excellence left to become governor of Martinique, after two years, they were the two richest men on the island. Feelers put out to the replacement, Rémy de la Taye, showed that this one had his own agenda, and it did not include the ex-matelot. But the fully-fledged de Fleury could easily manage without patronage now.
He worked hard and played hard, he hardly slept — he did not need to. He gambled heavily; if he lost a fortune one night, he would win it back the next day. A strong ruthless man, he punched a maroon slave who had sneaked in his house looking for food one night, and killed him outright, thus consolidating his already well-defined legendary status. All this helped create for him the reputation of a man one trifled with at one’s peril.
Now de Fleury had among the most profitable businesses on the island, with fingers in many pies. Sugar cane was the main one, but other interests included tobacco, tea, cattle and vegetables and fruits. The man owned more land than he knew what to do with, and had the largest number of slaves, from Mozambique and Madagascar.
Obviously there were no other houses in sight anywhere around Mont Calme, as the area, like most of the rest of the island, had been virgin territory when he acquired it. The house was surrounded by hundreds of acres of bush, some of which had been cleared to make way for small housing units for the workforce, which he had taken great care to have hidden from view, as to him, they were necessary evils. These were simply built structures, with a wooden skeleton, corrugated iron walls and roofs. The floors were earthen and plastered with cow dung. Shanti was attributed one of these.
She had grown up in her father’s mansion in Roshankhali, but had moved to less salubrious conditions when she married Raju, and had not minded this simple unattractive cage. She told herself that living in the most beautiful house is like a bird in a gilt cage if there was no love in it. The day her Raju will be sent back to her, this would be transformed into their castle, and until then she would put up with it. There was a small open veranda, and it gave good shelter from rain, so Jayant was quite happy sleeping there.
Jayant, who often spent hours tossing on his mat in the night, lusting after his dead friend’s widow, had to walk an hour every morning to go work on the plantations in Sept Cascades, whilst Shanti was given work in Mont Calme itself, where the astute entrepreneur had created massive vegetable patches. This suited the woman very well, as it gave her the possibility of looking after the young Pradeep at the same time. Not that it was a soft option, for the white man planned to maximise his profits, which meant that his employees were expected to deliver or else…
Although the British who had now displaced the French and seized the reins of power did not officially allow immigration from the former colonial power, many French settlers arrived, as they had cousins and uncles who had arrived over fifty years ago, and the latter claimed that the services of the new influx were essential for progress. The British, for their part, sent a large number of officials, clerks, officers of the law, and these people had to be fed. De Fleury thought that twenty tons of potatoes a year could easily be obtained with minimal work, and quickly set out to achieve this goal in Mont Calme itself. At the same time, he grew beans, cabbage, tomatoes, lettuce, groundnuts, and soon half of Mont Calme was under profitable cultivation.
Shanti, with Pradeep fastened to her back by her shawl, or sometimes tied to a tree, like a large number of women in similar situation, would dig and weed all day long, and she did not mind. She loved growing all vegetables, but tomatoes had a special appeal to her. She enjoyed plucking the “chorr,” or “thieves” the little green tendrils growing at the junction between the main stem and the branches of tomato, which debilitate the plant, making it produce inferior product. She relieved her pent-up anger at her situation by crushing snails and slugs. Every stage of the development of her plants had its special attraction for her. When the seeds have been put into the earth, she longed to see them push the earth above and sprout. They reminded her of her newborn babies. Every day she would watch a plant and note by how much it had grown, and almost give a shriek of delight when two small green leaves suddenly became four. Then she would wait anxiously for the appearance of the first yellow flower, revel in this like she did when the babies took their first step, and then watch it develop and turn into a small green ball, at first no bigger than a pea but it would then grow bigger by the day, like her belly when she was pregnant, and then slowly begin to turn pink. At home in Roshankhali she never ceased to marvel at the fact that the plants that had caught her attention and which she spent most time looking at, caressing or speaking to, produced the best fruits. It was the same with all the other vegetables. It soon became apparent that the patches she had the responsibility for were spectacularly more prolific than the others. Everybody said she had green fingers.
Around each hut, there was some space which the boss had said the workers could cultivate on their own account. This was what Monsieur Hugon, the Protector of Immigrants had decreed, but his real reason for following the directive was quite selfish, for he had surmised that if they grew their own, then they would control their natural propensity for thieving. But to Victor de Fleury, indentured labour was just a new word for an old respectable practice to him. It was a law of nature that some men were born to rule and others to serve them, be their slaves — call them by whatever name, Malbars or Lascars. This had existed from time immemorial, and no one respected traditions more than he did. Never would he give up his right to give a good flogging to reprobates, law or no law. La loi, c’est moi! He used to proclaim.
He loved to repeat his rule: Anyone caught picking a single weed, or giving their plants no more than one drop of water when they were supposed to be working on my field, I will personally come and uproot all their plants and burn them, and deprive them of their privilege, because that’s all it is. Hugon can shit on his own head! You people get a roof over your head, cooking oil, dal, rice and flour, free lengths of cotton sheeting, and in your country, most people would kill to change place with you… What else do you need? Silk blouses, razor blades? Oranges?
Even after a back-breaking day on the white man’s fields, Shanti was never too tired to spend time with her vegetables. No wonder her tomatoes were the reddest and plumpest.
Antoine, who, after his emancipation was given a small hut (with extra facilities) in Mont Calme by de Fleury, was very impressed by Shanti’s capacity for work. Daily he would drag his crippled frame towards her patch and admire the progress. At first Shanti was afraid of this black man who spoke to her in a funny language she only half understood, but it took her very little time to discover that the black man was not only harmless, but gentleness personified. It was the former slave who taught her the words in kreol for the things she was growing, enjoying a new-found vocation as a language teacher.
When Shanti began harvesting her prize tomatoes and beans, she soon had more than she needed for her own use, and very happily gave some to people like Antoine. At first the beneficiaries of her largesse repaid her with little odds and ends, and that was that. It was Antoine who suggested to her that there was more land that she could use if she wanted to. She said the bourgeois might object to that, and he said that he would ask him, suggesting that he could join forces with her. The former slave knew that Missié Victor usually said yes to whatever he asked, and he never ceased to marvel at this.
‘And why does this woman want to grow more vegetables?’ he asked.
‘I think that she does it more for me, than for herself, bourgeois, I would not know how to start a little farm myself, and I know she is a kind soul, she will help me… it’s something to do, the day is long for people like me who have nothing to do.’
‘Don’t feel bad about it, you have worked hard all your life, why don’t you just take it easy? Or better still, why don’t you read the good book… you still have the copy I gave you?’ Years ago, the other black men could hardly believe it when one day, Antoine told them that Missié de Fleury had offered to teach him to read. The poor man had found it difficult, but had still managed to read after a fashion, although he often got some letters mixed up. He called them dead black ants.
Antoine explained that with his failing eyesight, reading had become laborious, and de Fleury nodded, and that was settled.
The truth was that Antoine was frail and slow, and Shanti did all the work, but she did not mind. She never tired when working on what she thought of as her own patch. And soon, the crops were so plentiful that Antoine had an idea.
‘Murtaza Pirbox,’ he said suddenly to Shanti one afternoon, and explained that Pirbox was one of the few Indians who had come to the island as a free man, to trade with the indentured workers. He had an oxcart in which he went from place to place, selling produce to the rich ladies of the area.
‘But Missié de Fleury? He won’t like it, will he?’ said Shanti
‘I’ll ask,’ he volunteered. And when he did, de Fleury flared up.
‘What sort of businessman would I be, Antoine, if I was afraid of competition? Competition is the lifeblood of commerce. Only cowards want to be cocooned in monopolies.’ Antoine did not have the faintest idea of what he was talking about.
‘Does the bourgeois mean it’s all right?’
‘Are you stupid or what, man? Of course you can go ahead.’ It was not that he hated monopolies, but Shanti’s output was but a drop in the ocean compared to his. And he could never say no to Antoine.
Early on the next day, Antoine decided to walk to Souillac where Pirbox lived. With his bad leg, it would take him four hours or more, he explained to Shanti, and as he would need to rest, he would ask Murtaza to let him sleep in the cowshed and return on the next day. Shanti was very touched, gave him enough food for the journey and promised him some a curry and rice when he came back — he simply loved her cooking. Murtaza Pirbox had known Antoine for a long time, and he readily agreed to come have a look at those prodigious vegetables that his visitor spoke about. Yes, he said, if they are anything as good as you say, I will easily find clients for them, I will come to Mont Calme soon.
Two weeks after this conversation, a letter arrived for Shanti Varma. Antoine brought it himself, and said that it was from the Immigration Office. Shanti asked him to read it for her, he demurred but tried all the same, and gave up saying that with his failing eyesight, it looked like the dead ants were becoming alive again, and were running all over the page. Shanti knew that it was about her Raju. Had he been located? Was he on the way to join her here? She could think of nothing else, and had to make an effort not to blame poor Antoine, having to tell herself all the time that if the man’s eyesight was poor, it was not his fault.
Although back home, they lived in relative harmony with the Muslims nearby, there was never any great warmth between them. You did whatever you had to do, exchanged pleasantries, but stopped short of developing friendships across the religious barrier. Even Raju who liked everybody, and defended Muslims when his friends blamed them for floods and epidemics, stopped short of having a Muslim friend apart from the hakeem, who was a sort of adopted uncle. She had been wondering who to ask to read the letter when Murtaza arrived. She was immediately struck by how handsome the man was. He was probably over forty, and had a grey stubble which contrasted advantageously with his shiny dark skin and jet black hair. He was not tall, even rather stocky, but his dress sense was faultless. He smelled of attar and had a small ivory stud tying the top of his shirt, like Pitaji. That was not the only thing about him that reminded her the latter. Poor Pitaji who lost everything and had to go back to Gaya! She was a bit wary of the Musselman at first, but if he proved to be a good outlet for their produce, she saw no reason why they could not establish a good business rapport. She had shown him round her patch, with the proud Antoine in tow, and he expressed admiration for the quality of her produce, for which, he said, he would easily find clients. They went back to her hut, and she gave him her only chair to sit on, whilst Antoine happily sat on the steps in the veranda, and she went to make tea for them. When she appeared with the refreshment, Pirbox was writing something in a notebook, and she seized the opportunity.
‘Bhai, I wonder if you can do me a favour, I received a letter this morning and…’
‘I can read,’ said Antoine defensively, ‘but my eyesight is failing more and more…’
‘Ben, of course I’ll read the letter for you.’
‘It’s from the Immigration Office,’ he said when Shanti handed it over to him, and after perusing it, added, ‘it’s not from Missié Hugon himself, I can’t see his signature… it says… signed by the Chief Clerk in absence of the Protector of Immigrants.’
‘Yes, yes, but what does it say, Bhai?’ asked Shanti. Pirbox had to work hard, but finally he explained that The Immigration Authorities had written to their counterpart in Calcutta, asking them to find out the whereabouts of Rajendra Kumar Varma, who had been due to leave Calcutta on the Startled Fawn on the 14th of January… and will let you know as soon as they get an answer.’ She had to try very hard to stop her tears gushing out.
A bond soon developed between the two, and she knew instinctively that when she was in any trouble, the Musselman would willingly help. It was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration. Shanti found that Pirbox was very fair, and gave her a good price, and found herself confiding more and more in him about her life and her Raju.
Out of the blue one day Pirbox said to her that he knew a young Hindu man whose parents had all died on the ship and was all alone, and he had thought that he would make a good match for her.
‘Murtaza Bhai, what are you saying? I have a husband already,’ she said laughing nervously to hide her alarm. ‘What do you mean saying things like that to me? Didn’t the government say they were doing everything to find my Raju?’
‘I am a foolish man,’ he said, ‘my wife always says that I meddle too much in other people’s affairs.’ And they left it at that. But the vegetable merchant had only put the matter in abeyance, waiting for a more propitious occasion. He knew that there were a large number of possible scenarios for Raju’s disappearance, and that none of them pointed to a happy reunion of the spouses.
That December, a cyclone of surprising virulence hit the island, and half the sugar cane plantations were destroyed. Shanti lost most of her produce as well, but nobody starved. To her amazement, however, whatever was salvaged, fetched two or three times the usual price, and in the end, she made almost the same as if no damage had been done to her crops. She discovered a law of business which was to serve her later: when there is a shortage of anything, the price rises inversely, so that the seller is never the one to lose.
Jayant had been working very hard too. He would leave before dawn everyday, and get back after dark and never complained. In that respect he was so much like Raju. He loved playing with Pradeep whenever he had the time, and the boy liked him very much. One Divali, when the boss allowed them a free day, Shanti, who was never in a festive mood, but thinking of her son, had prepared mithais and pakoras, and the two males had had a good time. An exhausted Pradeep had been taken to bed early, and for once, Jayant found an opportunity to have Shanti all to himself. They were both sitting on the steps of the veranda, watching the full moon, when Jayant spoke.
‘Bhabi, how can I say this to you? I want to get married.’ She was taken aback, praying that he was not going to declare his ill-concealed love for her.
‘So, you want me to look for a bride for you?’
Jayant said nothing for a while. No, he did not want her to look for a bride for him, he wanted her to be his bride. But how was he going to tell her?
‘I mean, you know, Raju Bhai and I… were like brothers…’
He is going to say something he will regret, she thought.
‘Yes,’ she snapped quick as a flash, ‘which makes us brother and sister.’
Jayant did very well to hide his disappointment. He knew that Raju was gone for good. He also knew that no one could take his place in her heart, but he felt sure that no one else could be more devoted to her than him. When Raju had not turned up at the Harbour Office on that fateful day, his friend’s fate had filled his heart with a hope which was as guilty as it was brutal. He loved Raju, he mourned for him, but he lusted after his wife too. He had always been in love with her. When Raju told him, oh, so many years ago now, that he was going to marry Shanti, his first reaction was jealousy, because he thought that once married, Raju would neglect him. Then the moment he saw her in her bridal outfit, the jealousy made an about-turn. For years he had shouldered this unwelcome burden in silence, sometimes happy when Raju told him one or two secrets of their married life, as if he wanted to share this happiness with him, although when they parted, and he was on his way home on his own, he would be invaded by sinful thoughts. Wracked by guilt, he had cried all night once when he had wished that Raju would drown in a cyclone so he could then marry her, and he had beaten his chest, slapped himself hard, asking for Bhagwan’s forgiveness. He did not welcome the sinful dreams he had been having recently, but he could not control them. Ever since they reached this new country, he was tormented by his friend’s absence, wishing he could trade off his life for his friend’s, so he could come back and make Shanti happy, but at the same time, how much he prayed that she would of her own free will come to him, when their common love for Raju would be like a shrine in his memory, and together they would pray there. Every time he would accomplish his husbandly duty, he would close his eyes and try to pretend that he was Raju. He would never make love to her in his own name, he had no right. He did not fail to notice that she treated him with coldness, but understood that she was warning him off, because she could not have failed to read his feelings for her.
‘So,’ said Jayant, in an about turn which surprised himself, ‘hasn’t a sister got a duty to find a wife for her brother?’ They said nothing for a while, then he added, ‘That’s all I meant to say, as Bhagwan is my witness,’ but Shanti read him like an open book.
In all those months they had been in this new country, this was the first time he had seen her smile, but it was a smile of relief because he had not overstepped the boundary she had intended.
‘I will do my duty,’ she promised.
As Jayant lay on his gunny sacks of a bed watching the full moon disappear behind some clouds, he felt his throat ache with longing for the forbidden woman, and was happy that no one saw some tear drops trickle down his cheeks.
On her bed, Shanti for the first time began to imagine what it would be like, married to Jayant. He was not a bad looking boy — arrey he was a whole year older than her, why call her a boy? He was kind and hard-working, and if she did marry again… No, she was married to Raju and that was that. But often she felt like she wanted to be in a man’s arms. Sadness and grief had not tempered her passionate nature. That night she dreamt of being in bed with Murtaza, and to her horror, she remembered that she had already had this dream and had forgotten it. But sinful dreams were like thieves who find the door of a house has been broken. They did not wait for an invitation to rush in.
She blushed next time Murtaza came, but accepted that he was not responsible for her dreams, and they carried on doing their business together. But might he be having similar dreams about her too? She wondered.
She waited everyday for a letter from the Immigration Office, and none came. A year later, she asked Murtaza if he could write to them and ask, and he said that he had a poor handwriting, but would ask one of his clients to do it. A week later, when he came, he said that the letter had been written and that he had posted it himself. No answer ever came.
One night, Antoine approached Shanti’s hut, limping very badly. Shanti received him under the veranda, and seeing the state he was in, rushed to get him her one chair, which the lame man declined.
‘Madame Shanti, I am not used to sitting on chairs, I much prefer the steps.’
‘I will make you some tea, I have got plenty of milk today.’
‘Can I just have some milk? Please.’
Shanti went in, poured him a lota of milk which the ex-slave drank greedily.
‘I hope you do not mind my coming to visit you like this, but although you are from a different country, I have always thought of you as my daughter. You have always been so kind to me. I want to ask you to do me a favour… you see I am ill, and do not have long to live. I want you to do me a favour.’
‘Antoine what are you saying? Missié de Fleury will take you to the hospital himself, don’t talk like this.’
‘Yes,’ said Antoine, ‘he will, tomorrow. He has always been kind to me… I never understood why.’ He paused for a while and started laughing mirthlessly.
‘It’s funny, when I arrived, he saved my life, but has always treated me as if it was I who had saved his… he is so harsh to everybody, but so kind to me…’
‘Yes, I have noticed… he respects you…’
‘Many people hate him, but he… eh… has many admirable qualities.’ Shanti looked at the old man dubiously.
‘No, I mean, do you know, he is nearly one hundred —’
‘That’s what he tells me … but that man can stay on his feet in the sun for a whole day —’
‘Shouting at people and hitting them with his whip. I’ve seen him!’ No, Shanti wasn’t going to listen to praise being heaped on man she had detested with all her heart from the beginning. ‘What is it you said you wanted me to do?’ Realising that she sounded harsh, she immediately added, ‘But whatever you’re going to ask, it’s granted in advance.’
‘Thank you, Madame Shanti… I want you to do me a favour, here take this…’ And he handed over to Shanti, a bundle wrapped in some dirty cloth. She was perplexed, but took it from him.
‘Keep it for me, as I shall be out of the house tomorrow… I will pick it up when I come back from hospital, can you do that?’
‘Why of course.’ She guessed that it was his savings.
‘I will smoke my pipe now,’ he said. Shanti got him a flint and lock. While puffing thoughtfully, he told her how he had been captured in a war by another tribe to be their slave, and how he had eventually ended up over here. He had been separated from his wife and children. He had a woman here once, but she died many years ago, and he had not wanted to find himself another woman. He told her about the friends he had made, about Anatole who could sing like a bird, about Midala, a proud and courageous man who had risked death in order to live free.
‘They say he managed to smuggle himself on board a French warship and went back to Africa,’ he said laughing merrily.
Shanti hanged on to every word, and was sad when the old man decided to go. Painfully he rose, and putting a hand on his haunch, he dragged his weary frame away down the steps. As he got on the level ground, he turned round.
‘And Oh, Madame Shanti, if anything should happen to me, this bundle is for you. You are my only true remaining friend.’ Shanti protested, but the moment the visitor had gone, she could not resist the temptation to look inside the bundle, and marvelled at the sum she saw on there.
Antoine never made it to hospital, for he passed away in the night. Shanti found it easy to weep for him, for when one has one’s own sorrows, tears for other people flow seamlessly behind. She took the decision not to mention the windfall to anybody, for that might surely have urged some people to remember that they too had been friends with the ex-slave, and cause disputes. Carefully she committed the legacy to a box where she kept her own hard-earned savings, and already in her head were the germs of untold schemes.
With her punishing schedule, she had never found the time to look into the matter of a bride for Jayant. So, when Jayant told her one evening that a friend had mentioned Jyoti, the daughter of another worker, as a possible bride for him, she claimed that she was delighted, but was also disappointed that he had not waited for her to initiate the union. She admitted to herself that she had not entirely dismissed the idea that she might have accepted him for herself one day. Shortly afterwards, everything was arranged, and Jayant and Jyoti were married. De Fleury grudgingly gave the newly-weds one of the new huts he had been building, and Jayant moved out.
The years went by and no more than a handful of people who had arrived on the Startled Fawn, having finished their indenture returned to Calcutta, but most signed an extension with de Fleury. Murtaza had never stopped suggesting that he found a new husband for her, and to his surprise, shortly before the end of her indenture, she broached the subject herself. He had just paid her a tidy sum in respect of produce bought, and they were sitting opposite each other under the veranda — she had two chairs now, and a table.
‘Bhai Murtaza, you are always telling me to accept reality, that my Raju is lost to me forever. I think I have come to accept this now.’
‘My Allah and your Bhagwan… the same being if you ask me… knows what he does, and has a reason for everything.’
‘Yes, we have to accept his will.’ Suddenly Pirbox’s face lit up, as he understood what Shanti was expecting him to say.
‘Ben,’ he said, ‘then you must take my fatherly advice… you are like my own sister… even a daughter to me… as you know…’ He was hardly five years older than her.
‘No,’ said Shanti, blushing, ‘you are not going to start again with this business of…’ she could not make herself say the words.
‘But a woman cannot live alone all her life, you need a good man by your side.’
Yes, Shanti was thinking, with the plans I have made, I need the help of a good man. She said nothing.
‘I know a very eligible young man… he is called Kishore Brizmohan… he is so gentle, so respectful… I am sure you will like him.’
‘Kishore Brizmohan?’ she repeated mechanically.