The Descent

Award Category
Logline or Premise
'The Descent' charts the turbulent lives and fortunes of three generations of the Iraqi-Jewish ben Kaif merchant family, from their rise to unparalleled wealth trading opium under the Raj as Asian colonials, to their Europeanisation and acceptance into the British aristocracy. From the Opium Wars to the First World War and beyond, we follow the interlinked lives of each remarkable ben Kaif as they attempt to navigate between worlds against an ever-changing backdrop of empire, commerce, racism, betrayal, illicit love and murder.
First 10 Pages

Chapter 1

Nestled between the forefinger and thumb of Ilyas ben Kaif, a solitary rupee sat, coated in the perspiration of its bearer. Down in the depths of his pocket it lay, wherein he had also lodged his left hand. His thumb squeezed down upon the face of the young Victoria, then his grip relaxed and the coin lay dormant. The next moment it was subjected to the same sweaty grasp. He allowed his forefinger to feel its way across the markings of the laurel wreath cast so resplendently upon the other side and then, once again, he loosened his grip and felt the rupee drop lightly but reassuringly onto the tips of his awaiting fingers. This process, unseen by even its initiator, was repeated no less than four hundred and fifty times in the course of an hour (or thereabouts), an hour in which Ilyas ben Kaif stood waiting in a dingy and exceedingly cramped customs office in the port of Shanghai. Three other men were in the room with him, all Chinese. Two of those men were situated behind the table which stood propped up in the centre of the room. They were customs officials, supposedly representative of the Imperial Government of China, but no one in that room had any doubt as to whose interests they really served. One of the officers was standing, his hands resting casually behind his back and his expressionless eyes fixed upon the clammy, bespectacled foreign merchant before him. The other officer was seated beside him at the table, sifting through an untidy stack of papers and occasionally casting an amused glance in the same direction as that of his colleague. The man who stood next to Ilyas on the other side of that table was a local comprador in his pay, one Zhang Lo-Hong by name, hired for his knowledge of English and his familiarity with the nefarious workings of the customs houses of Shanghai.

The business in hand certainly did not require a whole hour to conclude, but it was the habit of these officials to draw out their less savoury (and therefore more profitable) meetings for as long they felt necessary. It was in their interest to watch their applicants fret and stew, not out of any sadistic impulse but rather to wear the man down, to tire and drain him of any possible argumentation. Just like the merchants themselves, the customs officers were men of ambition, eager to extract as much capital as possible from any given transaction. The longer they made the trader wait, the more desperate he was to vacate the oppressive little room, and the more open he was likely to be to settle on the price of their naming. It was an old game, one in which both functionaries were seasoned players. Zhang Lo-Hong was also familiar with such techniques, he had been hired for this very knowledge, but not so the man who hired him. Ilyas ben Kaif, whose severe business demeanour had become something of a legend in his native Bombay, had discovered that all the cards he had once held in India were next to useless in this unfamiliar domain. Not only did he not speak the language, but he was utterly unused to the way business was conducted in the port-city, so newly opened to traders working under the British Crown. But then, of course, the business he was conducting was one not officially sanctioned by the governing body of his chosen territory. In British India he had been a respected merchant, an executive trader for the esteemed ‘David ben Kaif and Sons’. In China, he was no more than a dealer in illegal narcotics, a trafficker. In the eyes of the Chinese government men like him were simply criminals, no more, no less, and these two officials with whom he had no choice but to deal with were certainly making him feel the part. No longer could he simply remove his spectacles so as to intimidate his ‘victim’ with that once-infamous unnerving squint; the language barrier rendered this trick pointless. Furthermore, when dealing with the Shanghai customs office, it was more pertinent to know one’s place. Opium could not be shipped inland without their allowing it (or rather, overlooking it). The only issue up for bargaining was the amount of the bribe they were to receive and, again, this was out of the merchant’s hands. The best he could do was to obtain a reliable comprador, and the best Ilyas could hire was Zhang Lo-Hong. His grasp of English was more than passable but far from perfect, but more attractive still was the relatively low fee he demanded for his services. As so much of his expenses were to be squandered (so he felt) upon corrupt bureaucrats, Ilyas was anxious to apportion as little as possible to other areas of the more dubious yet necessary quarters of his trade. Zhang Lo-Hong seemed to fill this necessity adequately. He asked for little recompense, and he was courteous and punctual. But about this man, Ilyas could ascertain no more than this.

Much of the hour Ilyas was to spend there was spent in silence. But as that hour drew to a close, he felt the incessant beckoning of that sentiment his father had always warned him against - impatience. Doing his best to maintain the wilfully impassive bearing he had adopted, Ilyas stretched his right hand out towards Zhang (his left was still engaged with the rupee) and bestowed a gentle nudge upon the comprador’s silk-lined shoulder. Just as impassively, Zhang turned to meet his employer’s gaze. Ilyas then asked, in a voice so soft as to almost take on the mantle of a purr, ”Kindly enquire if they are ready to conclude yet.” Zhang nodded and smiled his broad, crooked smile, revealing a mouth lined with teeth of both silver and gold (but not a white one among them). The comprador then quickly spoke a few words of Mandarin to the standing official, who shared a knowing glance with his seated colleague before replying with comparable speed. “Not long,” was Zhang’s translation. Ilyas’ eyes darted towards the standing man, but on meeting that unwavering stare they instinctively diverted their course and fell to the floor. Ilyas knew he was showing weakness, after all he had built his reputation on the very method that was now being used on him, but it was too late now. He didn’t care anyway, he just wanted to leave that accursed room and enter again into the company that suited him most, his own.

Another ten minutes passed by. The seated man looked up from his papers and smiled pleasantly at Ilyas. Ilyas’ eyes widened in hope, but instead of the expected conclusion, the official simply exchanged a word with his companion, who in turn walked slowly towards a ramshackle desk on the other side of the room and withdrew yet another stack of papers for official perusal. Before he could stop himself, Ilyas whispered to Zhang “Ask him again.” Zhang returned his master’s glance unsmilingly this time, as if questioning the wisdom of this request, but dutifully repeated the words he had spoken earlier. The seated official leaned back in his chair and cocked his head to one side, before replying slowly in a single word of one syllable. “Please do not rush him,” Zhang warned his employer, “it will not be… good for you.” Unexpectedly, the standing man now spoke, eliciting a snort of laughter from his colleague and, to Ilyas’ consternation, a look of amusement from Zhang also. He was about to ask Zhang to translate the witticism, but thought better of it and remained silent with his eyes cast downwards. Another ten minutes went by. The coin was now clenched within Ilyas’ hand, squeezed so tightly that the impression of the sovereign’s profile was imprinted firmly upon the centre of his palm. Finally, the seated man spoke the words he had been so longing to hear, translated by Zhang as “Please make the exchange now. Three hundred rupees.” Ilyas’ palm loosened and the coin was released into the lining of his pocket. “Three hundred?” he whispered to the comprador, “We’d agree on two!” Zhang seemed almost hurt by this response. “Shall I tell him that?” he asked, clearly expressing his disapproval at the notion. Ilyas lifted his spectacles and rubbed his bridge of his nose. “No, no..” he sighed, “but I’d like to know why the price has gone up.” “Mr Cai-ef,” Zhang replied (for this was how he always addressed his employer), “you must understand. Change is always happening here in China. It is dangerous for them to do what they do for you. Dangerous for me and for you also. More danger, more money.” Ilyas knew that there was nothing he could do at this stage. He simply nodded and reached into the right pocket of his kaftan, wherein he stored his paper notes, and presented the required amount upon the table that separated the officials from their quarry. The seated man scrutinized and then counted the notes in a calculatedly unhurried manner. When he had finished, he looked up at Zhang and nodded, and Zhang did likewise to Ilyas.

Once outside on the blessed quay (anywhere was blessed in comparison to the customs office), Ilyas and Zhang Lo-Hong exchanged perfunctory goodbyes, and the former made his way across the boardwalk and down towards the street where his lodgings were situated. He had not been in Shanghai long, no more than four months in fact. But to the newcomer they had been four of the lengthiest months of his life to date. Aside from a few contacts his father had accrued in advance of his son’s mission, Ilyas was completely alone in this new city. The services of Zhang had only been acquired upon the recommendation of a contact of a contact, yet the comprador was the man with whom Ilyas exchanged the most words. His elder brother Obadiah had promised to send a few of the contacts he had made in Baghdad to assist him, but they would not arrive for another month. Ilyas had purchased the necessary warehouses and counting-rooms, as well as the modest single-storey house, the threshold of which he was just then crossing. It was sparsely decorated, mostly with a few tables and desks, all covered with neatly-stacked piles of receipts and account sheets. The only decoration, if indeed it could be labelled as such, was a diminutive menorah positioned on a shelf opposite the front entrance, the only thing that would catch the incoming visitor’s eye (if there had been any visitors whose eyes might be caught).

Ilyas ben Kaif had always been a solitary man, but his posting to China stretched even his abundant capacity for isolation to the limit. He had few friends back in Bombay, but there was one soul whose company he deeply pined for; his wife Farha. Obadiah had offered to pay for a photograph of her as a parting gift, but both Ilyas and Farha objected to such representations, perceiving it as a form of idolatry in direct contradiction to the precepts of the Torah. So instead, once he had concluded his nightly prayers, Ilyas would call upon the powers of his memory to conjure up an image of his doting wife into his mind’s eye, and meditate upon it. This practice, coupled with frequent contemplation of God, supplied him with enough comfort to persevere in his duties and survive by himself in this strange land. It was his only comfort at present, for the fortunes of ‘David ben Kaif and Sons’ in China were not prospering as had been hoped. Not only was he having to expend far more than he had expected to secure the ‘goodwill’ of the customs officials, but the ben Kaifs had soon discovered that the only opportunity of safely shipping their opium outside of the ceded territories was to sell it on, at a greatly reduced price, to the only company whose warships could penetrate into the least accessible (and therefore most remunerative) regions of inland China, their biggest competitors, ‘Jardine, Matheson & Co’. ‘Competitor’ is perhaps a misleading word, for there was in truth no real competition; ‘Jardine, Matheson & Co’, the company which had been so largely responsible for the very war that had allowed ‘David ben Kaif and Sons’ to enter the Chinese opium market at all, ruled both the waves and the roads that transported this most lucrative of commodities across the Middle Kingdom to their eager customers. And so Ilyas was at the mercy of both corrupt administrators and the most powerful trading-house in Asia, the latter of whom only allowed him a share of this market at a cost that dwarfed the sum demanded by the former.

But of all the members of the ben Kaif clan, Ilyas had by far the most appropriate temperament for the task with which he had been entrusted. And so he persevered with patience, knowing that this was the only way to gain the foothold that was so necessary for ‘David ben Kaif and Sons’ to fulfil the promise of destiny that had enshrined it from the moment of the company’s inauguration, twelve years before.

Chapter 2

“Good afternoon Mr ben Kaif. May I say you are looking exceptionally well today? Your usual table?” “Yes, thank you Radhoo. I’m expecting a terribly important visitor today, he should be here any moment. Tell me, how is your boy? Is he any better?” “Bless you for asking sir, he is a little better, yes, but the doctor told us he has a long way to go before he is completely recovered. Your table, sir.”

Obadiah “Bertie” ben Kaif took his seat at the table he had been frequenting at the Bombay Businessmen’s Club for the past four years. He was, along with Sir Jamshed Bhabha and three other Parsi opium magnates, one of the club’s five owners, and it was his habit to arrange the more consequential of his meetings to take place there, at its pride of place in the very heart of the city’s business district. He ordered two glasses of gin and Indian tonic water with Radhoo, but before he hurried off to assemble them, Obadiah took the waiter’s arm and discreetly slipped a handful coins amounting to forty rupees into his palm. “To help with the doctor’s expenses,” he whispered with a smile. Radhoo beamed in gratitude and bowed, before disappearing behind the bar to fulfil the order. Obadiah stretched his legs out in a casual fashion, then pulled out a copy of the Times of India which he kept folded neatly in the breast pocket he had especially sewn into his kaftan for that very purpose. For, despite his increasing preference for European dress, out of respect for his father, Obadiah continued to adorn himself in the clothing of his Mesopotamian ancestors. Yet, even in this, he insisted his kaftans be altered to suit the character that he wished to present to the world at large; in addition to breast pockets, his kaftans were dyed black so as to better resemble the Saville Row suits that he so longed to bedeck himself in (a resemblance that perhaps only he could recognize), and were cut shorter than usual around the legs, so that they did not billow out behind him as he walked, like his those of father.

Obadiah had had barely enough time to run his eye over the front page of his newspaper when the man whom he was expecting entered the bar and approached his table; “Mr ben Kaif, hullo… we meet again!” Obadiah looked up into the jocular Englishman’s face and grinned his most welcoming grin. It was returned in kind. “This is your place, isn’t it?” the Englishman asked, casting his eager eyes about the bar. Obadiah nodded, then added with practiced modesty, “I am a co-owner, actually, but I like to sometimes think of it as ‘my place’.” “It’s beautifully decorated,” the visitor continued, affixing his gaze onto a pair of marble pillars painted in gold and black, adding “May I?” as he pulled out the seat across from his host’s. Obadiah approximated a magnanimous gesture, just as Radhoo had returned to set the gin and tonics before them. The Englishman eyed the beverage with barely-disguised desire; “I must say Mr ben Kaif, I don’t usually drink when conducting business, but that looks particularly welcoming.” He wiped his brow and took a healthy swig from the glass. “Do you know, I have worked in this part of the world for nearly fifteen years now, but I still cannot accustom myself to the heat! You’re not native to this country yourself, is that correct?” Obadiah cleared his throat, as if apologizing for what he was about to say; “That is correct. I was actually born in Mesopotamia, Baghdad to be specific. Not as cool as the climate you were raised in, I’m sure, but even I feel the need for a cool gin and tonic on a day as hot as this.” He then felt compelled to add, “By the way, please call me Bertie.” “Bertie?” replied the Englishman, with a good-natured laugh in his voice, “Under most circumstances I would be delighted to address you as such, but seeing as how you have induced me to compromise my policy of abstinence during meetings, you will perhaps humour me and allow me to retain at least some of my more priggish formalities? For the sake of appearance, you understand?” Obadiah chuckled at his guest’s self-deprecating tone, replying “How could I not?”


Stewart Carry Sat, 29/07/2023 - 06:20

The language is excellent but the 'density' of the prose makes it difficult for the reader to get a real sense of character...structure more carefully and include more dialogue so the characters voices can be heard clearly.