The band stops playing. Mahabat Khan steps forward. He is handsome and dashing, to the extent that his good looks make him seem frivolous. “Amirs! Captains of the Army of Hindustan!” he shouts. “His Highness! Ruler of Gujarat! And of Ajmer! Prince Salim!” Mughal custom allows a person of royal birth to have more than one name. Jahangir’s present name is Salim.
“SALAMAT!” shout the assembled captains.
Jahangir steps forward and regards the captains. “Comrades-in-arms,” he says casually. “Today is the day. The stars favour us.”
He pauses, looking at the sweating faces. “My father, the Emperor, spends his days in religious fantasies. He neglects the work of the Empire. He calls himself Allah. My fellow soldiers, there is no Allah, but Allah! No Shiva, but Shiva! No Vishnu, but Vishnu! No Brahma, but Brahma! Some say my father is losing his mind. I say he is getting old.
“It is time for us to free ourselves from the shackles of the past and march into the future. New conquests await us. Bountiful lands! Gold! Silver! Pearls! Riches such as you have never seen! They all await us.
“Today, I proclaim a new Hindustan! One free of my father’s illusions and his strange fancies! One that will spread its golden magic and its riches over all lands! Praise be to Hindustan! Empire of the Sun! Empire of Allah!” Jahangir pauses.
Mahabat Khan steps forward again. “Soldiers in arms!” He points to Jahangir. “I proclaim! Before you! Our new Emperor! Emperor Salim! Sultan Salim zindabad!”
There is no reply. A confused murmur sweeps through the assembled men.
Mahabat Khan repeats assertively, “Sultan Salim zindabad!”
“Zindabad,” the captains repeat softly, hesitantly.
“SULTAN SALIM ZINDABAD!” Mahabat Khan shouts in a strong, rousing voice, raising the call to rebellion.
“Zindabad!” the captains repeat, louder, but still reluctant.
The high-ranking commanders on the stage simultaneously draw their swords and raise them above Jahangir’s head, as if anointing him.
“SULTAN SALIM ZINDABAD!” Mahabat Khan shouts forcefully to the hesitant captains.
“ZINDABAD!” the captains repeat loudly, obediently.
“SULTAN SALIM ZINDABAD!”
“Troopers!” Mahabat Khan shouts. “We march to Agra! We capture the Treasury!” In his commander’s voice he shouts, “All! De-camp! Forward! To Agra!”
The eight drums beat in time. The assembled captains disperse rapidly, suddenly burdened with the task of de-camping.
With the practice and speed of a lifetime on the move, the army prepares to march. Entire blocks of tents seem to collapse all at once. Elephants are lined up, their harnesses tightened, their passengers ready. Troops of cavalry arrange themselves in marching order. The cannon crews place rope harnesses on the bulls that will pull the bronze cannon. Trains of bullock carts are loaded with supplies. The train of supply carts, several miles long, containing gigantic bins of animal feed, food, weapons, ammunition, repair-kits, even cisterns full of water, are readied for travel. Flocks of birds feast on the scraps and rise skywards with a great fluttering of wings.
In short order, the army starts marching. The troops in the front start moving, expanding forward into a broad phalanx, half a mile across. It is six hours before the rear, consisting of long columns of bullock carts, trains of burdened donkeys and herds of goats, is also moving.
They move through fields and farms. The drums beat loudly, rhythmically, setting the pace. They march from early dawn, through the day, and late into the evening until it is too dark to see. As night falls, they camp temporarily in line, ready to march again in a few hours.
Only Jahangir’s tent has been fully pitched. It glows like a large Chinese lantern in the dark. Inside, Jahangir and Mahabat Khan are poring over a map. Jahangir is in a hurry to get to Agra. “We can go through Chattarpur,” Mahabat Khan points on the map. “But the country is very rough—”
They are interrupted. A captain and a guard enter with a prisoner, Balaji. “Your Highness! The prisoner,” the captain announces.
“Ah yes!” Jahangir stands up. “I was looking forward to seeing you. You have displeased us.”
The prisoner is quaking with fear. “Your Highness, forgive me!” He prostrates himself at Jahangir’s feet. “Please forgive me! I will repay! I will repay!”
“You can get up,” Jahangir says. Balaji gets up apprehensively. “I suppose we could fine you and make some money — what is your name?”
“Balaji. This is not the time for some silly rumour to be going through my army about the master of supplies putting away a little on the side. You understand me, do you not?”
“M-mercy, your Highness!” Balaji blubbers. “Mercy!”
Jahangir turns to the captain. “Tie him to the leg of an elephant and have him walk behind.” He sits down and picks up the map.
“Your Highness!” Balaji protests in terror.
“The short route,” Jahangir says to Mahabat Khan.
“Your Highness!” Balaji begs. “You are condemning me to my death!”
Jahangir looks up, annoyed at being interrupted. The captain and the guard grab Balaji. They hold his arms in a ruthless lock and start dragging him out of the tent. Balaji struggles trying to use his legs to stay inside the tent. “You are condemning me to my death!” he cries. The Captain and the guard pull him roughly away. Balaji’s shouts turn into screams. “You are condemning me to my death! You are CONDEMNING ME TO MY DEATH!” His screams fade as he is dragged swiftly, to his extinction.
There is silence inside the tent.
“Chattarpur,” Jahangir reminds Mahabat Khan.
Mahabat Khan is looking at Jahangir. “There was no need for that,” he says.
Jahangir returns Mahabat Khan’s gaze with one of his own. “It is not you who is going to be king.”
Early the next morning, the march resumes. By nine o’clock, the sun is already very hot. Balaji is being dragged behind an elephant with a long rope attached to its harness. Practical by training, the Captain has re-interpreted Jahangir’s order to mean the elephant’s harness, as opposed to its leg. Balaji’s head and shoulders stir up the dusty earth as he is dragged. To all appearances, he is already dead.
By afternoon, the army has to negotiate a rocky ravine. This is one of the hazards of taking the short route through Chattarpur. The ravine is long and narrow. Its bottom is strewn with small boulders. The massive phalanx of Jahangir’s Army narrows and elongates. Elephants, horses descend slowly, picking their way cautiously among the boulders.
A bullock cart is stuck, its wheel broken, jammed inside a crevice between rocks. There is nothing to be done but to push it out. Ten soldiers get off their horses to help. But the cart does not move. A soldier runs to get an elephant.
By evening, the army is still crawling slowly along the ravine. The drums mark the pace, pushing the marchers along.
The huge sun sets behind a ridge bordering one side of the ravine. At the centre of the sun on the ridge, sword drawn, is the silhouette of a lone horseman.
It seems that within the blink of an eye, the single horseman has become six men. Each of the six is armed with a long matchlock. The marchers below take a second unbelieving look at the silhouette of the ridge against the setting sun. Now it seems the entire ridge is covered by a line of horsemen. The line has gaps. At the centre of each gap is the ugly shape of a cannon, its barrel pointed directly at them.
The drums fade. Jahangir and his commanders look around in consternation. The opposite ridge, the one with the sun fully lighting its face, is empty. Nobody there. They look ahead. Their path is blocked by a line of infantry with long lances bristling through the scrub. Mahabat Khan wheels his horse around and draws his sword. Jahangir grabs his matchlock and stands up on his elephant.
Suddenly, they hear distant music. An elephant is walking across the valley floor, coming straight towards Jahangir’s troops at a leisurely pace. It carries an enclosed red howdah on top. Surrounding it, is a small troop of cavalry, arrows drawn, matchlocks pointed. Something about this new army makes Jahangir’s look amateurish.
The elephant stops. The music stops. There is silence across the valley floor, as if the events unfolding are too important to disturb. Attendants run up to the elephant carrying a set of steps. Akbar descends slowly from the red. He is burdened with a gastrointestinal problem and is in evident pain. He has difficulty walking. He starts the long walk towards Jahangir, alone and unarmed.
Slowly Jahangir lowers his musket. He slides off the elephant and walks towards Akbar.
Akbar has a genial smile. He extends his arms wide.
Warily, Jahangir approaches. Father and son hug.
“I have something to show you,” Akbar says. He fishes in his pockets and takes out an English chronometer. It is large and round with a polished wood casing. Inside, it is all metal and glass. It ticks crisply.
Jahangir looks at the strange object.
“The firangis use it to guide their ships across the ocean. Ingenious! But I have thought of another use for it. You see, it tells you the time. It tells you English time. Now who but a madman would want that?! But I have changed the setting on it, so that it tells you our time.
“Now when you send your scouts over the hill, you look at the time. And then — you check this — if two hours later, they have not returned, you group your army, surround it with cannon, and prepare very seriously for an attack... from the direction in which your scouts have disappeared...” Akbar has a way of making words trail away into the air, , and then sink slowly. “Don’t worry,” he reassures Jahangir. “We did not kill them. Man Singh is too kind.”
He grabs Jahangir’s sleeve. “Sit down.”
Jahangir does not understand. Inside, the emptiness he dreads is returning.
“Here, on the ground! Sit, sit!” Akbar moves to sit on the ground with some difficulty. He is seated at last. They sit cross-legged on the ground across from each other.
“It is a beautiful evening, is it not?” Akbar says. A small flock of egrets choose this moment to fly over the ravine. White, and dainty, they look incongruous as they flap their wings over the bristling lancers, archers, and cannon. “I believe that is a family of cranes going home to supper.”
Akbar picks up a twig and starts drawing a map of the valley in the mud. “Your first mistake was to announce to your troops that you were going to be Emperor when they, poor fellows, were feeling very tired. Never tell tired men something new. They cannot absorb it. They get irritable.
“Your second mistake was to bring your troops through this particular valley. Now granted, you were in a hurry. After making your rash announcement that you were going to be Emperor, you had to move quickly. But to come through at sunset! Without first securing that hill over there? Oaf! Oaf! How many men do you have?”
“Thirty thousand,” Jahangir says out of the emptiness of his soul.
“Thirty thousand! Take away ten thousand for the help and the harem. Another five thousand for your generals’ lies, and you have fifteen thousand actual fighting men. Do you know how many men I brought?
“I brought just five thousand men. Now you—” Akbar draws with the twig. “What do you have to the rear of your army? Cooks? Women? How many men do I need to stop your cooks?”
Jahangir is at a loss.
“I put just three hundred infantry, add a few cannon, to your back. Now from the western slope with the sun in your eyes—” Akbar draws again. “I launch my main attack. How many men do I place on the other slope? None! It is a steep slope, and you cannot escape by running up a slope. So where will your men run, while being rained upon by my arrows and cannon?”
“To the front,” Jahangir says to please his father.
“To the front. So that is where I put my lancers. Two thousand of them. As you run forward into my prickly lancers, my cavalry charges down the hill with such force, they cut you in—” Akbar draws with the twig, “—half!”
Jahangir is silent. He stares at the drawing.
“Help me get up,” Akbar says. Jahangir gives him a hand. They walk towards Akbar’s elephant. Helpers start to approach, but Akbar motions them away.
“Ugh! Don’t get old,” Akbar says, struggling to walk.
“Those birds. They were not cranes. They were egrets. From the Sariska forest.”
Akbar does not reply.
Jahangir presses his point. “You were wrong.”
“I have been wrong about many things,” Akbar replies mildly. “As part of your punishment, I am relieving you of the Governorship of Surat.”
“Surat!” Jahangir says in alarm. “You cannot do that! Surat is mine!”
Akbar slaps Jahangir with such power that Jahangir staggers back. “Yours, is it? What else is yours?” He slaps Jahangir again. Jahangir falls to his knees. Akbar grabs his hair and picks him up. “Is all of Hindustan yours also?”
Jahangir scrambles, looking like a little boy being punished.
“I heard you just announced that.” SLAP! “Harami! PIG! Call yourself fit to be king! Do you know what that means! Do you have the SLIGHTEST IDEA WHAT THAT MEANS?” He lets go of Jahangir.
Jahangir stares at the ground on all fours, not daring to get up. If he gets up, he thinks, he will have to face his father.
“I could have you executed for treason!” He kicks him ineffectively. “You shame me! You shame me in front of my soldiers! In front of my family!! Guard!” he shouts, “put this wretch on a horse and bring him to court!”
Akbar strides off.
Jahangir remains where he is. The men move deferentially to arrest him.
It is a high-class public house, one where a noble, a soldier-of-fortune, or a well-heeled trader may slip away and enjoy a few hours of anonymous bliss. It is on a street, which is part of the bazaar. Throngs ofpeople walk past the entrance. At this late hour of the evening there are stalls doing a brisk business, selling fortunes, weapons, jewellery, fruits. The oil-lamps lighting the shops glow like large fireflies in the dark.
There is a hint of excitement in the evening, as the patrons climb the steps into the Public House. Inside, the cavernous room has a large open space in the centre. The customers settle into the cushions propped up against the walls. They let out extravagant puffs of smoke from hookahs, and are served wine by prostitutes dressed in brightly-coloured ghagra-cholis.
Two musicians sit to one side of the room, playing the tabla and sarodh, filling the air with a slow anticipatory beat.
A compère walks to the centre of the room. He is a young man with a slight beard that has refused to grow. He is dressed in white and wears a white girdle, so that he might stand out. He raises his arms for attention. “Nobles! Lords! Esteemed guests! Pandit Chandra on the tabla! Ustad Dalayat on the sarodh!”
There is absent-minded applause. The din of conversation in the room continues. The open space remains empty. The music continues.
Four dancers enter the room. They walk to the centre of the floor and take their positions. Their sexuality lights up the room. Their waists are exposed, their cholis light, translucent. There are no smiles. They are scowling from the hostility and the competition. Paru has a knot in her stomach. She can sense Pithu just two steps from her. She looks so perfect with her makeup; her classically chiselled features, her perfect dancer’s stance. How can Paru possibly match up to her? The audience is hooting in anticipation.
The music quickens. The girls wait. They stand still for so many beats that the audience gets impatient and claps and hoots.
Then suddenly, the girls join the tabla’s beat. The four sets of feet move in perfect unison. The anklets add a loud chhum, chhum, chhum, to the music. The excitement is gut-level. The tabla starts to colour its beat with virtuoso variations. The girls do likewise with their feet. The dance is a free-form variation of kathak. Towards the end, the beat quickens even more. The girls spin rapidly across the floor, their feet and anklets moving in rapid question-answer, their hands and upper-body movements in surprising symmetries.
The dance climaxes. They spin eight times in the interstices of a single beat, again, and again, and again, and again. They come to a stomping halt, each back in her original spot, breasts heaving from the exertion.
The compère steps forward, raising his arms once again. “And now for the competition! The winner gets everything.”
The girls stand still in their spots. The compère and an assistant use chalks to draw a circle around each girl.
The tabla starts a new taal. The girls start dancing. But as the taal progresses, each colours her classical moves with an indefinable seductiveness. The moves seem deceptively like the old moves, only now the audience can think of nothing other than their arousing bodies.
The coins start landing in each girl’s circle, in ones and twos at first. The girls step up their seduction. The coins start to accelerate. Pithu opens her mouth and touches her tongue to her lip. Her hips undulate with a fluidity that seems impossible for a human. Paru sways her hips, but cannot reach the total sexual abandon that Pithu achieves. The other girls are just as strong. It is hard for the gratified audience to decide who is better.
Occasionally a coin hits a girl’s body. This is a source of much glee. The girl uses this distraction to engage the thrower in a look.
Paru does not get a single coin. She makes a supreme effort. She moves her breasts in rhythm with her waist, makes a connection from her breasts to the hungry men a few feet away.
A single coin lands in her circle. She steps up the seduction. She gets an idea. With her red-painted lips she makes a circle, as if she is kissing the boy in the white dhoti, with whom she first made love.. She moves her body rhythmically back and forth, closing her eyes imagining the boy’s body close to hers, his breath on her cheeks, swaying her hips, moving her legs still to the choreography of the dance moves.
There are hoots and claps. A rain of coins pelts down into her circle. Coins hit her waist and breasts. She is surprised at how much the heavy coins hurt.
Suddenly, Pithu leaves her circle and punches Paru very hard in the stomach. The air leaves Paru’s lungs. She doubles over. The crowd roars its approval.
Pithu is back in her circle, a look of ruthlessness and triumph on her face as she sways her hips to her hungry admirers.
Paru stares at the floor for a few seconds. She feels sick. The compère stands between them, ensuring no counter-attack. Slowly, Paru straightens herself. She resumes dancing, tentatively at first, more seductively as she regains her strength. Gasping, she makes an enticing face, hoping the patrons find it attractive.
She is moving her feet in sync with the choreography, her anklets going chhum, chhum, chhum. She feels the sweat on her brow. She gasps, struggling a little desperately for each breath. She is behind in her collection of coins. But they start pouring in again, perhaps out of sympathy. She sways her hips feeling bolder. She gets another idea.
Slowly she reaches behind her back and starts undoing the ties of her choli.
The other girls look uneasy. The compère lets her continue, then has second thoughts. He walks to the side to confer with some patrons about the rules.
Paru has loosened all the ties of her choli. She sees the audience’s rapt attention and feels emboldened, triumphant.
She raises her arms. She stamps her feet with force. The choli slips slowly, and deliberately, off her body. The patrons roar their approval. Her small, succulent breasts are on perfect display, sending a thrill through the bright lights. Still she dances, classical and correct. She does not smile, focusing instead on a pure sexual connection with her audience.
A shower of coins lands in her circle, hitting her body, breasts, legs. She braces for the pain, knowing it is good.
The music stops. The girls stand still, struggling for breath. The compère and his assistant start counting the coins in each circle. Paru picks up her choli, puts it on again.
The compère has finished the count for the third girl. “Two rupiya twelve anas!” he announces. The crowd applauds.
The assistant stands up with the count for the fourth girl. “Two rupiya two anas!” The fourth girl’s face falls. The crowd makes a series of sighing sympathetic noises in her support. A drunk noble stands up, shouts something, and laughs loudly.
The compère has completed Paru’s count. “Three rupiya, six anas!” There is a loud cheer. Paru’s face lights up. She ventures a smile and raises her hands.
The compère’s assistant has finished the count for Pithu. “Three rupiya eight anas!!” There is a house-splitting roar from the patrons. Paru is crushed.
The compère holds up Pithu’s hand and displays her triumphantly to the audience. “And the winner is Devi Prithvirani!” he shouts. Pithu looks as if it is raining happiness. The disappointed girls have to rake up the coins in their circle and move them to Pithu’s circle. Pithu sits on the floor and fills a large leather bag with the coins.
The compère raises his hands again. “It is time to show your love for the beautiful ladies.” The fourth girl steps forward. “What do you say to the beautiful — Seva!” The girl sways her hips and teases the audience.
“Eight anas!” shouts a patron with a white beard.
“Eight anas. Do I hear more?”
“Ten anas!” shouts the drunk noble who had laughed loudly.
“Ten anas. The beautiful Seva going for ten anas—”
“One rupiya,” shouts an earnest-looking captain, still wearing his turban and soldier’s uniform.
“One rupiya. Going for one rupiya, do I hear more — going for one rupiya.” The compère claps his hands conclusively. “Sold! For one rupiya!” The captain takes the fourth girl’s hand and leads her away.
Paru is up next. She steps up expectantly to the compère . She pouts. The patrons laugh and clap for her.
It is late. Paru and Pithu are walking home, each to the temporary quarters she has found after graduating from the dance class. The moon is three-quarters full, dominant and bright in a cloudless sky.
Paru is in a great mood. “He was fat!” she says. “Almost crushed me! I said I would only do it if I could sit on top of him.”
“Did he let you?” Pithu, by contrast, is quiet.
“Yes. He was so drunk. I just pushed him, and he rolled right over!” Paru giggles, recalling. “Halfway, he got tired. But I kept going and going! He had to beg me to stop! How was yours?”
“He smelt of garlic. I could not stand it after the first five minutes.” Pithu looks away. Paru does not notice. She smiles to herself thinking of her overwhelmed lover.
“That was a mean trick you played,” she says remembering another part of the evening.
The statement cheers Pithu. “Yes,” she smiles. “It was a mean trick.”
“Another night, another fight,” Paru challenges.
Pithu’s smile widens. “We’ll see.”
They part at a crossing of two alleys. It says much for the governance of the city that an oil-lamp still burns at this late hour, casting its light across the crossing. Paru walks alone through an alley with high-walled houses. A few shrubs and creepers grow out of the dirt in the walls.
There is the sound of footfalls behind her. She assumes it is a passerby. A man seems to be following her. He is huge and fat.
Paru increases her pace. The man continues to follow, not bothering to hide his intentions.
Paru walks faster.
The man closes in, walking barely four feet behind her.
“Paru,” the man calls out softly, like a suitor. “Parvati Devi.”
“Go away,” she says.
Paru walks as fast as she can. She is alarmed now. She is almost running. The man keeps up. She turns a corner, then a second corner. She seems to have lost him. She slows down.
She finds herself in a narrow lane with ten-foot high walls on either side. There is only a small square opening at the end of the lane, where it intersects another alley. The air in the opening is blue and misty. She feels a cold stab of terror. She sees his large form silhouetted against the blue air.
“Paru Devi,” the man draws a sword.
She regards him, her eyes wide open. “You’re not getting my money,” she says.
“I do not want your money.”
She looks incredulously at him as he leaps at her swinging the sword. Instinct makes her fall backward. The wind from the blade tickles her neck. She falls down and hits her head on the ground. She is looking straight up at him. She sees him readying for another swing. She screams, rolling in panic. The scything sword kicks up mud next to her face. He is almost trampling her, thrown off balance by the swing.
She rolls in the opposite direction from the one he expects. She is up. She is face to face with the mud wall bordering the lane. She runs, sliding painfully along the wall, away from him. The sword hits the wall, making a deep gouge next to where her shoulder would have been.
She turns and tries to run, but trips over a branch, and falls into a shrub. The fall saves her from his next swing. He cannot see her inside the shrub and he swings blindly, lopping off a thick branch. She forces her way forward. The branches scratch her viciously. She is up and away, in wild panic, only a few feet ahead of him.
She is running back in the direction she came from. He lumbers behind her. She runs through an alley with closed shops and push-carts. She jumps over a push-cart hurting her shin painfully on the wood. He goes around the same cart and is on top of her. She dives forward hitting the ground and rolling. The sword rips through her odhni.
She is up again, just three feet in front of him. She runs straight ahead, and to her surprise, gains a little. She twists this way and that, through streets and alleys. He follows doggedly, ready to kill her the moment she stops.
She is nearing the bank of the river. A thought crosses her mind and she dives into the thick brambles at the river’s edge. He immediately closes in, but she is far enough by the time he reaches the bushes’ edge. The sword scythes through the bushes, barely missing, again. They struggle wildly through the shrubbery. Her clothes are in shreds, her odhni is gone. Her body is scratched all over, but she feels nothing in her desperation.
But, the bushes form less of a barrier to her thin body than to his larger frame. She bursts out of the brambles into the open swamp next to the water. Her feet sink into the mud. She increases her pace, running flat out over the muddy, shallow water. He runs behind her. But he cannot keep up while running straight. The gap between them increases.
The moonlight forms a long shimmering pattern over the water. He watches futilely as her slight, splashing form recedes in front of him. He comes to an aching, winded stop.
His size seems to have got the better of him. He pauses, trying to recover his breath, which comes in huge wheezing gasps. It is a few minutes before he is able to stand straight and breath with some semblance of normality.
The water fans out on either side of her feet, giving her the appearance of a blue bird skimming the surface. Her tiny form is quite some distance away now, disappearing into the rippling cadences of river and moon.
He looks after her, breathing heavily. “Don’t worry,” he says aloud. “I will get you. Where will you run?”