Author’s Note – This is a work-in-progress which I’ll be updating scene by scene, for doughboycafe and neurotype’s historical fiction workshop. Click away if you only want to read my final draft.
Dharam suppressed the yawn as best he could and blinked hard to get the drowsiness out of his eyes. The sun, itself not fully awakened, lit the cantonment’s courtyard in a sweet orange while crows debated across several palm trees. To his left his squad mates stood evenly spaced, and to his pride, they too hid any tiredness. Even the new recruit, Kamalesh, took his cue from the older soldiers and held perfect composure. They and the rest of their platoon balanced an Enfield rifle in the slope position, ready for the inspection.
“These blasted mosquitos.” Out of the two white men stood in front of them, this was the one Dharam didn’t recognise. “Blasted heat and blasted ‘Jewel of the . . . Empire.’ He seemed to be suffocating in that officer’s uniform though it was the coolest part of the day. Dharam supposed that it didn’t help that his rotund figure begged a larger uniform.
<<Our native bugs lust over the taste of white men’s blood,>> whispered Nataraj in Hindi. <<It’s far too dangerous for you here, Sir Piggy. Why don’t you . . .>>
Nataraj trailed off when he looked at Dharam, but the playfulness remained on his young lips. Dharam would have to speak to him afterwards. Even if Sir Piggy couldn’t understand the language of the men he commanded, certain talk is best left for the barracks.
To Dharam’s embarrassment, Lieutenant Mitchell had Nataraj locked in a most severe stare. Beside him, Nataraj shifted the rifle a little to cover up his wilting. Fool. The Lieutenant understood Hindi well enough ,but at least he was too far to have heard Nataraj’s exact words. While Dharam told himself that, Mitchell’s face reddened. The whole platoon must have noticed by now. Everyone except, Sir Piggy.
“Let us see what we came to see,” he said, smacking a mosquito on his neck.
Mitchell’s attention snapped away from its focus on Nataraj and he addressed the platoon. “This is Lieutenant Colonel Hogge and he has been sent by the honourable East India Trading Company to observe you as you carry out the new Enfield rifle drills. I trust that you will do yourself and me proud in your skill and conduct.”
Dharam heard an exhalation from Nataraj that blew by the knife edge of a scoff. They would do themselves proud, yes, always – but the praise of this Lieutenant Colonel was not as valuable as these officers may have assumed. Hogge and Mitchell moved to their positions beside the now firing squad.
“Platoon exercise by motions, standing!” Mitchell called out. “Prepare to load!”
Half turn to the right. Rifle butt stamps to ground. Remove cartridge from the pouch. Dharam noted that the paper cartridge was different today. Glossy.
Bite and rip the paper cartridge. Pour the gunpowder down the barrel. Reverse the cartridge and seat the bullet in the muzzle. Drop cartridge. Grip ramrod.
Draw out ramrod and ready it.
Push the bullet down. Tap it twice to check.
Pull out the ramrod. Return to its slot under the barrel.
Raise rifle to horizontal position. Half-cock. Remove cap from pouch. Seat it.
“As a front rank, at three hundred yards, ready!”
Set sight at range. Full-cock.
Gun to shoulder height. Finger on trigger. Aim at hypothetical enemy. And fire. A jagged volley of gunfire beside him. Paper confetti and gun smoke. Return to prepare to load position. Dharam fingered the glossy cartridge, ready for the order.
Dharam found Nataraj where Kamalesh said he would be: behind the barracks, refusing to go in. He had missed breakfast and was now sat here in the dirt. The young man hid his face and wept.
<<What happened?>> Dharam asked. <<Has someone died? Your mother?>>
Nataraj threw his hands down. <<Yes, sergeant!>> he said. <<Someone has died, but not my mother. Me. I have been murdered. I’m dead! You’re . . .>> He covered his face again.
The dramatic performance threw Dharam for a moment. <<Come. Calm down and get up, brother. Stop crying and tell me what happened.>> He placed his hands over Nataraj’s arms and brought him to his feet. <<What happened?>>
With gasping breaths Nataraj calmed himself down, but the tears trickled through his whole story. <<I left the cantonment to get some breakfast, because I didn’t – didn’t want to be scolded by you. I did not care so much, but I did not want everyone to laugh at me in the canteen.
<<When I went to a shop to order food, I was refused service. They said I was unclean and had to leave their premises. I said that they were mistaken. I am a Brahmin. But they pointed at my uniform and said that we were all unclean . . . that the cartridges we used were lubricated with the fat of . . . cow and pig.>>
Dharam flinched. << Those are disgusting lies, Nataraj. Why would you believe them?>>
<<They said rumours are coming from Dum Dum. Protests. Mutiny. The British are doing this to us.>> His eyes were wide with fear. Nataraj believed this. He believed life as he knew it had ended.
<<The British would do no such thing. You must calm down.>>
<<The Christian preachers!>>
<<They’re everywhere! Always in the streets, trying to spread their reach. They want us to lose our caste so when we’re rejected by our families and communities, when we’re friendless and godless, they think they will take us.>> Nataraj wiped his tears. The moment of anger passed and his grief returned. Enough of this nonsense. Rumours should not break a man’s heart.
Dharam put a hand on Nataraj’s shoulder. <<Go inside the barracks. Nobody will say you are unclean, because you are not. You are still a Brahmin. Everything is well. I will go to Lieutenant Mitchell now and ask him with what the new cartridges are lubricated with and then you shall know the truth.>>
Nataraj’s lips trembled. <<No. I can't trust them. They will lie.>>
<<Then trust me. Everything is well.>>
Hogge wafted himself with some paperwork as he sat behind Mitchell’s desk. Mitchell stood against an open window, probably to find relief in the smallest breeze. Dharam saluted them both.
“Is this important, sergeant?” Mitchell asked.
“Yes. Sirs, I’ve come to inquire about something I noticed in this morning’s exercise.”
“Oh?” It was no surprise that Hogge was irritated, seeing as he was still being suffocated by that uniform. “Come on then. Out with it!”
Mitchell waved his hand. “Now is not a good time. You will have to come back later. The Lieutenant Colonel and I–” Hogge laughed over Mitchell’s dismissal.
“Oh no no no,” Hogge said without mirth. “Let’s hear this. What is it you wish to inquire?”
“The cartridges, sir. They –”
Hogge slammed his fist onto the desk. “The cartridges! The cartridges!” he yelled. “What about the cartridges? No, don’t look at Mitchell, look at me. What about the cartridges?”
“They’re different,” Dharam said. “We wondered–”
“We?! There are more of you, are there? What did I say, Mitchell? What did I say?”
Dharam froze with the unfinished question. What is happening?
“Sir, if you’d let Sergeant Dharamshal finish,” Mitchell said. “I’m sure his line of questioning would not have led to any . . . trouble. We have fine Indians here. Loyal soldiers.”
His words seemed to quell Hogge. “Yes, well,” Hogge said. “Many a fine nigger has been turned by this cartridge business. I’ve seen it. A type of madness goes over them.”
The men lapsed into silence. Dharam knew Mitchell could not rebuke a superior, but it burned him.
“Sirs? The . . . rumours?”
<<It’s nothing,>> Mitchell said. “Vicious lies to destabilise the Bengal Army. Think nothing of it.”
Hogge shook his head. “These lies will need to be addressed. This mutiny shall be quashed before it begins.”
“Yes,” Mitchell said. “We shall talk to the troops. Reassure them.”
Dharam nodded in relief. It was more painful that he thought it would be, but it was done. “Sirs, thank you. It is most appreciated.”
“Good,” Mitchell said. “Sergeant, I can trust you and your squad won’t play any part in the spreading of these rumours.”
“Of course not, Sir. It would do us ill if these rumours were believed.”
Mitchell nodded. “Dismissed then.”