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Excerpt from 'Flood of Fire' by Amitav Ghosh

"Flood of Fire" by Amitav Ghosh (FSG, August 2015) Photo Credit: FSG

In the end it was Hukam Singh who beckoned to Kesri and told him to remove his dhoti and jama. When Kesri had stripped down, Hukam Singh pointed to his string-tied loincloth and said that a langot like that would do for now, but it was not to be worn with a uniform. It was all right to wear it off duty, with a dhoti and a regulation tunic called an ungah, but when in uniform you had to wear a knee-length undergarment known as a jangiah; the English officers insisted on it. If there was an inspection and you were caught wearing a langot then you'd find yourself in trouble.

Why? said the recruits.

Who knows? It's just one of their whims.

Then Hukam Singh went to fetch his knapsack and the boys saw that an almost-spherical brass lota was strapped on top of it: Hukam Singh told them that by regulation this utensil had to be of a size to carry exactly one seer of water, and it had to be tied on with a string, so that it could be lowered into wells if necessary. The lota had to be on your knapsack at all times, even in battle; if it wasn't properly secured you could get into a lot of trouble. On the parade ground officers loved nothing more than to see a gleaming string of lotas, lined up straight and glinting in the sun. At equipment inspections lotas were the first thing to be examined and punishments were freely handed out if they weren't properly polished.

Over the next few minutes, with the boys looking on eagerly, an extraordinary array of objects emerged from Hukam Singh's knapsack, one by one: an iron tawa to make rotis; a six-foot by three-foot durree to sleep on; pipeclay to apply on leather belts and footwear; a chudder to wrap up in at night. The total weight of a fully-packed knapsack, said Hukam Singh, was half a maund, about fifty pounds; it took a long time to get used to it.

Then came a folded garment.

Patloons -- these are worn over the jangiah.

The pantaloons puzzled the recruits. The garment looked like a pyjama but they could see no drawstrings. Nor could Kesri understand how he was to climb into something with such a narrow waist.

Hukam Singh showed him how to unbutton the garment's waist -- but even then Kesri had some difficulty in wriggling into it. He had never worn anything that clung so tightly to the skin and when he looked down he could hardly recognize his own legs. They seemed much longer than they were in a dhoti -- and stronger too, because of the way the fabric hugged his muscles.

The recruits were watching wide-eyed and one of them said: But what do you do if you have to make water? Do you take the whole thing off?


Hukam Singh showed them how the front flap of the pantaloons could be lowered by undoing a couple of buttons. Kesri could not see that this was of much help. Flexing his knees, he said: But I'm still not able to squat.

When you're wearing patloons, said Hukam Singh, you can't squat to [urinate].

The recruits goggled at him: You mean you pass water standing up?

Hukam Singh nodded. It's difficult at first, he said. But you get used to it in time.

Reaching into the knapsack again, Hukam Singh produced the next item: it was a sleeveless vest that was fastened with ties, not unlike those that Kesri normally wore with his dhotis. Then came a bright flash of colour: a scarlet coattee.

This was called a koortee, Hukam Singh explained; it was similar to the red coat of an English trooper, except that they called it a "raggy." He showed Kesri how to get into it, by reaching back and thrusting his arms through the sleeves.

The front of the koortee was fastened with leather laces and when these were drawn tight Kesri had difficulty in drawing breath. He looked down at the jacket and saw that the rows of horizontal stripes on its front had come to life and were stretched like plumage across his chest. Studded between them were shining, metal buttons.

Are these made of gold?

No, said Hukam Singh. They're made of brass, but they're still expensive. If you lose one they'll dock your pay for eight annas.

Eight annas! This was more than Kesri had ever paid for an article of clothing. But the price did not seem excessive -- if the buttons had been made of real gold they could not have been brighter or more becoming.

At the throat of the koortee there was another set of laces, and before tightening these Hukam Singh took out a bead necklace. He put it on Kesri so that the brightest beads were framed by the koortee's stiff, gold-edged collar.

The beads too were paid for by the Company, Hukam Singh explained. The officers insisted that sepoys wore them. If lost, two weeks' wages would be deducted from your salary.

With the laces at the neck drawn taut, the collar was like a yoke. When a kamar-bandh was tightened around his waist, it was as if he had been trussed like a chicken. Kesri could barely turn his head, and his chin was pushed up in such a way that his throat hurt when he tried to talk.

How could a man fight all bundled up like this?

Excerpted from "Flood of Fire" by Amitav Ghosh, published in August 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Amitav Ghosh. All rights reserved.


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