Gunboat turned when he heard voices. A couple came over the rim of the hill. They were in their late twenties, and the woman carried a child in her arms. The child appeared asleep, but the tender way in which they handled him made Gunboat suspect he was sick. He made room for them. The husband held the child until the woman was settled, cross-legged, and then laid it gently on her lap. She was beautiful. Her face was heart-shaped with a sensual mouth and liquid brown eyes, tinged with sadness, that filled the face. There was a diamond in her nose and silver rings on her toes. She kept her head down as if sheltering the child from his look.
“What’s wrong?” Gunboat asked.
The woman made no answer. The husband, sensing the meaning, turned his palms up and looked skywards.
“They think that sadhu can cure him?” he asked Gertrude.
She hesitated, wavering between contempt and belief. “Possibly. He is supposed to have many powers.”
A youth came out of the mouth of the cave. He wasn’t more than fourteen. His head was shaven, and he stood straight. He wore only a flimsy cotton cloth around his waist. He came straight to Gunboat and beckoned them both.
“No,” Gunboat said. “He should see this couple.”
“He knows we’re more important than them,” Gertrude said and scrambled to her feet.
“How does he know we’re here?”
“He knows,” she said. “And he knows about the child too.”
The youth turned, and they followed.
It was gloomy and cool in the cave. They smelled incense and fresh water. Gunboat waited until his eyes had adjusted. There was very little in the cave. A few earthenware pots, and a fireplace made of mud. The cave was a dozen feet deep, and the roof of uneven height.
A man sat cross-legged on a worn deerskin at the farthest end. His eyes were closed; his beard, black streaked grey, began just below his cheekbones and fell to his chest. He was slim and straight and his skin, the colour of old gold, appeared to shine in the light from the single oil lamp. It was a dry shine.
The youth gestured; they sat. Gertrude knelt, trying to appear as if she were not in front of this man in a loincloth.
“Does he speak English?” Gunboat whispered.
Gertrude shrugged. The youth withdrew to the opening of the cave. The sadhu appeared unaware of their presence. Gunboat noticed he hardly seemed to breathe.
“Yes,” he finally said, though his eyes remained closed. “Shouldn’t you have seen that sick child?”
‘”I already have.” It was an accentless voice, so soft they had to bend forward to hear.
“Were we more important than them?”
“No.” He chuckled. “An American boxer and an Anglo lady are as important as everyone else.”
“How do you know who I am?” Gunboat Jack asked, and strained for the reply.
Gunboat wished the man would open his eyes. It was disconcerting talking to him. Gertrude rustled uneasily.
“You seen me fight?”
The man chuckled again. “Why should I? It is an honourable profession. Here we have wrestlers.”
“Back home too,” Gunboat said and found he was enjoying the man’s company. “I used to be pretty good. Boxer I mean. I didn’t win no championship...but I was good.” He wished now he had won a title back home. He wasn’t given the breaks.
“Only one man at a time can be champion. It was not your time.” He paused. “You are a man of honour?”
“You bet I am. I didn’t take no dives. I made my money straight.”
Without warning, the sadhu opened his eyes. They looked directly at Gunboat Jack. The eyes were pale brown, almost the colour of beach sand. They appeared not to look, yet they saw everything of him.
“You are also a man of courage.” It was a statement.
“Then what you have come to ask for depends on a test of these two qualities in you.”
“They won’t give,” Gunboat said.
“If you hold to them, you will be victorious; if you let go of them you will be defeated.” The sadhu hadn’t blinked once.
“What the hell does that mean?” Gunboat considered his own question in the long silence. “So if I want to get home,” he finally replied to himself, “I will have to be true to myself.”
“That depends on you. It is going to be difficult.”
“What will this test be?” Gunboat asked. If he knew ahead of time, he could be careful.
“It will happen soon. In your profession.”
“I haven’t fought for years.”
“You will not need to fight.’ His eyelids began to lower slowly. It seemed as if a door was closing.
“What about me?” Gertrude asked quickly. The lids were half closed, considering her.
“You will leave your home to be forever a stranger, for that is your wish.”
“With Gunboat?” She glanced at Gunboat and smiled shyly.
“You love him?”
The sadhu chuckled. It sounded pleasant, benevolent. He had been sitting, arms outstretched, with his wrists resting on his crossed knees and the palms facing upwards. The thumbs and forefingers touched to form circles. Now he closed one hand, and opened it a few moments later. There was a small pile of white ash in the centre of the palm. He lifted his hand up to his face and blew. The ash was fine as dust and delicately perfumed.
“Love is like this vibudhi. Visible one moment, invisible the next,” he said. “Your love will depend on his actions.”
Gertrude snorted and shifted as if to rise. She wished she hadn’t asked. Nor come to see this fakir.
“How’d you do that?” Gunboat asked. He stared at the empty palm.
“That was a trick,” Gertrude said.
“Isn’t everything?” the sadhu said gently. He then addressed Gunboat although there was no perceptible movement to his head or to the last peep of his eyes. Only his voice appeared to shift direction. “You will meet a woman of your own race. Be careful. She holds your destiny.” He paused. “And a prince. If you wish it, he will change your life.”
“I don’t know any prince.” Gunboat spoke only to a silent image.
The sadhu’s eyes closed. They sat awhile, but the man appeared to have withdrawn from them. Gunboat leaned forward and reached out.
“Gunboat.” There was panic in Gertrude’s voice.
Gunboat touched the palm on which the ash had materialised. Delicately he drew his finger across the palm. The sadhu did not stir. Gunboat drew back. The ash was on his fingertip. He smelled. It was sweet and dry.
Excerpted with permission from Gunboat Jack: A Novel, Timeri N Murari, Aleph Book Company.