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Chapter 5. A Land of Ashes

TMO-KANHOJI ANGRE

‘As you can see Guv’nor, we have already completed a quarter of the construction. You can expect things to pick up once spring comes and these bloody rains stop’

The man was pointing at the thirty feet grey wall. The smell of mold and mud wafted through the air, as workers, both white and brown, walked across the street carrying buckets of stones and water. The perilous rain last night had once again halted the construction, but dawn had brought the sunshine, along with the workers back to the site.

Boone stared at the man and gave a slight nod. ‘This is good. What about the shipyard?’

‘It’s almost done Guv’nor. Them folks have already begun building ships, big as any warships I’ve ever seen’

‘As big as the ones in the North Sea?’ Boone asked, a vague smile crossing his face.

‘I wouldn’t know guv’nor. Me father raised me in Dover. Never been to London either. When I was old enough, I jumped aboard a company ship and came here’

‘And do you like it? Bombay, I mean?’

‘Better than Dover, I can tell you that’

Boone grinned. ‘Keep up the spirits.’

The man tipped his hat and walked away. Boone leaned towards Small, who walked by his side and whispered. ‘Keep an eye on that one’

‘Why?’ Small frowned.

‘He’s too happy. Only fools and spies are jolly in times of impending war. Find out if he is the latter’

Small scribbled something in his diary. ‘Back to the mansion then. William Aislabie awaits’

Boone nodded and climbed onto the wagon. Small followed him inside.

‘You worked with William before’ Boone began. ‘What was he like?’

‘Ah well, Lord William was always very affable. A proper gentleman’

Boone shook his head. ‘Oh, Small. You really are a boring man. What about the letters I sent to England? Any replies?’

‘Well, no official replies have come. I have heard rumors from the company offices in London’

‘And?’

Small pressed his lips and said. ‘I’m afraid its bad news my lord. The officials are not very enthusiastic about taking on Angria’

Boone shook his head. ‘Penny counters and paper pushers, that’s what they are. Never mind, I never expected enthusiasm from them. We have another round of business to begin. We need to establish an intelligence network’

‘I see’

‘Angria probably has spies running these streets as we speak. I am sure he knows we’re building walls and ships. We need to counter his spies’

Small shifted in the cushioned seat. ‘How my lord? Lord William before you never tried doing any such thing’

Boone chuckled. ‘That is why we need to do it. Bring me, men. White. Brown. I don’t care. If we win the battle of information, we will win the battle of wood and steel’

The wagon pulled up at the mansion. Small waited for Boone to get down first. He felt queasy, suddenly becoming aware of sweat running down his neck and trickling over his back.

‘Lord William is waiting in the study’ the butler told Boone and Small when they entered the mansion.

‘Have tea sent up’ Boone said. ‘And don’t prepare any lunch. I will have supper early in the evening. Some of our friends like meandering around until midday to piggyback on food’

The butler smiled and nodded.

Lord William was smoking a pipe when Boone and Small entered the study. ‘Governor’, he said and rose to shake Boone’s hand.

‘Lord William. A pleasure to see you’

‘That it must be’ Lord William said. Boone gave a stiff smile and motioned him to sit.

‘It is a surprise to see you here. I thought you must be enjoying the beaches of Southampton, especially after your seven years of service in Bombay’

‘I will return to those sandy shores, Boone, rest assured. I am here on more pertinent business. I’ve not been deaf and blind to the excitement you’ve roused in the men here’

Boone noted the lord referring to him as ‘Boone’. He smiled, keeping up his facade, and leaned back in his chair. ‘Go on’

‘Needless to say, I’ve been here longer than you. I know this land better than any Englishman. In this fight against Angria, you need me. I demand that you let me handle all these matters whilst you sit back. Your predecessor didn’t last three months, all because he was too pompous to listen to me. I advise you to learn from his mistakes’

Boone sighed, eying the lord first and then turning his gaze to the table. The brief moment of silence seemed to last an eternity until Boone exhaled sharply and began. ‘Niceties, I have found, are often nothing more than facades created to waste time. I am short of time right now, as you know. So let me end the niceties I have been showing to you and be frank. You are nothing but a weak old man, capable of nothing but incompetence and envy. Our customs demand me to treat you with respect and dignity, for I cannot forsake a fellow Englishman and a former governor for being a damned fool. But no force on this world will ever compel me to let you run roughshod over my plans. You are a fool, my lord, I don’t say it to insult you, but to merely state a fact. You let that pirate kidnap your wife and then whimpered like a child to have her back. You even paid the ransom to Angria. 30,000 rupees. 30,000! I should have you stripped of your belongings for the cost our country has had to bear for your crippling follies. You brought shame to us, and if I had my way, I would send you to the ends of this world where you would no longer cause us any embarrassment.

A ship will be waiting for you tonight. You will board that ship, along with that old broodmare of a wife you have, and you will never set foot in my city ever again. Speak no more of your expertise on Bombay. Go, NOW’

Lord William rose, gulping as his face grew pale. He didn’t dare to look at Boone and walked to the door. He turned one final time to look at Small, his former assistant. The secretary lowered his head.

Lord Willian’s departure was followed by the butler’s arrival. He set down the tray of tea and left.

‘Sit, Small. I assume you have something to say’

‘Perhaps a softer touch would have worked better my lord’

‘Really’ Boone said, taking a sip from the cup of tea. ‘Perhaps things have been too soft here, Small. That man was here for eight years. EIGHT. And he never thought of fortifying these walls and establishing a solid line of defense. I will suffer no fools around me. Onto other things. More important things. We were talking about maintaining an intelligence network’

Small clicked his throat. ‘Uh, yes. How would you like to go about it?’

‘There are two fronts we have to understand here. The first is eliminating spies Angria has set up here, in Bombay. The second is placing men of our own in forts across the Konkan. Angria at any point of time could be in any Konkan fort. We need someone to run the spy ring. We need a spymaster’

Small wiped the sweat on his face with his sleeves. ‘I will look into it’

‘Do that. I need a report on this by tomorrow morning. Whom do I meet next?’

‘The public redressal meeting. As governor, the people haven’t had the opportunity to meet you yet. They wish to discuss menial matters. I have designated an hour for you to meet these people and listen to their concerns. Mostly local matters. I believe they have begun forming a queue in front of the mansion’

Boone sighed. ‘Yes, send them in. And you stay by my side. You must have a better idea than I about local matters’

A stream of people walked into his study one at a time. The issues weren’t of a wide range. Some wives had come to have their husbands reprimanded for selling off their family jewels. Some husbands came complaining that their wives hit them with washing bats. Goras came complaining about native couples fighting loudly in the night. For a time, Boone was taken aback by the sheer number of marital problems in Bombay. At one point, Small had to intervene and take away a man who was demanding Boone to immediately imprison his second wife, about which the first one naturally knew nothing about.

It must be the heat, he thought, anyone could be agitated into fighting in such weather.

***

A gora emerged from the front door of the mansion and pointed at Aslam. ‘Your turn’

Aslam stepped forward from the queue, shrugging off the buzz of men and women squabbling from his ears. He’d been waiting for three hours, listening to men and women arguing over and over. From time to time, he would turn to look at the white man at the back of the queue. Aslam had seen him a number of times in Survarnadurg.

He stepped into the mansion and followed the gora over the staircase. They stopped at a wide eight-foot door.

‘What’s your name?’ the gora asked in broken Marathi.

‘Aslam’

‘Are you going to keep that cloak on?’

Aslam adjusted his cloak again, bringing it over half his face. ‘Yes’

The gora shook his head and opened the door and asked Aslam to follow him.

Inside, he saw an on an old man sitting behind a sprawling and polished wooden table, surrounded by quills, maps, and scrolls. He was busy reading something. Behind him were two flags, tilted over each other. One was the flag of the Company, Aslam had seen it before. The other was an indigo-colored cloth crossed vertically, horizontally, and sideways by red and white stripes. Beside the flags sat a man, writing something in a diary.

‘Governor Boone. Mr. Aslam is here to see you’ the gora announced and left. Neither of the two men

Aslam quickly assumed the man behind was Boone, and the man sitting beside the flag was Jonathan Small.

‘Step forth, Mr. Aslam. Small, ask him what he wants.’ Boone said, not looking up to see Aslam. Small slipped the diary in his pocket and motioned Aslam to step forth. ‘What your problem?’ he asked in horrific Marathi.

‘If it pleases you, my lord, I know English’ Aslam said, in English.

Boone looked up and leaned back in his chair. ‘Remarkable. And you speak it well too. What do you say Small?’

‘He does it speak well’

‘Well, Mr. Aslam, please sit and tell us what’s wrong. Is your wife beating you as well? Or is a moneylender harassing you?’

Aslam sat down on the chair across Boone, shifting his cloak over his face while doing so. ‘No my lord. That is not my problem. I don’t come here bringing problems.’

‘I see. Why are you here then?’

Aslam sighed, glancing first and then turning to Small. ‘There is a man standing in the queue outside. A white man. He goes by Edward’

‘Does he?’ Boone said, smiling through his puzzled frown. ‘And pray tell me what this Edward wants from me?’

‘Oh, he doesn’t want anything. He comes from Survarnadurg you see. He comes bearing a letter.’

Boone’s face flushed, as he slowly leaned forward. ‘Survarnadurg? Angria’s fort?’

‘The very same’ Aslam said and glanced at Small. The secretary was staring at him in bewilderment.

‘And what does this letter say?’

‘The letter has irrefutable evidence incriminating your secretary, Mr. Small here, as a spy of Kanhoji Angre.’

‘Preposterous’ Small raged, jumping from his chair. Boone raised his finger.

‘And is Small a spy?’ Boone asked.

Aslam rose, fished out a shining gold necklace from his pocket, and tossed it on the table. ‘This is an antique Mughal necklace, worn once by the sister of Shah Jahan. It is virtually priceless. The Mughals passed it down to the Siddis over the following generation, until Kanhoji Angre raided a Siddi vessel. The vessel had many things, liquor, gunpowder, and one particular gold necklace. This necklace. Angre became the proud owner of the necklace then until he decided to gift it to a friend in Bombay. Mr. Small. I retrieved this necklace from his home this morning.’

Small was about to speak but was stopped by Boone again.

‘GUARD’ Boone bellowed.

A guard dressed in the red and white company uniform barged into the study.

‘Fetch a man named Edward from the queue outside. And bring another guard while coming up’

There was utter silence between the three men in the study. The guard barged in a minute later with a man. Another guard followed them in. 

‘Search him’ Boone said. ‘See if he has a letter’

The guard retrieved a letter from the man’s pocket and handed it to Boone.

Boone read the letter, his face blank as he went over it repeatedly. After five minutes of continuous reading, Boone set the letter down and took a deep breath. ‘Mr. Edward?’

Edward nodded. ‘My lord. I came here to expose the fiends in your counsel’

Boone gave a wry smile. ‘I see. Guards, arrest Mr. Edward. Put them in a dark dingy cell, while I decide how to kill him’

Small stood quietly, his face pale and placid as the guards dragged away Edward. Boone poured a glass of wine and pushed it towards Aslam.

‘Do you have something to say Small?’

Small lowered his head and took a step forward, his hand reaching for his jacket pocket. Then, he jumped towards Aslam.

Aslam moved sideways, striking Small’s outstretched arm with his elbow. The knife fell from Small’s hand and fell to the floor. Aslam lunged to the ground, grabbed the knife and struck it into Small’s belly as the secretary rushed towards him.

Aslam eased Small onto the floor, planting the knife deeper into his belly, and then returned to the chair across Boone.

‘And now, perhaps you will tell me what you want, Mr. Aslam?’

‘I’ve only ever wanted one thing my lord’ Aslam said, shrugging off the cloak to reveal his other half. A gashed open wound sat on Aslam’s left cheek, reaching down to his cheekbones and blackened across the edges.

Boone’s eyes widened as he saw Aslam’s half burnt face, his white skull protruding from the side of his jaw and moving against a lump of flesh. Blackened flesh formed around his sunken eye socket, slithering every time he moved his eyes.

Boone gulped and took a sip of wine, but didn’t flinch at seeing Aslam. ‘And what is it that you want?’

‘What only you can give me, my lord. Vengeance, and a land of ashes’

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