Books

Invisible Armies (Excerpt)

Chapters One and Two from the author’s forthcoming novel of the same name

by
• 3,701 words

I. India

Karnataka

1.

The bridge is out. No: it has never been in. Danielle nudges the gearshift into neutral, splays her legs out on either side to support the motorcycle, and stares disbelievingly. The road before her continues smoothly for some sixty feet, then unravels into a leprous mass of concrete, from which a tangle of rusted girders reaches across the Tungabadhra River towards a similar span on the other side. It fails to arrive by forty feet.

Whoever did not finish this bridge’s midsection neglected to inform the National Geographical Survey of India, whose map of the state of Karnataka, currently tucked into Danielle’s day pack, claims that the bridge successfully traverses the dark river below. The next nearest crossing is fifteen miles away, along gouged Indian roads that would eat up at least an hour, and it is already afternoon, and Danielle isn’t sure that she can reach her destination at all from the other bridge. For a moment she feels defeated.

Which is fine. This is a chore, not a mission. A favour to a friend, and one she already wishes she had not accepted. A valid excuse to back out would be a relief, and how much more valid can you get than this impassable ruin of an incomplete bridge?

But wait. She sees motion. Something stirs in the water by the opposite shore, next to the pillars that hold up its third of a bridge, and then what looks like a large floating wicker basket shaped like an inverted dome, maybe ten feet in diameter, emerges from the shadowed water. It carries two men. One uses a leaf-shaped paddle to propel the basket-dome – coracle, a distant corner of her mind informs her – towards the south side of the river. The other man waves and points somewhere behind her. His smile flashes white against his dark skin. Danielle looks over her shoulder and sees a little dirt trail, about a hundred feet back, that separates from the road and falls steeply to a muddy landing on the riverbank.

They cannot seriously be thinking of ferrying her motorcycle across. It’s a small bike, but still a heavy machine, and their overgrown basket looks like it has all the structural integrity of a banana leaf. But here is another coracle, coming behind the first, and this one moves slowly, because it is loaded with a half-dozen Indian villagers, several heavy sacks of grain, and a man sitting on a motorcycle much like hers. This coracle bobs low in the water but amazingly does not sink.

Danielle reluctantly decides she cannot abandon her errand just because the river must be crossed by fragile-seeming ferry instead of bridge. She wheels the bike around and steers down the dirt path to the riverbank, controlling brake and throttle gingerly; she has no helmet, it has been years since she spent much time on a bike, and low-speed motorcycle maneuvers are always potentially treacherous. When she gets to the landing, a flat patch covered by shallow mud, she turns off the engine and looks towards the approaching coracle ferry. The paddling has stopped. Both men gape at her with wonder and bewilderment.

For a moment Danielle doesn’t understand. Then she realizes. They thought she was a man, thanks to her close-cropped hair, and the truth has struck them dumb. She is probably the first woman riding a motorcycle by herself that these men have ever seen, and an exotic white woman at that. And this is the sticks. Yesterday’s journey, Goa to Hospet to Hampi, was a route that sees plenty of white women travelling solo, but although Hampi with its many Western backpackers is only ten miles away, this broken bridge is definitely off the beaten track. This is real rural India. A whole different world. She doesn’t feel threatened by their stares, not with the sun beaming down, and several women visible in the other coracle, and a handful more now watching her from the opposite shore, but she does feel distinctly uncomfortable.

For a moment she wonders if this is what being a movie star is like; everybody wordlessly watching you, knowing that you belong to an infinitely glamorous and more exciting world than theirs. She wishes she had brought a male companion. Not that that wouldn’t have created its own set of problems. But suddenly those problems seem better than feeling like a target. A target only of attention, right now, but such attention makes her nervous.

The empty coracle, a woven basket of thumb-thick branches lined on the outside with plastic wrap, reaches the shore. The non-paddling man steps out and motions her to get off the bike. She doesn’t want to. She suddenly wants to turn around, ride straight back to Hampi, email Keiran and tell him he can find someone else to run his international errands for him. But Danielle has spent the last few years of her life systematically forcing herself to do exactly those things that make her uncomfortable or frightened. She knows she is mostly the better for it. She wonders, though, as she stands back and allows the man to straddle her motorcycle and expertly roll it onto the coracle, whether one day this constant struggle for self-improvement will propel her into disaster.

The vessel’s interior is wet, but the motorcycle’s weight distorts the flexible hull enough that all the interior water pools beneath the bike’s tires, and Danielle stays mostly dry. She sits cross legged on the surprisingly comfortable wood, avoiding the ferrymen’s unflagging stares, and watches the unearthly landscape around her.

The wide, fast Tungabadhra River, lined by tall coconut trees, carves a path through jumbled ridges of colossal reddish boulders that somehow look both crystalline and water-warped. Roads and villages are built in the shadow of these boulders, which look like handfuls of fifty-foot pebbles dropped by the gods, balancing and leaning on one another in seemingly unnatural ways, as if child-giants had used them as playthings, piled stacks and mounds of them, then abandoned them here when they grew bored. It’s hard for Danielle to shake the notion that this place was meant for creatures of far greater scale than mere human beings.

And then there are the ruins. Most human constructions here are ancient, the bones of the Vijayanagar kingdom that ten centuries ago ruled all of south India. Half-collapsed stonework; still-intact ziggurats densely carved with Hindu gods and idols, some of their features worn away by the centuries, but still enormously imposing; high ornate walls standing forlornly in tilled fields; kilometre-long pillared colonnades. Once these were royal residences, temples, elephant stables, public plazas. To the west, Danielle can make out the the crumbling remains of a massive stone bridge that once spanned the palm-tree-lined river. This thousand-year relic doesn’t seem much more ruined than the rusted iron and cratered concrete above her.

A few squat concrete boxes have grown around the northern end of the modern bridge, and clusters of thatched huts are visible in the distance, between the hills and ridges. Dots that are men and women can be seen cultivating small oblong properties, brown fields of grain and deep green banana plantations. A large whitewashed temple to some Hindu god is visible at the top of the highest hill. But the modern buildings, roads and plantations look wildly out of place.

As they approach the northern bank Danielle winces, realizing that she forget to agree a price before embarking. She expects a demand for some outrageous amount of money, and she is not in a good position to argue; a woman on her own, on the wrong side of the river that only these men can help her cross. But the man asks her for only twenty rupees, less than fifty US cents. His accent is so thick, and the price so surprising, that he has to repeat it three times before she is certain she understood. She wonders why, unlike just about everyone else in India, these men do not see the central goal of their interaction with a foreigner to be the acquisition of as much wealth as possible by any nonviolent means available. Maybe so few tourists come here that these men have not learned how to be usurious.

Or maybe they are frightened of foreigners. If Keiran is right, they have good reason to be frightened.

She wonders what time the ferry stops. Surely she can get back before nightfall. Even if not, surely she can pay someone to paddle her back across. And even if that fails, surely some family will put her up for the night. She has money, after all, and a white woman’s glamour. Even in the worst case, it will be an adventure. Danielle kicks her engine into life, shifts into gear, and starts north.

2.
The road is old sunbaked asphalt, grooved and pitted but not bad by Indian standards, and virtually deserted. At first she is relieved by this emptiness. Her motorcycle skills are rusty, the Bajaj Pulsar’s gearing system is counterintuitive to anyone who learned to ride a motorcycle in the West, and the Indian roads she has grown accustomed to – seething, anarchic, horn-honking maelstroms of buses, cars, cattle, auto rickshaws, cyclists, pedestrians, children and dogs – are a constant threat to life and limb and sanity. But after about ten minutes Danielle begins to find the solitude eerie. This is the most alone she has been since the moment she landed in New Delhi six months ago. She is a little relieved when she passes a wheezing Tata bus going the opposite direction. She has to steer to the edge of the road to avoid it, and the stones its wake kicks up rattle against her motorcycle and her right leg, but its presence alleviates the feeling that she has left all civilization behind.

The habitations she passes do not. Tiny clusters of eight or ten structures, most of them made of tree branches, with palm-thatch walls and roof lashed together by vines, straight out of the Stone Age. Only a few concrete boxes with slanted corrugated-aluminum roofs, the road itself, and the occasional metal bucket or plastic roof tarpaulin, hint at the existence of the twenty-first century. This is by far the poorest part of India she has seen. The land grows stonier as she passes, less bountiful. Everyone she sees is working the fields, men and women both. She supposes it is harvest season. They turn and stare as she passes. Many of them look gaunt and weak. Not malnourished, there is plenty of food even here, but sickly. The women wear dull, ragged robes. Everywhere else Danielle has been in this country, even the slums of Delhi, women wear vibrantly coloured shawls or saris.

The road begins to ascend, steeply enough that the Pulsar’s engine growls loudly at the challenge. The bike trembles increasingly beneath her and Danielle asks Fate not to let its engine give out, not here. It is nearly new, but it is Indian-made, and that means unreliable. Then, as the road winds upwards, the cracked asphalt suddenly ends, replaced by dirt and rocks.

For the next half-hour Danielle worries too much about steering around the larger rocks to have any space left over for other concerns. She is so focused on the strip of road immediately in front of her motorcycle that she doesn’t see the train tracks until she is almost on top of them. She bumps across the rails and brakes to a halt.

It takes her mind a few moments to return from its tight focus to the larger world around her. To her left, the tracks follow a valley, parallelling a small creek, until they disappear beneath the sinking sun. To her right, they end next to a long, large concrete platform, on which two gleaming metallic cranes are mounted, each the height of a four-story building. A smooth road, unmarked but easily four lanes wide, climbs eastwards from the platform, up towards a ridge top radio antenna. A small modern building sits beneath the cranes, adorned by a satellite dish. All this new construction looks brain-wrenchingly dissonant amid the stony wilderness, especially after the thatched huts Danielle passed half an hour ago.

This land is too dry and steep to support any settlements, but two men stand outside the small building, staring at Danielle. She considers stopping and talking to them, asking for directions to the recipient of the package she carries, but decides against it; they work for the mine, surely, and will not be sympathetic towards her errand. The Pulsar bounces a little at the steep lip where the dirt track joins the asphalt road, and Danielle winces. The last half hour of hard road, on her motorcycle’s insufficiently padded seat, has been decidedly uncomfortable, and she is not looking forward to the return journey. She spurs the bike into its fourth and final gear and barrels up the perfect road, ignoring the slack-jawed stares of the two Indian men, wishing again that she had turned this errand down, or at least begun it earlier. Only a few hours of daylight remain.

Despite her hurry, when she passes the antenna at the crest of the hill and sees the mine, Danielle stops the bike and gapes for a good thirty seconds. The entire valley beyond the ridge has been dug out, replaced by a colossal rectangular pit, its dimensions measured in miles. The pit plunges so deeply into the earth that Danielle cannot see the bottom. Several ramps and an enormous elevator descend into the abyss from a walled complex of long, low buildings, dotted with satellite dishes, on the other side of the mine. The trucks and massive construction vehicles she can see inside the compound’s walls look like Tonka toys next to the vast sandbox that is the strip mine.

The Kishkinda Mine. Producing mostly titanium, but also copper, nickel, and small amounts of gold. And, according to her ex-boyfriend Keiran Kell, incidentally poisoning thousands of desperately poor local residents with toxic chemical byproducts called “tailings”, while Indian authorities are paid both officially and unofficially to look the other way. To say nothing of the environmental devastation, the scale of which Danielle could not have previously imagined. The mine has erased a good twenty square miles of the earth’s surface.

She digs the e-mailed directions out of her pack, double-checks them, then continues. The road bends around the northern end of the mine, heading for the complex. Danielle looks for a small dirt track that veers off the road near the northeastern corner of the mine, just before the road turns south, towards the compound. After about a mile she sees it. And the roadblock between it and her. A chain hangs chest-high across the road, strung between two granite boulders, and a half-dozen Indian men in khaki stand behind it, waiting for her. A Jeep is parked by the road behind them.

Danielle slows down a hundred feet from the roadblock, more annoyed than concerned. After six months in India, she is confident that, regardless of whether the men are police or Kishkinda Mine security, reverse racism and a little baksheesh will get her past them in a few minutes. She has come too far to be repelled by a mere roadblock. Danielle stops the motorcycle in front of the chain, smiles, and says “Hello.”

Five of the men carry lathis, bamboo clubs with leather handles. They look like toys rather than weapons, but Danielle knows that a single blow can knock out a grown man; she once saw a half-dozen policemen armed only with lathis drive off an angry crowd of hundreds, at a movie theatre in Delhi that had sold too many tickets. The sixth man carries both a lathi and a revolver on a belt. It is he who says, “Please off the motorcycle.”

Danielle dismounts. At five foot nine she has at least three inches on all of the men. “Are you police?” she asks.

“Passport,” the man says.

She pauses, then, with just a hint of haughtiness, repeats, “Are you the police?”

“Give me passport.”

She decides not to push the point. Whoever they are, she clearly isn’t leaving without showing ID. She produces her travel pouch from beneath her jeans, withdraws her passport – concealing, as she does, the other, Republic of India, passport tucked into her pouch, with a thousand cash US dollars folded inside – and gives it to the man. He does not seem impressed by the coat of arms of the United States of America.

“Danielle Leaf,” he reads aloud, looking at her picture, then flipping its pages until he finds her India visa and entry stamp. After examining them he puts her passport into his back pocket.

“Wait a minute,” she says. “I need that back.”

“Luggage,” the man says.

“You have to give me my passport back.”

“Give me luggage.”

Now Danielle begins to worry. Something about this man’s stony, expressionless face. The other guards watch her with fascination, but their leader seems entirely incurious. She is suddenly acutely aware of how powerless she is right now. But, she reminds herself, she has done nothing wrong, and surely nothing bad is going to happen to her within sight of this billion-dollar Western-owned mine. She gives him her day pack. He turns, walks over to a flat boulder, and begins to array her possessions atop it. She instinctively starts to follow, but two of the other men raise lathis to block her path. They are all around her now. She hadn’t noticed them surrounding her.

She swallows, tells herself to be patient, to take no notice of the irrational fear that is beginning to clutch at her gut, and waits. The leader withdraws a cell phone and makes a call. For a moment she is surprised it works out here; then she remembers the antenna on the ridge. The Kishkinda Mine must have its own cell network. He has opened her passport and is reading aloud from it. Danielle looks back at her motorcycle and sees that the key has been removed. She opens her mouth to demand its return, definitely nervous now, but the leader speaks first, something in a sonorous Indian language. The lathis that block her way are removed and he beckons her to come.

The few possessions in her day pack – Geographical Survey map, Rough Guide to India, the printed directions, two Snickers bars, a bottle of water, spare toilet paper, disposable camera, small flashlight, Leatherman multi-tool, cigarette lighter, her own Reliance-branded cell phone – are carefully spread over the boulder. Placed among them is a fist-sized package of transparent plastic wrapped around some sort of dried herb.

“What’s that?” she asks, genuinely bewildered.

“Is in your luggage.”

“No, that’s not mine.” She says it in a tone of simple clarification.

“Is in your luggage. Cannabis.”

For a moment she doesn’t understand. Then all her skin goes cold with the shock of comprehension. She stares at the small package of drugs that has been planted among her possessions. “No,” she says. “No. That’s not mine. You put that there.”

“Cannabis,” the leader repeats. “You criminal. You come now.”

“No,” she repeats. “That’s not right. That isn’t mine.” She looks at the little man with a gun and begins to feel angry. She feels like she is taking part in a miniature morality play illustrating what is most wrong with India. “This is ridiculous. You think I’m going to pay you? No way. Absolutely not.”

“You criminal.”

She glares into his expressionless eyes for a moment before realizing that of course she is going to pay a bribe. Better that than be jailed. “Let me guess,” she says. “I can pay a fine to you right now, right? And then you’ll let me go? How much? Ten dollars?” She immediately kicks herself for having been the first to name a price.

“Not money,” the man says. “We not want money.”

This is so unexpected it takes her a moment to absorb, and causes her anger to flicker and dissipate. This is not simple bribery. Something else is happening here. Something very wrong, she can feel it, see it in their body language, the way they look at her. “Then what do you want?”

“We want you. Danielle Leaf.” He speaks her name softly, like a lover.

Danielle stares at him. The other men are all around her again.

“You come now.” The leader takes her arm, firmly, and leads her to the Jeep. Danielle lets him. She does not know what else to do. Her head whirls with confusion.

“You can’t do this,” she says, her voice so feeble and breathless she is not even sure he hears her. “I’m an American. You can’t do this.”

He pays no notice. She wonders dazedly if she should try to run, but she knows she cannot get away from them, and now it is too late anyhow, she is in the back of the Jeep, between two of the men, and the leader has started the engine, they are driving towards the mine complex. No. Not the mine. The Jeep turns and bounces off road, up the same little track Danielle had intended to follow, the track that was meant to take her to Jayalitha, whose passport Danielle carries. They are not going to the mine, where at least she would find organization, Western management, some kind of accountability. They are taking her somewhere else. Somewhere private, isolated. When she realizes this, her gut clenches into an icy knot. She feels like she is falling from a great height. The word abducted flashes into her mind. Danielle tries to think of something she can do, some means of escape, but it is too late for that. All she can do is sit and wait, heart thudding, her whole body damp with sweat, until they reach their destination and whatever awaits her there.