He must not falter when his turn comes. He has watched Walker demonstrate the stages. He has studied Captain Hayes’s classic texts on horse management and riding. He has even seen himself execute the steps in his mind, beginning with the mount, easing into the trot, switching to the canter, and finally moving into a gallop that takes the horse in a circuit around the field, back to the starting point. More than that, Das is not required to do. The Bengal service may expect that its veterinary surgeons be able to ride, but it does not require pig-sticking, gymkhana-rousing skills of them.
Walker, the riding instructor, is a patient man. As he demonstrates once again how to adjust the reins, the stirrups, and the saddle, Das thinks of the note that appeared this morning in his room. Is it a matter of the Committee judging how steady his nerves are? Whether he can cope with vigorous motion? It could be anything, even a test of how his aura responds to piloting of a primitive kind. He snatches a quick look at his surroundings. In this particular corner of the vast expanse of the Maidan, there is no one who should not be there, no one sent for the express purpose of observing his performance at the riding examination.
A fresh evening breeze blows in from the Hooghly, carrying on its wings the sound of a regimental band from Fort William. Das and his fellow students cluster nervously around Walker and his beloved horse, White Rose, who in spite of her name is a grayish mare of somewhat matronly appearance, whisking her tail at stray flies.
The leaves of the fossil-like banyan trees rustle. Invisible little ghosts scurry in the grass, stopping occasionally to tickle Das’s ankles. Drums rise to a crescendo in the background, pausing for an elongated silence before the wailing notes of a bagpipe kick in. Das draws a sharp breath. He does not like regiments or military music, but he finds the sound of a bagpipe strangely moving, stirring in him, absurdly, some primal, melancholy response, beneath all his knowledge from these past few years of just how empires are run.
“Now listen here, gentlemen, it could not be simpler,” Walker shouts in his drill master’s voice. “This isn’t quite like in the old days. If you had been studying before the war, you’d have been made to take a proper riding examination.”
“And proper riding lessons, too,” a voice responds from the back.
“Hmm? Yes, well. All we ask today is that you complete one circuit, ek chukker, without falling off. Bas! Ghor sowaari khatam, certification complete.”
Walker waits for the students to laugh along with him, to show that they appreciate his throwing in a few Hindustani words. It is his way of responding to the changing times. Instead he gets a babble of voices, a hubbub of questions and declarations, a small mutiny in the making.
“No!” Walker shouts. “The creature will not throw you. It wishes to be ridden. Why does it wish to be ridden? Because that is its nature. Why is that its nature? Well, gentlemen, does the name Charles Darwin mean anything in this regard? A horse evolved to carry you, which is why it is a horse. A horse is not a giraffe. It is not a zebra. And yes, while it may be a Krishno’r jeeb, as Biswas there would like to remind us from the wings, sotto voce, that does not happen to be pertinent to the matter at hand. What d’you mean, the horse might bite you? What kind of surgeons are you lot going to be? Now, Das, it’s your turn to show everyone. Come on, then. Das?”
Das has been thinking of the note, slipped into the pages of Hayes’s Veterinary Notes for Horse Owners that morning by forces unseen, and of the uncanny echo between its message and Walker’s harangue.
We are filled with joy that you take your riding examination today. From such surmounting of physical boundaries do we prepare ourselves to traverse thresholds where matter dissolves into spirit, where time and space fall away, and where the glorious universe reveals itself to us in its infinite shades of compassion and love. A horse may be just a horse, but for you it is only the first of your many vahanas. You will not fail.
In substance, of course, there could not be greater a difference between Walker’s koi hai, boot-polish heartiness and the sonorous poetry and complex metaphysics of the Committee’s letter. But he has not missed the way Walker’s “A horse . . . is a horse” mirrors, with subtle variation, “A horse may be just a horse.” Such are the mysterious ways in which the Committee operates, Das thinks, forgetting that he has just been addressed by Walker and that the instructor, for some time now, has been holding out the stirrup with his riding crop.
Das stares, finally, at stirrup and at crop, at Walker’s compact frame, aware that he must mount White Rose. As he stares, he feels himself receding from the scene, watching Walker from an ever greater distance, as if the ex-army riding instructor, veteran of Gallipoli and of the Burma campaign as one of Chindit’s Bandits, is becoming part of a large tableau. Das squints to make sense of this, of how Walker stands there, one hand on the reins now, the other waving the crop. He notices how smartly turned out Walker is in his khaki tunic and white jodhpurs, how confident in his black riding boots.
He thinks of himself, wearing clothes a size too big, feet clad in strapped chappals bought from the cheapest of stalls in Shyambazaar. He begins to feel the absurdity of his riding a horse, and the even greater absurdity of his carrying out the task the Committee has determined for him. He feels his smallness, his inadequacy, and, as he does so, senses that Walker is holding together not just himself and the horse but everything in the vicinity, Das and the other students and the old trees on the Maidan with their gnarled trunks and creepers and the fort piled up with red bricks, and that without Walker and his quiet confidence everything will fall apart, the ground tilting so that they all slide, one by one, horse and Das and others, into the opaque, milk-tea brown of the Hooghly river until, finally, the Maidan itself tips over completely and drops, trees, fort, river, and all, into the sky.
The instructor’s face appears against the sky, like a red signal balloon just launched. “Must be the heat,” it says.
“Or panic,” says another voice.
“Did he shit in his pants?” a third voice says, and Das recognizes the Bull’s baritone and understands that he is lying on the ground.
Then water is splashed on his face, hands easing him into a sitting position while a canteen is thrust into his mouth to gurgle out warm, metallic-tasting liquid. The sun is low on the horizon, the horse still whisking its tail. The regimental band has begun “Beating Retreat.”
“Might as well just put this off,” Walker says, his eyes not meeting Das’s. The bagpipe swells again, as do drums and a myriad other instruments Das cannot identify. “To begin tomorrow at the same time,” Walker shouts in a louder voice. “Dismissed!”