Today is publication day for Dinah Jefferies' latest novel Before the Rains and it's my absolute pleasure to be able to share with you chapter 1 to whet your appetites for what promises to be another fantastic read.1930, Rajputana, India. Since her husband's death, 28-year-old photojournalist Eliza's only companion has been her camera. When the British Government send her to an Indian princely state to photograph the royal family, she's determined to make a name for herself.
But when Eliza arrives at the palace she meets Jay, the Prince's handsome, brooding brother. While Eliza awakens Jay to the poverty of his people, he awakens her to the injustices of British rule. Soon Jay and Eliza find they have more in common than they think. But their families - and society - think otherwise. Eventually they will have to make a choice between doing what's expected, or following their hearts. . .
The princely state of Juraipore, Rajputana, in the Indian Empire
For just a moment Eliza caught a glimpse of the façade of the castle. It shocked her, the way it shimmered – a mirage conjured from the desert haze, alien and a little frightening. The wind stuttered and then picked up again and, for a moment, she closed her eyes to shut out this trembling extension of the sand. No matter how far from home, and without the faintest idea of how things would work out, there could be no turning back, and she felt the fear in the pit of her stomach. At the age of twenty- nine this would be her biggest commission since setting up as a professional photographer, though it was still unclear to her why Clifford Salter had chosen her. However, he had explained that she might be better placed to photograph the women of the castle, as many were still nervous of outsiders, and especially men. And the Viceroy had particularly asked for a British photographer to guard against conflicted loyalties. She would be paid monthly, with a lump sum for successful completion.
She opened her eyes on air thick with the glitter of sand and dust, the castle hidden from view once more, and above her the seamless blue sky, merciless in its heat. The escort leading her towards the city twisted round to tell her to hurry. She bowed her head against the stinging and climbed back into his camel-pulled cart, clasping her camera bag to her chest. Above all else she must not allow sand to damage her precious cargo.
Closer to their destination she raised her eyes to see a fortress stretching across the mountain top, dream-like. A hundred birds swooped across the lilac horizon, threads of pink cloud tracing delicate patterns high above them. Almost drugged by the heat, she struggled not to fall victim to the enchantment; she was here to work, after all. But if it wasn’t the wind calling up the distant past as she hunched up against it, it was her own more recent memories.
When Anna Fraser had contacted Clifford Salter, a wealthy godson of her husband’s, she had thought that with his connections he might find her daughter a position as a clerk in a solicitor’s office in Cirencester, or something of that kind. She had hoped it would prevent her daughter from trying to make her way as a photographer. After all, she would say, who wants a woman photographer? But someone did and that had been Clifford, who said she’d be ideal and would suit his purposes perfectly. Anna couldn’t object. He was the British Crown representative, after all, and answered only to the Rajputana Chief Political Officer or AGG, who exercised indirect rule over all twenty- two princely states. He, the Residents, and the minor political officers from the smaller states all belonged to the political department directly under the Viceroy.
So now Eliza faced a year inside a castle where she knew no one. Her commission was to photograph life in the princely state for a new archive to mark the seat of British Government finally moving from Calcutta to Delhi. The building of New Delhi had taken much longer than expected, and the war had delayed everything, but now the time had finally arrived.
She’d heard her mother’s warnings about the sufferings of the people and saw that outside the huge walls of the castle urchins played in the dust and dirt. She spotted a beggar woman sitting cross- legged near a sleeping cow and gazing ahead with empty eyes. Beside her bamboo scaffolding leaning against a high wall blew perilously, with two planks of wood coming loose right above a naked child squatting on the ground beneath.
‘Stop,’ she called out and, as the cart rumbled to a standstill, she leapt out, just as one of the planks began slipping from its tethers. With her heart pounding, she reached the child and pulled him from harm’s way. The wood fell to the ground and splintered into several pieces. The child ran off and the cart driver shrugged. Didn’t they care, she wondered, as they climbed the ramp.
A few minutes later the cart driver stood arguing with the guards outside the fortress. They were not obliging, even though he’d shown them the papers. Eliza looked up at the forbidding frontage, and the enormous gated entrance wide enough for an army to pass through; camels, horses, carriages too. She’d even heard that the ruler had several cars. Meanwhile the vehicle she had been travelling in had broken down, and continuing by camel cart meant Eliza was tired, thirsty and coated in dust. She could feel it in her sore eyes, and in her itching scalp. She couldn’t help scratching, though it only made things worse.
Eventually a woman appeared at the gates, a long wispy scarf covering her face and revealing only her dark eyes.
Eliza told her who she was and shaded her own eyes against the piercing afternoon sun.
The woman nodded at the guards, who looked disgruntled but allowed them both through. It had been eighteen years since Eliza and her mother had left India for England. Eighteen years of ever- decreasing possibilities for Anna Fraser. But Eliza had made the decision to be free. To her it seemed like a second birth, as if a hidden hand had brought her back, though of course there was nothing hidden about Clifford Salter. He might have been more attractive had there been, but a more ordinary man it would be hard to find. Thinning sandy hair and moist, myopic pale blue eyes reinforced the impression of dullness, yet she was indebted to him for arranging this job for her in the land of the Rajputs, noble warrior clans in this cluster of princely states in the desert region of the Indian Empire.
Before walking through a series of glorious archways, Eliza dusted herself down as best she could. A eunuch led her through a maze of tiled rooms and corridors to a small vestibule. She’d heard of these castrated men in feminine dress and she shuddered. The vestibule was guarded by women who stood glaring at Eliza as they barred her way through wide sandalwood doors inlaid with ivory. When, after some explanation from the eunuch, they eventually allowed her to pass, they left her to wait alone. She glanced around at the room, every inch of it painted in clear cerulean blue with the patterns picked out in gold. Flowers, leaves, filigree scrolls rose up the walls and trailed across the ceiling; even the stone floor had been carpeted in matching blue. Although the colour was bright, there was a delicate beauty about the overall effect. Wrapped up in the blueness she felt almost a part of the sky.
Was she expected to announce her arrival in some way? Cough politely? Call out? She wiped her clammy hands on her trousers and put down her bag of heavy photographic equipment, then, after a moment of uncertainty, picked it up again. Hair knotted at the nape of her neck, and drab khaki trousers with a crisp white blouse – now limp – only magnified her feeling of being out of place. She’d never fit in with so much alluring colour and pattern. She had spent most of her life pretending to fit in, talking about things that didn’t matter, feigning interest in people she didn’t like. She had tried so hard to be like the other girls and then other women, yet the feeling of not belonging had followed her even into her marriage with Oliver.
In a glowing orange room, beyond the blue vestibule, streams of sunshine from a small rectangular window lit the dust motes floating in the air. Beyond it she could see a corner of another room; that one deep red in colour and where the carved walls of the zenana proper began. She knew the zenanas of the royal Rajputana palaces had long been forbidden to non - royal men. Clifford had explained how these women’s quarters – he called them harems – were steeped in mystery and intrigue; places of scheming, gossip and unbridled eroticism, he said, all the women having been trained in the ‘sixteen arts of being a woman’. Rife with multiple copulation and moral degeneration, he’d said with a wink, even with the priests, or maybe especially with the priests, though the British officers who preceded him had worked to eradicate the darker sexual practices of the zenana.
Eliza wondered what the sixteen arts were? Perhaps if she’d known them her marriage might have been more of a success, but, remembering the solitariness of her life with Oliver, she snorted at the thought.
A cloying oriental perfume, surely containing cinnamon, and maybe ginger, plus something intoxicatingly sweet, wafted from the red room, confirming everything she’d heard about the zenana. Because of it she felt trapped and longed to step forward to the window, pull back the white billowing curtain and lean out to breathe fresh air.
Her arms were beginning to ache and she bent down to place the heavy baggage on the carpet, this time against the wall where a peacock- shaped lamp sat atop a marble column. At the sound of a deep cough Eliza glanced up and then quickly straightened and smoothed down the strands of hair escaping her carefully placed pins. Her thick long hair, inclined to frizz, was a lifetime’s battle to keep under control. She swallowed a flash of anxiety at the sight of an extremely tall man standing in silhouette in front of the window.
‘You are British?’ the man said and she stared, startled by his impeccable English.
As he stepped forward the light fell across his face. The man was Indian and looked immensely strong. His clothing was covered in red and orange dust, and some kind of large hooded bird rested on his right elbow.
‘Should you be here?’ she said. ‘Isn’t this the entrance to the zenana?’
She stared at deep-set eyes the colour of amber, fringed by impossibly dark lashes, and wondered why he wasn’t wearing a turban. Didn’t all Rajput men wear them? His dark skin was gleaming and his shiny chestnut hair was pushed back from his face in a loose wave.
‘I think you should look for the tradesmen’s entrance,’ she added, wanting him to be gone and thinking he must be a merchant of some kind, though in truth he looked more like a gypsy or travelling minstrel. A trickle of sweat ran down under her armpits; now it was not only her hands feeling sticky.
At that moment an older Indian woman entered the room wearing the traditional garments: the long full skirt known as a ghagra, with a neat blouse and a billowing scarf, or dupatta, that floated as she moved, the colours a clashing mixture of vermilion, emerald and scarlet threaded with gold, and yet together they worked beautifully. A cloud of sandalwood wafted around her, along with an air of hushed calm, and, as she pulled a rope behind the marble column, the peacock lamp sprang to life, showering blue and green light to glitter over her hands. Then she took a few steps towards Eliza, and made a slight bow with hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards, with dozens of jewelled rings, and the manicured nails polished in silver.
‘Namaska¯r, I am Laxmi. You are the photographer, Miss . . .’
‘I . . . I am Eliza Fraser.’ She bowed her head, not certain if a curtsey was in order. After all, this woman had been Maharani, or queen, and was mother to the ruler of Juraipore. Clifford had told her that the woman’s beauty and intelligence were legendary and that along with her deceased husband, the old Maharajah, she had been responsible for modernizing many of the customs of the state. Her hair was plaited and then wrapped in a coil at the nape of her long elegant neck, her cheekbones were pronounced, and her dark eyes sparkled. Eliza saw that the woman’s reputation for beauty was based on truth but wished she’d asked Clifford to explain more about protocol. All he’d said was keep an eye out for moths and white ants. The moths would eat her clothes and the ants the furniture.
Laxmi turned to the man. ‘And you? I see you have brought that bird in here again.’
With a shrug that had the look of familiarity, the man raised his brows. Eliza noticed they were dark and thick.
‘You mean Godfrey,’ he said.
‘What kind of a name is that for a hawk?’ the woman said. The man laughed and winked at Eliza. ‘My classics master at Eton was called Godfrey, and a fine man he was too.’
‘Eton?’ Eliza said, in surprise.
Laxmi sighed deeply. ‘May I present my second and most wayward son, Jayant Singh Rathore.’
‘Do you only repeat what is said to you, Miss Fraser?’ Laxmi said with a rather arch look. But then she smiled. ‘You are nervous, so it is understandable. But I’m happy you are here to photograph our lives. For a new archive in Delhi, I’m told.’
At the mention of her work Eliza came to life and spoke with spirit. ‘Yes, Clifford Salter wants informal shots to show what life is really like. So many people are fascinated by India and I hope I might get some pictures into the better photographic magazines. The Photographic Times or the Photographic Journal would be perfect.’
‘A complete guide to life in a princely state over the course of a year. I’m so looking forward to being here. Thank you for inviting me. I promise not to get in the way, but there’s so much I want to see and the light is incredible. It’s all about the light and shade. You know, the chiaroscuro, and I hope to be able . . .’
‘Yes, yes, I’m sure. As for my son, you’ll find that once he’s cleansed the desert dust from his clothing he is not as forbidding as he looks at present.’ She laughed. ‘Admit it. You thought he was a gypsy?’
Eliza could feel the blush creep up her neck at her own dust-coated appearance, and though it wasn’t the hottest season she felt the heat.
‘Don’t worry, when he’s been out in the desert for days on end, everyone thinks that.’ She sniffed. ‘Thirty years old, addicted to danger and prefers the wild to us civilized folk. Hardly any wonder he’s not married yet.’
‘Mother,’ he said, and Eliza picked up a warning note in his voice. After that he went to pull aside the curtain and lean against the window with a look of indolent disinterest on his face.
Laxmi’s frustration with her son showed in the quiver of her chin, but she recovered herself quickly and turned to Eliza. ‘Now, your equipment?’
‘This is some of it. The rest is following in a cart.’ Eliza waved vaguely in the direction where she assumed the cart might be.
‘I’ll have it taken to your rooms. You’ll be staying here where we can keep an eye on you.’
Suddenly daunted, Eliza must have shown her anxiety, for the woman laughed again. ‘I’m teasing you, my dear. You shall be free to come and go within the castle just as you please. We have followed the Resident’s requests to the letter.’
‘That’s very kind.’
‘It is nothing to do with kindness. It’s in our own interests to try to oblige the British Government when we can. Relationships have been tricky in the past, I admit, but I am trying to bring my influence to bear on certain factions within the castle. Anyway, enough of us. You have your own darkened workroom with access to water as requested, and you’ll find your personal rooms are most comfortable and overlook a pretty courtyard full of potted palms.’
‘Thank you. Clifford told me he had made the arrangements with you. But I was expecting . . . well, a small place of my own.’
‘That wouldn’t do at all. In any case, our guest house in the town is undergoing renovation. And not only that; we may have removed purdah here in Juraipore, but there are many who still believe women should remain behind the veil. We can’t have you scampering about in the wild on your own.’
‘I’m sure I’d be all right,’ Eliza said, though she was not sure at all.
‘No, my dear. The British think they alone are responsible for bringing us women into the light but, to be perfectly frank, I only ever paid lip service to the custom of purdah and, after his mother died, my husband readily acquiesced to my requests for its removal. The submission and ignorance of women suited most men. Luckily for me my husband was not one of them.’
‘What will I do outside the castle walls?’
‘Be accompanied at all times, of course. And that brings me to your first assignment. Now that we are well into the month of Kartik, Jayant here has kindly offered to accompany you on a trip to the Chandrabhaga camel fair. The day after tomorrow. You will be accompanied by servants fol-lowing behind. I’m sure my son will enjoy using his English and you’ll enjoy the fair. I understand there will be camels of many colours and many interesting faces to record. And tomorrow you will accompany Mr Salter to a polo match.’
Eliza’s nerves got the better of her. She wasn’t keen on the polo match or the camel fair. She wanted to get settled and find her feet before dashing off anywhere else and especially accompanied by this Prince, if that was what he really was. She attempted a smile but her mouth tightened. ‘I was hoping to see more of the castle first,’ she said, noticing that the Prince was watching with a curious expression, the hawk still on his arm.
‘Mother, I think you might have met your match,’ he said.
While he was speaking Eliza thought she heard something new in his voice. Was he teasing her? Or was he teasing his mother?
Laxmi made a ladylike sort of a splutter and Eliza had the distinct impression that she considered meeting her match to be highly unlikely. ‘Plenty of time to see the castle. The fair is not to be missed, you will see something of the countryside and you will meet Indira there. I’ll get the maidservant, Kiri, to show you to your quarters.’
‘You allowed Indira to go on ahead, mother? That’s trouble in the making.’
‘I’ve sent a reliable man and a handmaiden with her, and in any case the girl knows her camels.’
The sun must have moved, because now long rays of light had fallen across the floor. Laxmi had been open and amicable but Eliza could sense you wouldn’t want to cross her. When she left the room, every inch a queen, the man bowed quite formally. And now that Eliza was the one observing him, she took in a strong face, defined by high cheekbones, much like his mother’s, but much more masculine, an intelligent brow, the eyes as before, wide set and amber, plus a moustache. When he glanced her way with a stern expression she dropped her gaze.
‘We didn’t invite you,’ he said quite calmly. ‘We acquiesced to an order that we must allow you access to the castle and escort you to other locations. There are many such orders from the British.’
‘Ordered by Clifford Salter?’
‘And you always accede to his orders?’
‘I . . .’ He paused, then changed the subject, but she’d had the distinct impression he’d been on the verge of saying more. ‘My mother wants a chocolate-coloured camel.’‘There are chocolate-coloured camels?’
‘Mainly at Chandrabhaga. You’ll like it. Few British go. And with your camel-coloured hair you’ll fit in nicely.’
He smiled, but she stiffened slightly and ran a hand over her hair. ‘I prefer to think of it as honey-coloured.’
‘Well, this is Rajputana.’
‘And Indira. May I ask who she is?’
‘There’s a question . . . just nineteen but a law unto herself. You’ll find Indira very photogenic.’
He turned to look out of the window now. ‘No relative at all. She is a very talented miniaturist. An artist. She lives here under my mother’s protection.’
Eliza heard the sound of children’s voices as they laughed and shrieked somewhere out beyond the window.
‘My nieces,’ he said, and waved at them before twisting back to look at Eliza. ‘Three of the little darlings, but no nephews, much to my brother’s eternal shame.’
A youngish woman padded into the room and indicated that Eliza should follow. Eliza picked up her bag, feeling annoyed. How could he say such a thing right in front of her? Did he really believe that having only girl children was somehow shameful?
‘Leave it. Someone will bring it to you.’
‘I may only be a woman but I’d rather take it myself.’ He inclined his head. ‘As you wish. Be ready at six the day after tomorrow. Not too early for you?’
‘Of course not.’
He appeared to be scrutinizing her. ‘Do you have any female clothing?’
‘If you mean dresses, yes, but when I’m working I’ve found trousers to be far the best.’
‘Well, I shall enjoy getting to know you, Miss Fraser.’
His indulgent smile irritated her more than it ought. Who was this arrogant man to judge her? Lazy, spoilt, aimless no doubt, like all the Indian royal men. And the more she considered it the more irritable she became.
Eliza woke early the next day. Her curtains were flimsy and the sun was already bright enough to force her to shield her eyes as she jumped out of bed and went to gaze out of the window. She had the strange sensation that, despite all the intervening years, something of this oriental country still coursed through her blood and had remained deep inside her. Just the smell of its soil stirred distant memories, and she had woken many times during the night feeling as if something was calling her. The air carried the fragrance of the desert sands and she breathed in the chill morning, feeling exhilarated and nervous.
The view of the courtyard was as promised and she smiled at monkeys leaping from tree to tree and playing on the most enormous swings she had ever seen. Because the castle – just one part of the gigantic fort – sat high on the vast craggy sandstone hilltop rising above the gilded city, the vista across the flat rooftops below took her breath away and she hugged herself in delight. Small cubic houses, snuggling close to the fortress walls, were shining a deep burnished ochre, but the more distant houses faded gradually to pale silver at the horizon, where the town gave way to desert. It was a child’s paintbox of every sublime shade of gold and honeysuckle under the sun. Dotted in among the houses, dusty trees reached up to the light, and above the whole city great clouds of birds swooped and dived.
It was cool now, but Eliza suspected that by the after-noon the temperature would reach the mid- seventies or even higher and there would be little chance of rain. She wondered what to wear for a polo match and decided on a long-sleeved shirt with a heavy gabardine skirt. What to pack for India had troubled her for weeks before she began the long journey by ship. Her mother had been hopeless, and seemed only to recall the evening dresses she had used to wear during their time in India before her husband, Eliza’s father, had been killed. Eliza remembered so little of those days but even now a lump came into her throat when she thought of him.
Life hadn’t been easy, and then, after her husband Oliver died, Eliza had returned to live at home, where she’d found Anna constantly hiding secret gin bottles, usually under her bed or beneath the kitchen sink. Anna persistently denied her own behaviour and sometimes could not even recall her episodes of heavy drinking. In the end Eliza had given up hope. That they knew Clifford Salter had been a lucky twist of fate, and by coming to India Eliza had sought to move forward, yet here she was still looking back, and not just to thoughts of her mother.
She glanced around her room. It was large and airy, the bed hidden behind a screen, and one corner had been set up as a little sitting room with a large armchair and a comfy-looking sofa, behind which an arch led to a small dining room. There was no sign of moths or ants. Another decorative archway in the wall opposite her four- poster bed led through to a lavish bathroom. The door to her dark-room was outside in the gloomy corridor and she was happy that it had been confirmed that only she would have the key.
As she laid out her clothes she thought about her arrival the evening before, just as a brilliant sunset had reddened the sky. The temple bells had been ringing and two girls, zooming along on roller skates, had almost taken the legs from under her. They shrieked and giggled and apologized in Hindi, and Eliza, pleased she had more or less understood them, was grateful to the old Indian ayah who had taught her. The lessons she’d recently taken to bring the language back had helped too.
Soon after that an immaculately gloved servant, wearing a white uniform and a red turban, had brought her bowls of dahl, rice and fruits on a silver tray and, after unpacking, she’d been grateful for an early night. Had it not been extraordinarily noisy she would have fallen asleep instantly, tired from the long journey from England, plus the ongoing trek to Delhi, and then another day’s journey to Juraipore. But noisy it had been. Music, laughter, birds calling, frogs belching and children up until all hours: all of it drifting through her window along with the shrieking of peacocks – a sound more like cats howling – and all of it punctuating her night.
She had lain awake helpless beneath the intoxication of a Juraipore night: the drums, the reed pipes, the smoke in the air, but more than anything it was the ever-present sense of life being lived to the full in spite of poverty and the harsh desert world.
Unable to stop her mind spinning, she thought of her father and her husband. Would she ever be ready to forgive herself for what had happened? She must if she was to make the most of this chance in a lifetime, and she could not risk having to crawl back to her mother with her tail between her legs. Eliza hardly dared admit that she had come to rediscover something within herself, something she’d lost the day they had left for England.
Before the Rains is available now in eBook and Hardcover.