The Splendor of Silence: A Novel

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9780743283670: The Splendor of Silence: A Novel

Arriving in the west India state of Rudrakot where he hopes to find his idealistic brother, who went missing after joining the local struggle for independence from the British, wounded World War II army captain Sam Hawthorne finds his search complicated by his love for the daughter of a political agent. By the author of A Feast of Roses. 35,000 first printing.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Indu Sundaresan, born and raised in India, came to the United States for graduate studies and is the author of The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses. She lives in the Seattle, Washington, area. Visit the author's website at www.indusundaresan.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One

Every station had separate dining-rooms for Hindus, Muslims, and for Europeans . . . Many towns had separate stations, one for the Indian town, and one for the European . . . cantonment . . . Indians who did attempt to travel first class often found themselves in the humiliating position of being thrown out of the compartment, either by brute force or by the stationmaster.

-- E. M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies, 2001

A cold moon washed the skies as the single, black caterpillar line of the night train to Rudrakot cleaved through the Sukh desert. The train's headlamp, fiercely ablaze like Shiva's third eye, illuminated the way across the glistening steel tracks -- a triangle of golden light amidst this background of silver and shadows.

It was not the only thing that moved in the desert night. Vipers and kraits coiled out of their daytime stupor and went in search of the rats and mice that burrowed into the hard ground; the fox slunk with equal stealth in search of the same prey, and far enough from the train, stayed to watch as it crossed his field of vision.

The supernatural too was alive at night in the Sukh, claimed to be real, and believed to be impossible. The Sukh was the birthplace and, now, the death place of kings and warriors. Despite its inhospitality, its unwillingness to nurture, to welcome them on its soil and sands, these kings and warriors had lived here through generations and centuries. Their tombs (the memories of their demise anyway -- the Sukh kings were Hindus and so were cremated) dotted the vast landscape, wedded into the rust colors of the desert. Some small, some mammoth, invariably constructed of red or caramel sandstone. Stories were built upon these tombs, of little snatches of lovelorn songs, of figures clad in the white of ghosts, or of the tempest of a thousand horse hooves near the tomb of a valiant raja felled in battle.

The fox waited patiently for the passing of the lighted carriages of the train before crossing the tracks. After its sound receded into the distance and night came to claim the desert again, his ears angled toward the noise of tiny feet scrambling in the dark, and he whisked away toward it, hungry and slavering.

From the train's vantage, of course, there was nothing much to be seen. Most of the carriages had their shutters down, but one, the fourth bogie behind the steam engine, had one of the shutters open, and a man leaned his head against the bars of the window.

Of the three occupants in the bogie, Sam was the only one not yet asleep. A cloth sling lay tight against his right shoulder, cradling his arm into his chest, but the pain had flared up again, mocking the aspirin's efficacy. If he stayed very still, difficult to do so in a moving train, the pain dulled into something manageable. It had been only two days since the military hospital doctor in Calcutta had reset his dislocated shoulder and promised Sam relief almost immediately, but Sam had been so long with his arm out of the shoulder socket that relief did not come easily. He concentrated on the telegraph poles whipping past in a rhythmic tempo, whoosh, silence, whoosh . . . forever, the sounds and silences born of the train-sired wind. The telegraph poles stuck close to the tracks, as though afraid of striding out on their own into that hugely flat earth.

Sam willed sleep to come and erase the fatigue of his body. He had boarded the train to Rudrakot at Palampore early this morning, had spent the previous night bumping along a dusty dirt track in a jeep from Delhi to Palampore, and before that had flown on a military transport plane from Calcutta, westward to Delhi. He had not slept in more than two days. The plane to Delhi had had no luxuries -- Sam was strapped into the sides of its cavernous belly, buffeted by the winds, kept from being thrown about and smashing his shoulder further only by the belt that held him. During the drive to Palampore in the ancient, barely running jeep, the driver had considered every pothole in the road a personal challenge, and Sam had not dared close his eyes, afraid that he would wake with his head wrenched off his neck and settled in his lap. Since boarding the Rudrakot train, he had stared at his traveling companions wide-eyed and had fended off Mrs. Stanton's overly invasive questions as best he could without being too impolite.

Rudrakot was not an entire twenty-four-hour journey from Palampore, if the train began on time at one end and ended on time at the other, without reckless stops. And so Sam learned one of his first lessons about India during this long, sleepless day as the sun bleached the desert into a whiteness and sent its heated fingers into their compartment. The train stopped at every village on the way from Palampore to Rudrakot, every forty-five minutes or so. Just as it had begun to pick up speed from the last, unscheduled stop, it began to slow again, and Sam listened gloomily to the screeching of the brakes, the slowing of rhythm, and felt the growing heat in the compartment as the breeze dropped. The ceiling fans clanked obligingly, but they were really useless, and sleep was impossible.

But the night train to Rudrakot was the only way to get there; it was too far out into the desert to drive, too small a kingdom to have a commercial airfield, and the only regiments garrisoned there were army regiments, who brought in their men and supplies by rail.

With his eyes closed, Sam listened to the chug of the train, and a sudden, shattering, long and hollow hoot from the engine. He leaned out farther into the air, and let the wind push against his hair. The sweat from his day's journey had long dried. But dirt still rimmed his collar, perspiration stained half-cups of brown under the armpits of his khaki shirt, his skin was gritty with soot. Sam licked his cracked lips, and tasted the coal and smelled the fires from the engine up front. His shoulder throbbed again, and Sam clenched his hand into a fist, drawing the ache down to his palm and holding it there until it abated. Only a few more hours, he thought, and then he would be at Rudrakot. This dirt, this journey, this lack of sleep would be worth it. He could rest his shoulder then . . . but, no, he could not rest his shoulder then, he had only four days left of his leave at Rudrakot. And so much to accomplish.

His holdall lay under his seat, and Sam nudged it lightly with his heel, wanting to be reassured of its presence. There was a map of Rudrakot in that holdall, a map Sam had seared in his mind. The town itself, curved around the edges of the lake. The army regiment quarters in a shaded cantonment avenue. The mighty fort built into the hill behind, looming over the town, melding into the browns and reds of this forsaken earth. The lake in brilliant blue, like a wedge of sky, its waters winking in the sunshine. Beyond the lake, across from a colossal stretch of nothingness, a large tomb of pillars and stones called simply Chetak on the map, and then beyond that, the march of sands westward into an expanse of desolation. And here, somewhere in this desert kingdom, his brother, Mike, had gone missing.

Their mother had once said begin your search at the beginning, where you first remember losing what is lost. So Sam was going to Rudrakot. Maude's advice had come to him at an earlier time -- when he was in boyhood tears at having misplaced his precious baseball cap -- and had served him well just a few years later at the cabin.

Mike and he had clattered down the stairs to the beach to watch the birth of a winter storm. Clouds banked over the cove; the wind whipped the waters into frothy waves that grew to mountains midway, ebbed, then expired along the sand. There was a curious and exhilarating blue quality to the light around them, as though crystals of ice hung in the air. Seaweed glistened on brightly white driftwood. Gulls soared and hummed above, wings aspread. Mike, seven at that time, trotted away along the edge of the water, clambering over the logs of wood, and Sam followed him as fast as he could. He had been distracted and overwhelmed by this fury of nature, and yet heedful, in some part of his head, that he had to keep an eye on his younger brother. Lightning forked along the thickly gray sky and Sam waited, listening for thunder. It came, booming and loud, setting the earth shaking.

"Listen to that, Mike!" Sam had yelled, opening his arms wide to embrace the storm. "The skies are hungry. Listen!"

He looked toward his left and did not see Mike anywhere. The clouds had completely covered the north entrance to the cove by now, dulled the light, brought night where day was, and Sam strained to find his brother.

The tips of Sam's fingers began to freeze and he put his hands under his armpits.

"Mike!" he shouted. "We should go in. Mama will worry."

But nothing moved on the logs deposited haphazardly on the beach by previous tides, forming castles and goblins in the dying light. Sam clambered up a rock, zipped closed the front of his jacket, and searched around him. Where was Mike? He had been here, near the log pile they had named Buckingham Palace, and then here, near the Eiffel Tower, and there, and then where?

"Mike, this is not funny. Come back now."

Lightning crawled over the skies again, and Sam put his hands around his mouth. MIKE. MIKE. MIKE-Y. Until he was hoarse and panting. The sea roared in anger, crashing in huge sprays around him. His heart banged in his chest and a sudden chill ate away at his bones.

"Mike," Sam whispered. "Where are you?"

And then a cold hand touched his leg. Sam whirled around.

"Ha!" Mike shouted, pushing a stick of bleached driftwood at him. "Got ya."

Sam slithered down from the rock, scraping his ankles and shins, and grabbed the front of Mike's sweater. "Don't ever do that again. Never. Do you hear?"

On the night train to Rudrakot, Sam remembered the dread that had ensnared him when he thought he had lost Mike, for what had seemed like an eternity, each moment as lucid today as it had been that day. And here, in another continent, another ...

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