It may be as well at this point to describe some relationships, which will give a foretaste of the incestuous nature of the society and the plot we are unfolding. Indra is the son of Dick by his first wife Dulice, his only legitimate wife as she insists. Dulcie is the cousin of Tom’s wife Geraldine, called Gerry for short. Dulcie and Gerry are also cousins of Phyllis, who will have rather an important part to play in our story when she comes charging down from her wonderful hills.
Gerry and Dulcie and Phyllis were the daughters of three brothers who, during the first world war and thereafter, made vast quantities of money through ship chartering and arrack renting and newspaper publishing and plumbago mining and even insurance broking. Gerry was an only child, the daughter of the eldest brother who had not made as much money as the other two; it was widely rumoured that she had spurred Tom on energetically throughout his political career so that she could make up for this initial deficiency. Unfortunately for the couple, their dynasty would die with them for their only child, a daughter, had been both a mongol and had, mercifully for else she would certainly have been overwhelmed with offers of marriage after Tom’s elevation to the Presidency, expired some years later. Tom, it was said, had been so upset by this that he had stopped sleeping with his wife. It was also said, though this was by no means intended as a reflection upon Tom, that his resolution had come as an immense relief to her.
Being a rational woman, she had no objections to his seeking solace elsewhere but she had insisted that he be sterilized beforehand. This was an operation he had found embarrassing to begin with, but he now numbered it amongst his many firsts. In his immediate family circle it was considered a blessing that the scar was too small to be exhibited in public. Tom certainly believed that the fact of the operation had enhanced his popularity, extravagantly fond as he was of claiming that, unlike his predecessors in power, he had no plans to establish a dynasty. In exhibiting at public meetings his battle scars in the cause of freedom, one obtained when he was in the cadet corps at school during the first world war, another added many years later during a peaceful demonstration that the then government had ruthlessly attacked, he never failed to mention his most vital scar, one obtained in the cause of higher freedoms, from hunger and over-population and excessive expenditure on subsidies and all the other dreadful things from which the International Monetary Fund was assisting him to wean the nation. Despite the magnificence of his other achievements, he would proudly proclaim he was proudest of all of his sterility.
Dulcie was the oldest daughter and the second child of the second brother, a newspaper magnate and the most successful. Her elder brother had disgraced the family by marrying a Tamil and been cut off without a penny. Not only had his father left him nothing, he had also gone so far as to marry again so as to ensure decent male heirs for himself. He was a most determined old man and, the rumour ran, had impregnated more than one young girl, of the correct race and caste and religion (albeit of necessity they were all girls of slender means), before irrevocably committing himself. The further rumour, that he had waited for a son to be born before marrying, need not be credited: he had substantial faith in astrologers, and the prediction of the sex of a child to be born to a particular woman at a given period is not considered especially difficult. In this respect, the old man was fond of proclaiming (for he read widely, and felt a particular affection for the works of William Faulkner), Ceylon was far superior to the Deep South of America; and his young wife Devika certainly did not let him down, but turned up trumps, three of them in fact, one after the other, each of them the spitting image of his father.
But these details should not detain us for too long for here we are concerned only with the fact that, for the above reasons, when the old man finally died, it was Dick who became Chairman of the Board and Managing Director of the family newspapers. This was just a holding operation until his wife’s younger brothers came of age, but it was a task Dick enjoyed to the full. As shrewd as his father-in-law had been, he was also possessed of a piquant sense of humour which prompted him, in the first heady decade of independence when subtle manipulation was both easy and expected, to make and unmake cabinets with glee. He was also clever enough, by hook or preferably by crook, to prevent his newspapers being nationalized; not, he would hasten to add, reminding his audience that he had been a Marxist in his youth, that that would be entirely a bad thing, and in any case it would not affect him because what was his or his wife’s family fortune had been safely invested in other fields; but he felt a sacred obligation to hand over intact to his brothers-in-law the inheritance that had been left for them in his hands.
Almost immediately after the brothers-in-law had taken over control, the newspapers were taken over by the government, but Dick declared blithely that he had fulfilled his trust, and it was not his fault if his successors were not skilful enough to survive. It was soon after that that he left his wife and became a Muslim and married again, but that need not be attributed to a consciousness of guilt or any such emotional trauma. Dick was at heart a simple man who had always liked his flesh tender: Mahal, called Mumtaz for the ceremony and always thereafter, was young and fair and plump and docile, everything in fact that Dick had always wanted (and not infrequently had) and enough it might have been thought to keep him satisfied for a good long time. This did not prove to be the case, and he continued to stray, the more frequently the older he grew; indeed, at the time our story opens and Shiva is being beaten by his bed, he is ensconced in the director’s suite of one of his hotels with a charming receptionist hired just a few days before; but he always returned to Mumtaz with great affection.
Phyllis’ father, substantially younger than his brothers, had benefited from the final unquestionable arrival of his family into cosmopolitan Colombo society, which was marked by sending him off to England to polish up his education. They regretted the most obvious consequence of this, the marriage to the grocer’s daughter; but he certainly did not when he found on his return that it was a passport to the most sophisticated levels of society that had remained beyond the reach of his brothers. Contrariwise, when the nationalistic reaction began, the votaries of which seemed to be at the top of the social ladder in the decade leading up to independence, he found himself in what he felt to be a false position because of his English wife. It was because of this that he had married off his daughter when she was barely nubile to a simple but stout scion of the Kandyan aristocracy; and had impregnated his grandson almost from birth onward with a profound sense of his ethnic and religious heritage, and the political recognition that was waiting for him if he advanced forcefully into that arena.
Matthew lived now in the house his grandfather had left him, though he had waited until his grandmother also died before moving in. He lived alone, apart that is, from a few servants. The most prominent amongst these was his bodyguard, who was commonly known as the Black Shadow, since he looked exactly like Matthew except that he was almost black whereas Matthew was almost white. Rumour had it that the Black Shadow was invaluable to his master in that he provided him with virgins whom he deflowered in the depths of the night. This was supposed to happen at every full moon, and explained the refusal of the most eligible bachelor in the country to succumb to any of the many proposals of maidens that were constantly but respectably being thrust upon him.
At the time our story begins, this was the most outrageous story in circulation about either Matthew or his Shadow. Some years before it had been common knowledge that the Black Shadow used to lead gangs that beat people up at meetings or demonstrations of which the government disapproved but, since he had been put on the government payroll as the minister’s official bodyguard, he had never been detected in any unsavoury activity. Now he accompanied his master everywhere, and was frequently seen in deep meditation at the several temples Matthew had begun to frequent.
One more marriage and we shall have done. Indra married Diana not long after his return from England, where he had spent three years at Cambridge and five in London becoming a barrister. Indra, in case you have forgotten, is the son of Dick by Dulcie, the daughter of the newspaper magnate; Diana is the sister of Matthew and the daughter of Phyllis, Dulcie’s cousin, by the now dead and in any case largely irrelevant Kandyan aristocrat. Possibly roused initially by this relationship, there had been some sort of understanding in the family before he went to England that Indra and Diana would make an excellent match. In any case Indra was an easygoing person, and also somewhat in awe of Matthew who had been a year or two senior to him at school and had dominated him then; Matthew clearly expected the wedding to take place and, being fond enough of Diana, Indra did not feel inclined to take a contentious stand. But, more than anything else, it was the intricate links we have described that finally drove him, in the absence of love or any such romantic sentiment, to tie the knot.
In short, he was overwhelmed by his family and wanted to get away. On his return from England he had been expected to go back to live with Dulcie, who still occupied the palatial house that her father had built for her on her marriage. Being a sensitive soul, he felt his mother would take it amiss if he went off on his own to set up an establishment; he knew too that Phyllis was very anxious to go off to the village, and was only staying on at her husband’s family house in Colombo for Diana’s sake; he was fond of Phyllis too, as well as of Diana; it seemed sensible enough to move in there and, if he had to marry Diana to do so, it was a small enough price to pay for getting away from the menagerie. It was not a step he regretted. Contrary to public opinion she did not regret it either; but then, she was in love (which is more than can be said for everyone else we have considered so far).