Our journey to Paris and the Exposition Universelle de 1889 did not begin auspiciously. The trip required us to catch a train from Victoria Station, which is a terrible place. From Victoria Street the station appears to be nothing more than a shabby wooden shed, held together only by the many layers of paint that have been plastered on it over the years. The station’s exterior, however, offers barely a hint of the horrors within. The inadequate walls conceal the most chaotic, the most crowded and, assuredly, the dirtiest place I have ever seen.
And I am from Calcutta.
Everything was stained black by the smoke and clouded by billowing steam. I felt certain that, if I could but find a moment’s pause to contemplate it, I should be able to feel the station’s grime smearing itself across my face.
But there was no pause. The crowd heaved back and forth between the great hissing beasts of the engines. Men pushed and grunted, women screeched and shoved, and the children scuttled like rats and bellowed like savages. In terms of both volume and shrillness the noise of the crowd was almost a match for the whistling, rumbling, rattling, and hissing of the great steam engines that loomed over us all.
Though I have lived here now for somewhat more than sixty years, I still find it impossible to reconcile England’s conception of itself as the world’s most civilised nation with the wolfish mob its people become when gathered together. It is as though the English, by constant repetition of their claim to an excess of refinement, hope that it will become reality. It is plainly a deception, though perhaps not without a certain admirable intent.
My companion and I struggled through the noise and press of the station to our appointed platform and the night train to Paris. The distinctive yellow-ochre of the Brighton and South Coast Line trains took on a sickly pallor in the dim light and smoke-laden air. A discreet display of coin caught the attention of a somewhat reluctant porter, and we made our way along the platform.
My companion, Mohandas, was a quiet man, shy and softly spoken even in his native Gujarati and more so when required to converse in English, though he was quite fluent. You will have heard of him of course, as he is now more than famous. Then, however, he was simply a student hoping to be called to the bar. Like many of the Indians who came to England to study at that time he affected to become, in appearance and behaviour, a more precise instance of the idealised English gentleman than any I have ever encountered amongst the native population. However, unlike the majority – including, I freely confess, myself – Mohandas maintained the proprieties of diet and religious observance. This religious bent and his somewhat serious manner had led some of our fellows to abandon him as a prig and a bore. I fear he pricked their consciences. For myself, having no conscience, I found him honest and intelligent, and we became regular companions.
He dressed in the most proper fashion, taking the utmost care with his appearance. Those who know him only from the newsreels may imagine that Mohandas only ever dressed in the simplest of clothing, but when I think of our youthful days together in London, I see him in the clothes he wore that day: a chimney-pot hat and suit bought in Bond Street, with a gold watch chain across his chest.
Assisted by the porter, we installed ourselves in a compartment in the first class carriage and settled down. We had, thanks to my habitual punctuality, arrived a little early and our train was quite empty so we were able to pick our compartment and arrange ourselves before the majority of passengers arrived. As the time of our departure neared, the train became quite full, crowded even, and I waited with interest to see who would share our compartment. I watched as several of our fellow travellers peered through the glass of the door, then turned away with expressions of distaste.
I dismissed it with a shrug, and if Mohandas noticed he gave no sign. As has always been his way, he spent any spare moment reading voraciously. He had galloped through the Daily News, The Daily Telegraph and The Pall Mall Gazette, and was absorbing The Times when there was a roar from the guard on the platform and a blast from the engine’s whistle, and the train juddered forward. We were leaving at last. I stared out the window, watching the dark and crowded platforms slip away. And then we were out of the station and, for a moment, I was blinded by the early evening sun.
I blinked several times, and when I recovered the most handsome man I have ever seen was standing in the doorway to our compartment.
He was several inches taller than my own six feet, with beautiful deep-set blue eyes. Though he was obviously Caucasian, his skin was almost as deeply coloured as my own. His hair was black and, growing slightly longer than might everywhere be consider proper, it tangled into curls. His full beard was lightened by a faint, reddish touch. He was tall, but even through his fashionable pinstripe suit I determined a slender boyishness about his body.
I nodded and the stranger smiled. There was a shyness about his demeanour that only enhanced his physical beauty. He sat next to me, facing Mohandas.
“It seems you have offended some of your fellow travellers,” the man said.
Mohandas looked up sharply.
“But we spoke to no one,” I said.
“Some people need only the slightest of excuses to become offended,” he said. His accent was marked and I assumed he was Scottish, though I would later learn he had been born in Ireland.
“Such as?” It was Mohandas who had spoken. I was quite surprised for it was usual for him to require a lengthy courtship with a new acquaintance before overcoming his natural reserve to address them directly.
“Oh, the usual. The cut of your suit, the style of your shoes…” he paused, and looked around as though searching the cabin for examples of things that might offend a polite sensibility, then he smiled. “The colour of your skin?”
I grunted a laugh and even Mohandas grinned.
“Casement,” the young man thrust out an open hand and I shook it vigorously. “Roger Casement. Very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Sanjit Kamath,” I introduced myself. “And this is my friend and colleague, Mohandas Ghandi.”
“I believe I have heard of you, Mister Casement,” Mohandas said as they shook hands.
The young man cocked his head to one side.
“You have been in Africa? One of Stanley’s men, in The Congo Free State?”
“I was, but how could you know?”
“Your friend, Henry Ward, has spoken most highly of you, at our meetings.” Mohandas pulled out a pamphlet on vegetarianism and I barely suppressed a groan.
“You know Henry?”
“I have attended meetings of the Vegetarian Society with him.” He waved the pamphlet at young Casement; Henry Ward’s name was on the front. “Hearing your name, I could not fail to know you by his description.”
Casement leant back in his seat, stretching his long legs. He seemed, suddenly, entirely at ease. “Well, if you’re friends with Henry, then I am sure this trip will be most pleasurable.”
Our eyes met for a moment and a smile curled my lips.
“Most pleasurable,” I said.
I have forgotten much of the conversation that passed between the three of us on that journey to Paris, but I do remember that we talked about Livingstone and the Congo, and about the prospects for establishing a genuine commonwealth in Africa that might serve as a beacon for the whole continent and perhaps the world. Casement was passionate and sincere in a way that only young men who have found a true cause can be. I found him immensely likable and attractive, and we chatted endlessly.
Mohandas spoke rarely, but one of his interventions sticks clearly in my mind, for it was my first insight into the political ideas that were coming to the boil inside his head.
I had asked young Casement what he hoped to achieve in Africa.
“Why, to end slavery, to ameliorate the most awful conditions that the natives must endure, and to spread enlightenment of the ways of the modern world.” Casement said. He spoke so straightforwardly and earnestly that it was impossible to doubt his sincerity and difficult to resist his beautifully simple vision.
Mohandas laid the book he was reading onto his lap.
“And what if the people there do not want your enlightenment, Mister Casement?”
Casement looked surprised. He stared at Mohandas for a moment, opened-mouthed. The idea had clearly never occurred to him.
“But you have not seen the terrible conditions in which they live,” he said. “Each new tribe we discover suffers an existence a civilised man would not wish upon a dog!”
Mohandas smoothed out his suit trousers. It was, I thought, a very lawyerly motion.
“I believe I have seen such conditions in my own homeland,” he said. “Are you to tell me that the poor natives of India or Africa are better off for the coming of the white men?”
“No,” Casement didn’t hesitate. “Not yet. But that is because they are being exploited. We, that is those of us who support the Free State, wish to liberate the Africans from such exploitation and to establish them as a modern nation amongst the peoples of the world.”
“And what if they do not wish to be modern in your ways?” Mohandas turned to look out the window as Kent, low and lush, rumbled past. “Has it occurred to you that their traditions and their way of life may be as valuable as yours?”
It clearly hadn’t, for Casement fell silent.
After a moment I changed the subject and we talked of happier subjects, perhaps of cricket – my true love – or mutual acquaintances and our plans for our time in Paris.
Later, the young Mister Casement and I spent two hours together in his cabin on the steamer that carried us across The Channel. He was a strong and fierce lover. It is my clearest and most cherished memory of our time together.
I will not dwell on the details of the 1889 Exposition, except for those that impinge most pertinently on this tale. None who were not in Paris that summer can hope to comprehend the scale and opulent magnificence of the display that girdled the Seine. And, even these many years later, those who journeyed through its many wonders will not require my aid to recall the impression that the city and the Exposition made upon everyone who took in its sights.
Suffice it to say that those who consider these things, experts who have attended similar events all across the globe, judged the Paris Exhibition of 1889 to be the most extraordinary and comprehensive gathering of mankind’s many achievements in the fields of art and science. Subsequent years may have witnessed mankind’s increasing ingenuity and the blossoming fruits of many great minds, but there are still those who insist that the Paris Exposition has never been surpassed or even matched. All man’s greatest achievements to that point were on display on the Champ de Mars that summer and the path that would lead us into the next century was set out for all to follow.
The once-controversial symbol of the exhibition, Mister Eiffel’s great tower, remains in place – now synonymous with France herself – but the Exposition left a more subtle mark in the souls of the many millions of visitors lucky enough to have explored its wonders.
The planet span serenely at our feet. First, one noticed the vast white ice cap of the Arctic, then, as we circled slowly around and down past the equator, the great expanses of Asia were gradually dwarfed by the ungraspable hugeness of the Earth’s oceans, until at last the Southern ice cap was above our heads, and we had passed below the planet.
It was a most disconcerting experience.
The globe, as high as a three-storey house, dominated the huge room, and a single walkway spiralled around it as the planet itself rotated. By some fluke we had entered the room when it was otherwise empty, and in the church-like silence I found myself deeply moved by this vision of our planet.
The sense that the globe represented something fundamental was profound. The immensity of the world on which we live, and our own smallness within it, was made plain. Its scale – one millionth of the planet’s actual scope – staggered the mind. Only when faced with such a sight, the vast globe encompassed in a glance, can one comprehend how insignificant is humanity. But, more surprisingly, I was at the same moment struck by the fragility of the planet, a tiny haven of life in an unimaginably larger universe. We were insignificant specks on the face of a planet that, itself, seemed suddenly no more than a full stop in a lost volume on a forgotten shelf in some great library.
The great mountain ranges appeared as but wrinkles on an aged face. The greatest rivers seemed to be no more than trickles into oceans that were themselves made simple pools that a child might splash through. The portion of our planet that is habitable, squeezed between expanses of ocean and ice, driest desert and sterile mountains, seemed reduced to so small a sliver that the distances that divide race from race seemed meaningless.
I dare say that no man capable of reason could have gazed upon that globe and not been moved by the essential unity of humankind.
Casement was stroking his beard, looking up at the planet, his eyes followed southernmost tip of South America as it passed across his field of vision. Mohandas had paused further up the walkway. I can still see him, in my mind’s eye, standing just below equator, one hand slightly out-stretched as though he would scoop up the waters of the Pacific Ocean
In that moment the only sound was the gentle rumble of the machinery that drove the great globe.
Then the door above us opened and a group of giggling girls entered the chamber. The spell was broken.
“Shall we move on?” I said.
Our next steps took us into the future. From the chamber containing the globe we crossed to the Galerie des Machines.
This hall, dubbed the “Palace of Force” by one Parisian commentator, was itself a symbol of man’s power over nature. One knew, logically, that innumerable tonnes of iron anchored the great vaulted roof that arced high above us, but under acres of glass and in the summer afternoon’s sunlight that flooded everywhere, that mass of metal seemed to become attenuated. It was possible to imagine that the whole building could simply waft into the Parisian sky. We descended a wide staircase to a viewing platform dominated by a tall, skeletal clock tower. We paused there; we had entered through the western end of the Gallerie and stretching away below us was the first of two great wings that met beneath a glass dome that was larger, lighter, and more impressive than anything in Europe’s ancient cathedrals. My own reaction was reflected in the gasps and exclamations of my fellow visitors. The torrent of people divided on the platform and swept downwards to the Gallerie’s floor via two sweeping staircases.
There was a moment’s respite then, as one recovered from the shock of this extraordinary building. We regrouped, sharing glances that, at least on the part of Casement and myself, revealed that we were almost awe-struck. That this temple of light and iron had made an impression on Mohandas was obvious, though whether it was favourable was not at all certain.
No sooner had we become accustomed to the magnificence of the great exhibition space than we began to become aware of the wonders it contained.
Looming over the entrance stood the engine of an ocean liner – a cathedral of steel and brass, dwarfing all who entered and impressing on everyone the power now in the hands of man. Elsewhere hundreds of smaller engines wheezed, slapped, and banged, illustrating the many tasks man’s ingenuity had found for them.
For myself and Casement the Hall of Machines was a delight. We jigged from stand to stand, gasping at each toy or gadget, thrilled by the endless possibilities that opened up with each new discovery. Everywhere electric lamps flickered even in the sunshine, and the exhibition was filled with swarms of photographers who went about their task with a fervour, recording every miniscule detail. Moving pictures flickered in darkened booths. Recorded music blared from Berliner gramophones. Daimler motorcars trundled amongst the wide aisles between walls of machinery. Everything that we later took for granted – the whole future – was here.
In the centre of the hall, beneath the vast dome, two balloons were suspended. The smaller example was a model of the gaudy device that had first born the Mongolfier brothers aloft just a century before. Dwarfing that, however, as Jupiter does its many moons, was its modern equivalent – a great crimson orb below which was suspended a wicker basket.
We paused beneath it. Casement smiled to himself then signalled to the balloon’s attendant.
“What are you doing?” I asked, but he ignored me and took the attendant to one side and began a whispered discussion that commenced with a regretful but firm shaking of the attendant’s head and concluded with a handshake and a discreet exchange of francs.
“Come along.” Casement held aside a thick red rope and waved us towards the balloon’s basket.
Mohandas stopped and looked toward the attendant who bowed respectfully.
“What have you done?” I asked.
“I told him Mohandas was the Rajah of Peshawar,” a huge boyish grin split Casement’s face. “And that he was interested in buying a fleet of balloons to enable exploration of the Himalayas.”
A look of outrage spread across Mohandas’s face but we rushed to his side and Casement shuffled him into the basket before he could splutter a word. I distracted the attendant with a most elaborate namaste.
Once the wicker basket was raised above the floor of the hall of machines, Mohandas’s outrage dissipated and his natural curiosity asserted itself. Casement stood alongside Mohandas, and the two of them could hardly have presented a greater contrast. Casement was tall and hale so that even standing still he seemed to vibrate with barely restrained energy. Dwarfed beside him, and fragile, Mohandas held himself so perfectly still that the world seemed to pivot about him. Even then I worried whether his slight frame could carry the burdens he took upon himself – yet he never buckled.
Casement seemed quite transported by the sights and sounds of the great machines now at man’s bidding. “Impressive, isn’t it? These engines are power incarnate. They are the way to the future.”
“Certainly,” Mohandas did not look at him. “They are the way to a future.”
Casement caught the barb; clearly he had not forgotten their brief exchange on the train. He swept his hand across the scene below them. “Do you really mean you believe that the people of Africa or India would be better off if we denied them all that this could offer?”
“What does it offer, my friend?”
“They’d have the strength to build, the ability to control their lands, the power to protect themselves against the predation of the white nations or their fellows.” Casement was counting off the obvious benefits on his fingers. “They could ensure comfort from want and safety from exploitation. And with ease from such fears comes the ability to devote time to art and science and the true fruits of civilisation.”
“These machines could do that for the poor of India and Africa?” Mohandas was smiling.
“Of course! Look around this room. Think what they have done for Britain and France.”
“So you believe that these great machines could make the poor of the rest of the world as fortunate as the poor of Limehouse or Manchester or Birmingham?” Mohandas shook his head. “How happy they will be that such luxury has only cost them their lands and their traditions.”
Whatever response Casement was planning stuck fast. He stared out across the exhibition, gathering his thoughts.
“Of course, the present organisation of our society is far from perfect,” he said.
“I hadn’t taken you for a communist.”
“I am not,” Casement visibly bristled, pulling himself to his full height. “But I will concede that there are ways industrial society could better provide for its people.”
“And who will care for the people when these great machines rust, when the land has been abandoned and the crops fail?” Mohandas’s hand chopped the air. “When these machines become scrap, Mister Casement, how will your Empire feed our people then?”
“I have said that changes are necessary,” Casement met Mohandas gaze and held it, visibly trying to restrain his anger. “But I hardly think an Irishman needs a lecture from anyone on the consequences of famine.”
There was silence then, for what seemed like a very long time. Even the sound of the machines in the exhibition hall and the thousands of people moving just a few dozens of feet below us seemed to fade away. I found myself unable, or perhaps unwilling, to intercede, for I felt certain some crucial struggle was taking place. But there was to be no victor here and, after an eternity, it seemed, the two men reached some silent accord and smiled.
The mood immediately lightened and Mohandas, looking out over the Galerie des Machines, pointed to some stall that caught his eye.
I signalled to the attendant of the balloon, who set to winching us back to earth.
“You shouldn’t have lied,” Mohandas said, nodding towards the attendant. Casement’s face was a sudden mask of utter contrition.
“I did not mean to-”
Mohandas rested a hand on his arm, leaning close, smiling.
“I have never even been to Peshawar.”
Casement’s laughter rang out across the Palace of Force.
The next day we took a journey into the past. Our trip through time took us down a boulevard illustrating the history of human habitation presented in exquisitely detailed reconstructions or large models. We began in the familiarity of the present but quickly passed a delightful hostelry of the Renaissance, the rougher dwellings of the Dark Ages, the glory of Rome and the simpler elegance of Greece, back through the cruder dwellings of the stone ages and, ultimately, to the troglodyte beginnings of mankind in caves lit by guttering flame. Nor was only European history presented, for the display featured civilisations from across the globe, from the tepees of the Red Indian and the adobe homes of the Americas before the Europeans arrived, to the homes of ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Phoenicians. Perhaps unsurprisingly Mohandas and I were particularly fascinated by the reconstruction of the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur. We were most impressed by the attention to detail in the reproduction which included the great bull and the Periya Koil.
Finally we reached the end of the boulevard and, rather tired and hot in the afternoon sun, we were drawn to the shade of what appeared to be a small copse of exotic trees from which strange music floated.
Beneath the trees we found reconstructed a village of the native people of Malay. At first glance it was little more than a scattering of bamboo shacks thatched with palm-leaves, and yet there was something in the grace of the buildings that spoke of a simple life in a bountiful land. Rather than the construction of man, the village seemed to have formed organically from the very stuff of the forest and it seemed that to live life in a place like this would be to become an organism in service of the trees.
We followed the music to an open theatre, roofed with more palm leaves but open at the side, and watched a traditional dance performed by a group of native girls. They were such slight creatures that it seemed impossible that they should dance with such grace while encumbered with head-dresses and thick bracelets, brooches, buckles, and embroidered garments. But graceful they were, and they moved with such entrancing charm that the three of us stood quite transfixed as their arms and fingers etched intricate, exotic patterns on the Parisian air and their musicians beat out rapid yet oddly plaintive rhythms.
How long we stood there I cannot tell, but when the show finished the first hint of evening could be felt on the air and the feeling of being transported to some distant shore was complete. Silently we made our way back to the huts of the village and dipped inside the first one, finding low benches set around the wall. We spoke not a word as we arranged ourselves, perhaps fearing to break the spell that the dancers had woven around us. We were entranced.
“This is how life should be,” I said eventually, stretching out in contentment.
“Exactly!” Mohandas suddenly leaned forward. “This is the life for which we are intended. This is the level at which our moral and economic life should be organised. We cannot understand the world in a city where every neighbour is a stranger – we have no feeling of kinship. But in a place like this, where everything is shared, men could see the consequences of their actions and be held responsible for them. In a place like this, justice would be a reality.”
“You’re a romantic!” Casement was laughing but not mocking.
“You think so?”
“You think this thing,” Casement took in the village with a flick of his head, “is real. It isn’t. It’s a fiction.”
“Not this place, perhaps, but places like this are real.”
“No,” Casement’s voice rose slightly. “I hadn’t seen it before but your background has made you as distant from places like this as mine.”
“You know nothing of my background.”
“I think I do. You are a child of privilege – more so even than I, I think–”
“My family were not wealthy.”
“No? But you have been privileged. You have had an education, a chance to travel, and all the while protected by your family’s position. You said your father was a politician, so you have grown up amidst the exercise of power.”
“That hardly invalidates my opinions.”
“Of course not,” Casement stood up and walked to the door of the hut, bending to look out into the village beyond. “But you know nothing of what it is to really live in places like this.”
“And you do?”
“More than you, I think.” He dipped beneath the roof of the hut and stepped out. Mohandas followed him. Reluctantly, I trailed behind – regretting what I had started. “At least I have lived amongst these people – though, I confess, always apart, always with the knowledge that I could walk away. But I saw enough to see that their life was not one of harmony with their surroundings but a struggle just to gather enough to live. One poor harvest and a generation may be lost.”
“Then we should temper our society to live by what nature can provide.”
“Why, when we have the power to set these people free from nature’s tyranny?”
“You think your work sets the poor free, but you simply bring them another form of imperialism,” Mohandas’s lawyerly training had taken control; he spoke evenly and with confidence. “The ideas of progress you force upon them are as alien and destructive as any imperial army.”
“Perhaps,” Casement conceded and, for a moment, Mohandas broke his stride – surprised. “But the ideas I bring them are no more alien than yours, and no more dangerous.”
“Dangerous? How could it be dangerous to live within one’s means?”
“How could such communities protect themselves from the true imperialists – whether amongst their neighbours or the white men?”
“But what would an imperialist want with a poor village?”
“But a place like this would have no gold, no jewels,” Mohandas smiled. “I think there would be nothing here to bring the conqueror.”
“I think you misunderstand the nature of wealth and the desire for power.” Casement did not return the friendly smile. “Riches aren’t built on gold but on people. What use is gold if you have no labour to dig it from the ground? How can palaces be constructed if you have no slaves to build them for you? And what good is wealth if there are not masses of people possessing nothing to gaze upon your fortune with envious eyes? What is power if it is not exercised in the subjugation of others to your will?”
Mohandas opened his mouth to speak, but Casement did not pause. He was striding around the little village now, hands clenched behind his back, his body tense, his jaw firmly set. His voice was loud, his accent becoming quite nasal and pronounced, and his eyes were ablaze.
“But this all starts from a false premise. Those with power would never let your dreamy villages exist, for they would bring gold and trinkets and buy your villagers first, and if that did not work they would bring rifle and horse and force their compliance. The only way that a village like this can be free is if its people are given the tools of the modern age and made as powerful as anyone who would threaten them. It is the job of those who care to construct a decent world to give them those tools.”
“No!” Mohandas’s voice was gentler than Casement’s and he habitually spoke so softly that the fact that he raised it now visibly shocked the young Irishman. “Guns are nothing without men to wield them. Gold is nothing without people willing to be bought. You underestimate the power of resistance.”
“And you underestimate the determination of the powerful to stay that way.”
There was a rustle in the trees. I looked up to see the Malayan girls whose performance we had recently watched peeking from between the leaves of the plantation’s vegetation. How long they had been there, I could not guess. From the bewildered looks on their faces, it had clearly been long enough to understand that the two smartly-dressed gentlemen before them were arguing furiously.
One of the girls noticed me and I doffed my hat to her. She giggled and nudged one of her companions who, in turn, began to laugh. My companions, however, were so entirely engrossed in their debate that they squabbled on, unaware of their audience. One of the bolder girls began to imitate Casement’s mannerisms, which set another girl to imitate Mohandas’s air-cutting hand movements.
The giggling turned into outright laughter.
At last there was a pause.
The argumentative pair turned towards me, confused. I nodded towards the trees. The Malay girls howled and suddenly the two lions of debate became blushing boys. In a moment, I was roaring more loudly than any of the dancers.
“I must go on to Brussels tomorrow,” Casement said as we paused on the Pont de l’Alma. We were alone, Mohandas having gone in search of vegetarian food, and the streets of Paris suddenly emptied. “I must see if there is work for me back in Africa.”
He placed his hands on the low balustrade and I rested my hand on top of his. He looked around furtively and then leant his shoulder against mine. We shared a smile.
Paris had pulled down the stars and draped them around herself. The banks of the Seine glowed with all the majesty of the Milky Way. The river, blacker than the night sky, ripped silently against the bridge’s buttresses and reflected a uncountable points of light in every swirl and eddy. Further down the river the city’s other bridges were ribbons of light leaping across the darkness. Boats of every shape and size, brightly lit and filling the night with laughter and the clinking of glasses, seemed to dance at the feet of the great statues that guarded our bridge.
“At least tonight will be memorable,” I said.
Casement, his eyes on the rippling river, nodded and smiled softly, but I sensed part of him was already back in Africa.
Now, almost seventy years after our trip to Paris, Casement is long gone – executed in an English jail – and my friend Mohandas is dead these ten years – assassinated by a fool. Both lived their beliefs, turning ideas into actions, and both were killed because of them.
Though the history books show that their lives followed quite separate trajectories, I have recently come to think that they led to rather similar places. Both fought for independence for countries that would ultimately be divided by religious enmity that was stronger than they could conceive. And their dreams of justice and equality have been betrayed by those who used revolutions to replace one corrupt set of rulers with another. Neither man would be content with the continuing penury and exploitation of his nation’s poor and both would, I am sure, find themselves fighting the very governments they struggled to create. In revolution or resistance, progress or simplicity, Irishman and Indian were both victorious and defeated, and they have become symbols that embarrass those who have come after them.
Today I found myself wandering with my friends through the Paris of the Exposition and that great model of the globe was spinning, once again, at our feet. Somewhere above my head a Russian device is circling the globe. I have heard its frantic, crackling warble on the wireless. I wonder if allowing all humanity to stand above the Earth and watch it turn might not have the same profound effect on all the world that it on the three of us so long ago. However we die, we live together and now we can see the world now as it truly is, just a speck. Yet even this mote – significant only to us – is so massive that it overwhelms our petty differences.
I see the great engines of the Galerie des Machines and laugh at how impressed we were by toys that have been entirely surpassed in the years that followed. I think of our journey into the past, to that most distant village, and my companions’ disagreement. I am surprised that my strongest memory is not of the words of two great men putting forward their visions for a better world but of the laughing Malay girls who mocked them before going on their own way through their ersatz forest and away into the Parisian night, quite unaware of the weight of the discussion they had witnessed.
Finally, I am back on the Pont de l’Alma and the smell of roses rolls across the water from the gardens constructed on the Trocadéro. I turn back to gaze at the Champ de Mars; Eiffel’s slender tower knifes the night sky with twinkling diamonds and the great palaces shine brightly. The South Bank is ablaze with the light of man’s greatest achievements. I reach out and, just for a moment, I seem to have gripped all time and space and that I might manipulate an awesome power to remake the world.
I could set free the engines that Casement so admired. Unleashed at last, their energies might set men free. Or I could crush them and cast us all back to innocence. Mohandas believed that those machines were as much the tools of slavery as chains and rifles.
The choice is mine. If I can make it.
And then Casement is beside me, urging me onwards into the Parisian night. I follow him into the gardens on the Trocadéro and we lose ourselves again amongst tall hedges and the perfume of flowers.
“Palaces of Force” was first published in Aeon SF #8