Fiction: The Wounds of Sun Time

by Parul Kapur Hinzen ’89SOA Published Winter 2013-14
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A couple of minutes later Suraj Ali finally appears in khaki pants and sweater vest, carrying a large wooden tray with both arms tensed. Cautiously he mounts the steps in his ragged slippers. A tall, embroidered cozy shields the teapot.

“What happened to you today? Why did it get so late?” He doesn’t answer me, so I continue scolding him, “I’ve called down so many times. None of you came up to say anything.”

Suraj Ali sets the tray down on the cane table, pushes the ashtray away, and greets me with his head tilted lower than usual. “Guha Sahib’s servant came to talk to us,” he finally says. Guha, a senior marketing manager, lives down the main road. “He said a big crowd is gathering; they’re going to bungalow 18. He kept telling us to join them, but we didn’t want to get involved. I told him I’m not even a Hindu — the Sahib there killed a cow.” Bungalow 18 is half a mile up the secluded lane of houses that terminates at our drive. Two bungalows and a small forested patch of land separate us from no. 18.

“What happened there?”

“The Sahib shot a cow.”

“What?” I keep my eyes fixed on him. Who would shoot a cow? For what reason?

“He shot a cow that entered his compound last night. The English Sahib. Now everyone wants to go to his house and confront him. They’re feeling very angry — very bad.” Yesterday evening, as he was cleaning the kitchen after all the servants had eaten, Suraj Ali says, he heard several blasts. They seemed to come from far away, making him think someone was on a night shoot in the forest. The hooter erupts in a long, sharp cry. Suraj Ali pauses, looking away to the road, then goes on, saying the others heard the shots, too, but no one knew what they meant. It turns out the English Sahib in bungalow 18 had several servants, all Hindus, who saw exactly what happened, according to Guha’s servant. They gathered up their families and ran out of the compound, telling people along the road their Sahib had killed a cow, the word spreading down the labor lines, to the workers’ quarters near the refinery. “Everyone is coming to know, Sahib,” Suraj Ali insists. “They’re going to punish him for what he’s done.”

Reggie Platt is in bungalow 18 — R. H. Platt. He’s listed on a board at the club as winner of a tennis tournament some years back. The in-charge at the crude-oil distillation unit, I believe. We have a nodding acquaintance. He’s a technical man, so we don’t move in the same circles. I was at the club for picture night yesterday — there was no word of the incident there. I don’t understand why Platt would shoot a cow. Surely he knows the cow is venerated by us. He’s a stern sort of man — that was the impression I had. You’d expect such a man to respect rules and norms.

“The cow wandered into the lawn,” Suraj Ali says in a hollow tone. He concentrates on the floor with a look of dismay, though he’s a Muslim and the shooting cannot feel as hurtful to him as it does to a Hindu servant. To any Hindu. Even to me. “He started shouting at it to get out, and before his servants could shoo it away with a stick, he brought his rifle and began firing from high up in the balcony. They couldn’t even run out to rescue it, because he was in such a temper they were afraid he’d shoot them.” As Suraj Ali tells it, I don’t know how to understand Platt’s action — it seems deliberate. A taunting of his servants, who looked on helplessly.

I’m running late today, which I deplore. Less than fifteen minutes till office starts. Usually I like to reach there ten minutes early. I climb down the outer stairs to the dining room — bathed, dressed, shoes hurriedly buffed by Suraj Ali. We stay in a Chang bungalow, a wooden house raised on pillars, about ten feet off the ground, in the Assamese style. Elevation protects us from rainy-season floods and, it’s said, wild animals. We did once have an elephant and her calf, who strayed out from the forest and plodded around the garden as we watched from the windows. Halfway down the steps, I pause, hearing shouting in the distance. I study the road as it bends around the house, curving away from view, trying to follow the sound. Vague cries, as if people are calling out to each other. I lean over to look as far down the Margherita Road as I can. Now I hear what sounds like wailing, and a shorter, pulsing cry — a chant — but that could be a bird.

Varinder is cutting into a grilled tomato with his fork at the table. The dining room is windowless, painted bright pink, the only room under the main floor of the house. As Suraj Ali sets down a plate of toast in front of our other housemate, Romen, a geologist, I ask him if he’s heard the shouting outside.

“Must be those people going to see the Sahib,” the servant mutters. He hangs back by the pantry door, waiting to hear what we have to say about it.

I remain standing and tell Romen and Varinder about the shooting. Last night Varinder and I went to see From Here to Eternity at the club, then had a drink at the bar. It was 11:00 by the time we got home. “I’ll stop by his place and tell him there can be some trouble if he doesn’t apologize to them.”

“Never mind. Let him sort it out himself — foolish man,” Varinder says stiffly. Switching to Punjabi, he urges me, “Sit down, Teji. Have your breakfast.”

“I came back around 10:15 from Shyam’s place,” Romen says, squinting behind his glasses. “One bad hand after the other.” He has a fondness for cards, like me. “I didn’t hear anything. Everything looked normal.”

“Sit down, Teji,” Varinder says.

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