The Last Oracle

Page 37

Rosauro hauled on the wheel, and the SUV splashed through a watery ditch, almost a creek. Small downpours had dumped on them throughout the trip up here. Punjab was Persian for “land of five rivers,” which was one of the reasons it was India’s major agricultural state.

Gray checked the twilight skies as night approached. Clouds rolled low. They’d have more rain before the night was over.

“Up ahead,” Masterson said. “Over that next hill.”

The vehicle slogged up the slope, churning mud. At the top of the rise, a small bowl-shaped valley opened, ringed by hills. A dark village lay at the bottom, a densely packed mix of stone homes and mud huts with palm-thatch roofs. A couple of fires glowed at the edge of the town, stirred by a few men standing around with long poles. Burning garbage. A bullock cart stood beside one fire, stacked high with refuse. The single horned bull stirred at the approach of their vehicle down the hill.

“The other side of India,” Masterson said. “Over three-quarters of India’s population still live in rural areas. But here we have those who live at the bottom of the caste system. The Harijan, as Gandhi renamed them, which means ‘people of God,’ but they are mostly still derided as dalit or achuta, which roughly translates as untouchable.”

Gray noted Luca had sheathed his daggers and turned a more attentive ear. Untouchables. These could be the same roots as his clans.

Lit by flames, the village men gathered with scythes and poles, wary of the approaching strangers.

“Who are these people?” Gray asked, wanting to know more about whom they faced.

“To answer that,” Masterson said, “you have to understand India’s caste system. Legends have that all the major varnas—or classes of people—arose from one godlike being. The Branmans, which include priests and teachers, arose out of the mouth of this being. Rulers and soldiers from its arms. Merchants and traders from its thighs. The feet gave rise to laborers. Each has its own pecking order, much of it laid out in a two-thousand-year-old collection known as the Laws of Manu, which details what you can and can’t do.”

“And these untouchables?” Gray asked, keeping an eye on the gathering men and boys.

“The fifth varna is said not to have risen from this great being at all. They were outcasts, considered too polluted and impure to mix with regular people. People who handled animal skins, blood, excrement, even the bodies of the dead. They were shunned from higher-caste homes and temples, not allowed to eat with the same utensils. Not even their shadows were allowed to touch a higher caste’s body. And if you should break any of these rules, you could be beaten, raped, murdered.”

Elizabeth leaned forward. “And no one stops this from happening?”

Masterson snorted. “The Indian constitution outlaws such discrimination, but it still continues, especially in rural areas. Fifteen percent of the population still falls into the classification of untouchable. There is no escape. A child born from an achuta is forever an achuta. They remain victims of millennia-old religious laws, laws that permanently cast them as subhuman. And let’s be honest. Like I said before, someone has to work all these fields.”

Gray pictured the vast rolling farmlands and orchards.

Masterson continued, “The untouchables are a built-in slave class. So while there is some progress made on their behalf, mostly in the cities, the rural areas still need workers—and the caste system serves them well. Villages such as this one have been burned or destroyed because they dared to ask for better wages or working conditions. Hence the suspicion here now.”

He nodded to the welcoming party carrying farm instruments.

“Dear God,” Elizabeth said.

“God has nothing to do with this,” Masterson said sourly. “It’s all about economy. Your father was a strong advocate for these people. Lately he was having more and more trouble gaining the cooperation of yogis and Brahman mystics.”

“Because of his association with untouchables?” she asked.

“That…and the fact that he was looking for the source of the genetic marker among the untouchable peoples. When word spread of that, many doors were slammed in his face. So much for higher enlightenment. In fact, after he disappeared, I was convinced he’d been murdered for that very reason.”

Gray waved Rosauro to stop at the edge of the glow from the burning garbage fires. “And this village? This is where Dr. Polk was last seen?”

Masterson nodded. “The last I heard from Archibald was an excited phone call. He’d made some discovery and was anxious to share it—then I never heard from him again. But he sometimes did that—would vanish for months at a time into the remote rural areas, going from village to village. Places that still have no name and are shunned by those of higher castes. But after a while, I began to fear the worst.”

“And what of these people?” Gray asked. “Do we have anything to fear from them?”

“On the contrary.” Masterson opened his car door and used his cane to push to his feet.

Gray followed him. Other doors opened, and everyone exited. “Stay near the truck,” he warned them.

Masterson traipsed toward the fire with Gray in tow. The professor called out in Hindi. Gray understood a few phrases and words from his own studies of Indian religion and philosophy, but not enough to follow what the man was saying. He seemed to be asking for someone, searching faces.

The men remained a solid wall, bristling with weapons.

The ox lowed its own complaint beside the wagon, as if sensing the tension.

Finally Masterson stood between the two smoking pyres. The air reeked, smelling of fried liver and burning tires. Gray forced himself not to cover his mouth. Masterson waved back to the truck and continued to speak. Gray heard Archibald Polk’s name followed by the Hindi word betee.


All the men turned their gazes toward Elizabeth. Weapons were lowered. Chatter spread among them. Arms pointed at her. The wall of men parted in welcome. A pair of the boys, their voices raised in a happy shout, ran back down a narrow alleyway between two stone houses.

Masterson turned to Gray. “The achuta in this area hold Archibald in high esteem. I had no doubt the presence of the respected man’s daughter would be met with hospitality. We have nothing to fear from these people.”

“Except for dysentery,” Kowalski said as he reached them with the others.

Elizabeth elbowed him in the ribs.

Gray led them into the village, sensing they had more to worry about than just upset bowels.

8:02 P.M.

Elizabeth crossed between the two fires. Beyond their glow, the village roused. Someone started to clank loudly on a makeshift drum. A woman appeared, her face half covered in a sari. She motioned them toward the village center.

As she turned, Elizabeth caught a glimpse of scarred, sagging flesh, hidden under the thin veil. Masterson noted Elizabeth’s attention.

She leaned toward him. “What happened to her?”

The professor answered softly and nodded to the woman. “Your father mentioned her. Her son was caught fishing in a pond of a higher-caste village. She went to scold him off, but they were caught. The villagers beat the child and poured acid on the woman’s face. She lost an eye and half her face.”

Elizabeth’s body went cold. “How awful.”

“And she considers herself lucky. Because they didn’t rape her, too.”

Shocked, Elizabeth followed the woman, galled by such an atrocity, but at the same time, awed by her strength to survive and persevere.

The woman led them along a maze of crooked alleys to the village center. Another fire blazed there. People gathered at a few wooden tables around a well pump. Women swept the tables free of leaves or carried out food. Young children ran all around, barefoot, mostly shirtless.

As Elizabeth passed, several men bowed their heads, sometimes even at the waist as she walked. Plainly in respect for her father. She had never known much about what he’d been doing out here.

Masterson motioned with his cane toward the men. “Archibald did much good for the local villages. He exposed and disbanded a militia that terrorized these parts, even got better wages for the villagers, better medical care and education. But more important, he respected them.”

“I didn’t know,” she mumbled.

“He won their trust. And it was in these hills that he concentrated his genetic testing.”

“Why here?” Gray asked on the professor’s other side.

“Because just as Archibald devised that map I showed you, he also did a more detailed schematic of the Punjab region. A trail of genetic evidence pointed to these hills, but I think it was something more.”

Elizabeth frowned. “Like what?”

“I’m not sure. His interest in the region spiked about two years ago. He stopped testing broadly across India and began concentrating here.” The professor glanced back to Luca. “And with the Gypsies.”

Elizabeth thought back two years. She had been finishing her PhD program at Georgetown. She’d had little contact with her father during that time. Nor patience. Their occasional phone conversations were usually short and terse. If she had known what he was doing beyond his own field of study, maybe things could have been different.

Reaching the heart of the village, they were greeted with smiles and urged to come to the table. Food was already piling high—roti flatbread, rice dishes, steamed vegetables, small plums and fat dates, bowls of buttermilk—simple but heartfelt fare. A woman on her knees stirred a lentil stew on a horseshoe-shaped oven. Her daughter carried a bucket of cow dung to feed the flames beneath.

Kowalski joined Elizabeth, stepping close. “Not exactly Burger King.”

“Maybe because they worship cows.”

“Hey, I worship them, too. Especially grilled rare with a nice baked potato.”

She smiled. How did that infernal man always get her to smile? She was suddenly too conscious of how close he stood and stepped away.

Off to the side, one of the villagers began plucking the strings of a sitar, accompanied by a man with a harmonica and another with a tabla drum.

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