Bholanath and Khudabaksh Encounter a Torpedoed Troop Ship
The wind blew clouds of black smoke their way, and they coughed their TB-coughs as bloodily as ever they did on the ground. The ship had snapped in half like a British Army biscuit, sailors, horses, planks, and crates all scattered about like crumbs. Some horses thrashed their muscular necks, choking, their legs galloping underwater in vain; a white one stood perplexed atop a raftlike piano hood.
Young sailors jumped into the cold water to avoid the fires on deck. A few lifeboats, bearing men in suits, a few military officers, and a few women holding parasols, rowed quickly away – either to escape the vortex after the ship’s halves sank, or to escape the young men, treading water, lips already bluish, who swam clumsily after them, shouting Make room for a fellow, for Christ’s sake, make room!
“There – can you see the name of the ship?” Bholanath asked, pointing, reflexively, with his wrist stump.
“As soon as we get a little closer, and there’s an opening in the smoke...let me see....”
Bholanath said each of the letters, and Khudabaksh began sounding them out as syllables: em, peer, re, bu, ill, der. But their English was not the best, especially not when it came to reading.
“Pir...it has the word ‘pir’ in it, Khudabaksh.”
“And look: Biwi, ill...bewildered.”
“That means the pir is seeing things, and but he can’t understand why they had to happen.”
“Like a ship being snapped in half, and all the men and horses chattering their teeth in the cold water?”
Khudabaksh nodded. “A sad name for a ship in wartime—the Bewildered Pir!” The balloon, out of pity, sank through smoke toward the destroyed Empire-builder, and the crowded waters to either side of it.
“We are getting closer. We can help the survivors.”
“If we go too low,” Khudabaksh cautioned, more for the balloon’s sake than Bholanath’s, “they will grab hold of the ropes. Instead of us pulling them aloft, they will pull us under.”
“We have life-vests, right? Remember Colonel Mountjoy mentioning life-vests?”
They searched one of the pouches they had not explored so far and immediately found the two life-vests. Khudabaksh held them up, buckles dangling.
“Two lives!” Bholanath rejoiced.
“Out of how many,” Khudabaksh murmured gloomily.
They each took one and looked over the basket to see where to drop the vests.
“The horses are drowning! Hurry and take aim, Khudabaksh!”
“Not the horses, not the horses. We have a duty to save the sailors.”
“Why is that?”
“Because they are human beings, and so are we.”
“Come on, haven’t we seen enough of human beings by now? The horses are more likely to be reborn high, as men; the men are more likely to be reborn low.”
“As swine. Horses are as highborn as men, you can tell when you look in their eyes. The only higher birth is the cow-mother. Cow-eyes are more human than ours.”
“Still, we can’t save the horses, even if they are our equals by birth. See how they swing their heads to and fro? And their necks are too thick for the vests. There’s no way to garland one precisely, even if we descend closer to the waves.”
“The men, then. Look there – there are five of them, holding onto each other.”
“It’s the same way you and I hold each other for warmth at night.”
“Those must be a group of deserving friends.”
The balloon drifted high above the cluster of sailors, who broke apart when they saw the balloon. They waved their arms wildly and shouted, Come down! Lower, lower! We can’t reach your ropes!
The balloon, as if wary of the desperation in their voices, stayed well out of reach as it floated over the men. The men shouted up at Khudabaksh and Bholanath peering over the side.
“What are they saying, Khudabaksh?”
“I don’t know. I can barely understand our officers, how will I understand a shivering sailor?”
“They must be wounded. All I can make out is ‘bloody, bloody.’”
“You’re right, they are saying ‘bloody’ a lot. They might well be wounded, Bhola! Come on, let’s throw them the life vests.”
So the two soldiers dropped their life-vests beside the five sailors. The sailors, realising what these were, fell silent. For a moment, all five stared at the life-vests rolling serenely on the waves. Then they lunged into action, clawing their way to the vests, kicking and snarling.
From above, the commotion looked like sharks in a feeding-frenzy. More than one pale hand snatched at the vest, other hands got hold of the straps. Two more sailors, treading water nearby, swam over with great windmill-spins of the arms, and they got in on the struggle as well.
When they found it hard to get a hold of a vest, they started punching whomever was closest, and forcing heads underwater. The five who had been friends moments before could not make out who struck them; and so everyone fell on everyone else, and the fight was all against all.
Bholanath and Khudabaksh, distraught at the violence they had caused, searched the basket for something else to throw. Kabira flung overboard no less than six pinecones, but as flotation devices they were far too small and merely jumped on the splashes. The soldiers settled on the oar and tossed that into the stir of white torsoes, torn shirts, upside-down shoes, and froth. Instead of using it as debris that might help him kick to safety, one sailor grabbed it and cracked it across the head of another.
This second piece served another sailor as a cudgel; when the cudgel splintered across a back, it served as a spike. Khudabaksh and Bholanath called down, begging the men to stop and throw the life-vests back up if they were causing discord. Soon, as if obeying them, the water went calm. Only there were no sailors left. A few scraps of cloth marked the spot, along with the straps of the two shredded life-vests. The drowned sailors sank as one to the floor of the Atlantic, their bodies tangled in an embrace that looked like brotherhood.
Excerpted with permission from Soar, Amit Majmudar, Penguin Books.