To Talk With Crowds

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This will never work, you know, said the voice in Daksha's head.

''We'll see about that, won't we?'' she replied out loud.

She continued to paint the face on the newly carved doll sitting on her workshop table. Everything else faded into the background as she worked, like always. The cramped, hot, untidy little workshop, its shelves crowded with doll parts and tools; and the noise and bustle of Shimla, summer capital of the British Raj, in the streets outside.

Even the unwanted voices in her head quieted down. There was only the sharp smell of the paint, the slick glue and coarse wool under her fingertips as she smoothed on the hair, the tick-tock of the tightly-wound clockwork mechanism.

She gave the doll thick, menacing eyebrows, like she'd always imagined the owner of this particular voice would have, and a pointed little beard. It looked rather like Haresh, now she thought of it. When it was done, she dressed it in a doll-sized dhoti and shirt and set it on the shelf next to the others—the nun, the kind-faced auntie, the dark little girl.

They stood out like monsters next to the rows of near-identical yellow-haired British dolls, with their pink lips and stiff little petticoats. Mr. Gupta would not be pleased that she was spending paid hours on her grotesque prototypes. But then Mr. Gupta was lolling around drinking chai in the bazaar while she did the actual work that made his living.

I am telling you it will never work, the voice said again, but this time the newly-finished doll bobbed its little mechanical head in time to the words. It looked ridiculous. The voice sounded ridiculous now. Daksha smiled. Her plan was working after all.

If only the real Haresh was so easy to get out of her head.

His latest note was still sitting unread on the other side of the table where the messenger boy had left it. Where she'd been trying not to look at it. With a sigh, Daksha reached for the folded paper.

Haresh's bold black script sprawled across the page. She knew she would obey the words before she read them.

''At sundown tonight. Meet in the usual place.''

****

The usual place was the print room behind the newspaper office where Haresh worked as a reporter.

Daksha ventured out from her workshop into the bazaar as the sun started to dip behind the mountains. She kept her arms wrapped around herself as she walked, her eyes down, the end of her sari drawn over her head to cover her dirty hair and shield her face from curious glances. The crush of market stalls and sagging canopies, the buildings leaning over the narrow streets, made her feel trapped.

And then there were the eyes everywhere, watching. Even at the end of the day, there were shoppers critically poking fruits and samples of cloth, the proprietors sitting watching keen-eyed from behind their stall. Two stray dogs nosed at heaps of rubbish in search of bones, one pulling back its lip to show the other its teeth in warning.

With relief, Daksha pushed her way past rails hung with bright cloth into a narrow side-street well-hidden from the main bazaar. Stepping around the puddle of muddy water and cow dung that lurked there, she made her way down the narrow steps behind the newspaper office to the usual place.

The room was already hot and crammed full when Daksha slipped in the back door. Some of the men were in dhoti, others in British-style suits, the few women in sari for the most part. The smell of sweating bodies mixed with the pervasive scent of ink in the dark little room, and there in a pool of lamplight was Haresh, standing on an upturned crate to address the crowd.

''Two days,'' he was proclaiming, fist raised. Daksha sat down cross-legged on the wooden floor at the back of the cramped room, her canvas bag bundled in her lap. The doll in the bag was silent.

''Two days until our glorious viceroy leaves us for the last time,'' Haresh went on. ''Until he sails home through the sky to the king emperor, to live in comfort for the rest of his days. Twelve days, until his successor arrives on the return flight, to rule over us for another five years of oppression. Ten years, this time? Who can say? The year is nineteen-sixteen, not eighteen-sixteen. It is time for change!''

There was a murmur of assent from the gathered men and women. Daksha stayed silent.

''We ask for home rule, and they give us token positions in their illegal government. We ask for home rule, and they give us fireworks and festivities. They distract us with frivolities while our people starve in the fields, our soldiers die in their war. No more!''

What would he say if he knew what you're thinking? a voice said from inside her bag. Daksha rummaged in the bag, pulled out the doll she'd brought with her. What would they all say? The doll's mouth was moving. She blinked. She hadn't automated the mouths yet . . . had she?

''Stop it,'' she muttered under her breath, stuffed the doll back down in her lap. This wasn't supposed to happen. Making doll versions of the voices was supposed to take away their power, not give them more. . . . Her fingers tightened around the little cloth body as though she could strangle the life out of it.

Did you know Haresh is truly the Lord Krishna himself in disguise? the doll chattered on as though it didn't feel her grip at all. He's come to lead your people to independence, and he's chosen you–

''I said stop it! Enough!'' Daksha yelled out loud before she could stop herself. People turned to look at her, and she dipped her head in shame at her outburst.

''Yes!'' Haresh proclaimed from his makeshift dais, his gaze lighting on her like a vulture spotting a carcass. ''Indeed, it is enough. Indeed it must stop. It will stop.''

He leapt down lightly from his perch, moved through the crowd that parted to make way for him. He reached down and held his hand out to her, his dark liquid eyes meeting hers, overwhelming her like he always did, making her ashamed of all her doubts. He smiled.

Maybe the voice was right. Maybe he really was a god in disguise.

She let Haresh take her hand, draw her to her feet. He guided her to the front of the crowd, held her hand high while she clutched her bag and doll against her body with the other, blinking in the gas lights around the dais. All eyes were on her.

''This time,'' Haresh called out, ''we give the viceroy a send-off that will echo around the world, echo in the ears of the king emperor in his gilded palace. This time there will be no return flight. This time, they will not dare to send another. We won't wait for them to give us what is already ours. Rightfully ours. We take it! Jai Hind!''

The applause was thunderous. The heat and noise crushed the breath from her, blocked out anything her voices might be saying. Daksha didn't want it to end. She took her hand from Haresh's and pumped her fist in the air in a revolutionary salute. The crowd took up her gesture, and their chant of Jai Hind echoed in her ears until voices and doubts and memories all fell away into meaninglessness and oblivion.

''Jai Hind!'' she screamed, and let the doll fall.

****

''Do you know why I asked you to stay behind, Daksha?'' Haresh asked her when they were alone.

You're the god's chosen one, the excited voice had chattered to her. But she knew differently, in the gaps of silence the voices left her between the unwanted interjections.

Sitting at his feet, all that energy and zeal draining away into the ink-stained floor, her head was starting to ache. Daksha lowered her eyes.

''Please, tell me why,'' she asked tiredly.

''In two days, the outgoing viceroy will board the airship that takes him home to Britain. There will be a great ceremony, performances, fireworks, a gun salute. Many people will give him gifts. You will also give him a gift.''

He paused, and she looked up expectantly, although she already suspected what kind of gift he was talking about.

''You will give him a doll, one of Mr. Gupta's finest hand-crafted dolls. For his children, his grandchildren, whatever brats he might have at home, it is not important. A very special doll. You will see he takes it on to the airship. And the ship will rise into the sky, slowly, slowly, you can picture it? The seconds counting down . . . and then . . .

''And then?''

''A pyre, a funeral, death in the sky. A beacon for all to see across the land and know that we are a free people.''

Daksha frowned.

''So we kill them all,'' she said. ''Not just the viceroy, but all the people on the airship with him.'' People going about their lives, laughing, tucking their children into bed, never suspecting. ''And I will be imprisoned, executed for the crime . . . ?'' Everyone knew who made the dolls.

A noble sacrifice, a great honour to be asked by the god himself, one of the voices commented. Daksha watched, fascinated, as Haresh arranged his face into a look of deep compassion and sorrow. The same way she might paint an expression on a doll's face.

''Little sister, I would not ask you this if there were any other way . . .''

A great honour, the voice repeated, while another one hissed, Don't trust him. A liar, a demon in disguise.

''Stop!'' Daksha commanded sharply, and Haresh blinked, startled. She bowed her head again in apology, and screwed her eyes shut, unable to look up and meet his disappointed gaze.

The way she'd looked up that day long ago, huddled in a doorway fighting with her voices, sixteen years old and friendless, to see him looking down at her with compassionate, beautiful eyes. Instead of hurrying by or spitting a curse at the mad half-caste girl, he'd smiled and asked her name. Highborn, handsome, he'd held out a hand to her, helped her up. Told her he saw a great destiny in her.

How could she ever deny or displease him? However much she came to hate and fear him, wouldn't she always dance like an automated doll to his commands? On the back of her eyelids, a little Daksha-doll jerked her wooden limbs awkwardly, a comical expression of alarm painted on her wooden face.

She started to laugh, then her eyes flew open.

''I have a better idea,'' she told Haresh.

Reaching into her bag she set one doll and then another in front of him.

''I have been working on the automation, the walking in particular, to make the gait more natural, more lifelike. The British love to see them walk.''

Daksha felt calmer, talking about her work. She gave one of the dolls a little push and set it stepping rhythmically across the floor, then circling around back towards them. Haresh raised an eyebrow but watched with interest.

''I will make the doll walk with them to the airship,'' she explained. ''They will all smile and laugh, no one will suspect. And then . . .''

Haresh smiled, nodded.

''Wonderful, Daksha. I know I chose well in asking you to do this. I know you will never let me down.''

Daksha stared up at him as though she knelt in front of a shrine. Aching for that tenderness.

''Are you really the Lord Krishna in disguise?'' she asked suddenly.

He smiled. Reached down to gently brush back the strand of hair that had come loose from her braid in the wild excitement of the rally.

''I think you know in your heart who I am, Daksha,'' he said, and the voices crowed with delight until she put her hands over her ears to try in vain to block them.

****

The voices were background chatter only as Daksha walked back up the winding hilly street towards her workshop. Towards her bed on the attic floor above where she worked.

The streets were quieter now, only the distant chatter of voices from the bazaar and the whistle of a nightjar somewhere in the hills. But the humid evening air felt like a storm was building, sticking her hair to the back of her neck, making the strap of her bag chafe the skin of her shoulder.

A rumble like thunder, a shadow overhead, as if in response to her thought, and she glanced up as she walked.

The setting rays of the sun glinted off silver, off the vast silk skin stretched over arching bones. The British airship, drifting in on the last leg of its voyage across the sea, across the plains, easing slowly in to dock outside the viceregal lodge, sitting on its terrace up there on the hillside, the mountains dark against the sky above.

Beautiful, Daksha thought, stopping to watch the airship.

High above on the hillside, shouts rang out from the men waiting to catch the tethering ropes, to secure the ship to its platform for its brief stay.

A pyre, a funeral, the voices chanted, and she closed her eyes against the vision of that beautiful ship burning. She tried to close her ears as well, against the screams echoing back from two days in the future, but the screams wouldn't stop. She broke into a run, the worn soles of her shoes slapping on the stones, as if she could outrun them.

Why is she in such a hurry? a voice from her bag demanded. A pyre, a funeral, a pyre, a funeral, a . . .

''Be quiet!'' Daksha snapped. The voices didn't stop, and so she pulled the bag from her shoulder, tore it open and tipped the dolls out onto the road, not caring whether they broke.


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