A View from the Bund

By Ian Bedford

Click here to buy a View from the Bund

Christopher was spying from a screen of bushes at the edge of the compound. There was no wall there but a path along a kind of embankment, looking across the fields on the exposed side. Traffic from the fields mounted the path. Cyclist and pedestrian from an outer world caught glimpses between the casuarina stakes of a jumble of institutional buildings, sheds, storehouses, flower and vegetable gardens, whitewashed cantonment-type dwellings and incongruous grass-and-plexiglass structures in groves of trees.

Two hundred yards away the granite, ‘Saracen’-style facade of the Hall of the Sea of Learning loomed before the onlooker like the west end of a cathedral. Far beyond and to the right Christopher made out the surviving chimney of an oil mill. The mill, the old focus of the district, was now ‘the college’. At that hour the college yards and buildings, the trails leading to them and the path round by the embankment were deserted. From the Hall opposite flowed a thin medley of voices.

They were on the last hymn already. A woman wearing pantaloons of a soft fabric, her splashed feet bare, was struggling with a bucket along the height. Christopher stood by to let her pass. He peered out across the sea of grain, wondering distractedly at the heads of the labourers bobbing like divers at some obscured task. A white crane lifted its feet in the shallows; he cupped his hands and shouted and the bird responded, for some reason of its own, protruding its long neck and appearing to study him, like a painter quizzing a model.

He continued along the path. The rampart strode high and unprotected, with no screen for concealment. Wheeling towards him like a juggernaut came a loudspeaker towed by a bicycle and mounted on a rickety wooden cabinet painted with film adver- tisements. Christopher swerved and missed his footing. He plunged down the inner slope of the embankment. A high, tuning- in wail soared from the belly of the instrument. He rolled in a bed of dry leaves at the bottom and continued running diagonally across the compound, heading for the waste field where the Americans were building their mandir. A line of sprinklers was playing and he followed the hose, snaking between the trees of an orchard. The chimney reared in sight. The mill wall was combed with holes. He scrambled through, without interference, like one of the ‘rats’ – pig-rats or pandi kokku – that infested the place, the Telugu version of the bandicoot.

He paused for breath. This sanctuary was the college yard. Because of choir nobody was about: he had laid his plans well, but if anybody at all had appeared Christopher would have doubled back on his tracks, with gratitude. He waited, giving the intruder every chance.

The crumbling mill buildings had a small-brick elegance. They were well suited to the kind of institution this was. The modern buildings on the other hand, specially designed for it by a firm in Buffalo, might have been inflicted on anyone anywhere and the residents of the compound, who conformed, like the buildings, to certain ‘international’ specifications were only dimly aware of all the care that had been taken to prepare an environment fit to receive them. Aluminium window-frames were otherwise unheard of in this part of the country. Even the glass panes had been shipped out from Italy.

Christopher counted slowly to three hundred. It was only when he was half-way across the yard that a figure with a pail and brush in hand emerged like a wraith from one of the corner buildings. There was no place to hide. He salaamed as the man approached – all these janitors were Muslims. They were the oldtimers. Christopher was not sure what to expect. He knew very little about them, apart from their frock coats. He had been told they spoke Deccani Urdu, an extinct tongue. They were all old pensioners, attached – by the strings of the privy purse, until this too was abolished in the late sixties – to a vanished order of things.

The two headed for the same door. Above it was an inscription: ‘Suryanagar Institute of Indian Civilization for Foreigners.’ Christopher repeated his salutation, not sure whether he had been heard. The janitor took no notice but fished a giant key from his pocket. He climbed the steps, tampered with the iron lock and removed it, then laboriously unbolted the imposing double-door of the premises, all this without a word to Christopher who, afraid of being bolted out from the inside, followed him where he led.

His guide turned one way, Christopher turned the other. He felt a peculiar light-headedness: a sense of immunity. Fate had directed his footsteps at the right moment. Somehow in the heat of his calculations he had forgotten that the outer door, too, would be locked. His hand rose to his breast pocket. Excitedly he fumbled for his own key, the key that had dropped from heaven, the talisman and, in a sense, the mute author of this enterprise. He was slave enough to press the iron cylinder to his lips. A minute later (this bolt, too, had taken some wrestling with) he stood alone in the room with the glass bookcases and rows of desks. If the caretaker should find him now, no excuses would save him.

Old Dr. Reddy, the deputy principal, kept a desk full of surprises and inconveniences, the sort anyone would like to own but few in his position would have had the gumption to persevere with. It could not be locked by any stretch of the imagination. Even before Christopher got started, it looked as if a burglary had been carried out. He left the drawers if anything a bit tidier than he found them and was on his way through the door with the folder under his arm when it occurred to him to check the student register. Usually these marks were recorded. He found the volume with its mottled hide covering, stout binding and, of all things, a place marker which guided him direct to the page. He admired the penmanship, as whorled, clear and incisive as a gun-barrel. Nothing like this was taught in the schools back home any more.

He scanned the list of names. Towns, Felix: a blank. He paused in reverie. Tucker, Christopher. And the mark, nineteen-and-a- half out of twenty. The page swam before his eyes. All down the list, there was no other figure to compare with it. He stared in disbelief. The folder, till now wedged securely under his elbow, slid to the ground.

How had he come to lose half a mark? Christopher was so mesmerised by his achievement that he stood frozen to the spot: it was a joke mark. Why not twenty, while they were about it? Lost in a dream, he bent and rummaged for the fallen exam papers, stuffing them anyhow into the folder without glancing at them or searching for his own, a kind of masterpiece, worth nineteen- and-a-half out of twenty and now, ingloriously, restored to his possession. Some others took the exams seriously, but in fact to Christopher they were no more than a negative indicator. You sat for these and, when you had chalked up enough exams, pass or fail, they renewed your entitlement to enrolment and, with that – your visa. He felt alone and sad. No one, not even Felix, would ever learn of his predicament. He was bewildered by the intensity of this emotion; at the same time, it was borne in on him that his situation was not truly a pathetic one. Top of the class, would you? He encountered his stricken likeness for an instant in the glass pane of one of the bookcases: and then the deed was done. With a trembling hand, he tore the page from the register.

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