Dear Mr Daim,
It is with the utmost urgency that I write this letter. Her Majesty The Queen requires your presence in London to see to a sensitive issue in which your particular expertise and discretion are much-needed. An armed escort has already been dispatched from Calcutta to Lahore and is due to arrive in the coming days. It is imperative that you be ready to leave upon their arrival. Time is of the essence.
Viceroy and Governor-General of India
Mr Daim was sitting on his charpai reading Ghalib when the sepoy, clad in his juxtaposing redcoat and navy blue dastar, handed him the above letter. The sepoy was most certainly a Sikh, a conclusion Mr Daim arrived at after spotting the cast iron kara encircling the wrist of the hand that graciously gave him the above letter. No more than three decades ago, the Sikhs were at war with the British. Back then, a Sikh serving the British was unheard of. Then again, so was the distribution of the above letter to individuals such as the aforementioned Mr Daim.
Many of the sepoy’s fellow countrymen wanted nothing to do with the British. Not long ago, sepoys, much like the one in the dastar of navy, rebelled against their British overlords. They were joined by the likes of Maharani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and, for a brief moment, even the esteemed Emperor Bahadur Shah the Second. They lost. Why? Well, because anyone that could defeat the Sikhs, India’s greatest warriors, were able to defeat anyone. And that’s exactly what the British did. So as far as Mr Daim and the juxtaposing sepoy were concerned, India’s fate was sealed, and they had no qualms serving Her Majesty The Queen.
“Meharbani,” Mr Daim dismissed the sepoy and went about packing his things. A few days later, two Bengali sepoys accompanied by a certain Captain Robertson arrived at Mr Daim’s charpai to find him reading Rumi. As instructed, the party immediately left for London.
This wasn’t the first time Mr Daim found himself voyaging halfway across the world. The nature of his work had taken him all over the globe, from the imperial courts of Peking to the dense jungle forests of the Amazon. He was sure that he must have ventured to the British Isles before. Unfortunately, the details of his last visit were so long ago that they had escaped his memories.
After arriving at the foot of Mr Daim’s charpai, Captain Robertson and his two Bengali sepoys began the second leg of their long journey, this time with their charge in tow. They took a train from Lahore to Multan in the oppressive heat of India’s pre-monsoon skies which proved far too much for the rosy-cheeked Captain Robertson, who had his head hanging out the window for most of the ride. In comparison, the two Bengali sepoys, one Hindu one Muslim, remained unphased, fingers firmly wrapped around their Enfield P59s with the certainty that they needn’t grease their ammunition in pig fat nor beef tallow.
The coach remained quiet among the four men. The two sepoys could speak neither Hindi nor Urdu, communicating with their commanding officer in an amalgamation of banglarised* English and anglicised Bangla. That was, of course, only when and if communication was absolutely necessary for Captain Robertson was a man of few words.
In contrast, Mr Daim was a man of the world. He could speak many languages, from Xhosa to Danish. In fact, he could speak so many languages he wasn’t even sure which one it was that he spoke first. Unfortunately, Bangla was not one of them. Mr Daim decided then and there that he’d spend a few decades living in the winding streets of Calcutta upon his return so he could add another language to his ever-expanding repertoire.
It wasn’t until they reached Multan and boarded the steamboat to Kotri that the party’s silence was broken when Mr Daim pulled out some Hafez from his battered old briefcase. The Bengali sepoys spotted the poetry and, in their banglarised** English, asked for Mr Daim to read it aloud. He obliged. And so for the duration of their trip down the Indus, past the Tomb of Bibi Jawindi and its glazed tiles of blue and white mutilated by nature’s scorn, past the sand smothered mortared brick of the dead city of Mohenjo-Daro waiting to be found again, the words of Hafez brought a little life into a dying world. The Bengali sepoys, despite not knowing a word of Persian, gourmandised on the sweet ghazals with awe that transcended the borders of language. Even the reserved Captain Robertson revelled in its joy, the ecstasy of Hafez soothing the burden of a foreign climate that refused to bow down to the will of an Englishman.
Before they knew it, the party had arrived in Karachi, the ghazals having carried them off the steamboat and onto the Scinde Railway, all the while blinding the men to the passing of day into night and night into day. At the city’s port, the Bengali sepoys bid their farewell to Mr Daim, Captain Robertson and the sweet ghazals of Hafez. They had served their purpose; Captain Robertson had made it to Karachi unharmed by the disgruntled natives. The Bengali sepoys, one Hindu one Muslim, would return to Calcutta, fingers firmly wrapped around their Enfield P59s with the certainty they needn’t grease their ammunition in pig fat nor beef tallow. The responsibility fell to Captain Robertson alone to see Mr Daim reach the British Isles. And so, wasting no time at all, they boarded the first passenger ship leaving port.
The ship sailed westward along the Makran coast before turning southward, weaving around Arabia and slipping into the Red Sea. They were not the first to follow this route, and neither would they be the last. Indian and Roman ships had been making this journey for centuries carrying trinkets and treasures to be sold and bartered in addition to gossip and gospel to be shared and broadened. However, one thing was different: the Suez Canal had opened, bridging the gap between what is Red and Mediterranean, shortening the distance between what is Atlantic and Indian, and more importantly, bringing Mr Daim all the more closer to his destination.
And so as they passed through Sinai, sailing the thin line that divorced Africa from its beloved Asia in the cool ocean breeze, Captain Robertson was cured of his rosied cheeks. The absence of the harsh Indian sun signified the end of the Captain’s conversational reservations. In this relaxed state, Captain Robertson, the man of few words, became a man of many relating the story of his life to Mr Daim amongst a backdrop of long-forgotten kings encased in tombs waiting to be ransacked by ever-enthusiastic explorers.
As it turns out, he wasn’t an Englishman at all but rather a Scotsman born to a fisherman who crossed the boundary of Hadrian’s Wall in search of fame and glory as a rifleman in the British Army. He soon worked his way up to the rank of Captain during the latter half of the Second Opium War and had only been stationed in Fort William for four months when he was tasked with escorting Mr Daim to London. During this time, he learned how to speak his anglicised Bangla and a little anglicised Hindi too. Captain Robertson even went as far as indulging in the local cuisine, something his English colleagues were not too fond of. The one thing he hadn’t become accustomed to was the weather, and he was glad to be out before the height of India’s pre-monsoon season.
A little while after the ship left Port Said, Captain Robertson asked the mysterious Mr Daim a question:
“So, Mr Daim, I’ve told you about me, but what about you? What’s your particular area of expertise?”
“I fear you may not be able to fully grasp the extent of my talents, but you needn’t worry, my friend. All will be revealed in good time.”
To be continued…
*I made this word up, lol. If you know what the Bengali equivalent of “anglicised” is, do let me know.
**Yes, this is indeed a word now.
This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London