Hey there! Thanks for your willingness to dive in a read the first chapter of my new novel, “4 Fathers.” This is the first chapter: “Above all, We are British.”
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The voice rang out through the whole house, along the stone floors covered with thick wool carpets, past the framed pictures of neat and proper descendants from England, past the thoroughly polished teak bookshelves. The voice was so loud and commanding that it reached all the way to the kitchen where Maya was preparing roast lamb in the wood-fired oven, mashing potatoes, and cooking brussel sprouts to mushy extinction, just as the family required her to do. The voice even traveled up the dark, wooden stairs, along the dark wooden panels, all the way to the upstairs sitting room where Alice was trying to enjoy a quiet cup of afternoon tea, and a dip into Homes and Gardens Magazine that had just arrived from England. It was three months out of date. The voice traveled out through the grand front doors, embossed with the family’s emblem, and landed firmly in the ear of Jagadeep Patel, who was napping in the shade of the covered front porch. In fact, the voice landed so forcefully in the servant’s inner ear that it caused his body to animate even before he was fully awake, and sent the young man torpedoing down the hallway towards the origin of that loud, commanding colonial British voice.
Jagadeep had omitted in his haste to properly affix his chapal to his foot. Hence he slipped, just before reaching the master’s study. He slammed with full force into the huge wooden table in the hall, the one that supported the weight of a vase that seemed — to Jagadeep — big enough to hold an elephant. Jagadeep’s shin took the brunt of the collision and delivered him a pain so searing that it caused him to black out for a moment. Then the thought flashed through his mind that he must have broken a bone. At least. But that thought was promptly cut short.
“Jagadeep.” The voice boomed again. “Where the devil are you?”
“I’m here, Sahib.” Jagadeep gasped as he limped into his employer’s study.
“What the devil is wrong with you, man?” Colonel Reginald Keenagh was staring at Jagadeep’s shin. The servant glanced down. His thin, cotton, kurta trousers were stained with blood so profusely that the red of the blood had started to eclipse the natural cream color of the cotton.
“So sorry, Sahib.” Jagadeep looked at the floor. “I tripped and hurt my leg.”
“Well get it cleaned up, for God’s sake. The blood will drip onto the carpet. Now, what the devil are these?” Col. Keenagh pointed accusingly at a vase of flowers that had been placed that morning on his vast oak desk.
“They are merry golds, Sahib. Mrs. Keenagh asked me to pick them and bring them into the house. Very merry flowers. These are not gold ones, but red.” He tried to force a smile, which sent a dull echo through the room as it hit the stone floor.
“I see. And do you see Mrs. Keenagh here in the room with us now?”
“Where exactly is she, currently?”
“Upstairs, Sahib, with her new copy of Homely Gardens, arriving just now post-haste from Great England.”
“Exactly, Jagadeep.” Colonel Keenagh now did his best to sound patient, calm, and authoritative. But both men felt — the British officer in his itchy tweed suit and the servant in his thin, bloodied cotton pajamas — the tension in the air. “Take these flowers upstairs — marigolds man, not merry golds, MA-RI-GOLDS, and never, I repeat, never bring them in here again. They smell disgusting.” The colonel thrust the vase towards his servant. “And while you’re at it, go find master Anthony and tell him to come here.”
It did not take long for Jagadeep Patel to search for the seven-year-old boy of the house. He knew exactly where to look, after depositing the marigolds (“MA-RI-GOLDS… marigolds.. marigolds,” he recited as he walked) at the bottom of the stairs for later delivery. Still limping, he went as fast as he could to the wooden gate at the end of the compound.
He opened the gate and was delighted when he saw his friend Rakesh, riding his old Raleigh bicycle down the lane. “Bhaisaab, can you please tell Master Anthony to hurry back home. His father wants to speak with him.”
Rakesh only had to glance in the direction of Jagadeep’s right pajama pant to understand why the servant could not complete his duties on his own: he had no bicycle, and he was bleeding profusely. “No problem, bhai. But you owe me, remember. You owe me.”
Jagadeep nodded to his friend, and did his best to weakly smile.
Less than 10 minutes later, Anthony Keenagh returned home. His brown hair was cut short, parted on one side, framing his round face, He wore tweed shorts, a white short sleeved cotton shirt, knee length brown cotton socks and brown leather shoes. His clothes and naked knees were generously adorned with grass, mud, and dust. Just behind him, with equal doses of vigor and enthusiasm, followed his faithful dog, Shiva: a golden retriever. Wherever Anthony went, Shiva went too. Shiva had been born on the very same day as Anthony, as part of a neighbor’s litter, and was adopted by the Keenagh family as a puppy when Anthony was only two months old. Golden retrievers were a rarity in India, where most of the dogs were wild mongrels.
Boy and dog bounded towards the house, and directly to the door of his father’s study, where Anthony stopped abruptly and remembered to check his attire. He did his best to brush away the grass and mud, the tell-tale signs that he had been playing cricket with the local Indian boys, something which always earned his father’s contempt. Anthony knocked on the imposing, oak panel door.
“Enter.” His father’s voice boomed.
“You wanted to speak to me, father?”
“Yes, indeed. Come on in, old boy, and come over here.” Anthony shuffled timidly to stand beside his father’s desk, moving close enough to the desk to hide his muddy knees. But his father knew the boy too well. He knew his secret pleasures, how to root them out, and how to deny them in the name of building his character.
“Where have you been, Anthony? I had understood that after school, you would be in the nursery doing your mathematics and English homework as we agreed. It took a devil of a long time for you to get here, after I sent Jagadeep to find you. Considerably longer than the insignificant trip from the nursery to my study.”
“I did my homework, Father.” Anthony replied. “So Shiva and I took a walk together.” All would have been well, had Anthony’s face not turned a reddish color and his voice gone up half an octave. His father knew well enough the signs of when his son was lying.
“Would you care to bring your completed homework here for me to see?” The question was rhetorical. Colonel Keenagh did not even pause for an answer before continuing. “What do you think is going to become of you, young man? Remember, above all, you are British. You are a member of the greatest Empire that has ever existed in human history, or that ever will. You are a subject of King George the Fifth. God save the King.”
“God save the King.” Anthony dutifully repeated, glad that the subject had strayed from his homework, which was not only incomplete, but had not been started, and was still resting in its virgin state on the thin shelf under his desk in the school house.
“You have a responsibility to uphold the values of the British Empire. If you apply yourself, you can become the Viceroy or even the prime minister. We are British. We bring Christian values and civilized culture to barbarians.” Colonel Keenagh extended a sweeping gesture casually to his right side. Anthony’s eyes followed the gesture, as if expecting to see a huddle of barbarians standing next to the teak bookshelf, eagerly waiting to be civilized. But he saw only a case holding three well polished bolt-action hunting rifles, and above it the stuffed head of a tiger, looking down on them forever frozen in a posture of ferocious rage.
“We run most of Africa, all of India, and a good deal of the rest of the world, under the benevolent eye of King George the Fifth.”
Anthony took an in-breath, ready to repeat the sacred mantra, “God Save the King,“ but his father’s prompt for call and response never came.
Instead, Colonel Keenagh stood up, walked over to the sideboard, another impressive piece of furniture in the same familiar dark wood, and poured himself a glass of whiskey from the crystal decanter there, before seating himself once again in his throne-like chair.
“Now, listen here. I got your half term report from the school today.” The colonel patted some papers on the desk. “And I have to say frankly, I’m disappointed in you. I’d hoped for better. You damn nearly failed mathematics altogether. You just turned seven this summer, didn’t you? I’m seriously thinking to send you back to school in England. You will go to Saint Patrick’s just as I did and your grandfather before me. The term starts in a few weeks, so we’d have to jolly well get a move on with preparations.”
The colonel was unprepared for his son’s response. “Alright, father. When do we leave?”
“What do you mean, boy, ‘we’? I’m not going with you. I’ve got a country to run here.”
“I mean me and Shiva. We can go to England. When do we leave?”
“Don’t be foolish, young man. You can’t take a dog to England on a boat. They would not accept Shiva at the school anyway.”
The boy looked at his dog, and the dog looked back at his master and friend, jumped to his feet, and began to lick Anthony’s knees with drooling devotion.
“We will discuss this further.” His father continued. “You may go.”
On his way out the front door, Tony noticed a package from England addressed to him, “Master Anthony Keenagh, Esq.” It was from his aunt in England, his uncle’s wife, who he did not know, but who had been entrusted to mail him The Magnet, weekly story paper for boys. She waited anywhere from six twelve weeks, and then bundled them all up together in a brown paper parcel, and sent them on to India.
Anthony ripped open the parcel, pulled out the top copy, rolled in up and pushed it down the back of his short trousers. He gathered up the remains of the now torn package, and looked around for what to do with it. He did not want to go upstairs and get entangled with his mother and younger brother. So he slid the remaining package under the hall cupboard. He whistled to his dog, they bound down the steps into the garden, and ran and skipped together over the manicured lawns and out the back gate, back to cricket and back to freedom.
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