Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Silence of Doom

In that cold room on the night of the new moon, I respectfully closed the eyes of the Rajah Sahib with my palms. I looked at his grieving family and shook my head. Surya Mahal was now in mourning for its head.

I noticed the prince-in-waiting Nakul Hans gesture in my direction, so I followed him out of the deceased Rajah’s bedroom. The Ranee Sahibaa silently wiped her tears, clinging to her last moments with her husband and her vermillion. Nakul’s younger brother Vardhan knelt beside his mother and put his arm around her. He paid no attention to us.

"Thank you, Dr. Indraneel, in this hour of grief, for attending so patiently to my father", Nakul said outside, his voice faltering.

"Please, I implore you not to say so", I said, a tremble in my whisper. "It was all I could do. His time had come. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it any easier for him."

"I’m sure you gave it your best shot, Doctor", he said, regaining the crisp command that spoke eloquently of his public school education.

"About that other matter?" I ventured haltingly.

The latest successor to the estates and titles of Daalipore considered this carefully. "Let us go upstairs", he said.

Nar Bahadur, Nakul’s faithful retainer, was summoned for torches. We walked up those four flights of steps to the Mahal’s South Tower. Bahadur was dismissed at the ante-chamber to the Tower, a place that I had grown familiar with in the last three months without once feeling accustomed to its musty and dank chambers. She lay in the corner.

This may come as shock to you, dear reader, so I will try to expound on our odd visit, the latest of a series of visits which I had now been performing for three months. You see, I have also been treating the Banshee of Surya Mahal all this while. She was resident in these dark Tower chambers. You must excuse the pride that regrettably creeps in my voice when I recount these episodes. I have been sworn to secrecy by the Royal Family and may my throat be slit if I have ever breathed a word of this to a fellow being before. But the fact that I am surely the only Indian doctor in Her Majesty’s Raj to have the rare privilege of actually administering medicine to a living banshee stirs up an equally rare vanity in my soul.

Like most of my fellow countrymen, I had never heard of a banshee. However, in my last year as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, my Professor of Anatomy, to whom I had endeared myself, had opened new doors of medicine to me. To me and two other favoured pupils, he introduced the magical world of the banshees, these fantastic creatures who attached themselves loyally to households and wailed when death was imminent there! However, on return to my native land, I had set aside this memory when confronted with the more mundane ailments of my fellow-men, whose cholera and malaria had cured me of all my fancies.

However, six months ago, Nakul Hans came to visit me with a question concerning the health of his family’s banshee. This came as quite a shock to me. The scion of the local kingdom, he put forth the facts before me. His grandfather had obtained the banshee from England, but had kept it a closely-guarded family secret. Now, folklore says that banshees shriek when any member of the household faces death. Little does anyone know that this death need not be inevitable. It can serve as a forewarning of doom, which can be held at bay if precautions are taken. Living constantly with the threat of external aggression and internal intrigue, as the royals and their forefathers did, the banshee became a valuable harbinger that had saved some lives. But one must also bow to the wishes of the great Almighty above, so when illness or old age came knocking at the doors of Surya Mahal, the family could prepare for the worst once the banshee had spoken.

The death of the Rajah a few minutes ago was the first time in 75 years that the Banshee had not moaned in warning when death had come on its dark journey.

The banshee cowered in the corner as I approached her. Her mouth was open and she was clearly making a desperate attempt to call out. But only silence rushed out to meet the air.

"So you’ll be able to reverse the condition now?" whispered Nakul.

"I will, sir, er, Your Highness", I said, as I held the poor creature firmly and shone my torch in her throat. "As I have told you, I must confess that I have never done the procedure before, but the literature does cover it in great detail. I have no reason to doubt its effectiveness, since the earlier procedure worked so well".

"Indeed, doctor. You do realize that I must have her by my side now that the Rajah, may the gods bless him, is no more. Vardhan has been suspicious and I have reason to believe that in his last days, my father had started to agree with him. This despite the discretion of the highest order."

"Do not worry, your highness. You have some very discreet men in your employ. Like me".

He smiled that quick smile, which reminded many of a tiger’s smirk. I must be careful with this man.

"I hope so, doctor. By when do you think she’ll have her voice back?"

"The texts say 2 weeks should be sufficient."

"Hmm. Make it a month – it would be extremely odd if the banshee were to regain her voice so soon after my father passing away. I’ll just have to be a little more cautious during this period, but that should be a price worth paying."

"As you prefer it, sir."

I stood up as Rajah Nakul Hans flashed his torch at the banshee whose features were contorted in rage. I did not know she could do so!

You may, O reader, wonder whether a doctor ought to readily sacrifice his scruples. But please consider my position. Nakul would have arranged to poison his noble father even if I had not acquiesced. By silencing the Banshee, I obtained the fortunate prospect of observing this fantastic beast at a microscope’s length away. Perhaps my book on the banshees will one day be on the shelves of stores in London and be studied at Bart’s. The onward march of medical science has always demanded a few human sacrifices. As a token of memoriam, I shall dedicate my book to the Rajah Aryanath Tejatman Singh of Daalipore, who died this nineteenth day in December, 190x, of natural causes. May his soul rest in peace.

[Note from me:

* Have steamrolled past word limit like the German army looking for land in the East.

* Could not pick up familiarity with the vocab of the era, so did the following: eschewed modern usages wherever possible, used slightly more flowery/old-fashioned words, used brit-style spelling for some entities, used Doyle's prose as a reference.

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