Around him, some of the others were speaking in whispers, their throats too dry for anything else. If Modhun listened hard, he could hear the scraping of the chokidars’ boots on the deck above.
Modhun blinked, but that did not disrupt the blackness. It was so thick he could feel it pressing against him—an insistent, liquid, touch. The air reeked of damp and salt and human waste.
Someone grabbed his arm. “Do you have any food?” asked a woman.
“If I did,” said Modhun, “why would I give you any?”
“Not me. My daughter.” The woman took his hand and placed it on the girl’s smooth, skinny shoulder. “She needs to eat.”
Modhun recoiled. Scrambling over random knees and shoulders, he found a corner to explore the folds of his kurta, fingering the hidden seams that held his money. He did not care what the chokidars asked for, he would pay it.
Five minutes later, he was on the deck of the Hesperus for the first time since leaving Calcutta. The moonlight streaming through the mast painted pale wedges and swathes in the shadows. Four other men who had paid for the privilege of clean air were dispersed near the rails, ignoring him. Their eyes all said, “Keep away.” Modhun sympathized. He made his way forward.
Above were the sails, propped up by the wind like dead things, making flat sounds. Below was the ocean, water so black that the moonlight only made it seem blacker still. Modhun turned away from it, suddenly dizzy.
A figure near the bow drew his gaze. The man’s brown skin and white dhoti marked him as a fellow coolie, but he stood with his feet wide, looking to the horizon as if he were lord and captain. Curious, Modhun approached him.
“You’re not allowed here,” said the man. “Coolies are to stay near the hatch.” His voice carried a sense of control which defied his place in the ship’s indentured cargo.
“You’re here,” said Modhun.
“This costs extra.”
“So? You think I can’t pay? You think I’m just another destitute hill coolie?”
“Not everything is paid for with money.”
Up close, the man seemed regal. His hair was long and free. He was a full head taller than Modhun, with big shoulders and a strong neck. His forehead was wide, giving a sense of great intelligence and his eyes seemed to be constantly considering and ordering the world. Small gold hoops in his ears were the only soft touch in his appearance.
“So how come you get to be here?” Modhun asked.
“One of the sahibs in charge of the ship—the one always polishing his sword. He lets me come here if I give him some of what I have in my pants.”
“He likes to suck my cock,” the man said simply.
The idea stunned Modhun. For a sahib to engage in such acts seemed to contravene the laws of the universe. The shock must have showed on his face, for the man asked, “Is my language too blunt for you young one?”
“No. I’m no child.”
The man took Modhun’s face in a firm hand and looked close at him. “Hnh,” he said to himself. “A few hairs on their chins and they think they’re men.” After he let Modhun go, he asked, “Does the idea of two men together surprise you?”
“Hardly. I’ve sucked more than my fair share of cock. No one’s ever making me do that again, let me tell you!”
“Is that why you’re throwing your life away and crossing the Kala Pani? To secure fortune and power?”
”I’m just looking for something better,” said Modhun. “Isn’t that why you’re here? Or are you one of those that they kidnapped?”
“No. I’m here because Garrison Commander Plunkett decided that he didn’t want to make a martyr of me. By sending me to Demerara he can erase me from existence without upsetting my followers.”
“Followers?” asked Modhun, on guard. “Are you a holy man?”
“My name is Akash Lall. I’m a bandit. Or at least they call me a bandit.”
“Oh.” Modhun relaxed. “You’re political.
“Yes. The people in my village suffer terr—”
“Please,” said Modhun, holding up his hand. “I’m sure you and your followers had wonderful reasons for breaking into people’s homes and stealing their money and ravishing their daughters. That doesn’t matter to me.”
“Human misery is not—”
“The only human misery I’m concerned about is my own. When I—”
The ship’s bell rang out. Modhun would have to go back below now, unless he felt like bribing the next watch. Akash Lall did not seem concerned about them.
Once in the hold again, Modhun’s mind kept picturing Akash Lall standing on the bow with a sahib kneeling before him. A trembling warmth flushed Modhun’s thighs. He fought his thoughts down. Better by far for him to sleep and leave this cursed vessel behind. He would seek new images in his dreams, visions of his new life to come. Visions which had guided him out of The Golden Temple and which promised him deliverance.
The land is flat and green—wild with life and loud with heat. Dark water pours through its veins. Modhun is glad for the heat in Demerara. It comforts him, his bones still shivering from the ship’s icy passage through the far south.
He is pleased that Akash Lall is sent with him to the same estate. The young girl, Kavita, and her mother are with them too. The woman has married on the ship, taking a new, higher-caste, husband to replace the one whose death sent her seeking into this land. No one remarks on the difference in the couple’s status; they have crossed the Kala Pani, the Black Water, and such distinctions no longer have meaning. There are only four other women in their estate’s group of seventy and those are soon ‘married’ as well. Not surprisingly, Akash Lall secures a wife.
The women are to cook and clean for all the men of the estate. The school for the children will be built soon, the overseer tells them. The coolies all live in the former slave quarters of the now-emancipated blacks—a dozen shacks made of ragged board, into which they crowd. It is almost like being back on the ship again.
The work starts immediately, though everyone is weak from the voyage. During slavery, new arrivals were given three years of light work to become acclimatized. Since the coolies’ contracts will last only five years, however, the planters give no such concessions to them. Sunrise to sundown they are in amidst the sugar cane, slashing at waist-high weeds. Modhun is ill almost immediately, the adjustment too severe. There is no respite for him. The overseer lets him know that unless he collapses he has to work. Three other coolies who insist that they are not well enough to work are placed in stocks. One is whipped. All are fined a full week’s pay.
Within a month, Modhun recovers and settles in. This is not the kind of labor that a person can love, or even become accustomed to, but he knows now that it will not break him and that knowledge strengthens his broadening back and straightens his spine after every day spent folded over, hacking and tearing.
By the end of the first fortnight on the ship, everyone had a cough—all except the mighty Akash Lall. Modhun was thankful the journey was near its end, for the strain of the crowded hold was becoming too much.
During the day, when enough light leaked in, Modhun would admire Akash Lall from a distance. The man was always in conversation, often smiling, moving about the hold among the coolies, greeting many of them by name. To Modhun, he seemed like a tiger given human shape. His muscles and movements told of restrained strength. Whenever he felt these thoughts bubbling, Modhun would will himself to look away. That part of his life was over. Never again, he had sworn. But his resolve never held and soon he would be back to nourishing his eyes with the golden-brown image of Akash Lall. Something about the man sparked the animal cravings at the back of Modhun’s brain.
The second time Modhun went on deck, he found Akash Lall on the bow again, smoking a cigarette.
“And what did you have to offer the sword-polishing sahib to get tobacco?” asked Modhun.
Akash Lall said nothing. Modhun joined him in watching the horizon. Then, suddenly, the big man was whispering in his ear.
“I know your secret.”
Had Modhun been that obvious with his gazes? “H-how can—”
“I know thieves,” said Akash Lall. “You’re a thief. I’ve seen it in your eyes.” He smirked, then added, “I’ve seen it in your dhoti.” With that, he grabbed at Modhun’s crotch, producing a metallic jingling as he pressed the hardness there.
One fear gave way to another for Modhun. Had Akash Lall simply guessed that any valuables Modhun had hidden would be there, or did he actually know of the necklace of silver skulls that Modhun had stolen in Benares? “So you want a share of it?” Modhun asked. “Or are you planning to take it all from me?”
“There is no honor in stealing from such as you.”
“You think you’re better than me?” Modhun shouted. “You think that kind of thing matters where we’re going?” He pointed at the sea ahead. “This is the Kala Pani. It erases everything. The past won’t matter anymore. Laws, crimes, caste, loyalty, honor. None of it is worth an ounce of goat dung! When we reach this new place, we all start equal.”
Akash Lall simply took a puff of his cigarette. “You’re right,” he said. “This water is going to wash away everything we left behind in Bengal, but remember this: Where we’re going I will have no reason to fight, so no one will name me criminal, but you will always be a thief.”
“I took nothing that I was not entitled to,” said Modhun. “Nothing that I had not already paid the price for.”
“So it was simply fair trade, I suppose?”
“Were your crimes any different?”
“Of course they were different. I was fighting for freedom, for our rights.”
“Freedom from what? The British? They’re the best thing to ever happen to us.”
“The East India Company does nothing but take and bully.”
That started an argument that remained unfinished when Modhun went below deck an hour later.
Within a year, eight of them are dead. Sores, fevers, dysentery: Disease finds the coolies easy prey. A dozen are in the sick house. There is a doctor, but he offers little treatment except a place on the floor of a shed built for seven. To miss work, even for sickness, is to lose pay and feel the whip. Modhun has twice escaped the lash by bribing Jacobs, the overseer.
Beatings are given out for the least offense. Zaman and Paltu get five strokes each for laughing while they worked. The two run away with the next full moon. They will walk all the way back to Bengal if they have to, they tell the others. The decomposed bodies of two unknown men are found not long after, in a canal fifty miles to the east.
Naturally, it is Akash Lall who organizes the coolies’ first protest. They steal two boats and cross to the estate on the other side of the river. When the police come, Akash offers their terms: They will not go back until Jacobs is removed. So resolutely does he argue, and so skillfully keep the coolies from breaking ranks, that their demand is met.
Things change only slightly, however. No one bothers even asking about the long-promised school anymore. The sick house remains a horror. Modhun sees the inside only once and it is enough. The smell of putrid flesh and the moans of men too delirious to recognize their coming death make him vomit on the bare floor where they lie.
He reacts much the same when Kavita is found unconscious in the horse paddock, naked and bleeding from between her legs. The girl never manages to speak and dies from her injuries soon after.
A month on the ship! They should have arrived in Demerara twice over already. The chokidars told them only that they were almost there.
Modhan made a third trip topside. He and Akash Lall never spoke to each other in the hold, but when they met at the bow they greeted each other.
“Has your sahib told you how much longer we are to endure this misery?” Modhun asked.
“He has better uses for his mouth than speaking to me. Maybe if you—”
“My mouth is for talking. There’s something I want your opinion on.”
Akash Lall grunted.
“I...I’m having dreams,” said Modhun. “More like visions. I see this place we’re going. I see what is going to happen to us.
“Do we make it back home?”
“I can’t tell. The closer we get, the more I see, but it’s still not clear.
“What do you see, then?” asked Akash Lall.
“I see the work. It’s hard. Very hard. I see us suffering and living like prisoners. I see you and me—”
“We change,” said Modhun, handpicking each word. “We grow.”
“How do you know these are true visions, anyway?”
“Because I’ve always had them. That’s how I ended up at the temple in Benares. When I was a boy, I could find lost animals and money and tell when the rain would fall. I was declared a holy child. All the attention and the wonder got to be too much, though. I started making false predictions and they gave up on me soon after, made me into just another servant, but I never lost the talent.”
“So why do you need my help?” asked Akash Lall.
“Because— It’s like this: about a year ago I started having dreams about a statue of Kali at the temple. It’s made of black marble and uglier than your mother. The fifty-one skulls in its necklace are made of silver, with rubies for eyes. These dreams showed me where to find tools so I could prise the necklace off without making a sound. They showed me how to smuggle it past the guards. They showed me the road to Calcutta—who would help me and where danger waited.
“And the whole time I could hear whispering in my head, telling me that the necklace was mine by right, telling me of all the riches and power I would find if I would just have the courage to take what was so easily taken. That voice was like a snake’s tongue tickling my ear. It was the voice of Kali herself. I’m sure of it.”
“Kali is no goddess to play games with,” said Akash Lall. “She holds dominion over time and reality. She has no sense of boundaries and she delights in playing tricks.”
“It was no trick. She showed me this ship while I was still a hundred miles from Calcutta!”
“Yes. Right down to the patches on the sails and the writing on the bow. She was right about everything, only now...”
“Now I see things in store for me that make me think it is a trick after all.”
“I have no experience with such things,” said Akash Lall. “Maybe the priests at—”
“Priests!” Modhun scraped the word off his tongue. “Saddhus and Yogis and Gurus and Swamis—scoundrels all! I lived in The Golden Temple for thirteen years. I know priests. They do nothing but chant words at the people and pretend to be enlightened. Always touching what doesn’t belong to them. Frauds. Liars.”
Akash Lall smiled. “Sounds like a good place for a thief,” he said. “You should have stayed.”
“No. I’ll not be like them.”
“What makes you think you aren’t already?”
Instead of answering, Modhun said, “You have such disdain for me. I keep wondering why you let me stay here. I mean, you could call your pet sahib and have me thrown below, but you don’t.”
“It’s boredom, I suppose,” said Akash Lall. “The rest of them, they’re nothing but hill coolies. They know crops and they know herds and nothing else. You at least have something to say.”
The whip bites like a hundred dancing scorpions on his back. Modhun starts weeping immediately. He would collapse, except his arms are tied to the post that holds him up.
When the six strokes have been administered, Modhun struggles to imagine what insane reasoning led him to submit to this beating. As the roar of pain recedes, he remembers—it was Akash Lall. The last time Modhun had bribed his way out of a whipping, the big man had looked at him like he was a worm. What is it about Akash Lall that makes him abandon sensible thinking, Modhun wonders.
The next day, he is back in the field. It is harvest time and Modhun is on a gang fetching fifty-pound bundles of cane to the punts that will transport them down the canal to the factory. Some of the others help Modhun with his share out of sympathy. Akash Lall, however, makes no acknowledgement of Modhun’s pain.
Cholera struck the Hesperus’s cargo full-bore in the fifth week. Five eventually died. Each casualty was dumped off the side without fuss. Once, when they were on the disposal crew, Modhun saw Akash Lall flinch as the victim’s body met the dark water with no more splash than a pebble.
By the end of the second month they were in the far south and the weather was too cold to walk the decks. Pressed together in the hold, Modhun heard the whispered conversations of the others. The confinement was tearing down barriers between castes already. Ramesh, a brahmin, and Haimant, a sudra, discovered their mutual love of flute music and became friends arguing over how the best flutes were made. Kavita’s mother told everyone that there would be schools for the laborers’ children in Demerara and she thought that Kavita would do well there. Kavita seemed to take the crowding better than any of the two-hundred-odd coolies. To her, Demerara would be a place of ease and opportunity and she talked constantly about owning her own cow.
Even with the unfaceable cold outside, the body heat of all those people and the stillness of the air made Modhun sweat precious water constantly. Venkatash, one of the older coolies, suffocated in his sleep one night.
By the third month they were in warmer waters, but despair was even more prevalent. It was now clear that they had been lied to horribly about the length of the voyage. Some of the coolies attacked the chokidars, demanding that the ship turn back for Calcutta. One man broke another’s arm over a disputed bowl of dhal and rice.
On the evening that Haimant jumped overboard, Modhun was topside and saw it all. There was a look of deadness in the man’s eyes. He was with Ramesh, who was talking in earnest with much hand movement. Haimant turned to the ocean and smiled as if he saw comfort there. He simply climbed the rail and stepped off. It seemed as if Ramesh was jumping in to rescue him before Haimant had even reached the surface. In the little time the Captain allotted for the search, the two men were not found. They belonged to the Kala Pani now.
The next two times Modhun went on deck, Akash Lall was not there. When the big man finally did show, he avoided looking at the ocean.
“Still thinking about Ramesh and Haimant?” asked Modhun.
“For Ramesh to jump in like that, for a mere sudra, knowing what it meant. I can’t comprehend it.”
“You’re scared, aren’t you? I don’t mean about drowning, but about this water. What it means for your soul.”
“I’m terrified,” said Akash Lall. “I’ve seen death, Modhun. Terrible death. Bullets smashing men’s faces into pulp. Bodies ripe and rotting after weeks in the rain. This journey we’re on, though, it’s far worse than death. This is the end of everything we know.”
There is no identifiable moment when Akash Lall begins to die, but it starts in his mind. For Modhun, the first troubling sign is when the big man hacks off his waist-length hair, muttering only something about the heat when Modhun asks about it. Then, Akash Lall stops taking the headman position that he is so good at in work gangs. Whenever the coolies take a rest break in the field, he sits in a corner and stares at the ground instead of joining in the gossip and the jokes.
When Akash Lall misses two days of work, Modhun goes to investigate and finds a group of coolies taking him to the sick house. Modhun tries to stop them, but they knock him to the ground.
It takes him a week working during his free time, but Modhun builds a small shack away from the other coolies. At the sick house, he hardly recognizes Akash Lall because he has lost so much weight. With hardly any effort, Modhun carries him back and places him on a mat in his new hut.
Though she has already found herself a new man, Akash’s wife agrees to supply Modhun with vegetable broth and mashed plantains for the sick man to eat.
“He was very good to me,” she tells him. “He treated me like I was his own sister. He’s a kind man. Very sweet.”
That is not the Akash Lall that Modhun knows. But surely there is something to the man? After all, why is Modhun so determined not to abandon him to the sick house?
Akash rarely speaks. Mostly, he demands covers, for the fever makes him constantly tremble. The rest of the time he stares out into a distance that only he can see, fear on his face.
Modhun dresses the sores that climb Akash’s legs. He bathes Akash’s emaciated body with a warm washcloth. He combs his ragged hair. But the care is futile. Akash’s skin goes ashen and scaly and his hair thins and hangs limp, with gray corrupting the black.
The effort of tending to Akash strains Modhun’s endurance, for he must still work in the field during the day. He feels himself getting weaker. More and more, he takes the necklace of Kali from its hiding place and stares into the haunted ruby eyes of her fifty-one victims, questioning them. Were they also led to their demise with promises of riches and glory?
Sometimes, when he remembers their arguments on the ship and the way that Akash seemed to bend the world to his will, Modhun wonders if the ragged scarecrow on his floor is the same man he knew on the Hesperus.
In the middle of the August heat, Akash dies, the fear and hopelessness still there in his wide open eyes. Modhun has had the fever for two days himself by that time. He convinces the others to clear some space in the middle of a field and they cremate Akash on a pyre of canes.
That night, Modhun is awakened by screams and angry shouts. His vision swirls and his feet refuse to hold him up. He crawls to the doorway to find all the fields ablaze. He thinks that this cannot be, that they doused Akash’s pyre thoroughly, but every bit of the horizon is burning and the heat makes Modhun sweat. The smoke streams upward like a waterfall in reverse. All through the air, dark bits of charred cane leaf float like dark butterflies.
As Modhun loses consciousness, the smoke parts to reveal Kali, standing as tall as the sky, her dark face lit up from below by the conflagration. The giant goddess is dancing, her tongue stretched out to taste the panic and dread of the coolies. With each step she tramples the thin, bloody, corpse of Akash Lall into the mud.
Then, there is blackness.
The sickness does not kill Modhun. He is one of the few to ever walk out of the sick house. However, the nightmare vision of Kali from the fever-induced delirium of that night rides along in his memory for the rest of his time in Demerara.
A few of the coolies choose to stay on when their contracts end, but Modhun takes the next ship back to Calcutta. He sells the necklace of Kali the first chance he has and the money he gets for it multiplies in his hands with every investment. Clothes of silk, jewelry, servants, and a mansion are all his in no time.
Supervising the embarkation of a load of tea one day, Modhun is accosted by a beggar-woman. He raises his hand to push her aside then recognizes that she is Kavita’s mother.
She tell him that she returned to India with her new husband and two children. At the train station, her husband told his family to wait while he bought tickets and then he disappeared. It seems he was too ashamed to return to his village with a low-caste wife.
Modhun gives her some money and a job mending potato sacks. That night, he leaves the strong arms of his latest lover and gazes over the ocean from his balcony. The wind is cold and he knows why: It is the breath of the Kala Pani, whispering to him and bringing him dreams of the past.
Modhun was careful to pick a time when Akash was below deck to visit the bow of the Hesperus. Once there he removed the necklace of Kali from his dhoti and stared at it. It felt like a poisonous thing in his hands. Like he was holding not the necklace of Kali, but the serpent of Shiva.
His visions were truth, Modhun knew. If he were to keep this stolen prize, all the ambitions that had burned in him as a temple servant would be realized. But were those his ambitions still? Modhun coiled the necklace in one hand and contemplated the deepness of the black sea.
No matter what he did, there was no reason to think that Akash would not end up dead anyway. The memory of Akash’s despairing eyes and the pain of those last days still to come was too insistent to defy, however. ‘Kali Mai,’ Modhun prayed, ‘I give this back to you. Save us. Save him.’ The necklace of Kali blazed white in the moonlight as it streaked from Modhun’s hand and struck the ocean like a burning meteor.
Behind him, slow handclaps. Akash was leaning back on the rail, approval on his face. He said, “That Kali is a bitch, isn’t she, Modhun? The thing most people forget, though, is that she’s a force for good.”
“You know, Akash, I don’t believe you’re a bandit at all.”
“No?” Mischief lit up his smile as he approached Modhun. “Then I confess—I am really a Rajput prince, heir to a wealthy throne, who is running away from the demands of courtly life.”
“A prince of demons, you mean,” said Modhun. “Sent to torment and confound me with—”
Akash took Modhun’s hand, brought it to his lips, and kissed the top of it. “My sweet thief.” Akash pulled him inward.
As he let himself be held, his forehead against Akash’s chest, Modhun felt the tightness in his muscles evaporate. For the first time in his adult life, he was at peace. It was not long before, among many other delightful things, he discovered for himself what it felt like to kneel before Akash.
In the quiet, misted, dawn of the next morning, they awoke on the deck. When Modhun lifted Akash’s heavy arm off his waist and sat up, he sighted land for the first time in four months. Modhun knew the landscape of mudflats and heron-dotted trees immediately. This was Demerara, the land of his visions. But where were the lighthouse and the red-roofed clock tower? Where were the donkey carts and the fields? Where were the sahibs?
“There’s no one here,” he said. “There’s supposed to be a whole town.”
“There’s no one on the ship either,” Akash said.
Instead of shouting and hustling, the topside of the Hesperus echoed only with silence. Where were the officers yelling orders and the sailors readying their lines for port? Where were the sneering chokidars?
Modhun smashed open the lock on the cargo hatch with a crowbar he found. By the time the other coolies had all climbed up to the deck, the ship had drifted up what was unmistakably the Demerara river and run aground far from either bank. A search of the ship found no crew, but the stores were intact and a lavish lunch was soon underway.
It was afternoon before the first boats showed up. They were small, pointed things with round bottoms that looked impossibly unstable. The men inside were brown-skinned, with dark, straight hair, and wore little clothing. In the confused communications that followed, with hand waving and raised voices and strange sounding words, one thing became clear: these Demerarians had never seen people like the coolies or a ship like the Hesperus. Somehow, through the shifting tides of the Kala Pani, the coolies had come to a Demerara where the British had never set foot.
The coolies soon convinced the men in the boats to take them ashore. When Modhun stepped, barefoot, onto soft soil he felt like he was coming home.
‘This is a gift from Kali,’ he thought.
Thirty years later, not far from that same spot, Modhun watched Kavita’s grandchildren play on the shore, chasing their ‘Uncle’ Akash, whose hair still streamed regally about him. This new world had been kind—everything Modhun had asked for that night on the Hesperus. But the tears still ran down his cheeks when he remembered the coolies of the other Demerara, stranded on the far shore of the Kala Pani.
In real life, what I’ve called the final voyage of the Hesperus was the first in a century of immigration from India to the West Indies, starting in 1838. The conditions on the sugar estates shown in Modhun’s visions are based on historical documentation of the way the early immigrants were treated. The British government actually suspended the immigration program from time to time until better guarantees about safety, health and justice were put in place.
Today, the descendants of Indian immigration have created a unique home and culture for themselves, better by far than what their forefathers left behind. It is the pain of those forefathers that made this new world possible, however. It may seem strange to honor them by erasing their struggle from history in the story, but I felt that they deserved a world where they could escape the indignity of the estate, even if it was only in fiction.
After the initial publication of this story, the journal kept by the doctor of the Hesperus was discovered in Britain. The journal reveals that the immigrants were actually well cared for on the ship and ate well. They emerged healthier than they boarded. The cholera attacks and the two drownings did take place, however, as well as the bullying by the chokidars, being lied to about the journey’s length and the overcrowding in the hold.
The details of suffering in estate life portrayed in the story remain true to current historical scholarship.
THE FINAL VOYAGE OF THE HESPERUS first appeared in Time Well Bent: Queer Alternative Histories, from Lethe Press.
Copyright © 2009, Steven Adamson. All rights reserved.