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Ch. 11: The City of Dreadful Night

The dense wet heat that hung over the face of land, like a blanket,
prevented all hope of sleep in the first instance. The cicalas helped
the heat; and the yelling jackals the cicalas. It was impossible to sit
still in the dark, empty, echoing house and watch the punkah beat the
dead air. So, at ten o'clock of the night, I set my walking-stick on end
in the middle of the garden, and waited to see how it would fall. It
pointed directly down the moonlit road that leads to the City of
Dreadful Night. The sound of its fall disturbed a hare. She limped from
her form and ran across to a disused Mahomedan burial-ground, where the
jawless skulls and rough-butted shank-bones, heartlessly exposed by the
July rains, glimmered like mother o' pearl on the rain-channelled soil.
The heated air and the heavy earth had driven the very dead upward for
coolness' sake. The hare limped on; snuffed curiously at a fragment of a
smoke-stained lamp-shard, and died out, in the shadow of a clump of
tamarisk trees.

The mat-weaver's hut under the lee of the Hindu temple was full of
sleeping men who lay like sheeted corpses. Overhead blazed the unwinking
eye of the Moon. Darkness gives at least a false impression of coolness.
It was hard not to believe that the flood of light from above was warm.
Not so hot as the Sun, but still sickly warm, and heating the heavy air
beyond what was our due. Straight as a bar of polished steel ran the
road to the City of Dreadful Night; and on either side of the road lay
corpses disposed on beds in fantastic attitudes--one hundred and seventy
bodies of men. Some shrouded all in white with bound-up mouths; some
naked and black as ebony in the strong light; and one--that lay face
upwards with dropped jaw, far away from the others--silvery white and
ashen gray.

'A leper asleep; and the remainder wearied coolies, servants, small
shopkeepers, and drivers from the hackstand hard by. The scene--a main
approach to Lahore city, and the night a warm one in August.' This was
all that there was to be seen; but by no means all that one could see.
The witchery of the moonlight was everywhere; and the world was horribly
changed. The long line of the naked dead, flanked by the rigid silver
statue, was not pleasant to look upon. It was made up of men alone. Were
the womenkind, then, forced to sleep in the shelter of the stifling mud-
huts as best they might? The fretful wail of a child from a low mud-roof
answered the question. Where the children are the mothers must be also
to look after them. They need care on these sweltering nights. A black
little bullet-head peeped over the coping, and a thin--a painfully thin--
brown leg was slid over on to the gutter pipe. There was a sharp clink
of glass bracelets; a woman's arm showed for an instant above the
parapet, twined itself round the lean little neck, and the child was
dragged back, protesting, to the shelter of the bedstead. His thin,
high-pitched shriek died out in the thick air almost as soon as it was
raised; for even the children of the soil found it too hot to weep.

More corpses; more stretches of moonlit, white road, a string of
sleeping camels at rest by the wayside; a vision of scudding jackals;
ekka-ponies asleep--the harness still on their backs, and the brass-
studded country carts, winking in the moonlight--and again more corpses.
Wherever a grain cart atilt, a tree trunk, a sawn log, a couple of
bamboos and a few handfuls of thatch cast a shadow, the ground is
covered with them. They lie--some face downwards, arms folded, in the
dust; some with clasped hands flung up above their heads; some curled up
dog-wise; some thrown like limp gunny-bags over the side of the grain
carts; and some bowed with their brows on their knees in the full glare
of the Moon. It would be a comfort if they were only given to snoring;
but they are not, and the likeness to corpses is unbroken in all
respects save one. The lean dogs snuff at them and turn away. Here and
there a tiny child lies on his father's bedstead, and a protecting arm
is thrown round it in every instance. But, for the most part, the
children sleep with their mothers on the house-tops. Yellow-skinned
white-toothed pariahs are not to be trusted within reach of brown
bodies.

A stifling hot blast from the mouth of the Delhi Gate nearly ends my
resolution of entering the City of Dreadful Night at this hour. It is a
compound of all evil savours, animal and vegetable, that a walled city
can brew in a day and a night. The temperature within the motionless
groves of plantain and orange-trees outside the city walls seems chilly
by comparison. Heaven help all sick persons and young children within
the city to-night! The high house-walls are still radiating heat
savagely, and from obscure side gullies fetid breezes eddy that ought to
poison a buffalo. But the buffaloes do not heed. A drove of them are
parading the vacant main street; stopping now and then to lay their
ponderous muzzles against the closed shutters of a grain-dealer's shops
and to blow thereon like grampuses.

Then silence follows--the silence that is full of the night noises of a
great city. A stringed instrument of some kind is just, and only just,
audible. High overhead some one throws open a window, and the rattle of
the wood-work echoes down the empty street. On one of the roofs, a
hookah is in full blast; and the men are talking softly as the pipe
gutters. A little farther on, the noise of conversation is more
distinct. A slit of light shows itself between the sliding shutters of a
shop. Inside, a stubble-bearded, weary-eyed trader is balancing his
account-books among the bales of cotton prints that surround him. Three
sheeted figures bear him company, and throw in a remark from time to
time. First he makes an entry, then a remark; then passes the back of
his hand across his streaming forehead. The heat in the built-in street
is fearful. Inside the shops it must be almost unendurable. But the work
goes on steadily; entry, guttural growl, and uplifted hand-stroke
succeeding each other with the precision of clock-work.

A policeman--turbanless and fast asleep--lies across the road on the way
to the Mosque of Wazir Khan. A bar of moonlight falls across the
forehead and eyes of the sleeper, but he never stirs. It is close upon
midnight, and the heat seems to be increasing. The open square in front
of the Mosque is crowded with corpses; and a man must pick his way
carefully for fear of treading on them. The moonlight stripes the
Mosque's high front of coloured enamel work in broad diagonal bands; and
each separate dreaming pigeon in the niches and corners of the masonry
throws a squab little shadow. Sheeted ghosts rise up wearily from their
pallets, and flit into the dark depths of the building. Is it possible
to climb to the top of the great Minars, and thence to look down on the
city? At all events the attempt is worth making, and the chances are
that the door of the staircase will be unlocked. Unlocked it is; but a
deeply sleeping janitor lies across the threshold, face turned to the
Moon. A rat dashes out of his turban at the sound of approaching
footsteps. The man grunts, opens his eyes for a minute, turns round, and
goes to sleep again. All the heat of a decade of fierce Indian summers
is stored in the pitch-black, polished walls of the corkscrew staircase.
Half-way up, there is something alive, warm, and feathery; and it
snores. Driven from step to step as it catches the sound of my advance,
it flutters to the top and reveals itself as a yellow-eyed, angry kite.
Dozens of kites are asleep on this and the other Minars, and on the
domes below. There is the shadow of a cool, or at least a less sultry
breeze at this height; and, refreshed thereby, turn to look on the City
of Dreadful Night.

Dore might have drawn it! Zola could describe it--this spectacle of
sleeping thousands in the moonlight and in the shadow of the Moon. The
roof-tops are crammed with men, women, and children; and the air is full
of undistinguishable noises. They are restless in the City of Dreadful
Night; and small wonder. The marvel is that they can even breathe. If
you gaze intently at the multitude, you can see that they are almost as
uneasy as a daylight crowd; but the tumult is subdued. Everywhere, in
the strong light, you can watch the sleepers turning to and fro;
shifting their beds and again resettling them. In the pit-like court-
yards of the houses there is the same movement.

The pitiless Moon shows it all. Shows, too, the plains outside the city,
and here and there a hand's-breadth of the Ravee without the walls.
Shows lastly, a splash of glittering silver on a house-top almost
directly below the mosque Minar. Some poor soul has risen to throw a jar
of water over his fevered body; the tinkle of the falling water strikes
faintly on the ear. Two or three other men, in far-off corners of the
City of Dreadful Night, follow his example, and the water flashes like
heliographic signals. A small cloud passes over the face of the Moon,
and the city and its inhabitants--clear drawn in black and white before--
fade into masses of black and deeper black. Still the unrestful noise
continues, the sigh of a great city overwhelmed with the heat, and of a
people seeking in vain for rest. It is only the lower-class women who
sleep on the house-tops. What must the torment be in the latticed
zenanas, where a few lamps are still twinkling? There are footfalls in
the court below. It is the Muezzin--faithful minister; but he ought to
have been here an hour ago to tell the Faithful that prayer is better
than sleep--the sleep that will not come to the city.

The Muezzin fumbles for a moment with the door of one of the Minars,
disappears awhile, and a bull-like roar--a magnificent bass thunder--
tells that he has reached the top of the Minar. They must hear the cry
to the banks of the shrunken Ravee itself! Even across the courtyard it
is almost overpowering. The cloud drifts by and shows him outlined in
black against the sky, hands laid upon his ears, and broad chest heaving
with the play of his lungs--'Allah ho Akbar'; then a pause while another
Muezzin somewhere in the direction of the Golden Temple takes up the
call--'Allah ho Akbar.' Again and again; four times in all; and from the
bedsteads a dozen men have risen up already.--'I bear witness that there
is no God but God.' What a splendid cry it is, the proclamation of the
creed that brings men out of their beds by scores at midnight! Once
again he thunders through the same phrase, shaking with the vehemence of
his own voice; and then, far and near, the night air rings with 'Mahomed
is the Prophet of God.' It is as though he were flinging his defiance to
the far-off horizon, where the summer lightning plays and leaps like a
bared sword. Every Muezzin in the city is in full cry, and some men on
the roof-tops are beginning to kneel. A long pause precedes the last
cry, 'La ilaha Illallah,' and the silence closes up on it, as the ram on
the head of a cotton-bale.

The Muezzin stumbles down the dark stairway grumbling in his beard. He
passes the arch of the entrance and disappears. Then the stifling
silence settles down over the City of Dreadful Night. The kites on the
Minar sleep again, snoring more loudly, the hot breeze comes up in puffs
and lazy eddies, and the Moon slides down towards the horizon. Seated
with both elbows on the parapet of the tower, one can watch and wonder
over that heat-tortured hive till the dawn. 'How do they live down
there? What do they think of? When will they awake?' More tinkling of
sluiced water-pots; faint jarring of wooden bedsteads moved into or out
of the shadows; uncouth music of stringed instruments softened by
distance into a plaintive wail, and one low grumble of far-off thunder.
In the courtyard of the mosque the janitor, who lay across the threshold
of the Minar when I came up, starts wildly in his sleep, throws his
hands above his head, mutters something, and falls back again. Lulled by
the snoring of the kites--they snore like over-gorged humans--I drop off
into an uneasy doze, conscious that three o'clock has struck, and that
there is a slight--a very slight--coolness in the atmosphere. The city
is absolutely quiet now, but for some vagrant dog's love-song. Nothing
save dead heavy sleep.

Several weeks of darkness pass after this. For the Moon has gone out.
The very dogs are still, and I watch for the first light of the dawn
before making my way homeward. Again the noise of shuffling feet. The
morning call is about to begin, and my night watch is over. 'Allah ho
Akbar! Allah ho Akbar!' The east grows gray, and presently saffron; the
dawn wind comes up as though the Muezzin had summoned it; and, as one
man, the City of Dreadful Night rises from its bed and turns its face
towards the dawning day. With return of life comes return of sound.
First a low whisper, then a deep bass hum; for it must be remembered
that the entire city is on the house-tops. My eyelids weighed down with
the arrears of long deferred sleep, I escape from the Minar through the
courtyard and out into the square beyond, where the sleepers have risen,
stowed away the bedsteads, and are discussing the morning hookah. The
minute's freshness of the air has gone, and it is as hot as at first.

'Will the Sahib, out of his kindness, make room?' What is it? Something
borne on men's shoulders comes by in the half-light, and I stand back. A
woman's corpse going down to the burning-ghat, and a bystander says,
'She died at midnight from the heat.' So the city was of Death as well
as Night after all.


Rudyard Kipling