"I am not a deckhand. Or a boy," Kartik answers.
The Indian sailor laughs at this. There's an ugly scar snaking from the corner of his eye across his cheek. I shudder to think how he might have gotten it or what happened to the other man. He fingers his dagger at his side.
"You trained dog to English?" He points at me with the dagger. He makes a barking sound that tumbles into more laughter and then a terrible coughing fit that leaves blood on his hand.
"The English." He spits. "They give us this life. We are their dogs, you and I. Dogs. What they promise you cannot trust. But Chin-Chin's opium makes the whole world sweet. Smoke, my friend, and you forget what they do. Forget that you are a dog. That you will always be a dog."
He points the tip of his dagger into the sticky black ball of opium, ready to smoke his troubles away and float into an oblivion where he is no one's inferior. Kartik and I move on through the smoky haze. The Chinaman leads us to a tiny room and bids us wait a moment while he disappears behind the rags over the door. Kartik's jaw remains clenched.
"What that man said... " I stop, unsure of how to continue. "What I mean is, I hope you know that I do not feel that way."
Kartik's face hardens. "I am not like those men. I am Rakshana. A higher caste."
"But you are also Indian. They are your countrymen, are they not?"
Kartik shakes his head. "Fate determines your caste. You must accept it and live according to the rules."
"You can't really believe that!"
"I do believe it. That man's misfortune is that he cannot accept his caste, his fate."
I know that the Indians wear their caste as a mark upon their foreheads for all to see. I know that in England, we have our own unacknowledged caste system. A laborer will never hold a seat in Parliament. Neither will a woman. I don't think I've ever questioned such things until this moment.
"But what about will and desire? What if someone wants to change things?"
Kartik keeps his eyes on the room."You cannot change your caste. You cannot go against fate."
"That means there is no hope of a better life. It is a trap."
"That is how you see it," he says softly.
"What do you mean?"
"It can be a relief to follow the path that has been laid out for you, to know your course and play your part in it."
"But how can you be sure that you are following the right course? What if there is no such thing as destiny, only choice?"
"Then I do not choose to live without destiny," he says with a slight smile.
He seems so sure, while I feel nothing but uncertainty. "Do you ever have doubts? About anything?"
His smile vanishes."Yes."
I'd like to know what they are, but the Chinaman returns, interrupting our debate. We follow him, pushing aside the fetid rags. He points to a fat Englishman with arms the size of an elephant's legs.
"We're looking for Mr. Chin-Chin," Kartik says.
"Lookin' a' 'im," the Englishman says. "Took ofer from th' 'riginal proprietor free years ago. Some cawls me Chin. Ofers cawls me Uncle Billy. Come fo' a tayste o' 'appiness?"
On a low table sits the opium bowl. Chin stirs the thick black goo. He pulls out a sticky, tarlike bead of opium and pushes it down into the wooden pipe. With horror I see that he wears my father's wedding ring on a string around his neck.
"Where did you get that ring?" I ask in a hoarse whisper that I hope passes as a young man's voice. "Luv'ly, innit? Patron gimme it. Fair trade fo' me opyum."
"Is he still here? That man?"
"Don' know. Ain't runnin' a boardin'ouse, now, is I, guv?"
"Chin . . ." The voice, urgent but hoarse, comes from the other side of the ragged curtain. A hand pokes out. It shakes as it searches for the pipe. There's a fine gold watch fob dangling from the thin fingers."Chin, take it. . . . Give me more. . . ."
I pull aside the filthy curtain. My father lies on the soiled, torn mattress in only his trousers and shirt. His jacket and coat adorn a woman who is draped across him, snoring lightly. His fine cravat and boots are gone--stolen or bartered, I do not know which. The stench of urine is overpowering, and I have to fight to keep from being ill.
In the dim light, he struggles to see who is speaking. His eyes are bloodshot, the pupils large and glassy."Hello," he says, smiling dreamily.
My throat throbs with all I'm holding back."Father, it's time to go home."