Punjab

 

Chapter 20

Punjab – land of Spices and city of Trouble

 

Efter weeks and weeks at sea it was decided that now was the time for laundryday – of both men and clothes. Being a disgustingly clean person myself (by maritime standard), I had no urgent need to wash or do laundry at that particular day, so I was sent to the crow’s nest to looke at the horizon and leave the men some privacy. So it was I who first saw land…

 

As we got closer to land the water turned redish from the peculiar red mud the land seemed to be made of. We followed the coast for two days, passing small fishing villages, until we rounded a point and saw a great red city with citywalls, domes and steeples. As we got closer we spotted a man on the wharf jumping up and down, waving his arms and screaming words like ‘Light be praised!’ ‘Great Mercy!’ in tyndall! I never learned tyndall, but codorian is pretty close to, so I could understand him without problems. The wharf was made of what seemed to be thick straw – we later learned that it was made from a local plant called bamboo, a very flexible and sturdy type of stick, which put together with lots of other bamboosticks becomes a solid piece of timber. The city was red, we discovered, because it was buildt of the red clay we saw everywhere. Walls were thick and windows large and shutterless. It was hot land and dry!

 

Right as we were about to set a boat in the water (Jean Luc and Hawk would go ashore with some men, while I would take command of the ship), when the Captain suddenly woke up. He was confused and groggy, and thought that he had merely slept an hour. He was convinced that we were about to fight the corsairs, and was astonished to discover that not only had we left the corsairs far behind us, but several weeks had passed and we were now at our destination! We updated him, and then he went with the boys to shore. I stayed behind and supervised the cleaning of the ship and took stock.

 

The man on shore was Lucius Xenos, an Epriotic man who had been captured and sold by corsairs many years ago and now lived here in Punjab as slave to the princess Esha. He was estatic to see us. He had not seen other westerners for years. We were fortunate to meet him, for the language they spoke here was quite different from anything we had ever heard. He agreed to translate for us and to explain to us the different customs.

 

It seemed that a particularity of this land was the graduation of classes: in the top were the Maharadja, who was practically godlike, then came the satria, who were knights and lords, alongside them were the brahmincaste, who were priests (they were allowed to marry, for how else could other brahmin be born?...). Attached to the brahmin were the yeti, a groupe of warriors that worked as bodyguards. They were unbelievably strong and tall, but subdued and stupid. Then came the pavamin and the thangkhas. The pavamin were farmers and the thangkhas were merchants and craftsmen. Under them were the savaminhcaste; fishermen and workers, then there were the kastiri – those without caste who performed all the dirty types of jobs, alongside them were the nehmi, a sort of wizards and fortunetellers. They begged in the street and every once in a while they predicted something for the ones who had given them money. They kept predicting to us that we would meet dragons, every time we gave them money. At the time I thought that the dragons were the big grey animals we saw with big ears and noses like an arm. But they were oliphants, we were told, and not dragons. Beneath everyone else were the chennamma, a race that were treated like animals, which they did resemble to some extent, they had spots on their arms and legs like the great spotted cats. They were kept in cages, but they could speak.

 

I must admit I found that whole castething quite disgusting. Nobody could marry outside their caste, and you couldn’t better yourselfe and move from one caste to the next. You were borne into a caste, and no matter whether this suited you or no that was were you stayed! The castes were easily told apart – their appearences where quite diverse, both in the way they dressed themselves, but also how they looked – their skin-, hair- and eyecolor; the savaminh for example were small, dark, and had small ears. They only wore a loincloths and a neckless with a tiny rock in them. They were said to be quite stupid. The rashpudhin (a warriorcaste connected to the satria) were tall, broadshouldered and they wore red and yellow turbans (clothe wrapped about the head in an intricate manner, that protected the head (I guess) and made the head looke quite large). The thangkas had big ears, big hands, they were not very tall and had light brown eyes. The kastiri were short, dirty and hairy, and had very dark hair and eyes.

 

The people of Punjab believed that everything living would be reborn after death to a state worthy of the life you had lived. So if you had been goode, you woulde be born into a higher caste. If you on the other hand had been bad, you might be reborn as an animal or maybe a bug, and had to work to advance in your next life. I found this interesting, but to me it is only a way to keep the masses in their place! You have to be a goode little slave and not make trouble, so you can be something better in your next life… No thank you! I prefer making my own life better now and not in some fictional next life. But truth be told; we did see many odd and unexplicable things in Punjab, and though I didn’t think much of their rebirththeories, they did have some sorts of magic and otherworldly contacts.

 

But at the time we arrived Punjab was in trouble: the maharadhja had been abducted by the maharatas – some sort of mountainbandits. They threatened to sell him to the Turkmenic sultan Tipoo of Hyberbadh, who in turn would use him to take over Punjab. Of course many people in Punjab didn’t like this idea much and neither did we, to tell the truth. The turkmenic people were not known to want to trade with westerners, so our only chance of succes in our mission would be to aid these people get their maharadhja back. Trouble was that the warriorcaste – the rashpudhin – obeyed only the maharahdja, and if they were not organized, Punjab was helpless if the Turkmenic attacked. The vesir of Punjab, Hari, was the brother of the missing maharadhja, and he wanted a new maharadhja to be elected, preferably himself. But as he was known to believe that they could avoid trouble if they welcomed the Turkmenic soldiers, he was not a good choice (in our eyes at least). Lucios told us that the princess Esha had other plans to deal with the situation, and needed our help to do this. At this point they send for me on the ship, and on the way to the pink palace in the center of the city, Jean Luc explained all of the above to me. Need I say my head was spinning at the end of his tale? It was! And fast!

 

So we proceeded to the Garden of Delights, were the women of the maharadhja resided. As his daughter this was also where the princess Esha lived. In the garden we saw an enormous striped cat, which the Captain resolutely petted untill it pured – maybe it was after all just a big cat…? The rashpudhin guarded the palace. Lucios had told us that the customary greeting amongst the rashpudhin was to grip eachothers arms and shake them (like we grip hands in stead) – this could sometimes result in small wrestlingmatches as to prove who were the stronger. As foreigners we didn’t fit into a caste, so we had to define ourselves in their eyes. Thus when we came upon the rashpudhinwarriors, we greeted them by gripping their arms. I did too, and though they were surprised to see a woman claiming to be their equal, they accepted it after a small armwrestling match. We were now somewhat equal to the rashpudhin and the rest of the satriacaste…

 

Lucios introduces us to the princess Esha, who was kept in housearrest by her uncle, the vesir. I had rarely seen anyone like her: her skin was extremely fair and smooth, her hair and eyes completely black. Her eyes had that peculiar slant that people from the very Far East had – I had only seen two other people in my life with that sort of eyes, and they were both pirates. We were told by Lucios that her mother had come from the Empire of the Sun, where she had been royalty or related to the gods or somesuch. The princess was delighted to see us. As we were outside the castesystem, we could move about quite freely, and being locked up as she was, she could really use someone like us. She wanted the High Priestess in the City of Delphins to announce an heir to the maharadhja who could rule untill he came back. And that someone must not be Hari, the vesir! But to speak to the High Priestess we must first travel to the City of Dolphins and then enter the annual contest of bulldancing… Apparently they though it honorful and heroic to jump over running bulls – well, each people to its’ own pleasures… But to enter the contest would really be our only way to the High Priestess’ ears. Had we attempted to approach her in any other manner, we would surely be turned away. In my ears it sounded too amazingly odd and out of the question, but the Captain promptly agreed. He never could resist a challenge, especially if it involved damsels or just people in general in distress… I must admit I was quite sceptical about the whole thing, but this Captain certainly expected his orders to be followed!

 

Speaking of which: on our way back we were followed by a slavewoman from the harem, and out side the palace a groupe of 18 cityguards (under the vesirs command, Lucios explained) tried to arrest us. I voted for running, and fast, since we were only four fighters, but the Captain stood fast. He wanted to fight. He became more and more determined and tightlipped, as I tried to convince him to run. But he ordered us to fight, so we fought. I killed the first man to attack me, while the Captain and Jean Luc only attempted to wound their guys. I never quite understood that practice. A wounded man returns to kill you later, might as well get him out of the picture at once. Besides the Captain ordered us to fight, not just wound, so I fought the way I had learned. To our luck Lucios, whom I had first believed to have abandoned us, returned with the rashpudhin we had previously befriended. The rashpudhin at the gate had merely watched us fight, but the guys that now came helped us fight. We quickly bested the cityguards, and those who hadn’t fallen, fled.

 

The Captain rebuked me for challanging his orders in a tight spot, and I defended my right to do so. He explained that we had improved our situation by showing the rashpudhin our true grit, and shown them that we were men (and woman) of honor. I argued that it had been quite a riske to take: what if the rashpudhin had not come to our aid? He insisted that when he as captain gave an order, I had to follow no matter what I thought about it. This was so not how business had been conducted on my father’s ship (or other pirateships for that matter)! In the pirateworld a captain rules supremely only in combatsituation, where there is no time for debate. The crew had a say as to which port to go to, which ships to take and what rules were to be followed. A piratecrew has a set of rules that all have set their mark on and has sworn to obey. They agree to a certain conduct of the ship, and tresspassers are punished. The captain can set down rules, but the crew must agree to them. For instance my father never allowed his men to rape women or hurt children in a plunder – this was argued upon repeatedly, but when it came down to the vote, the majority was allways on my father’s side.

 

But that night in the Captains cabin things were set straight; this was not a pirate ship – Captain Velasquez was boss, and he made all decisions. He tooke advice from his officers, including me, but he was the one to take the ultimate decisions. If anyone had a problem with this, they were free to leave the ship. I finally agreed to follow his orders without discussion, after we had discussed when advice was welcome, and when it was not (it turned out that no specific rules applied - I just had to use my gut feeling for when the time was right and when I should just shut up…). I decided that I had to study his rule, since I would do the same on the Hyena – I wanted to be the captain of the Hyena, and did not want be voted out of that position on my own ship! I would be supreme boss there, but at the same time had to set down rules agreeable to my men. Not an easy line to balance on, I telle you!

 

We sailed up the coast to the City of Dolphins and arrived just at the Feast of Bulls were beginning. We had practiced jumbing over rolling barrels on the way, and while Hawk and I (oddly enough) seemed to have no such talents, the Captain and Jean Luc seemed to have been doing it their entire lives. So once arrived, Jean Luc and the Captain went to join the acrobats, and Hawk, Lucios and myself found seats among the spectators. And what a spectacle it was! The priestesses were topless, yes, that’s right! Their dresses did more to enhance than cover up their upper bodies. Some wore masks of gold and jade, adorned with figures of snakes. The High Priestess sat down on her throne, spoke some words I couldn’t understand and the games begen. The acrobats entered the arena, including our boys, dresses in loincloths only (men and women both), and they had oil rubbed into their skin to make them shiny and slippery. Then the bulls entered... They were 2 meters tall, I lie not! Their horns were 1½ across and they were black, strong and very, very angry! Their hoofs were the size of buckets! The acrobats approached these fearsome animals, and just as you thought the bull would run them over, they grabbed the horns and flung themselves over their horns and back! I have truly never seen anything like it! My heart was in my throat the entire duration of the games. I wished I could have been down there – I do so hate just watching the action. The Captain and Jean Luc did well – they performed some quite incredible stunts. Every once in a while, I admit, it seemed it was more pure luck than skill that they survived, but they did and that’s all that matters.

 

At the end of the games, they along with three others – two men and a woman – were called to meet the High Priestess and receive their awards. Once in her presense the Captain and Jean Luc started speaking – the yeti startet moving in to remove them, but the High Priestess let them speake. Then she invited them to tea along with Hawk, Lucios and myself who had been lurking nearby. She didn’t miss much, that one! Over tea (quite a different experience than the tea we were used to – there’s much more flavour to Punjab tea!) we told her the troubles of Punjab (information that seem to have been kept from her - presumably by Hari), and she promised she would think it over and consult a while with the gods.

 

We didn’t wait long for an answer. We had waited less than an hour before we were summoned; the entire temple seemed to be packing up and getting ready to travel to Punjab, and we were told to come along. We sent message to the Fortuna to follow us back by seaway. I don’t much enjoy walking, but that particular journey was something else! It was an impressive parade of color and fine fabric, noble metals, a large number of priests and yeti, and above all; 8 of the massive dragonlike oliphants! The oliphants are held in high regard (it seems unwise to do otherwise!) and one of the punjabi gods, Ganesh, actually has an oliphanthead. They were covered by fine blankets with golden and silver thread worked into them, and their gigantic heads were painted in bright colors in intrigate patterns. They were really something. I wish we could have brought home a sceleton of one of those, because no one would believe their size had one not seen them – I telle you; they are bigger than houses! Absolutely enormous!

 

So, a couple of days later we arrived at Punjab, to find the entire cityguard in front of the palace. Lucios tried to run into the palace, to warn the princess of our arrival, but he was spotted by guards. Hawk and I raced after. A raspudhin tried to head us off, but I shook his hand with vehemence and he surrendered. Just as we found the princess, the High Priestess declared that the vesir Hari was a traitor to Punjab and the princess Esha was to be the maharadhjas true heir! Fighting broke out in front of the palace, and several guards, rashpudhins actually, tried to get to the princess to do her no good. So some of them had been in the vesirs pocket! Well, we dealt with them, and no one was allowed to harm the princess that day!

 

Soon she was safe, and though fighting continued a while yet, order had once more returned to Punjab, and the business of finding the maharadhja could commence. But first; partytime!

 

We partied with Lucios in his little city flat. It was on the 5th floor, accessable only by ladders. I had never been up so high! The view was magnificent! Four huge glassless windows – one on each wall – kept the flat cool and fresh. We ate spicy goatmeat, and lots of rice and vegetables, while drinking some white fermented liquid that got some of us quite drunk. We discussed how we could find the maharadhja and as we got drunker, the ideas got wilder. In the end we decided that we couldn’t do anything anyhow untill the princess had told us more about the whole thing, so we returned to mere feasting. Lucios had passed out by then, and as Jean Luc and I found ourselves weary and just longing to sprawl in the many cushions on the floor, Hawk and the Captain went into the night to find more party elsewhere” (yes, I’m sure you, my readers, are smirking now and wonder in what manner Jean Luc and Fiona sprawled… I know I have my guesses, but again, cannot get them confirmed. J. W.).

 

“They came back in the early morning, drunk as skunks. They had attended the Ganesh feast and had some tales to tell us. Somehow as they got drunker they had begun understanding the language of the nehmi (alas lost again as they sobered up). Several of the little fortunetellers had told them that they would meet the dragon, and that it would give us lots of answers, but at our own peril. Well then… Seems we had a dragon looming so eminently in our future that all the fortunetellers could see it. Truth be told, I was rather beginning to look forward to it. I do know, off course, that dragons are not to be triffled with, but to be able to say one has met one… Well, that would be something!