THERE is a place in India where water buffalo are turned to stone by the desert sands, its a place where pigs become so distracted by the ants living inside their snouts that they savage their young. This place is called The Darkness, a place where pieces of flesh dance in the sewage to make it glisten like stars.
The Macaque monkeys fled The Darkness long before history can recall, but man, woman and child remained, pieces of flesh believing that one day the 330 million faces of god would lead them into The Light …
It took 580 years and a French entrepreneur to lift the hem of The Darkness near Jaipur in Northern India where Andrea and I were now taking ‘tiffin’ on the fortified terrace of Neemrana palace. Below us we could see the desert meeting the jungle and hear the laughter of the Macaques in the trees. Our china tea cups had a bony tinkle.
Some of the men of The Darkness were there too, servants in their linen jodhpurs and pink shirts. Their servitude had given them decadent paunches but they stood straight like stalks proud to send their salaries home to their mothers back in the malaria-ridden hovels they’d escaped from.
Servants from The Darkness can always hear the Macaques laughing.
But I’m getting ahead of myself: Come back down with us from the battlements of this hillside palace into the decaying village below. It’s a collection of derelict houses and hovels on a road made of rubble, stone, bricks and rubbish. It has been called Way To Neemrana for as long as memory has existed …
The smell of sacred cows, camels, pigs, dung and sewage was horrendous as we followed our footsteps back to the market place. The smell changed in the market, sickly and sweet now, milk boiling on fires made out of plastic bottles and rotten timber, coconut fragrance of sweating betel leaves, paanwallas spitting pungent pools of red juice, scavenging dogs lapping it up.
Way To Neemrana has always been an important place spiritually, it was the home to Lord Krishna in the 14th century. Today, however, it has a different importance, for it is here that all the property deals as far as the eye can see are sealed by post office workers in the noon-day sun, men in dusty shirts and ties under a makeshift awning. They create title-deeds and contracts on old Remington typewriters, the keys rattle like termites.
It was here that we met Usef, the Typer of Deeds and Contracts. He looked as old as the palace on the hill itself, his teeth discoloured and his gums long dead from paan. His lips were swollen and stained too. Usef was a cultured man though and two days after we met him, he explained why he’d looked so strangely at me as we stepped in to his post office. Usef it turned out was a writer and chronicler of the history of this ancient place and he believed he had an sketch of me, done decades ago.
48 Hours Earlier
So, now lets return to that fortified terrace at the palace and our steaming cups of black char. They serve it sickly sweet at the edge of The Darkness, it sticks your tongue to the roof of your mouth.
The late afternoon sun was so hot it made me want sleep, even the punkawallahs couldn’t cool me. The sun was beating.
And I saw it for the first time, out of the corner of my eye – you know, how you were taught at school to glimpse the tail of a comet? With your peripheral vision. Yes I could see it, big and bold and brassy, knuckles dusting the ground, slow and laconic, climbing the stairs up to the battlements. The sun made me squint but I swear it stopped and looked me squarely in the eye. It bared his razor teeth. . .
When it is night in The Light there can be a real darkness. In ours though there was a flickering hole, the kerosene candle on the bedside table created it. Andrea was at peace but I couldn’t sleep for many reasons, it was partly the humidity, partly the smell of kerosene and the thwack thwack of the ceiling fan. But I also knew that something was outside the thin mosquito net of a door, it was snuffling, scratching. And whatever it was it was angry, like my father used to be when he was drunk outside my bedroom in the early hours.
There was a crash like a bomb, as if somebody had smashed one of the big terracotta pots in the ivy-ridden quadrangle – then a whoop and an insane string of calls. It sounded like laughter again – and, yes, I could see it, face up against the mosquito net of the door … big sullen head, vicious teeth, intelligent cold dead eyes. I knew they were the eyes of a deadly enemy.
Breakfast was served by a small army of dignified servants in the shadows of the mezzanine beneath the battlements, the ‘spider’ men and women were already busy beneath the tables brushing up dust and discarded food as we ate. The remnants of a terracotta pot were piled up waiting for the ‘donkey’ men to clear it away. Three eagles were spinning overhead.
Neemrana is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever stopped off at in my long life of travelling. It reached its lowest ebb in 1947 as Partition changed the whole face of India with murder and politics, 12 million people were made homeless and more than a million lay dead in the streets. The palace was in awful disrepair and it was that year that Raja Rajinder Singh abandoned it and moved to a modest house on the outskirts of Way To Neemrana. His once palatial 100 room home was crumbling and overrun by Macaques. His heart was heavy.
To add to his woes his beautiful daughter Imelda became betrothed. It was against his wishes but what could he do? It was November and Rajistan’s Goddesses of Love had been awakened by the fireworks of Devali, day and night the air was filled with music. Raja Rajinder felt the darkness inside himself begin to grow.
Then good fortune arrived on the doorstep of his newly-acquired hovel in the shape of the Frenchman, an hotels entrepreneur on the look-out for imposing and cheap properties amid the tragedy of India’s partitioning.
A deal was struck, Neemrana’s crumbling palace was sold for enough rupees to pay for Imelda’s wedding. And so she was married and the music pierced the sky for two whole days, drums, flutes, strings and cymbals. Two months later Raja Rajinder decided he could look Krishna squarely in the eye and finally departed his world of darkness and light.
Even by the end of breakfast the sun was too hot for us to leave the shadows, so we stuck to the stairways and labyrinths, the endless stone corridors, steps, dead ends, terraces, sentry points, misleading alleys, empty corners … at one moment we were a thousand feet above Way To Neemrana and the next we were in the west wall gardens.
And there they were playing mischievously. The Macaques. Andrea adored them immediately, green coats glistening, their wild and funny gambolling, their fighting and chattering. They tumbled from tree to tabletop, leapt from tabletop to branch …. then they saw me. And stopped. Everything stopped, for a second it was as if the world was no longer turning.
A little fellow who had been dancing in the ivy of a small coliseum fell to the floor and lay there on his back baring his teeth at me in a silent grimace. Andrea laughed. Then she screamed. I spun on my heels – the animal took its chance and crashed into the bushes – a split second later there was another scream, this time from the rooftop, and a tile hurtled through the air and smashed at my feet. Andrea looked at me. A bark came down from the sky.
The air filled with angry screeches growls and screams and the cracking of undergrowth.
The next day we walked down to Way to Neemrana in the blistering sun. But nothing felt right. My attention was constantly drawn to the rooftops of the hovels that housed silversmiths and haberdashers and a teashop with exotic wind chimes.
There was music in the air but all I could hear was the scrop of nails like talons on tiles, the thick padding of feet and the crunch of knuckles, short sharp growls, rasps, grunts. I knew my unknown enemy was stalking the rooftops.
We were stopped in our tracks by a rattling bell and the rusty screech of worn bicycle brakes. Usef’s old face appeared from inside the dust and he dismounted his sit-up-and-beg. He beckoned to us urgently as he wheeled his old machine into a stinking cattle shed.
As we joined him Usef bobbed his head in acknowledgement but there wasn’t a trace of a polite smile.
He whispered: “Sir, it is a ghost that follows you … and I fear it is trying to do you harm. It is long dead but so is the man it thinks you are … sadly, you are both trapped by an abomination of time …”
Andrea looked at me. There was a scuffling on the roof. Dust spilled from the eaves as the rafters creaked. Usef looked up, then he pulled the old sketch from behind the arsenal of pens in the breast pocket of his starched shirt: “I keep a history box of Neemrana and today I remembered this inside…” he pressed the picture into my hand. There was a snarl above our heads.
It could have been a picture of me … the hair, the build … the eyes. To all intents and purposes I had my boot placed triumphantly on a dead monkey and I was holding a vicious-looking langur in the crook of my right arm. Andrea and I were mystified.
“The problem is sir, the monkeys are protected by the great god Hanuman. This animal sir has had the wrath of god inside him since the day he was slaughtered by the man in this picture…” Funnels of dust and rubble came down, Usef looked up and whispered: “We must leave, now. It is not safe here.”
We followed him down stinking alleys and rubbish-strewn passageways, the wheels of his old bicycle skittering on the stones as he wrestled with it, he kept his head down and we all pretended to ignore the howls and whoops coming from the rooftops.
Usef’s house was only one room with a corrugated roof. There was a mattress and a threadbare blanket on the floor, a small primus stove in the corner and an old leather armchair pushed up against a battered antique desk where his treasured Remington stood. There were old photographs of Way to Neemrana and its inhabitants, tattered newspaper cuttings and typed notes on rotting paper pinned to wall above it. His home was sweet with spices and the smell of strong tea.
His dusty old wife served it to us in small chrome cups and then retired back into the shadows.
Usef said we should wait here while he cycled to the palace to arrange for our chauffeur to pack our bags and come to pick us up. But first he invited us to sit cross-legged on the floor with him while he told us this story:
In the 1950s circus trainer Barnabas Riesling was cast adrift near Jaipur by the Russian state circus. He’d been caught starving young ponies of milk to stunt their growth so he could exhibit them as miniature horses.
The Russians dumped him in The Darkness. He was surrounded by Macaques which harassed and harangued him for days as he traipsed into town.
But within months this tall skinny and raggedy gypsy with his long shock of grey hair was a bad man rising again, this time with a pair of killer long-tailed, black-faced langurs by his side. They lived in a cage in the back of the old battered Ambassador he’d bought for a few hundred rupees from a drunken taxi driver in Jaipur.
He used his langurs to chase the Macaques from the rich estates and farms between Jaipur and Delhi. The langur tore the Macaques limb from limb while the landowners turned their backs on the gaze of Hanuman.
One day, a typed letter arrived at the front desk of his cheap hotel. It had been sent from the post office at Way To Neemrana. The new French owner of the palace was requesting his services. Reisling set off with a full tank of diesel, a bottle of local Morning Miracles gin and his langurs. He loosed them on his arrival at the gates of the palace and within hours the Macaques had fled blooded and beaten into the jungle.
All except for one. The big one. It remained defiant on the ramparts, howling and shaking its fists in the red dying sun.
Riesling again loosed the langurs and they dashed up the vines like wildfire. But this wasn’t the simple game of cat and mouse that Riesling expected, instead the big one launched itself into the air, hit the wall and went down it like a lizard until it faced the langurs head on. The three monkeys stopped dead and eyed each other. Stock-still. Silent.
Then the shot rang out. Two monkey fled up the vines in terror as the big one plunged lifelessly to the courtyard below.
Hanuman, the mighty ape god, is so powerful, it is said that with one sweep of his mighty tail he set fire to the island of Lanka where Sita, the wife of Lord Rama’s was being held captive. Today Hanuman is worshipped across India, especially in the villages, because he is capable of destroying evil.
It was Usef’s belief that the monkey which had stalked me was a dead thing tethered to this earth by the blinding light of its own rage as it waited to wreak revenge against the evil that had destroyed it without dignity. And it had found that evil inside me.
As our chauffeur drove us at a strangely funereal pace away from one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited an all pervading sense of The Darkness settled over me.