The Third Prince

 

1

Agra 1603

      The wooden wheels of the bullock cart turn as it clatters along the road. The iron rims of the huge wheels bump over the irregularities in the path. It is a bruising ride. The bull, a dirty white beast with huge horns, is comfortable, settled in its pace, which it has kept up all night. The driver holds a little stick with which he incongruously controls the huge animal. He has difficulty staying awake.

       The cart is silhouetted against the dawn sky. It is a big north Indian sky, loud and splashy like the people themselves. Extravagant swaths of pink and orange streak halfway across the sky to mingle in passionate swirls above the rising sun.

       Inside the covered cart are two passengers. Parvati Devi, called Paru by all who know her, is already too old to begin her career. She is fifteen. Her head is covered with her odhni, which is a  combined veil and a shawl. She is asleep. The other occupant is a turbaned uncle. They are already bone-tired. It is hot.

       The cart is caught up in the morning rush to get goods to the bazaar. In front of them is a milk-cart drawn by two bulls, the milk frothing in the narrow necks of the earthenware pots. A heavily-laden camel plods along, looking sour and resigned as camels do. A noble lady, with two guards, rides by in the opposite direction. She is covered from head to foot in an orange burkha. She looks out at the world through a small rectangle of gold netting. The guards are dressed as warriors, sporting turbans, long colourfully patterned skirts, and well-used swords that hang casually from their waists. The riders vie with innumerable peasants making their way to the market on foot — men and women carrying baskets on their heads, piled improbably high with coriander, mint, chillies, and lemons.

       The bullock cart enters the city of Agra through enormous gates. Mughal sentries in resplendent uniforms stand on each side, although their presence is largely symbolic. The days when the city could be realistically protected by walls surrounding it have long gone. The economic boom of the last forty years has caused an explosion in size and sprawl that has outstripped the capabilities of any defensive wall.

       The cart struggles through the crowded Agra bazaar. The Uncle stirs from his sleep and peeps out from under the covers. The cart is following a road that skirts the swampy bank of the Yamuna River. It zigzags through a maze of alleyways and finally comes to rest in a quiet side street of artisans’ shops and houses.

       It has stopped outside a dance class. The Uncle shakes Paru awake. She looks up groggily not knowing where she is. Still half-asleep, she automatically gathers her bundle of clothes and her copper lota and gets out of the cart. The Uncle ducks under the cart and unties a small bundle of coins. Then, he goes to the back of the cart and finds a rolled-up document.

       Hesitantly, they enter the dance class. They find themselves standing in a large shabby room with a threadbare carpet and cushions pushed against the walls. In typical Indian style there are no chairs. A fat woman, Amma, is sleeping in a corner of the room.

       “She is asleep,” the Uncle says to no one in particular, “we have to wait.” He and Paru squat on the floor, waiting for Amma to wake up. An hour goes by. They wait patiently, in the manner of village people who can sit in one place for many hours.

       Amma stirs. She opens her eyes. Noticing the visitors, she struggles to sit up, and regards them balefully. Uncle and Paru spring to their feet.

       “What do you want?” Amma demands.

       “I brought this girl,” Uncle says. “There is a document.” He holds it out.

       Amma formally unrolls the document. She stares at it for some time. She turns it upside down to see if it makes more sense that way. She throws it aside irritably.

       “What does it say?”

       “It says...” he starts, “it says, that she is related! Related to the most illustrious and noble Lady Nasreen! Fourth wife of the most illustrious and magnificent noble, Jaswant Shah. Now Jaswant Shah...” Uncle closes his eyes, the better to remember, “...is the second cousin of the most royal Princess Waheeda. And Princess Waheeda...” His closed eyelids flicker with the effort, “...and then I forget. I am sorry...”

       “Do you have the money?” Amma demands.

       “Yes! Yes. I have the money.” Uncle hands over the bag of coins.

       Amma opens the bag and counts the coins. Then, making sure Uncle understands,  , “I will take twelve rupiya from you, for six months. We will teach her to dance and to sing. After that, she will work. For six months, a year, as long as it takes. She has to pay us hundred rupiya before she can leave.”

       Uncle nods. Amma looks at the girl. “What is your name?”

       Paru looks down, unable to speak. “Parvati!” Uncle says, glad he knows the answer to this one. “She is, Her Nobility, the most Illustrious Lady, Parvati Devi!”

       “I need to see her face,” Amma says.

       The odhni falls off Paru’s head.

       Amma looks at Paru for a moment. “And your body.”

       Paru does not understand.

       “Here,” Amma says gently, removing Paru’s odhni entirely. She exposes a three-day-old unwashed choli, the short blouse that all peasant girls wear.  There is a line of salted sweat under each armpit. Paru’s waist is slim and perfect.

       Amma pushes up Paru’s chin, so that  she is looking directly at her. “I always ask my girls this — would you really like to dance and sing?”

       Paru manages a nod.

       Amma professionally checks the swell and feel of Paru’s breasts. Paru’s eyes are beginning to fill with tears.

       “Open your mouth. I want to see your teeth.” She looks suspiciously at the Uncle. “Any scars on her body? Deformities?”

       “Oh no! Nothing like that,” he replies.

       “She does speak, doesn’t she?”

       “Oh yes! A lot! On and on!”

       “I need to—” She looks behind her. “Pithu!” From a room off the main hall comes the sound of a dancer’s anklets. “Pithu!” Amma calls again. Pithu emerges wearing only a choli and a ghagra, a colourful dancer’s skirt. She moves sexily without thinking.

       Amma goes to a wooden chest in a corner of the room and rummages inside. She finds a cloth. “Hold this,” she says handing one corner to Uncle. She hands the other corner to Pithu. Pithu looks bored.

       Amma takes Paru’s hand. “I need you to come behind the curtain and take your skirt off.”

       They spend a long time behind the curtain. Uncle stares off into the distance, a frozen look on his face. Pithu stands, looking resigned.

       They emerge from behind the cloth. Paru is flushed. She struggles to put her skirt on and regain some dignity.

       “She will do,” Amma says. “I need a guarantee.”

       “Guarantee?” Uncle says blankly.

       “After six months, she will have to work and pay us hundred rupiya. If she decides to run away, or grow lazy... I need a guarantee.”

       “Guarantee?”

       “Do you have anything of value? Money?”

       “No, I have nothing more of value!” he protests. “I already gave you the twelve rupiya!”

       “Then I cannot take her,” Amma replies.

       Uncle is devastated. Amma looks no deal. She folds the cloth and returns it to the chest. .

       There is a  movement. Paru is fishing inside her skirt. She gets something out —a jewel.

       Uncle’s eyes widen. “Child!” he exclaims, “Where did you steal that from?” He tries to grab it from her.

       “It’s mine!” Paru says fiercely, holding it tight in her fist. Her fist clenched tightly around the jewel, she hands it past Uncle to Amma.

       Amma takes one look at the jewel and her face slackens. It is not a jewel that one would expect little Paru to own. It is a gigantic ruby surrounded by medium-sized diamonds, laid in intricately patterned gold. In the gold framing at the bottom is an inscription in Persian.

       “This is your guarantee?” Amma says, regarding the jewel in shock.

       “Yes. Until I can give you hundred rupiya,” Paru answers.

       “I will keep it... till then,” Amma says, suddenly short of breath. “Pithu. Will you show her to her quarters?”

       “Where?” Pithu demands.

       “Next to Khursheed and Sima.”

       “There is no place—”

       “You can make place. Move them over.”

       Pithu scowls at Paru. “Follow me,” she says walking out without looking back. Paru picks up her things hastily and follows her.

       Amma looks at the Uncle. “Is there anything else?”

       “No,” he says. He bows ceremoniously and retreats, walking backwards out of the dance class.

       Amma takes another look at the jewel in her hand.

       Since the rented bullock cart has served its purpose, Uncle lets it go. He walks the forty miles home, taking the high road out of town, his belongings slung over his shoulder.

       Paru gets a tiny corner in the girls’ dorm. There are about twenty girls spread out across the floor of the room on straw mattresses. The senior girls get spots next to walls. Some even have shelves built into the stone wall next to their mattresses. Paru tries to fold her clothes. She is not very good at it. The scroll is an odd thing for her to store with her clothes. Sometimes it lies on the mattress next to her at night.

       The teacher of the dance class is an old man with white hair and a flowing white moustache. Everyone calls him Guruji. While he teaches, he sits on the floor with a small pair of tablas, with which he can play an amazing variety of beats. The twenty girls stand in front of him, each dancing in her spot. They do this from morning till noon. At noon they break for a small lunch, when they can thankfully bend their legs and sit. Then they continue, through the hot afternoon until evening, when the sky begins to darken outside.

Some of the girls are good, and others are bad. And Guruji knows exactly how to push each of them to the next level. He is a like a God with eyes on everything. He can spot  even the ninth girl in the last row who does a gesture incorrectly.. He asks the senior girls to help sometimes, showing them the movement of an arm, a leg, or a facial expression.. Sometimes, Guruji gets up and shows them a move himself, but only to the very advanced girls, and then with a special tenderness in his voice as if they are now his jewels.

       They stand in front of him and dance and dance. As the hot, tiring afternoons drag on, their bodies sweat and smell. At the end of the day, Paru’s feet are like stones. She lies on the mattress at night thinking she will never move. When the girls are lazy or inattentive or rebellious they are sent to Amma. Amma uses a riding crop, and you can hear the screams from the next room. Everyone prefers the kindness of Guruji to the meanness of Amma, so this does not happen too often. But when it does happen, it is like a death. The day is engulfed in gloom and no one says very much.

       Paru struggles in her spot, hoping Guruji does not see her. The other girls learn so much faster. She is like the village idiot, standing in her corner doing foolish things. She is so bad that Guruji should have sent her to Amma several times, but he pretends not to notice her mistakes. The other girls seem to be punished for much less. Then something happens, and she doesn’t know why, but she can dance as well as the other girls.

       Guruji teaches them to seduce men. He tells them what men think when they look at girls. And he teaches them how to move their bodies to make them think those things. How to see themselves from the outside as if they are the men looking at them, and how a skilled courtesan can achieve a ‘lock’, the perfect unity between the man’s gaze and her body. Her movements, her self, and the man’s gaze are united in a single effusion of joy.

       And it is in the course of these lessons that Paru experiences the act itself. The class is filled suddenly with young boys, high-caste boys wearing white dhotis. Paru is paired with a boy with dark, smoky eyes. He seems very serious. His movements are deliberate, well-considered. Guruji makes them sit opposite each other in the lotus position and asks them to be still. They remain still with their eyes closed for a long time, longer than Paru has ever been still. Then Guruji instructs each girl to be as the water in a great river to flow wherever her mind would flow and her body would flow. The boy, Guruji says, is as the branch in the river, hard, and guiding the flow of the current. But it is the woman who is the river.

       The boys seem to know what to do. Paru finds herself close to him, his breath on her face. She is surprised, hesitates. Then she reminds herself to be as the river. He is gentle. She looks at the ceiling. She seems to hear the wind sigh over the sand on the bank of the river. She loves, she melts. It is a long time before it ends.

       She lies next to the boy. She is tired, triumphant. She looks into his dark, beautiful eyes. “It will not always be like this,” he says. “Sometimes it will be very harsh. And you will feel unpleasant. When that happens, you should remember how it can be. It is but an art, the greatest art. It can be whatever the artist brings to it. That is what Guruji wishes me to tell you.” With that he gets up and starts wearing his dhoti. Paru curls up on the mattress trying to hide her hurt. She looks up again and he is gone.

       Paru stands on the veranda of the dance class in the evening gloom, thinking of her home. Sometimes, as now, she misses it. The girls are inside, gossiping about Guruji, speculating why he does not have his students like the other teachers do. A girl says it is because he is great man and does not want his desires to come in the way of his art. Pithu says it is because he is too old.

       Paru stares at the trader’s shop across the street and pretends it is not there. Instead she imagines the rice fields and the mud huts and the cows and the dung fires in the evening. She stares, and stares, and stares at the trader’s shop, and thinks of her cousins, who are not really her cousins, and her aunts and Uncles, who are not really her aunts and Uncles. She thinks of the big village across the bajra field, where she and her cousins dared not go and the well they could not drink water from, even when there was a drought and there was none in their own little patch of land. She is free here. Of that she is grateful. There are no castes in the City. None that matter.

       And then she thinks of that of which she dare not think, because it is too painful. And yet it is uppermost in her mind, like vomit that has not come out. She thinks of that, and the tears come rolling down.

 

 

       Amma hurries through the bazaar. The jewel is in a little leather pouch that she carries firmly under her arm. She cannot believe it, she just cannot believe it. It must be a fake. She knew that girl was no good. But it does not look fake. Everything she knows about jewellery... it just seems so real. And so beautiful! Each time she looks at it, it takes her breath away. Each time it looks better than before.

       She is at the jeweller’s, the most expensive and reliable one in the bazaar. She hands the jewel to the man. He is a seasoned old coot. He takes it to the back of the shop and examines it for a long time. Amma’s attention wanders to the other jewels on display. Some lovely gold earrings she would like to have. But they do not compare. Nothing does.

       The jeweller comes back. She knows from his suppressed excitement what the answer is going to be. He tells Amma that the jewel is the real thing, owned at one time by the Emperor Akbar and perhaps gifted to a nobleman. Amma is stunned. Her hand shakes as she takes it from him and puts it carefully back in its leather pouch.

       A camel walks slowly by, picking its way expertly over baskets of goods for sale. A boy runs through the bazaar carrying a message.

 

 

 

 

2

 

Bengal 1601

       The mansion nestles by itself in the woods. A long, muddy road leads up to it through the jungle. When it was built, it was grand, but now it looks neglected and overgrown. Carriages and horses are parked in the driveway. It is dusk. A tide of sound, of crickets and frogs, rises from the jungle and flows over the house.

       Inside, a room is brightly lit. By Mughal standards it is modest, but has been artfully decorated. Sher Afghan is entertaining three friends. He is a large bearded man, a soldier and an officer. He has the privilege of being an amir — a nobleman — of the Empire.

       The room is littered with hookahs and booze. Servants flutter about. The  hookahs create a cloud of smoke that remains suspended in the middle of the room. Sher Afghan’s friends are successful landowners and traders. They are better off and more self-assured than he is. The men pore over a board game of pachisi.

       A friend called Munirji rolls a set of shells that, depending on how they land, yield a number. Munirji moves his pieces on the board. “I am afraid, my friends, I will have to charge each of you a jizya of two rupiya,” he says with satisfaction. He is the type of person every group of friends should have — large and reassuring, capable of shepherding them through the awkward silences.

       Coins are handed over. Sher Afghan has the smallest pile of coins in front of him.

       “...The commission is six hundred,” says Imran Das, a man who is always cautious and correct. He is telling them about some property that has recently been granted to him. “But the land is so far north, I have to send a troop of twenty men just to collect it. It costs me a hundred rupiya just for the collection party.”

       “Is it worth it?” asks Munirji.

       “Oh yes! Very worth it. The people are junglees, but they work hard.”

       Imran Das throws the shells. The conversation pauses as they watch his turn.

       “But I have to say it is all too tiresome at times,” says Abhijit, a friend who has a sleepy, dishevelled look about him. “The first tax officer, the second tax officer... is there no better way?”

       “You could acquire a sailing vessel,” says Munirji. “If there is a way to become fabulously wealthy, it is to own a ship.”

       “That would be nice,” Abhijit says dreamily. “How do you acquire a sailing vessel?”

       “Your turn,” Imran Das reminds him.

       Abhijit throws the shells onto the carpet. The friends watch.

       “I had invited a troupe of local dance girls tonight,” Sher Afghan says abruptly in an overly-loud voice. “But, sadly, the entertainment is not to be. They were at the house of the Governor yesterday, and it is a day’s journey. And they could not make it here.”

       “We should hardly worry!” Munirji reassures him. “Our own Sheikh Abhi’s verse here,” slapping Abhijit on the back, “can put a trellis on the night as artful as the finest dancer.”

       “You are too kind,” Abhijit murmurs, fiddling with one of the pieces.

       There is a pause. The friends watch as Sher Afghan rolls the shells and moves his pieces.

       “What about you, Sher Afghan,” Munirji asks. “You seem quiet today.”

       “Quiet, am I?”

       “I heard you were involved in a little to-do recently. What was that all about?”

       “I killed a man.”

       There is a startled silence.

       Sher Afghan tries to look nonchalant. “It’s all right,” he says. He takes a long puff from his hookah. “There was an argument. An aggravating little official, with whom I have had some business in the past. He was promoted recently, and was transferred to the District. And his first act on coming here was to summon me.

       “When I went there, I found him waiting for me in front of a troop of twenty men. Friends, it did not look good. I thought I was done for! He walked towards me by himself. I saw my chance and attacked, knowing it would be hopeless otherwise. In an instant, his men were on me. I barely escaped with my life! But I am afraid I killed him.”

       The others look stunned. “Well, you are quite the kharus ustad!” Munirji says finally.

       “It was not my fault. I was being attacked.”

       “For your sake, I hope there are no consequences,” says Munirji.

       “All been dealt with,” says Sher Afghan taking a long puff from hishookah. He lets the smoke out. “I spoke with the Governor. In any case, I think the other officers in the area are thankful. This man was not liked. There will be one less squirrel taking his cut from the rest of us.”

       “Is this squirrel you speak of the officer Qutub Uddin?”

       “Yes.”

       “I would be careful,” Munirji advises. “He has many friends in the Province.”

       “It is of no consequence!” Sher Afghan says dismissively. “I do not mean to spoil this fine evening with my problems.” He looks around and signals to Ramji, a servant. “Dinner will be served shortly!” he announces.

       The game is concluded. The men pack up the board and the shells and move to seat themselves in the dining area. Imran Das discreetly reminds Sher Afghan that he owes him twelve hundred rupiya. “Of course!” Sher Afghan says in a loud voice. “How can I forget?”

       They are to dine at a low table placed over a strikingly red carpet with loud floral designs. The table sports place-settings with silver plates and little silver cups for each guest. The men seat themselves cross-legged around the table.

       Three people enter the room in single file, carrying trays of food and wine. The first is Sher Afghan’s head servant, Ramji.

       The second is a woman, Nur Jahan. She is dressed in a red and gold burkha. Her face is exposed although her head is covered. She has the kind of beauty that makes a man look twice and not think of much else thereafter. Not the least of it is that she carries her beauty as if she is unaware of it. Her gaze is direct, disconcerting. When she speaks it is as if she is ready to touch.

       She tries to meld in with the servants, but this is impossible. The men stare, distracted into silence. They watch as she puts down her tray, unloads two jugs of wine and pours them into glasses. A little unsteadily, she places a glass full of wine in front of each man.

       “Allahi Akbar!” says Sher Afghan.

       “Allahi Akbar,” repeat the friends.

       Sher Afghan motions to Munirji to start. The men serve themselves and start to eat. But, almost immediately, it is evident something is wrong. Imran Das takes a bite, suppresses a grimace, and washes the food down with a large gulp of wine. Munirji takes a bite of food and freezes in consternation.

       It is Sher Afghan’s turn. He puts the food into his mouth, then grimaces and sputters and coughs, spitting the food out across the carpet. “What in Allah’s name is this? Ramji! Ramji! What have you put in this food?”

       Ramji was trying to exit the room as quietly as possible, but now he freezes. He turns around slowly. “The lamb shahi —” he manages. “Begum Saheba... the lamb shahi —”

       “I made the lamb shahi myself,” Nur interjects.

       Sher Afghan is incredulous. “This is lamb shahi? Why... why did you prepare it yourself? Why didn’t you let Ramji make it, as always?”

       “Because you often say you want me to cook for you. I made it as they make it in Persia.”

       The men suppress smiles. “They don’t make food like this in the Persian court,” Munirji says gently.

       “They do, actually,” Nur replies. “It is very plain food compared to ours.”

 

Continue reading...

   

       “Yes!” Sher Afghan roars. “The Emperor Shah Abbas eats raw meat for dinner! Woman, what shaitan possessed you?!”

       “Do you not like it? I am sorry. I thought it would be a nice surprise.”

       “We are surprised,” Sher Afghan says. “We are all very surprised indeed! Now take this away!” He hurls the lid of the platter across the room. It hits the wall with a loud clang. Nur jumps. “And bring us some proper food!” Sher Afghan roars. Munirji puts a restraining hand on Sher Afghan’s shoulder.

       Nur looks flustered. “There’s... there’s nothing else, I’m afraid!”

       Sher Afghan closes his eyes to calm himself. “Go. Just go! I do not want to see your face in here! Ramji you too! All of you! Leave me alone with my friends!”

       “Huzoor,” says Ramji. “I could quickly cook—”

       “Leave! Leave! Leave! Leave!”

       Nur walks over to the fallen lid and picks it up. She does a salamat to the men and leaves. Her retreating figure looks small and sorry.

       There is a long silence.

       Sher Afghan starts laughing. There is a touch of hysteria in his voice. “When she cooks a piece of meat,” he sputters, “she succeeds in making it taste like a shoe! Friends, I think I have married a man from Persia! She has no womanly graces whatsoever. You know... you know we have not made love in two years!” Sher Afghan slaps his thigh as if the joke is too precious for words. “Whenever I am with her, she is always standing two yards away. When I hug her, it is like hugging a block of marble!”

       “Surely, she must have some accomplishments,” Abhijit says.

       “Accomplishments! Yes, yes! She does have accomplishments. She knows how to spend good money on these—” He picks up a clay statue of Shiva and hurls it across the room. The statue hits a wall and shatters. “Ungodly idols that she scatters about the house like rice in a field.”

       The Hindus among the friends pale at this affront, but they stay silent.

       “What else... what else!” Sher Afghan goes on. “She knows how to ride a horse. I will give her that. And she knows how to block access to her father. You must think, friends, that I am very lucky indeed, being married to the daughter of Itimad Ud Daulah! You must think I am in a position of high privilege being married to the daughter of the Prime Minister, must you not? Friends, look at me!” says Sher Afghan beating his chest excitedly. “Where am I?”

       The friends look at one another trying to hazard a guess.

       “I am in Bengal! The Toilet of the Universe!”

       Munirji tries to choose the words with which to protest, but Sher Afghan has moved on. “The Prime Minister’s own daughter and son-in-law have been relegated to Bengal!”

       “But surely—”

       “This is my reward for being married to her! But does she speak to her father about it? No! No! No! We cannot do that! The Prime Minister has to dispense justice. With objectivity! He has a position to maintain. His mind cannot be disturbed by thought of kin, not even his own daughter and son-in-law.

       “So we live in neglect, in deepest darkest Bengal. Because the great Prime Minister is too busy, doing his prime ministerly duties!”

       The others are silent. The room appears to ring with Sher Afghan’s voice.

       “Well,” Munirji says finally. “I suppose we shall have to do without the lamb shahi. The others laugh, relieved. “Abhiji, your mind must have been working. But I believe... something is coming to me. Wait wait—” He closes his eyes.

                     “Dancers that might have been...

                     To enliven the night,

                     Lamb shahi returned to Persia

                     Ere it could take flight...”

       “What do you think?” Munirji asks proudly.

       Abhijit stares sleepily at the rug in front of him. Then abruptly he recites:

                     “Men with long faces

                     Sit wistfully dreaming

                     That ships filled with gold

                     Might give them some feeling.”

       The others look surprised, offended. Then as the words sink in their looks turn to ones of grudging admiration.

       “Wah wah!” Munirji says softly.

       “Wah wah!” Imran Das echoes.

 

 

       They do not sleep till late. The night’s events have wound them up, rather than tire them out. It is one o’clock in the morning. Nur is folding clothes. Sher Afghan is sitting up in bed and writing. The room has two low beds against opposite walls.

       “You embarrassed me tonight,” Sher Afghan says.

       “You embarrassed me,” Nur replies without looking up.

       Sher Afghan shakes his head. He decides to be generous and let it go. “Here is what I want you to write.” He reads from the letter he has been composing. “Dear Father. We are suffering here in our post in Bengal. The land is barren, the yield is small, and the country dangerous. When we married, the dowry that was due to us should have been at minimum 50,000 rupiya with a rank of one thousand zat—” he corrects himself, “one thousand zat for my husband. Instead, you gave us no money and just a few trinkets in jewellery. You have wronged me. And you have wronged my husband, Sher Afghan. You can easily right this wrong by providing some redress in the form of a token sum, but, more importantly, by recommending my husband for a higher rank to the Emperor. It is not much we ask...”

       Sher Afghan pauses, looking over his handiwork. “Then add, Further, we are most desirous of being closer to Agra. My husband will benefit from being close to Court, where his true talents will show, leading to rapid advancement and promotion! What do you think?”

       Nur has been avoiding his gaze. She looks up now from the clothes she has been folding. “I have already told you. I cannot let my father compromise his position with the Emperor, just because it suits us.”

       Sher Afghan puts down his writing and stands up. Nur retreats a little, lowering her hands.

       “Mehrunissa,” he says, using her familiar name.

       “Yes.”

       “Are you my wife?”

       “Yes,” she whispers.

       “Then why can you not do this for me?”

       “Because our wedding is over and done with. I cannot keep asking my father for favours on its account.”

       With a practised movement Sher Afghan moves across the room and seizes a riding crop that has been hanging on the wall. “Do you consider...” he swings the crop, a loud WHACK! resounds as it hits her skin, “...depriving me of my— WHACK! — birthright, being over and done with?! Or would you rather fulfill your duties as my —WHACK! — wife?!” Nur is not surprised by the violence. She bears the lashes stoically, bracing herself each time.

       “What have you done with our money so far!” she cries. “We are twenty thousand rupiya in debt!”

       “Exactly! If I had my correct and dutiful dowry right now, we could have wiped out our debt and made a real start in life. But I cannot do that with a wife who does not—” WHACK! “—cook or—” WHACK! “—obey or—” WHACK! “—make love!” The blood shows from a welt from under her clothes. More than anything she is embarrassed, humiliated.

       “Why don’t you divorce me!” she shouts. “I dare you! Divorce me right now!”

       “Divorce you?” His voice is silken. “I will kill you first, my dear. Long before I divorce you.”

       They look at each other like opponents.

       “Leave this room,” he says picking up the letter. “I don’t want you sleeping next to me.”

       She is glad to do this. She picks up a pillow and blanket and rushes out of the room.

 

 

       The morning mist rises as the house sits still in the woods. There is a faint sound. A door has opened. Nur emerges from the house. She walks through the woods along a barely visible path. The path twists this way and that. There is no hesitation in the way she walks. She knows her way well.

       Abruptly, the woods end. She is at the edge of a grassy meadow. There is a little clearing. A turbaned man with a trim moustache is squatting on the ground next to two saddled horses. Jagat Singh is making himself a paan.

       Nur walks past him without looking at him. She breaks into a run, mounts a horse and is off.

       Jagat Singh drops his paan, runs to the other horse and follows Nur. They set off with a shower of stones, their horses galloping across the lush Bengal countryside. The meadow is interlaced with an open swamp. Bordering it is a dense jungle, marked by the tangled trunks of sprawling hundred-year-old trees. Leopards hide in the undergrowth. There is a sudden flash of red as a flock of rosefinches rises from the meadow. They fly low in an undulating red cloud that skims the water and disappears into the trees.

       Jagat Singh is a little behind Nur. Nur clears a fallen tree trunk. Jagat Singh follows. She comes to a wide pond and spurs her horse to jump across the pond. They do not make it. The horse lands in the water. Nur struggles to get to the other side. Jagat Singh is more circumspect. He gives the horse a good clean run before the jump. The horse’s legs stretch across the pond and its hooves just barely make it to the soft mud on the other side. He is over. He starts gaining on Nur, crowding her.

       Nur disturbs a herd of spotted deer. The deer break into a run, making springy leaps across the misty grass. She comes to an abrupt halt in a clearing. From the side of her horse, she draws a shield and a wooden stick. Jagat Singh overshoots, comes back. He draws his own stick.

       Without pausing, she attacks him. She swings the stick hard. There is a loud clack as her stick hits his. She swings again. Another clack as he defends himself. Jagat Singh swings. His stick hits her shield with such force it pushes her backward.

       Undeterred, she attacks fiercely. She is almost on top of him. He dodges the blow, and hits her with a loud thwack across her shoulder. She winces in pain.

       They pause, squaring off. She regards him warily. A feint, and a surprise attack. She lands a blow on his arm. He cries out and drops the stick. She swings again, trying to finish him off, but flails in the empty air. He has ducked below his horse, and, amazingly, having picked up the stick, has moved away

       She passes by him, turns after twenty feet, and begins a fearsome charge. He ducks and gets a clean shot with his stick across her ribs. Her horse stops dead to keep from colliding with his. She flies through the air, somersaults, and lands, hitting her head on the ground.

       She is knocked out cold. Blood wells up through her clothes, from the base of her shoulder. A fallen branch has cut her, leaving a deep gash.

       Jagat Singh gets off his horse and runs up to her, horrified. “Begum Saheba! Begum Saheba!” He is afraid to touch her. Finally he dares to put his hand on the wound, trying to stop the blood. He runs to his horse, gets a goat-skin filled with water. He sprinkles this on her face; then tries to make her drink some, all the time trying to place his hand on her wound.

       She splutters, starts coughing, and opens her eyes. “Oooowwww! Uuuh!” She sees the blood on his hand. “Did you get hurt?”

       “No, Begum. This is from you.”

       “Uuhhh! My head hurts. Feel if my head is okay.” He hesitates, not sure if it would be proper.

       “Chha-chha!” she says impatiently, and, taking his hand, makes him feel her head. She releases his hand, and touches her shoulder. Her hand is covered with blood. “Oh Allah! Give me your turban.”

       “What?”

       “Give me your turban.”

       He hastily removes his turban. She tries to tie it around her shoulder. He comes to her aid and manages to fashion a bandage.

       “Help me get up.” With his help she stands up shakily. She starts walking painfully back to her horse with Jagat Singh supporting her. She looks pale from the shock. “You won,” she says.

       “Begum?”

       “The battle. If we had swords, I would be dead right now.”

       “Begum, don’t say that! What will we do! How will we explain this to Huzoor Sah’b!”

       She looks amused. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell.”

       “But he will see this!”

       “Oh, I will blame it on him. He beats me when he is drunk. I will say he hurt me last night, does he not remember?”

       Jagat Singh helps Nur onto her horse.

 

 

       The house is soaking in the monsoon rain. The rain is relentless, falling straight down hour after hour. There is a sound of galloping hooves along the driveway. A postman comes to a noisy halt near the front door. He takes a leather pouch out of the saddle-bag and removes an official-looking sealed letter. He hands it to the servant who opens the door.

       A shout of excitement emerges from within the house. Sher Afghan has opened the document. “Ramji! Jagat Singh! Everyone! Come here! I have news for you!” The servants file in, forming a straggly audience. Nur hangs back, standing behind Jagat Singh.

       Sher Afghan passes his hand over the letter as if he cannot believe it exists. “There has been a firman!” he says looking around at them. “It is from the Emperor! I have received it. I shall read it to you.”

       Reverently Sher Afghan holds the letter up. “By order of His Imperial Majesty,” he reads. “His Divine Grace, the Emperor Akbar, Ruler of Ajmer, Punjab, Allahabad, Marwar... it goes on... You! Sher Afghan! Have been commanded to provide, in the service of the Emperor, a cavalry of a hundred and fifty horses... it goes on. Your duties and obligations... It goes on.  As compensation for the performance of your forsworn duties your RANK has been RAISED to —” Sher Afghan looks disappointed. “Two hundred zat. To this extent you shall collect revenues from the district of Mirzapur.” He looks up. “Mirzapur! Where is Mirzapur! Mehru, bring the map!”

       “It is three days journey from Agra,” Nur says.

       “Three days journey from Agra! Three days journey from Agra!” he says excitedly. “Ha ha ha!” he roars, “Friends, I am going to Mirzapur!! Mehru! Pack up the household!” He looks from face to face, surprised at the servants’ ambivalence.

       “When do we have to leave?” Nur asks.

       He has not thought of this. Feverishly he fumbles with the document almost dropping it. He reads it rapidly. “Immediately!” he cries exultantly. “We have to leave immediately!”

       Something catches his eye. He turns the document over, looking at it from different angles. “This firman is from your brother, Asaf Khan. Not your father.” He frowns puzzled. Then the mystery clears itself up. “I forgot! I had written to him a long time ago.”

       A strange, unreadable expression crosses Nur’s face. Sher Afghan does not see it. He is looking at the servants wondering why they are still standing around. A thought occurs to him. “We will take Ramji with us. The rest of you should find work elsewhere.”

       He claps his hands dismissively. “Mehru, let us make preparations!”

       Nur turns to Ramji. “Bring the carriage out to the front,” she orders.

       “Where are you going?” Sher Afghan asks without much interest.

       Nur twirls around smiling. “To the bazaar. There are preparations to be made.”

       “Good!” Sher Afghan says distractedly. “Good! Good! Make your preparations. Let me see—” He looks around, knowing he should be doing something.

       Outside, it is misty. The rain has receded to a drizzle. A masked figure dressed in a black cloak, emerges from the woods. The figure draws a sword, and slips into the house through an open window.

       Nur and Ramji are seated in a tonga, a two-wheeled horse carriage. Its leather and wooden parts make loud creaking sounds as it sets off down the driveway.

       The house sits alone in the woods, now visible, now hidden by the mist. More masked figures emerge from the dense vegetation. Each man enters the house though a different window or door, as if to surround and contain their quarry.

       From inside the house, there erupt the sounds of a violent fight. Men collide and struggle. Swords clash, steel on steel. “Somebody! Help!” The voice of Sher Afghan is desperate. “Aaaaghhh!”

       A man screams loudly as he is sent to his death, a sword driven through his body. Someone is slammed violently against a wall, bringing down shields, swords, and a bronze statue. The collective crash of metal objects hitting the stone floor seems to explode into the forest air. There is the loud, crisp clang of a sword on sword.

       “SOMEBODY! HELP!” Sher Afghan shouts again. There are more sounds of a scuffle. “HELP!”

       A sword hits human flesh. A man groans as he is stabbed in the abdomen.

       “AAARRRGGGHHH!” Sher Afghan roars. His voice is angry, defiant. Not one of the earth’s meek denizens, if he is to go to his death, it will be with the noise and commotion of a lion.

       “AAARRRGGGHHH!” he cries again. The sounds of the scuffle continue. Another clang of sword on sword is heard, as the wounds accumulate. “Aaaarrrgggh!” he cries, his voice weak.

       Silence descends over the house, almost as suddenly as the noise had begun. Mist rises from the ground. The sound of rain dripping down the clay tiles and gurgling through the copper gutters seems louder than ever.

 

 

       The road to the bazaar is twelve miles long. Nur and Ramji ride in silence, the tonga creaking over the bumps in the rough country lane. Presently, they hear a horse coming at them at full gallop. That strange, unreadable expression crosses Nur’s face again.

       Jagat Singh comes to a noisy halt next to the tonga.

       “Begum Saheba!” Jagat Singh calls sternly. “Sher Afghan is dead! Killed! By swordsmen. In the house!

       Nur covers her mouth with her hand, suddenly nauseous.

       “Dead?” says Ramji.

       “Dead!” Jagat Singh repeats sternly. “Murdered! By swordsmen!”

       “Ramji!” Nur gasps. “Back, to the house!”

       “Begum, it is not a good sight,” Jagat Singh says. “I will call the soldiers—”

       “No! I have to see. To the house!”

       Some twenty minutes later, the half-ajar door  to the house creaks as it is pushed open.. Nur, Ramji, and Jagat Singh walk silently through the rooms. The house is destroyed. Large parts of the carpet are soaked in blood. A trail of blood, marks a spot where someone was killed and the copiously bleeding body was dragged away.

       Next to a wall, surrounded by an enormous pool of blood lies the body of Sher Afghan. His head is nearly separated from his body. Only the back of his head still seems attached. His eyes are open.

       Nur covers her mouth with her hand. She looks down at Sher Afghan for a very long time. The two servants stand silently watching her. At length, she reaches over and closes his eyes.

       She straightens up and continues to look at him.

       “Begum,” Ramji interrupts softly. “What will happen now?”

       She looks away, suddenly remote. It is as if she has become a different person. “My husband is dead,” she says. “My life is over.”

 

 

3

 

Allahabad, 1604

       The city of colourful tents that is Jahangir’s Army of thirty thousand, covers an area of twelve square miles. To the kites that circle busily overhead, looking for scraps, it must seem like a vast checkerboard spread over the countryside. The tents are laid out in a precise pattern forming a grid of alleyways through which it is easy to ride. When the army moves camp, the tents at the new location are laid out in precisely the same pattern, so that one is never at a loss finding one’s way through the camp. Each block of tents is marked by a set of flags that indicate the type of unit, the signature of the amir or noble who commands the unit, and the rank of the amir. Even the colours of the tents have meanings. 

       Towards the front of the checkerboard, is the complex of immaculately coloured tents and bright flags that make up Jahangir’s camp. His commanding officers’ tents are close by, as are the open areas laid out with straw and feed for their animals — twenty-three elephants, standing, kneeling, or lying in repose on the ground, and a hundred and fifty Arab horses. The elephants are being scrubbed and readied by their keepers. Large, decorated harnesses are cast over their shoulders by the men. There is something in the air. A hint of impending action.

       Immediately behind the area reserved for Jahangir is the royal harem. When the army is on the move, the highest-ranking royal ladies ride atop elephants with closed howdahs. Lesser noble-women make do with horses or camels, wearing burkhas that cover them from head to foot. Lower-caste female help, who provide crucial and heroic support to the army at all levels, are crammed into bullock carts and ride at the back. The rising cadence of women’s voices can be heard outside the harem tents. The morning is hot and the women are quarrelsome.

       Expanding outward from this core are blocks upon blocks of fighting units — mounted archers and lancers, infantry men, and artillery. Each artillery unit is armed with a single-cast bronze cannon mounted on a special carriage, and pulled by two enormous bulls. The mounted archers, most of them Afghan horsemen, are practised at riding in front of the enemy at high speed while shooting arrows with deadly accuracy.

       The back of the checkerboard is for supporting this city-on-the-move. Vast fires cook meals for thousands. A haze of thick smoke rises, even now, into the bright, blue sky. A mile-and-a-half of drying clothes attest to the upkeep of the soldiers’ full-skirted uniforms.

       Most of the fifteen thousand fighting men of the army are Rajput warriors. An overlay of Muslim adventurers — Afghans, Turks, Persians — act in key roles. The Afghans form crack cavalry troops, the Turks are world-class gunners, and the Persians fill the upper ranks of nobles and generals. The Persians notwithstanding, there is no particular bar for a talented officer to advance. Some of the highest-ranking and most respected commanders are Rajputs. It is a diverse army.

       The elaborately decorated elephants stand out above the checkerboard. The mid-morning sun beats down on the parched central Indian plain. In front of Jahangir’s tent complex is a makeshift stage, ten feet high. Jahangir’s personal flags fly from each corner. In front of the stage are assembled Jahangir’s three hundred mansabhdars — captains. They stand attentive, facing the stage, perfectly outfitted, ready for battle.

       A band starts playing, so loudly and abruptly, some of the men start. Eight enormous drums and four long battle-horns beat out a fierce marching tune.

       Jahangir, surrounded by his commanding officers, steps onto the stage. He is a slight young man with a darkness about him. There are so many dignitaries on stage, it is hard to tell which one is Jahangir. To his immediate right is Mahabat Khan, the commanding general of the Jahangir’s Army. To his left is Asaf Khan, a civilian advisor. In the hot sun, the men look sweaty and grim.

 

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    - Jahangir

      and Nur

 

    - Paru