“Daogiri,” said Abdullah, their chauffeur-guide, gesturing freely, “is an impregnable fortress. Absolutely. The sides are so steep and smooth that an ant could not climb them —nor even a snake.”
From a mile’s distance, where Stanley Bendana, rounding out a two-year stint in the Peace Corps with a tour of South India, and Mrs. Majumdar had stopped on the roadside for a panoramic view, the citadel had looked impressive enough: a cone of gray rock with a scarped waist that rose sheer from the flat, brown Deccan plateau. But it seemed hardly worth the taking; the palace treasures had long since vanished, and the battlements were pocked and crumbled by age and waves of successive assaults by Deccan rajahs, Turkish sultans, Mughal kings and—in the 17th and 19th centuries —by the Dutch and the conquering British. They had all had their season at Daogiri. The smarter assailants had camped outside and laid long patient sieges that starved out the defenders from within —and then forced them to pay exorbitant tribute. Though Daogiri itself had remained impregnable, its occupants over the centuries had proven all too vulnerable without food or water.
Mrs. Majumdar had promised Stanley a visit to Daogiri after he confessed that old fortresses held a special fascination for him.
“You will like the fortifications, Stanley,” she predicted, adjusting her steel-rimmed spectacles—“especially the Mughal cannon, and the frescoes of celestial maidens naked to the waist. Above all the frescoes. Americans always like the frescoes best of all.”
“Perhaps so,” said Stanley, who made up his mind to steal away from his hostess at the first opportunity and explore the fortress on his own. After a week with the relentlessly hospitable Majumdars he was badly in need of solitude. He was still feeling the aftereffects of the last night’s slide show, which he had attended at her husband, the university rector’s, insistence. He had sat in the airless, darkened hall of the Aurangabad Rotary Club, sunk in a deepening apathy, as the fans whirred monotonously overhead, while bats, flies and mosquitoes circled and “America-returned” Professor Sharma embellished his photography with a high-pitched pedagogical drone. For an hour he had shown blurred slides of Disneyland, which he called the greatest marvel of American technology—ahead of the atomic bomb and the Hoover Dam. He had twice referred to an oddly angled, off-focus Chrysler Building as “the Empire State, the tallest building in America.” (Would Stanley’s own reflections of India prove as distorted? He hoped not.)