Rajah believed in nothing save filling his belly. Food was the beginning and the end of life. Whatever he had, he could never have enough to satisfy a gnawing anxiety and appetite. He suffered, as a child, he always remembered, from hookworm, and his empty devouring insides drove him to steal from his father to eat, in terror of being beaten if found out, though he knew that his parents would starve to provide him with a full plate and scrap. He could not help stealing, however, as though in so doing he was destroying himself as a witness of their voluntary sacrifice. And he was also ensuring for himself, the ability to live with a dark anxiety and terror. To steal was to murder all sentiment and vision in order to survive.
Rajah himself did not understand this condition so clearly, and this was responsible for a blind frustration and anguish, in which he appeared to be constantly milling himself, and thereafter, reconstituting the unrecognizable features of his heart.
His father — the oldest brother — had always remained desperately poor, while Mohammed’s father — the youngest brother — had managed to save and acquire a large estate. Whom he had robbed and killed in the process, God knows! Rajah was meditating, with the old milling sense of hate, over an enormous saucepan of rice, from which he ate spasmodically, and greedily, with his hand.
It was the middle of the day and he rested his oxen. All morning they had been mashing and separating paddy, by making a steady monotonous circuit, on the baking-hard ground, around a central guide and pole.
Rajah squinted at the sky with a dark look, where it shone clear like burning metal. He needed another fortnight in which to finish all the stages of harvesting. If only the sun would hold out. It was rain he dreaded at this time. At another time, it was rain again —the same pitiless rain falling short of flood—he would desire most of all for his crops.
The savannahs were a white and blazing fire, circulating like a breathless sultry blast of unchanging wind across the dry earth and the brown cropped fields. One felt the sun burning on one’s skin, uninterruptedly, relentlessly, as though it contained a violent storm and climax.
Rajah could have shortened his harvest and labour — as some of the neighbouring farmers had done — by using a machine, instead of the ancient steps with the feet of oxen. But the estate had only been able to afford so far, a choice of machines. And Rajah had taken a tractor to plant seed and plough the ground. He had got it the very year Kaiser had died. It was an amazing bladed contrivance, looking like a spider and a butterfly rolled into one, or like an Indian fetish with many sprouting hands, and Rajah felt that here he had a greater labour-saving device than any other. Mohammed had said in five years he hoped to supply him with another emblematic cross to harvest and to reap, and then he would have complete ease the entire year round. There were many difficulties and expenses, he had said, and the returns had not been good of late, though he knew Rajah worked hard. The cost of irrigation had risen. They had had to rehabilitate the old drainage, and all these expenses had eaten into the new price their rice was now fetching, like a belated prize after the brutal years. At any rate, they could afford to fill their paper bellies at last, even if the profits written there had less material weight than they appeared to signify and carry.
Rajah was bitter. He felt he had been treated badly in not gaining all the machinery he needed. Mohammed was becoming notorious as a poor manager and accountant, and he (Rajah) had endured privation and hunger too long, and no promise could erase the brand and the scar of a flaming poverty. He was an extension of his own oxen, and that was all, while Mohammed had turned into an inconsiderate drunkard and a fiend and landowner. Blast him!
His grandchildren, perhaps, Rajah grumbled, might live in a different self, or his grandchildren’s children. They would have little reckoning of the womb and the curse from which they had sprung to life, and of the vast relative dreaming canvas in which they found themselves, pinpointed and cocksure like stars, as though destiny had made the past and the future theirs all right. Rajah had finished the last handful of rice, and his eyes dozed a little, blind with the sun, as he crouched, hardly knowing himself and his dark alien figure and thought.
He forced his eyes open. Far away, a frail ominous smoke and dust of cloud waved at him on the horizon. The ground was flat and one could see into the distance. Rajah was staring topside unseeingly where the fields, and the backs of scattered beasts and cattle stretched.
Behind him, the view looked far again until one saw a black bush, almost indiscernible and one with the landscape, across the blazing land. It was only one’s knowledge, and a frond, and a feather, sticking up awry into the low distant sky, that told there was the coconut depth leading to the public road far away, Rajah dreamed, where Mohammed’s cottage was, and where he had started building his dark, mournful, blind mansion.
A man came upon Rajah, as he dozed in the noonday sun, and stood like a shadow over him. He knew someone was there but it was as if—to save his life—he could not open his eye. He recognized Ram. In the corner of his mind’s eye, he saw the hard grey toe-nails, and trousers rolled up to the shin. Rajah nodded. The shadow close to him was short and squat and like a ball. Rajah had been conscious of this visitor, and shadow, for some months now in his life, veiling and encircling the world. It was an obsession and fear he endeavoured to make short work of, and to slay quick and soon in his mind, like the childish conspirator and terror he had always been able to call upon, fearfully, on every occasion, and to banish afterwards. Now the unpalatable truth was, he no longer knew how to cast away his fault, as in his callow youth. It was learning to confront him and consume him. Rajah shook himself with mature scorn but his revelation and eye still remained bandaged and closed where the filthy head-band he had tied voluminously around his head had slipped and fallen.
Indeed, Rajah was more deeply troubled than he understood by this helpless fantasy. It moved in a dimension he could never hope to discern in this life, and it served to complicate the ordinary response and dismissal he should have been able to serve Ram.
Ram was a man of about his own age; they had grown up as neighbours and there was no reason why he should feel subordinate and bound to him. It was true Ram was the devil. God knows how he had extended his grip far and wide. Many a strong, independent man had grown into his victim, losing lock, stock and barrel over the years. Why, this was the case with his cousin. No one in the wide world perceived how Mohammed—in spite of every advantage he had inherited and established—had fallen deep into Ram’s clutches. Rajah doubted whether it would have happened to Hassan and Kaiser if they had lived. But then, there it was. Their removal had ideally stimulated Ram’s ascendancy and Mohammed’s decline. It was a remarkable inverse progression. Mohammed was a fool. Nevertheless, Raj had been affected by the foolishness, and he too had become conscious of Ram as a thief who was able to offer him—in robbing him—what he wanted.
Ram was turning into someone and something potent and gifted and strong, like the rotting grain and seed that springs in the planted shadow of the earth.