Through the holiday, Tess had become accustomed to expecting Sunni’s attention, but she now found he was dispensing it meanly. It grieved her these last few days when he said he could not come with her on the morning horse rides. She was not at all sure if the hotel staff or the grooms down at the stables had noticed her interest so she looked for confirmation in their faces. If they knew anything, they gave no indication. Well, that’s what they were paid for after all. As for Sunni, he had phone calls to make, people to see, workmen to supervise, and he had to say his prayers.
Perhaps Sunni saw her only as his one out-of-season tourist, and fair game at that. In intimacy, his message was clear. By the light of day, it had come to spell a warning of caution or simply a lack of interest. She was not sure which. She gathered that it was permissible for her to ride alone into the parklands with just the groom, but not with him, not with Sunni. She could not measure him on her terms and it frustrated her. There would have been some satisfaction in protesting, but she did not. She knew better than that.
This place with its ragged farmlands and its makeshift habitations isolated her from the thin air, the greyishness, the damp orderliness of home – all paused in her mind’s eye … buildings, cars, subways, cafes. The blast of her city traffic muffled into Indian birdsong. Here there were no roads, no pavements, no coffee queues, no raincoats. There were narrow tracks, and shrubbery snug with surprises: little brown-faced children with skeletal arms and blue-black hair; wizened old hags with bare crinkled midriffs, bent under huge bundles of twiggish branches; flea-bitten buffalo herded by girls waif-like and sullen, who were swathed in their mothers’ red-dyed cottons.
That day before her departure, it was different. When she came for her ride, three horses – not two – were saddled. She understood that there was a plan of sorts. Sunni was in the stable yard taking his tea in silence and smoking a cigarette while the men squatted around him in the sand, relating to him the business of the coming day. When he was done, he stood up and, giving her only the briefest of glances, said, ‘Shall we go?’
Riding partly on the dirt track and partly on the grassy banks, they cleared the encampment, picking their way through a miscellany of sheep, and dogs, and a crowd of grubby infants that ran alongside them squealing at the sight of the horses. Sunni always rode the new and most skittish mares. Tess rode directly behind him while Bhanji, the dark-skinned groom, trailed them at a distance. From time-to-time Sunni’s horse nose-dived or leapt, and once or twice its hooves spat dirt into her face.
‘Not so close,’ he called, half turning and spreading one hand towards her as he rode. ‘Or you’ll be coming with no teeth.’
As he pushed his horse forward, his good humour restored, she heard him chuckle. Keeping her head down, clear of the low branches, she watched him, observing the ease with which his body balanced the movement of the animal. She asked herself how a man – this man – could align his passions with belief in his gods, how he could pray in all sincerity, and then love illicitly.
He led her out beneath the hills into a vast field of shoulder-high corn. It seemed impenetrable, but then she saw that it was burrowed through with snake-thin paths. The air was humid and she was thankful for the flood of breeze rushing past her ears, drying the perspiration that mottled her brow. Bhanji rustled past her on his horse and took the lead. Sunni fell in behind him as he made his way through the bristling stalks. Slowing his horse, Bhanji looked around him as though in doubt. The two men paused, exchanged a rapid burst of words. Then the groom turned his horse and retraced his steps, brushing past her again, leather against leather. Sunni stayed at the rear. She turned to look at him.
‘Where are we going?’
‘A special place. You’ll see.’ He waved her on.
They continued at a walk, pushing aside the stiff dry crops, trampling them underfoot.
After ten minutes or so they came to a grassy clearing, grazed by a pair of goats. Five, perhaps six, children stood immobile and staring. Behind them, a jerry-built mud structure, with a rough dirt-covered courtyard just visible from the outside. Bhanji was already on the ground, taking the reins of the young mare as Sunni dismounted. Tess slid down from her saddle and followed at a distance, wary of being an object of curiosity. An ancient bespectacled man, draped in soiled white cloth and with legs like bamboo, shuffled forward and bent, with one arm outstretched, to touch Sunni’s feet. Sunni stopped him before he could topple. He chattered at the man then placed his palms together in greeting. The man reciprocated, but with humility, with reverence.
Water was brought to them on a tin tray, carried out from the enclosure by a small boy. Tess reached for one of the glasses.
‘Don’t drink,’ said Sunni.
‘No?’ she said.
He called to Bhanji to bring the bottled water from his saddlebag. And when the bottle arrived, he said, ‘This is yours.’
All along he kept up a lively banter with the old man, and with several generations of his family, who were gradually assembling around them. Then came the hot sweet Masala tea, brought to them in tarnished aluminium beakers.
‘This you can drink.’
The old man sipped his tea and sucked at the flattened end of a cigarette. He studied Tess and directed at Sunni what could only have been questions about her.
‘He wants to know if you are married and how many children you have.’
‘Surely he knows,’ said Tess.
Sunni translated. The man laughed out loud, his bony shoulders juddering up and down. He jabbered back a response.
‘He will help you,’ said Sunni.
‘Do I need help?’ said Tess.
‘He thinks so.’
He and the old man spoke again. ‘What is your problem,’ said Sunni, ‘he will give you magic to fix it.’
‘I don’t mind being fixed.’
‘He can cure cattle of snake bites. I’ve seen it. He has a power.’
‘And city snakes – can he cure those?’
The old man creaked to his feet supported by one of his numerous daughters.
‘Go inside,’ said Sunni, ‘but take off your boots.’ He laughed. ‘And your socks.’
She gave him a look.
‘Go on,’ he said.
She approached the house and leaning against the wall, she wriggled first out of one boot and then the other. She peeled off her socks and wondered at the forgotten whiteness of her feet. The children stood at a distance whispering.
‘Right foot first.’
She turned slightly. ‘Are you coming?’
‘Not allowed.’ He narrowed his eyes and took a long drag of his cigarette. ‘Go on,’ he repeated.
She stepped over the threshold right foot first. At the entrance, the old man poured water into her hands from a silver-coloured pitcher. He ushered her into what looked like a tiny shrine and indicated that she should sit opposite him on the ant-infested ground. Pictures lined the walls around them, symbols, images of gods and goddesses, some cut from newspapers or magazines. All kinds of paraphernalia littered the altar, or what passed for an altar.
This talk of snakes had propelled her back. When she returned – and she would have to return – nothing would be altered. One strange and mystical world was temporary; the other was permanent. Soon this world of the horses, the land, of nature’s busy silence, and of him, would be memory only, images remembered. She could change her location but not her reality. Her snakes would be as before, poisoning the work she loved, making each day a sufferance, sabotaging her every decision. Being away gave her the illusion of it not existing. Her troubles would not go away; they would wait for her to come back. She needed the courage to make it stop, magic if it came to that, a cure for snake bites. She had drawn a line under the limits of her tolerance.
The old man took out a ball of red wool, like the unravelled yarn of someone’s old jumper. He took the end of the strand and ran it between his toes. He measured a length, which he broke off and then entwined around his fingers. From a blackened sheet of rolled newspaper he took two sticks of dun-coloured incense. After two or three tries he lit them with a tiny match.
As the fragrance wafted up between them, he chanted, holding the wool over the incense cloud. He twirled and twisted the yarn. Then, as he spoke incantations, he wove knots into it.
Perhaps she should have wished not for immunity or protection, but for love. Not just that she might be loved, but that she herself might love. Would she then prioritize work before love? Work was real. Love was imaginary. That’s how she saw it. As for the others, would they know, she wondered, that in this precise moment a spell had been cast that flew in their direction? She was charmed, but they were damned. There was at least some pleasure in believing this.
At the entrance to the enclosure Bhanji had approached, curious to watch the proceedings. The old man looked up brusquely from his work and barked a warning at him. The man retreated. The incantation was private and was for her only.
The realisation came to her then that this was her chance, this was her time, and that she should indeed have wished for a love spell to be put on the one she most desired.
Or else in time he would be lost.
And the past fades like our dreams. Had it been so long since that day? Six years, or was it seven?
From the veranda Tess could see the foothills shaded green and purple in the distance. In the forecourt, two tour buses stood with their engines humming. Soon the lunchtime visitors from Jodhpur would file back on board and consult their guidebooks about the next destination. Tess sat in her usual place at the marble-topped table, a glass of rum in front of her. On her many visits to the hotel, she had noted few changes. A coat of paint here and there, some rooms refurbished, horses sold on and new ones purchased. The staff were the same. She knew all their names and they knew about her. The changes were for the most part in herself. Her confidence, her achievements. She could measure her success in terms of financial security, in terms of having the power of the last word, of being the one who signed off on projects, and the one who hired and fired.
An unfurled blind flapped gently behind her. The jarring call of the peacocks rose from the gardens. Sunni was the same. She regarded him as he sat in silence reading his newspaper.
‘Where did you go this morning?’ she asked.
He looked up and reached for his cigarettes. ‘To the old man’s farm.’
‘Old man?’ she said.
‘The medicine man.’ He looked beyond her.
‘He’s still alive then? I’d like to see him again.’
Sunni lit his cigarette and said nothing as though he had not heard, or did not care to hear. Moments passed and then he said, ‘You don’t believe that nonsense?’
‘I might,’ she said.
He gave a snort.
‘Who did you go with?’ she said.
‘Bhanji,’ he said, ‘and one of the French riders.’ With a brief nod he indicated towards the archway.
She turned and followed his gaze. A young blonde woman approached. They exchanged smiles. The girl was fresh from the shower. Her hair hung damp around her neck. Rising to his feet, Sunni called to her.
‘Stand over here,’ he said. The girl moved towards him. A knotted red string drooped around her upper arm. ‘What a mess you’ve made!’ He was chuckling. When she was close, Sunni released the knot and unravelled the yarn.
‘You have to face North,’ he said.
‘Why North?’ said the girl, smoothing a strand of hair from her brow.
‘You always face North.’
And Tess thought, ‘Yes, you always face North.’ He had told her that.
With both hands Sunni gripped the girl’s slim bare arms and turned her around. Then he drew the string around her right arm and knotted it firmly. The girl looked down at his hands as they worked.
‘There,’ he said.
They looked directly into each other’s eyes. He spun her around. He gleamed with new charm. ‘Now it will work,’ he said.
‘Will it?’ said the girl.
‘Oh yes,’ said Tess, ‘I tried it, and it worked for me.’