The Dancer and the Raja

The Dancer and the Raja
A Novel
Javier Moro
Translated by Peter J. Hearn

For Sebastian, Raja of San Agustín and Bécquer

Providence created the Maharajahs in order to offer a spectacle to the world.

—RUDYARD KIPLING

Children of both sexes should be taken hunting once a week without fail,
and when they are older they should, as a rule, spend at least two weeks a year hunting tigers.

—NOTES ON THE EDUCATION OF A RULER

Maharaja of Gwalior,
General Policy Durbar
, 1925

Everything goes, because passion cannot wait.

—KAMASUTRA 2.3.2

PART ONE

Life Is a Fairy Tale

1

November 28, 1907. Calm reigns over the ocean. The Arabian Sea is as smooth as a vast pool of oil spreading as far as the dark horizon. As it cuts through the coastal waters of India, the SS
Aurore
, a ship of eight thousand tons belonging to Messageries Maritimes, the French shipping company, leaves gentle waves in its passing that ripple the surface of the sea. From its two tall, white smokestacks with a blue band, columns of smoke rise and fade into the starry tropical night. The propeller turns with a regular beat. The ship left Marseilles four weeks earlier with a passenger list composed mainly of English and French colonial civil servants, missionaries, families of colonists, and military men heading for Pondicherry and Saigon, the final destination. If in Marseilles they complained of the cold at the end of October, now they complain about the damp heat that forces all the passengers to sleep on deck. The air is thicker and thicker, as though the moon had the power to warm it. The delightful temperature of the first ports of call—Tunis and Alexandria—is no more than a distant memory. Some first-class passengers have spent the afternoon shooting at albatrosses and seagulls. This is their way of improving their aim, of training for the great hunts that await them.

Stretched out on deck chairs on the upper deck, two women entertain themselves by watching the flying fish that glitter against the dark sea. Some of them crash into the sides of the ship; others land badly on the teak flooring, and a cabin boy picks them up and puts them in a bucket, which he then empties overboard. The younger of the two ladies is a Spanish girl who has just had her seventeenth birthday. Her name is Ana Delgado Briones. With pearl earrings and elegantly sheathed in a green silk dress by the couturier Paquin, Anita has brown hair, which is curled and pulled back in a bun that emphasizes her slender neck. Her face is oval shaped and she has well-proportioned features and big, languid dark eyes. The other lady—Madame Dijon, aged about forty—is her companion. She has a long face and resembles a magpie. She would look like a schoolmistress from the provinces if it weren't for her distinguished attire: a white skirt down to her ankles, a matching muslin blouse, and a wide-brimmed straw hat.

“Tonight, during dinner at the captain's table, shhh …” says Mme Dijon in a low tone, placing a finger over her lips as a sign Anita should keep quiet. “
D'accord
, Anita?”

The Spanish girl nods. They have been invited to have dinner at the captain's table because … It's the last night! The young girl cannot believe it. For her the journey has been never-ending. The first days she wanted to die she felt so seasick, and she begged her lady companion to permit her to disembark at the first port of call. “The rough seas won't last …” Mme Dijon had replied to calm her down. Lola, her maid from Málaga, a small, dark, vivacious girl who is traveling in third class, which is packed with Moslem pilgrims returning from Mecca, also wanted to die. “This is worse than a caravan!” she cried between bouts of vomiting, when she went up to attend “her mistress” every time she was called for. Lola's seasickness had come to an end when the sea became calmer, but Anita has continued to feel nauseated and dizzy for the whole voyage. She is anxious to tread solid ground; the sea is not for her. Besides, she has been dreaming of her new country for over a year. “What will India be like?” she wonders every time a passenger comments that it is nothing like anything a European could know or even imagine.

During the crossing Ana Delgado has been the object of everyone's attention and all the gossip, because of her attractiveness and the mystery surrounding her. The magnificent jewels she likes to show off reveal she is a wealthy young woman; and yet, her talkative manner and her way of speaking, in poor French and with an Andalusian accent, evoke an uncertain background. Everything about her is disconcerting, which, added to her dazzling beauty and glamour, attracts men like bees to a honeypot. An English passenger who has succumbed to her charms has just given her a brooch, a cameo, with two enameled roses and a little mirror. Others are not so gentlemanly. An officer of the French colonial army called her “wasp waist” as he passed her on the stairs. Anita received the compliment with a wicked smile, as she showed him the platinum and diamond ring she wears on the ring finger of her right hand. Enough to silence the Frenchman and any other busybodies, who cannot guess who this strange passenger might be.

When they hear the bell announcing dinner, the two women go down to the restaurant, a wide hall with shining teak walls and a stage on which six musicians in dinner jackets play melodies from Mendelssohn. The round tables, covered with embroidered tablecloths and with the finest Limoges china, are lit by crystal candelabra from Bohemia that tinkle when there is a heavy sea. The captain has invited the women to his table for the farewell dinner. The other guests at the table are three members of the French diplomatic corps who are headed for Pondicherry.

“There has been a lot of mystery during the voyage regarding your person,” one of the Frenchmen says. “So far we still don't know the reason for your journey to India, and we are consumed with curiosity.”

“I already told you once, monsieur. We are going to the home of some English friends who live in Delhi.”

Anita and Mme Dijon have cooked up this little story between them. They are determined to keep the secret to the very end. But no one believes them, not the French diplomats or the crew or the rest of the passengers. Such an attractive young woman, with so many jewels, and Spanish to top it all, is something unheard of in India in 1907.

“Tomorrow, in Bombay, the heat will be much worse,” says Mme Dijon, changing the subject.

“It's a harsh climate and difficult to get used to. India doesn't suit everyone,” joins in one of the Frenchmen, looking askance at Anita.

“I lived there before my husband died …” adds Mme Dijon.

“Oh yes? Where? …”

With great difficulty she manages to distract the Frenchman's attention.

How hard it is to keep a secret! Anita does not like to tell lies, but she realizes she cannot tell the truth. Even though she is burning with the desire to tell all about her life, she knows she has to keep quiet. The raja has given orders. Perhaps for that reason she has not enjoyed the voyage, because the forced silence has isolated her from the others. And even if she had been able to talk … How could she tell the truth? How could she say she is going to India to marry a king? How can she say that over there, in the far-off state of Kapurthala, they are waiting for her as if she were a queen. At the age of seventeen she is going to be the queen of a country that she does not even know … No, she cannot talk about that to the first person that asks her. The raja is right: the story is so improbable that it is better to keep it quiet. It is so incredible that even she finds it hard to believe. Sometimes she thinks she is living in a dream. In three years her life has changed so much that it is like a novel. She has gone from playing with dolls to having a civil wedding with an Indian raja in the town hall in the St. Germain district of Paris. Looking at her slender fingers covered in rings helps her to believe it. And it reminds her of that day, a month ago, in a Paris rainier and more melancholic than ever. My God, what a cold, sad ceremony! It was not the wedding of a princess, of course, just pure paperwork. Dressed in their Sunday best, her parents, her sister, Victoria, the raja, his personal servant, and she went into the offices at the Mairie of St. Germain, and she and the raja came out married a few minutes after signing in some enormous books. Married without pomp or music or confetti or friends or dancing. A wedding like that is not a wedding. They ended up in the Lipp Brasserie eating sauerkraut steeped in Alsace wine and champagne, just like any ordinary holiday. She who had always dreamed of getting married in white, in church, with her school friends and friends from her neighborhood in Málaga singing a gypsy
salve
! That would have been a proper wedding! Gay, not like that funereal, bureaucratic do in Paris. Her heart shrinks when she thinks about her father, poor Don Angel Delgado de los Cobos, so worthy with his thick gray mustache and his air of a Spanish nobleman, but tremendously sad at saying good-bye to his daughter when they left Chez Lipp, his face soaked by the rain or perhaps by tears from handing over his darling daughter to “a Moorish king,” as they called the raja at first, before they got to know him. Yes, he pushed his daughter toward her extraordinary destiny. But he was forced to do so. First, by his own wife, who, although at first she was categorically opposed to the raja's advances, gradually changed her mind at the opulence of the gifts her daughter received. He was also pressured by his neighbors and friends and above all by the “regulars” at the Nuevo Café de Levante, among whom were Valle-Inclán himself, Ricardo Baroja, Leandro Oroz, and so on, all of whom conspired to make Anita into an Eastern princess. “You can't not take advantage of such a good opportunity,” Valle-Inclán very seriously told Doña Candelaria Briones, Anita's mother, when she told him about the raja's plan to carry off her daughter.

“And what about her honor, what do you say about her honor?” replied Doña Candelaria.

“That can be fixed,” the famous writer said, cutting her short. “Demand marriage!”

“Let him come with all the right documents ready, and marry her according to the law, like decent folk!” added Oroz.

In the end that was the only condition imposed by the Delgados. Marriage would salvage her honor. It was the only thing that would allow them to preserve the family dignity, although Don Angel would have preferred not to have let his daughter go so young.

The raja met all the conditions on that gray day in Paris. He agreed to the civil wedding so that his beloved's parents would be happier. But for him it had not been a proper wedding either. The one he had prepared in his country, where Anita was heading by ship and then by train, was going to be like something out of the Arabian Nights. Not even the girl's most dazzling dreams could conjure it up for her. He had told her that on that day, to comfort her for the sadness caused by her definitive separation from her parents.

Poor Don Angel was not only losing Anita. Very shortly he was to lose his other daughter, Victoria, who had met an American millionaire in Paris and fallen madly in love with him. Two daughters leaving them overnight. And all because of a king of the Orient. The man's heart was broken, and Anita knows this. She thinks of him every night before she goes to sleep. She also thinks of her mother and her sister, but less sadly. They are stronger and, anyway, her mother has got what she wanted: not to ever have to worry about money again. “Thank you, Your Highness.” And she prays for them all to the Virgin of La Victoria, “her” Virgin, the patroness of Málaga, as the brightly lit ship approaches the coast of the country of a thousand million gods.

2

At dawn, the SS
Aurore
comes level with the coast and turns to head toward the port of Bombay. Anita and Mme Dijon are leaning against the railing on the top deck. The city appears on the horizon like a soft, dark smudge emerging from the mist. Crossing the waters of the bay are some little fishing boats, each with a triangular sail and one mast. They are
koli
fishermen, the original inhabitants of Bombay, who three centuries ago now were the first to see the Portuguese disembarking, who named the place
Bom Bahia
, the good bay, which gave rise to the present-day name. The
koli
believed that those tall men, with reddish, shiny skin, who came from Goa were near-mythological creatures, as though escaped from some episode of the
Mahabharata,
the great epic Hindu saga. They were preceded by an aura of terror because the Portuguese conquest of Goa had been a tale of death and destruction, of Hindu temples and mosques razed to the ground, of forced marriages of women taken prisoner, and all in the name of a new god who, supposedly, was magnanimous and compassionate. The way the Portuguese began the European colonization of India was not precisely a love story between East and West.

“But the
koli
in Bombay were lucky.” Mme Dijon knew the history of the city well. Her husband had been a French teacher at Saint Xavier's School, the glory of British educational institutions in the city. The Portuguese did not know what to do with the unhealthy swamp that was Bombay, so the king of Portugal gave it to Charles II of England as a dowry when the English king married Catherine of Braganza.

“So this city is a wedding present?” asks Anita, excited and nervous at the prospect of arrival and constantly attentive to the explanations provided by her lady companion.

On the distant shore they can see men squatting and pouring jugs of water over their heads in the morning bath rituals, an Indian invention that first the English and then other Europeans would take over a hundred years to adopt. Buffalo with shiny, black skin amble among the adobe huts with palm leaf roofs. At the mouth of a small river, women with naked torsos wash their hair while children splash in the dark waters. A forest of masts, cranes, and smokestacks announces the proximity of the port: Arab schooners, Chinese junks, freighters with American flags, British navy frigates, fishing boats … The first sight the passengers have of the city is of the promenade, with its palm trees, its dark buildings, and, coming into the port, the imposing silhouette of the Taj Mahal Hotel, crowned with five domes. The mist might remind you of England if it were not for the sticky air and the crows that fly around the decktops and chimneys of the ship, and whose cawing mixes with the wailing of the siren. Dressed for the occasion, Anita looks very pretty, although her beauty does not lie in a single, isolated detail. She is wearing a white cotton skirt, down to the ground, and an embroidered silk blouse that accentuates the slenderness of her waist. Her eyes shine with impatience, and she nervously wipes her temples and cheeks with a handkerchief, while with the other hand she shades her eyes from the sun rising behind the city. The
Aurore
is completing the process of mooring.
Will he come to meet me?
she wonders.

“Tell me if you can see him; my heart is in my mouth!” she begs Mme Dijon.

Down below, on the dock, Mme Dijon can see hundreds of coolies, porters with skins shining with sweat, dressed in only a cloth round their waists, who go into the holds of the ship like columns of ants and come out laden with packages, suitcases, and trunks. English officers, impeccable in their khaki uniforms, supervise disembarkation. The first-class passengers are accompanied to the customs hall by agents of the shipping line; those from second and third class go on their own. The scene is full of hustle and bustle. Boxes and trunks are piled up on the dock. A crane with a huge pulley and cables, pulled with enormous effort by stevedores, permits the most valuable cargo of the ship to be unloaded: two Arab horses, a gift from the sultan of Aden to some maharaja or other. With their eyes rolling in terror, the thoroughbreds kick the air like giant insects. A dozen or so elephants carry boxes, furniture, carts, and industrial parts that emerge from the belly of the ship. It smells of damp, of smoke, of steel, and of the sea. Over the cawing of the crows, shouts and greetings and the whistles of the police officers mix together. The passengers who are disembarking, mostly English people, are welcomed by their families, well dressed and spotlessly clean. The most important ones, those who have some official position, are welcomed with garlands of bright orange Indian marigolds, which are placed round their necks. In the customs hall while Mme Dijon and Lola count the fifty trunks that make up the Spanish girl's luggage, Anita manages to spot an Indian woman or two dressed in a sari. But she cannot see him. The man who has brought her here, and who has promised her all the love in the world.

“Are you Mrs. Delgado?”

The voice she hears behind her makes her jump. She turns:
It's him!
she thinks in a flash. The bright red turban, the beard elegantly rolled up, and the splendid blue uniform with a blue-and-silver belt have confused her. She immediately realizes her mistake and turns serious, as the man places a garland of flowers round her neck.

“Do you remember me? I'm Inder Singh, the envoy of His Highness the Raja of Kapurthala,” he says, joining his hands in front of his chest and bowing as a sign of respect.

How could she not remember! Anita would need several lives before she could forget that man who was so tall and of such an imposing appearance who one day knocked on the door of the tiny flat in Arco de Santa Maria Street, in Madrid, where she lived with her family. He was so massive that he could not get in through the door. A real Sikh, the pride of his race. There was no way he could sit down during the visit, and he was so big he took up all the space in the kitchen cum living room. He had come expressly from Paris to give Anita, in person, a letter from the raja. A love letter. The letter that had turned her life upside down.

“Captain Singh!” Anita cries, as happy as though she were meeting an old friend again.

“His Highness has not been able to come and meet you and begs your forgiveness, but everything is ready for you to continue your journey to Kapurthala,” Inder Singh informs her in French mixed with English and Hindi, which makes the whole thing barely comprehensible.

“Is it very far from here?”

Inder Singh shakes his head, in a gesture that is very typical of his countrymen, which confuses foreigners because it is not always the equivalent of a negative.

“About two thousand kilometers.”

Anita is left speechless. The Indian goes on, “India is very big,
Memsahib
. But don't worry about a thing. The train for Jalandhar leaves the day after tomorrow at six o'clock. From Jalandhar to Kapurthala it'll only be two hours by car. You have a suite reserved in the Taj Mahal Hotel, close to here …”

The Victorian-style hotel was designed by a French architect who ended up committing suicide because he did not like the result. But even so it is grandiose.

With verandas and huge corridors so that the air can always circulate, a stairway lit by the weak light entering through the stained-glass windows, Gothic ceilings, the finest wood on the walls, four brand-new “electric lifts,” a permanent orchestra, and shops full of multicolored silks, the hotel is a world apart within the city, the only public place open to Europeans and Indians of all castes. The other luxury hotels are for “whites” only.

The first thing Anita does when she goes into the Imperial Suite is to open the windows to let the warm breeze from the Arabian Sea bring in the smells and sounds from the promenade. Down below is the
Aurore
. The heat is leaden.

Although what she would really like to do is lie on her bed and cry, she does not want to make a fuss in front of her companions. They will say she is a silly little girl, and how can she expect the raja in person to travel two thousand kilometers to meet her, and of course, they are right, she thinks, but even so she feels disappointed. So the best thing will be to go out and discover her new country.

Let's see if at the same time I can get rid of this dizziness that makes me stumble as if I'd been drinking!
She has spent weeks dreaming of that moment: “Come on, I want to see it all and explore everything …” she tells Mme Dijon. Then she turns to her maid. “Lola, it'll be best if you stay here, in case the smell makes you sick, like in Alexandria.”

Other books

Saving Savannah by Sandra Hill
The Depths of Time by Roger MacBride Allen
Call Me Mrs. Miracle by Debbie Macomber
The Ogre of Oglefort by Eva Ibbotson
Heliconia - Invierno by Brian W. Aldiss
Mustang Moon by Terri Farley
Homespun Hearts by Fyffe, Caroline, Osbourne, Kirsten, Morsi, Pamela