A tale of love and destiny told by an ancient chowkidar who visits Hugh Barclay as darkness falls.

An Excerpt from Haunting India


Margaret Deefholts

"For years afterwards, Hugh Barclay would re-play the scene in his mind: the Bandigarh fort battlements silhouetted against the moon, the old man sitting near him, recounting a tale of anguish and loss, and the closing of a circle, as vast and as small as the ring he wore on his little finger. Was it chance or destiny that led him to spend the night at the fort? Or was it something stronger than either: a magnetism that shrank time and space and dissolved the boundaries of death?

Bandigarh's fort loomed on the outskirts of the town, its battlements knuckle-fisted against the sky. It was deserted. No caretaker. No tourists. Just a flock of mynahs pecking at the dust in a grove of mango trees. Hugh dismounted from his jeep and told the driver he'd be back in an hour. An evening breeze ruffled his hair as he looked down over the ramparts: five hundred feet of rock face dropped away on three sides, and the river, a thin brown thread, curled around the perimeter of the cliff. The houses of Bandigarh, like a sprawl of children's toy blocks, lay across the surrounding plains.

He wandered past the empty cannon mounts, now sprouting weeds through cracks in their stone slabs, and took a pathway leading into the fort complex. To his surprise, the immense Hall of Public Audience was in good shape. The open-sided pavilion retained an air of faded splendour, its ceiling and pillars inlaid with motifs of flowers and birds, pointed in gold leaf. Beyond it was a courtyard flanked by private royal apartments, and Hugh paused to examine the typical Moghul badshahi bricks, small and hard, like bared teeth against lips of peeling plaster, wondering as he ran his fingers over the walls, what long ago whispered conspiracies lay in their shadows, what scenes of betrayal or cruelty they had witnessed, what tales of seduction, of love or longing, they had known. A terrace topped by graceful cupolas surrounded the remnants of a garden. Its glory was gone, the flower beds choked with wild grass, the stone fountains cracked and dry. This would have been an outdoor arena for music and drama performances. Was it just his imagination, or could he hear faint, yet clear, the clink of dancing girls' anklets?

A movement in the shadows startled him. "Who the…" he exclaimed, swinging around. A pigeon flew out from under the arches of a pillar, and Hugh smiled to himself. Bandigarh's atmosphere was getting to him. It was like standing on an empty stage with the players hidden in the wings. They could see him, but he couldn't see them. The back of his neck prickled for an instant, and then he shrugged. Perhaps it was time to leave. The sun had begun to rim the horizon as he retraced his steps to the entrance courtyard."

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