WHERE THE BULBUL SINGS by SERENA FAIRFAX
The past and the present interweave - from the last days of the Raj to the present day, and from the small railway town of Ajeemkot and the princely state of Walipur to the cutting edge of the modern city of Delhi, and Sivalik - a pine scented hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas.
In this atmospheric, passionate and poignant account of a clash of cultures, caste and creed, divided family loyalties, wealthy heartthrobs and the power of love, the story is told through three women and an American Baptist missionary couple whose lives entwine. Can they confront the storms or are their dreams destined to shatter?
Hermie - a headstrong and bewitching Anglo-Indian - turns her back on the Anglo-Indian community and reinvents herself only to find that a dark secret threatens to send her life spiraling out of control and cost her everything.
Sharp-witted Edith, exiled in India from her native Germany by Nazi persecution, faces stark choices in a future very different from that she envisaged.
Kay, separated by more than a generation from Hermie and Edith, is haunted by a long-buried family mystery and abandons a promising career in London to pursue a quest for roots in India where fate hurtles her in an unexpected direction.
‘A ripened peach and just seventeen, man. She’ll be heartbreaker and trouble stirrer, yawl see,’ the railwayman muttered to a workmate their gaze locked on Hermie Blake as she propped up her black Raleigh bicycle against a betel-stained wall of Ajeemkot’s two-storied mustard and red brick station building and un-looped a basket from the handlebars. Then, tucking her broad brimmed khaki solar topi under one arm, she hurried, her bronze tumble of hair lit by sunlight, up the dusty, stone steps to the arched entrance. After a humid night that promised the monsoon, the temperature had climbed. That June day in 1939 was cloudless with a slight heat haze and above the raucous bustle of the station the chimes of the town’s Victoria Jubilee Memorial clock danced across on a spice-spiked breeze.
Eight o'clock! Hermie – christened but seldom called Hermione - glanced across for confirmation to the station clock - accurate to a second - courtesy of its German manufacturer, and gave a gusty sigh. She wiped her damp forehead, grimly conscious that she was late again for work and mentally hurled invective at Bishu, their absent chokra.
'Girlee. Wait! That jungly boy has hopped to the bazaar forgetting Pa’s tiffin as usual.' Hermie’s mother, Noreen, had buttonholed her as she was about to leave home. 'And mind, yawl know Pa’s a picky eater. So drop this in for him on your way.'
Noreen was pin thin, her frame that of a distant forebear – an English infantryman in the pay of the East India Company, once a mighty London based commercial venture with its own private army. Three hundred and fifty years ago in a battle waged in Bengal mangrove swamps against a local ruler, he’d survived to marry his Indian village sweetheart and stayed on, never to return to the green meadows of home. To cement allegiance the Company tossed a gold mohur coin to every India born child of an Indian mother and European father and from such beginnings the hybrid Anglo-Indian Community evolved. This was the Community to which the Blakes belonged, its distinct genetic footprints leading back to European ancestors in the male line of descent who’d flocked to India to seek fame and fortune – and found love.
Anglo-Indians were English speaking and Christian; skin tone ranged from fair to swarthy, hair colour fair to black, they bore European names and adopted the customs and traditions of the British. Most inter-married within the tight – knit, mixed-blood circle; few married Indians.
After a scandal-busting probe, the Company, whose trading crusades had led to terror-ridden land-grabs, was ousted by the British government – the Raj - who gained direct rule of India - its jewel in the Crown. Applying divide and rule, it accorded Anglo-Indians preferential treatment in subordinate jobs on the railways, tea and coffee plantations, mines, hospitals, schools, post and telegraphs, customs, the police and government service. The Raj turned India into its very own treasure-trove, and the Community- a buffer engineered by the Raj between itself and its Indian subjects- spurned its ancient Indian heritage yet won scant social acceptance from its colonial masters who were scornful of its mixed-race. There were Anglo-Indians who yearned to go home – to the Britain of which they were not born, did not know, had never before visited, but which they considered, by virtue of tenuous links to long-dead kinsmen, to be their natural homeland.
'Why should I do Bishu’s chores, Ma? Tell me that, eh? Hermie’s creamy-skinned oval face had sharpened with indignation. ‘It’s the second time this week and just once more and I'll suffer. Yawl know the Bank's rule – three late days in a row means half a day’s leave docked.' She wondered why Ma tolerated the feckless chokra - who'd come to them bearing a testimonial that read: Without any reservations we can recommend him as a thoroughly useless servant.
'Just this once, pet.' Light brown eyes peered anxiously at her.
'All right then, as a favor to you,' Hermie's resolve faltered and her voice softened affectionately, ‘but mind, never again. There can’t and won’t be a third strike. I’m fed up of making allowances for him.' Her singsong accent, like that of Noreen's and characteristic of the Community, ended on a note of finality.
Noreen, who gave the impression that she might disintegrate in a puff of wind, seized on the grudging assent and hastened to the hot, soot-walled kitchen returning with a large wicker-lidded country basket. Muttering under her breath, Hermie had reluctantly borne it away. She knew what it contained - an aluminium, three tiered, lidded tiffin-carrier containing wholemeal parathas, spicy pork bhoonie, a generous helping of omelette-rice, Ma’s spicy cucumber pickle, a portion of banana cream, and a thermos flask of strong, condensed-milk sweetened tea.
Hermie slackened pace along the crowded platform skirting passengers squatting on their bedding rolls, eyeing, with a sharp twinge of envy, a European woman's smart cream linen outfit, and gloomily comparing it with her own bazaar-made floral, mid-calf cotton skirt, the matching pin-tucked blouse and plain brown Bata sandals. Resentment resurfaced. Will I ever savor the rich pickings? Everyone’s talking about the winds of change and the call for Independence is as loud as the call to Morning Prayer from the minarets. Even President Roosevelt supports the exit of the Raj and then who knows what will happen? Beyond a huge hoarding that pictured a woman, hair coiled into a big bun, flashing an impossibly white smile asking coyly Did You Maclean Your Teeth Today? Hermie passed the Ladies Waiting Room and the European Refreshment Room and at last came to the Stationmaster's Office that led to the Guards’ Rest Room.
About to push open the door marked NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT ON DUTY it was snatched from her hand by a sandy haired English subaltern. Hot air poured in and the creaking ceiling fan circled lazily bringing scant relief. Hermie’s heart leapt. Ooh, he’s handsome, and she smiled encouragingly. The soldier’s eyes narrowed, liking the shapely legs and the nice way Hermie’s skirt moved but immediately setting her down as one of those chee chee Anglo-Indians who hung around outside the Europeans-only Devonshire Club. He turned his head away and swiftly transacting his business with the wrinkled chaprassi, swiveled out of the room dashing Hermie’s hopes that he’d introduce himself to her.
Hermie eyed his retreating back with some distaste, angry not only with him but also at her own vulnerability. Just you wait and see. It’s not always going to be like this, she promised herself. I won’t be excluded. Thrusting the basket at the chaprassi who’d taken it all in with his usual impassivity, she snapped in kitchen Hindi, 'mind you give this to Guard Wilburt, ek dum.’
'Achha'. He nodded and Hermie, feeling virtuous at a tiresome task duly completed, rewarded him with a smile that had turned many a male head.
The sound of angry bellowing made her spin round and she dashed outside, the door banging shut behind her. 'Hello? What's the hullabaloo?' What’s all this tamasha?' It was the sort of commotion that rendered it somewhat different from the usual station hubbub.
'Hey sonny! Where's your ticket? Come back here, mind!'
Hermie glanced sharply up and down the platform and saw an angrily gesticulating ticket collector and, further along, with startled recognition, the running figure of a skinny brown lad, fifteen year old Frank Gannon, Anglo-Indian like herself, an altar boy at St. Columba’s Church. Frayed shirt tail flying, he dodged in and out of the throng of jabbering coolies squabbling over luggage.
She paused, then put on a burst of speed.
‘What’re you doing here, eh? What's up, Frank?' Sweat trickling down into her collar, she’d caught up with him and seized his arm. 'Mind, you ought to be at school. Go on, what's happened?' She stared at him disquieted. He stank; the spotty, unwashed face, with its hint of black down was bitterer than she’d ever seen, the religious medallion, never worn except at Mass, dangled from a long chain round his neck.
Frank’s gaze dropped to his tattered sandals. 'I don't want to talk about it. I can't. Not to you. Not to Bernadette.' Bernadette, his sister, was Hermie's best friend and like her worked at the Ajeemkot Central Bank.
'Come on Frank, I’m like your big sister. Somebody ticked you off and you’re running away, right?’ Hermie put an arm round his shoulder. He stiffened, saying nothing with such a blank look on his face that she wondered if he'd heard her.
'Pa can't afford to buy me a watch. Pa can't afford anything.' He rubbed his knuckles against red-rimmed eyes then went on in a tight singsong, ' I'm always going to be poor, always going to be a chee chee, blackey-white, anglo-banglo, off-white, half-caste, Eurasian....’ Hermie winced a little as he woodenly parroted a litany of pejorative names that the British called the Community behind its back. He stared miserably at the ground, his features dissolving into uncontrollable sobs.
'There...Now mind, you listen to me...' she said gently stroking his bowed head, adding reassuringly. ‘Things are set to change. The Raj needs us even more than ever. They can’t go on without us. We’ve got the upper hand at last. We'll...' She raised her voice above the shrill whistle and the hissing of steam from the approaching express, her muffled words borne away on the wind.
Frank shook himself free and his face froze. A large black fly was settling on his head. Hermie could hear his quick, hard breathing. Then whipping round, with one swift, frenzied twist he pitched himself onto the track and into the fury of the oncoming train. The driver hadn't a chance. The sickening screech of brakes tore through Hermie. There was a clanging of wheels as the footplate heaved and stilled. A moment’s sudden hush.
'Hai Ram!' An appalled gasp rose from those who’d witnessed what had happened. Instinctively they surged forward only to ebb back with a low moan at the gruesome sight of mangled body parts scattered along the line.
Serena Fairfax spent her childhood in India, qualified as a lawyer in England and joined a London law firm.
Romance is hardwired into her DNA so her novels include a strong romantic theme. However, she broke out of the romance bubble with IN THE PINK, which is a quirky departure in style and content.
She has also authored several short stories that feature on her blog
Fast forward to a sabbatical from the day job when she traded in bricks and mortar for a houseboat which, for a hardened land lubber like her, turned out to be a big adventure.
Apart from writing and reading (all kinds of books), a few of her favourite things are collecting old masks, singing (in the rain) and exploring off the beaten track.
She’s a member of the Romantic Novelists Association, which is a very supportive organization. Serena and her golden retriever, Inspector Morse, who can't wait to unleash his own Facebook page, divide their time between London and rural Kent. (Charles Dickens said: Kent, sir. Everybody knows Kent. Apples, cherries, hops and women).