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Chapter 21-

17 January 2024

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I got news from home mostly from Mangal. The first phase of the water and sewage system was coming along nicely. Lakshman Simhaji had had a stroke but was recovering fast. The royal barber’s wife had tried to cut off her husband’s member with one of his razors since he had got himself a mistress. The barber Madanlal is inordinately proud of his wife and is more than willing to show his mutilated manhood to all and sundry including His Majesty. The extension work on the Brindabani Temple had been completed and though there had been much protestation against His Majesty attending the evening arati there from some sources in the palace, he continued his visits. The King of Kabul, Zahiru’d-din Muhammad Babur, was riding hard towards Hindustan with the ostensible purpose of restoring order in Punjab. Mangal sent me some more of his notes. ‘They don’t always make sense,’ Mangal wrote, ‘but that’s because our source there picks up whatever he can and they are almost invariably out of context.’ Sometimes I resolve to ask Babur himself for clarifications and annotations when we get together one of these days and are sitting outside his tent of an evening and drinking the wine which he so often talks of renouncing.


‘Marching from that ground, we dismounted over against Kahraj, at the mouth of the valleys of Kahraj and Peshgram. Snow fell ankle-deep while we were on that ground; it would seem to be rare for snow to fall thereabouts, for people were much surprised. In agreement with Sultan Wais of Sawad there was laid on the Kahraj people an impost of four thousand assloads of rice for the use of the army, and he himself was sent to collect it. Never before had those rude mountaineers borne such a burden; they could not give all the grain and were brought to ruin.’


This is a curious entry. Babur’s ancestors were nomadic tribes and the flying raid where you stole grain, women, wealth in the form of horses, camels, cattle and jewellery and if you had the time after wholesale massacres, set the township or encampment on fire was routine. But Babur seems by nature a more circumspect and just man. He does not give idle offence and prefers not to antagonize people needlessly. Did he miscalculate and suddenly fall short of supplies? Even if he did, why not pay the going price of grain and make certain that those mountain-farmers and their families too did not starve?


It was, however, Babur’s next entry, which would destroy my sleep once and for all. It proved Mangal’s and my worst fears true.


‘The various flocks and herds belonging to the country people were close round our camp. As it was always in my heart to possess Hindustan, and as these several countries, Bhira, Khushab, Chinab and Chimut had once been held by the Turk, I pictured them as my own and was resolved to get them into my hands, whether peacefully or by force. For these reasons it being imperative to treat these hillmen well, this following order was given: “Do no hurt or harm to the flocks and herds of these people, nor even to their cotton-ends and broken needles!” ’


What followed was even more revealing.


‘People were always saying, “It could do no harm to send an envoy, for peace’s sake, to countries that once depended on the Turk.” Accordingly on Thursday the 1st of Rabi ‘u’ ’lawwal, Mulla Murshid was appointed to go to Sultan Ibrahim of Delhi (the next line and a half are illegible) … I sent him a goshawk and asked for the countries which from of old had depended on the Turk. Mulla Murshid was given charge of writings for Daulat Khan and writings for Sultan Ibrahim; matters were sent also by word of mouth; and he was given leave to go. Far from sense and wisdom, shut off from judgement and counsel must people in Hindustan be, the Afghans above all; for they could not move and make stand like a foe, nor did they know ways and rules of friendliness. Daulat Khan kept my man several days in Lahore without seeing him himself or speeding him on to Sultan Ibrahim; and he came back to Kabul a few months later without bringing a reply.’


It was a specious argument yet perfectly sound. Babur had grasped the central truth behind governance. At the heart of civilized life was a contract; real or concocted, articulated or subterranean, did not matter. The form was all. Its perception was the source of all power and order in a state. It kept chaos at bay. It is the sole underpinning of a monarchy or any other system of rule whereby the many obey the fiat of a few.


We Sisodias are, as you know, but regents of the supreme power of Shiva and that is the source of the authority vested in my family. Why do people pay taxes, offer their wrists for manacling when the kotwal or even an ordinary policeman shows up at the door to arrest a man who is accused of committing a theft or murder? Because the offices of taxation and law and all instruments of government are but conduits of the power which flows from that covenant, contract or whatever you choose to call it. It is because of the putative authority of that binding abstraction that Babur is so bent on invoking the validity of his claim to the Delhi throne through his ancestor Timur. It did not matter that the legal status of that claim is highly dubious and at best, far-fetched. The lame Turk, Timur, was more a whirlwind dacoit, a hit-and-run marauder than a king in these parts. He swept through Delhi in 1399. Babur needed a pretext to stake a claim to Delhi and Timur’s flying visit over a hundred years ago to the place was reason enough.


Having decided to take possession of Hindustan at some future date by the simple expedient of his distant relationship with Timur (the Lame Scourge had, after all, many sons and grandsons and legions of great-grandsons and who was to say which of the current crop of the fifth generation of cousins was the legal heir to Delhi), Babur was now willing to be generous with Sultan Ibrahim and make a deal with him: a goshawk in exchange for the Sultanate of Delhi and all the territories that Timur had run over. A fair and just bargain and barter by any count, wouldn’t you agree?


I was marvelling at the audacity and the gall, the political acuity and chicanery of the King of Kabul and chuckling to myself when the Chief of Security walked in.


‘I beg your forgiveness, Highness, but ....’ I raised my hand to cut the preliminaries short. If I had given orders that I was not to be disturbed and he had still had the temerity to do so, he must have had good reason. ‘There’s a lady come to see you.’


I smiled. Only one kind of lady visits an encampment close to the battlefield. ‘I’m touched by your solicitude but when I am desirous of female company, I’ll let you know.’


‘Highness, she says she’s a relative of yours, a very close one.’


I did not have time to tell myself that I had three guesses; the first one was Queen Karmavati, the second Greeneyes and the third .... She was standing in front of me.


I knew I was hallucinating. For close to four years, I have repressed one single thought. I have done the one thing I consider the most cowardly deed that mankind is capable of: deny my love. Had I killed her it would have been a kindness. Instead I let her live and killed her spirit.


She touched my feet. ‘Bless me, my Lord.’


I raised her up. ‘What are you doing in Dharampur, Leelawati?’


Ah, the converse of princes. Was there a banality that I would not dredge from my infinite store of small talk?


‘Mahmud Khalji asked my husband to come from our home in Mandu to discuss the matter of an urgent loan. I came along with him and thought I would make a small detour and visit you.’


‘Do you accompany your husband wherever he goes?’


‘He is a financier,’ she smiled, ‘I’m a moneylender with a stateswoman’s head. In important and complex matters, he has discovered that it profits him to consult me.’


‘And what advice did you give him?’


‘The Sultan believes that your forte is the lightning attack. It wounds and debilitates but does not destroy and can be effective only on a long-term basis. He is banking on your not having staying power this time for why else would you bring along an army of fifty thousand?


‘He’ll not give battle to you on land which has hills and deep ravines. On flatland he’s persuaded that he can beat you just as Malik Ayaz did on that first encounter near Idar. I think it’s smart thinking on the Sultan’s part. But I told my husband the problem’s not the Sultan but you. You are the most parsimonious royal in the country when it comes to state funds and manpower. I find it difficult to believe that you were able to muster and move such large forces in so short a time. And even if you did, I doubt it if you would want to commit so much money and time against the Sultan. Malwa would be good to pocket if it happened to drop into your lap, but my guess is that Delhi is the prize you have your eye on.’


‘So what do you think is my game plan on this campaign?’


‘I have no idea, Highness. I’m not sure you have anything specific in mind either.’


I kept a deadpan face or so I hoped but I had the feeling that I was being undressed, not just my body but the innermost recesses of my mind.


‘There’s only one thing I’m certain about. You are entirely without any loyalty to any one particular military theory or ideology. And that’s what makes you so unpredictable and dangerous.’


‘So should your spouse bet his money on the Sultan or not?’


‘Highness, we are not Rajputs,’ she laughed a matter-of-fact, unmalicious laugh. ‘It’s never all or nothing for us. We invariably hedge our bets and always cover our risks. The Sultan, as you well know, is badly strapped for funds and is already in debt.’ She smiled mischievously. ‘I’m sure Mangal and his men have told you the exact sum to the last decimal point. Now is obviously the time to extract an extra fractional percentage point. But all that is piffle. The only pertinent question is will Mewar be satisfied with defeating the Sultan or does it want to grab the whole of Malwa this time? Because if it’s the latter, we stand to lose everything, the previous debt monies as well as the contemplated current loan. Let me frame the crux of the problem: what is the objective of the Mewar campaign; more specifically, who has formulated it, His Majesty, the Rana or you?’ She did not take her eyes off me. ‘I’m betting my money on His Majesty. Which is why I’ve told my husband to put together a cartel of financiers from Gujarat, Vijayanagar and the east and lend money to the Sultan. That way we don’t take undue risks and yet collect commission on the loans given by the cartel. Does that confirm your conclusions about the lending policies of my husband’s house?’


She had not given away anything I did not already know or would not have found out in a couple of days. I had not forgotten that she had one of the keenest heads in Mewar but to see her break up a problem into its various subdivisions, address each one of them and then make a clean sweep of the lot with a composite solution was like watching a master make his moves at a dense and convoluted game of chess.


I shook my head slowly. ‘If only your grandfather had married you to someone from Mewar, Chittor rather than the Sultan, would have benefitted immeasurably from that swift and shrewd brain of yours which leaves nothing to chance.’


‘I am married to Mewar, Maharaj Kumar. It may have escaped you, but I’m not likely to forget it ever.’ She let that sink in. ‘I am back for good this time.’


‘Not exactly the happiest time for banter, Leelawati.’


‘I’m in earnest, Your Highness.’ Unhurriedly but with an economy of movement that was like pressing a lever to open hidden passages and vistas, she unsheathed herself. ‘Take me, Sire.’


She was more serene and self-possessed in her nakedness than the supernaturally calm larger-than-life image of Lord Mahavir in her grandfather Adinathji’s courtyard. I closed my eyes. She stood inside them.


In Lakshman Simhaji’s library, there’s a priceless illustrated copy of Vatsayan’s Kamasutra. In it is a picture of a woman’s face. The head is thrown back. Her eyes are closed with the pleasure of anticipation, her lips are moist and a little open. At the end of her expectant yearning is the index finger of a man, perhaps it is of a woman. The lips will close upon the finger, the tongue will wet, flicker and swirl around it. Gently the lips will suck at the prathama, draw it in and release it.


And yet, and yet Vatsayan and his artist have not seen Leelawati’s toes.


There is nothing, absolutely nothing one cannot do without in life. All wants are dispensable so long as one can absent oneself. What happens if you discover a dark and urgent longing in your chest that runs all the way from front to back, a hole that you pack with the rest of your life, state-work, lovemaking, the tunnels under Chittor, writing diaries and military manuals, wars and warcouncils; and yet you never make any progress? The hole stays as it is, you carry it wherever you go, no great ache, just an emptiness and a suspicion that you have betrayed both Leelawati and yourself.


If it is politic, I have no problems lying with a straight face. But I am not given to lying to myself, at least not consciously. And yet through the intervening years whenever I have struggled to erase the thought of Leelawati, I have asked myself what she means to me, what is the relationship that our stations and roles in life permit. Some questions I can answer, others I cannot do anything about. But there are also areas where I am not able to sort out the boundaries of prevarication, responsibility and that very real and just as intractable entity called the truth-of-the-matter.


I loved Leelawati when she was a child. She was precocious, lovely, vivacious and fond of me (that always helps). Despite my great affection for her, I was perhaps patronizing towards her as adults are wont to be. I did not doubt the intensity of her attachment to me but I read it as puppy love. My brother Vikramaditya did not mind ruining Leelawati’s name and future just so long as he could get at me. That effectively dropped the curtain on my relationship with Leelawati. But even if Vikramaditya had not intervened, would matters have been any different between Leelawati and me? How much was I responsible for her fate? Given the fact that we were Rajputs and her family Jains and that her great-grandfather was not just minister of the exchequer but also the most powerful financier in the kingdom, could we have continued to be anything but formal and distant friends after she grew up? We are not a closed and oppressive society in Mewar, but men and women who are not married to each other do not meet except socially.


‘And what about your husband?’


Where was my ancestor, the Sun-god? Would he not turn his flammable gaze upon me and rid Leelawati of a man who would rather stammer inanities than do her bidding?


‘I’m a virgin, Maharaj Kumar.’


My face must have shown some sign of humanity and perhaps even astonishment.


‘No fault of his, Sire, he’s a whole man. Unfortunately for him, he is also a staunch believer in the tenets of Jainism. In the early years of our marriage when he tried to force his attentions upon me, I would tell him that if he touched me, I would kill his favourite singing bird, Geet, the mynah he fed with his own hands every day and the blood of the bird would be on his head. He’s besotted with me, Maharaj Kumar but he is a true Jain and even for love of me, he’ll not spill blood.’


‘Go back to your husband, Leelawati,’ I could barely whisper the words, ‘Make him happy.’


‘I’m yours and no one else’s.’


‘I’m truly touched, Leelawati. Nobody has paid me a greater compliment.’ I was choosing my words with care so that they had just the right degree of pleasant anonymity. The sand of fraudulence and chicanery blocked my mouth and try as I might, I could not be rid of it. ‘Your cruelty and denial can kill a man, Leelawati. You must stop this foolishness.’


‘You need an heir, Highness. The Little Saint is too self-centred to give you one. We’ll have children, boys and girls and I’ll make you a fine wife and colleague.’ She got hold of my hands then and clutched them tightly. ‘I’ll wipe out all the terrible years of your first marriage. I’ll make you happy.’


I did not doubt her but I would not let go of my cussed silence.


‘You don’t give a damn about my husband. Is it because of the Princess? Haven’t you learnt yet that she loves someone else? Always has?’


You are doing all right, my friend. You need no longer practise pretending being a stone in the mirror. You’ve become one.


‘Why then, Maharaj Kumar? Why?’

The news from Tej, Shafi and Hem was encouraging. They were everywhere and nowhere. Northern and eastern Malwa were as much a part of Sultan Mahmud’s territories as Mandu but the Sultan was distinctly at a disadvantage in these parts. Medini Rai and the other rais were locals and closer to the hearts of the people.


There was no denying that the boys’ campaign of harassment was steadily wearing down the enemy. All food was rapidly disappearing from the market. When the Malwa troops forcibly extracted grain, lentils or salt from the food merchants and villagers, retribution from Tej or Hem was swift and severe. Often it was meted out even as the soldiers were heading back for their camp.


All in all, I should have been a satisfied man, if not a happy one. Instead I was growing more and more uneasy. Mahmud Khalji had sent an urgent missive to the Delhi Sultan asking for monetary and military assistance against us. I knew that I had no reason to fear Ibrahim Lodi of Delhi. If he could find the time to respond, it would be to beg off. And that was the source of all my anxiety, edginess and helplessness. How far had the Moghul Babur come into India by now? Would the Sultan of Delhi be able to stand up to him? I felt trapped and was in a hurry to be back in Chittor. A bad state of mind to take critical decisions and fight an enemy whose forces outnumbered ours three to one.


Then Mangal’s right-hand man Shiraz Ali intercepted a letter from Sultan Muzaffar Shah. A Gujarat force, ten thousand strong was riding full speed for Dharampur. That certainly made me forget even the Moghul. We would make a nice sitting target caught between the Malwa and Gujarat armies. There’s a time to fight and a time for flight. Our only hope was to gather whatever we could of our baggage, and run all the way to Mewar or perhaps to Chittor itself.


I went over to the Rai’s palace, had the briefest meeting I have ever had with a senior leader of such standing, five minutes all told, came out, ordered all real and phony camps to be dismantled by four in the afternoon, and sent word by courier to Shafi, Tej and Hem to forget goodbyes and other niceties and pull out.


Before Medini Rai and I led our troops out of Dharampur in an unseemly hurry we made sure that word got out that we were off to Mandu to visit the absent Sultan.


An army can’t ride like the devil as a search party or a small band of men can but we did a middling imitation. We rode three nights, the guerrilla warriors joined us on the second night. On the fourth day the Rai and I scouted the territory, chose level ground in a valley encircled on all sides by decent-sized mountains, the kind you can climb on horseback in half an hour. The next morning we got word that His Highness Suraj Rai, one of Medini Rai’s vacillating allies was joining us at the head of five thousand troops. I doubt if I have ever been a greater hypocrite than on this occasion; I was so relieved I could have rushed up to him and embraced him as if he was my friend Raja Puraji Kika himself. Instead I was civil, courteous but distant. I was not going to welcome him with open arms and thank him for taking his time.


Over the campfire in the evening, he asked the question that had been weighing on his mind all day.


‘Where are the rest of the troops?’ He tried to make the question sound as casual as possible.


I kept silent. Medini Rai gestured offhandedly to the mountains behind us.


‘They’ll come out at the right time.’


We were having dinner when Silhadi sought permission to have an audience with the Rai and the Maharaj Kumar of Mewar.


‘This is a rare privilege, Highness. We have fought side by side with His Majesty, the Rana, but we hear the son is every bit a match for his father,’ Silhadi’s voice was glossy as china silk but without character or sincerity.


‘Our admiration is mutual, then. His Majesty has spoken often of you but I did not think that you would honour us with a visit after all these months.’


My little dart did not miss its mark but Silhadi was not about to be fazed. He would let me know that we were beholden to him.


‘Not a mere personal visit, Highness, a train of seven thousand gallant men is following on my heels to be of assistance to you.’


‘Then we are doubly honoured and you are doubly welcome. Won’t you join us for dinner?’


I watched him play with the partridge pickle and the sarson ka sag on his plate. In the lamplight, he had a reptilian charm. I had the odd feeling that he would be a good happy-go-lucky friend so long as the weather did not change and the stars were favourable. Which was not really as much of an adverse comment as it sounds. It is a happy circumstance for mankind that things rarely come to the crunch and friendships are not put to the test often.


Just then Shiraz Ali asked to have a word with me.


Suraj Rai made his excuses about not realizing how late it was and Silhadi discovered that he was exhausted after such a long day.


When they left, I beckoned Shiraz Ali in.


‘The Sultan and his armies will be here by one in the afternoon, two at the latest.’


* * *


Shiraz Ali’s timing was off by half an hour. The Sultan was in a hurry to save his capital from the Mewari marauders and must have left his overnight camp by six in the morning. They had made good progress. Elephants, camels, cavalry and infantry had trudged for six or seven hours when they entered the enchanted circle of the mountains. The much-hated Gujarat division of five thousand horse permanently posted in Malwa ostensibly to safeguard Sultan Mahmud Khalji from his own people rode in first followed by the rest of the Malwa army. We should have been closing in on Mandu, the Malwa capital. What in the devil’s name were we doing in battle formation some eighty miles from Dharampur? And where were the fifty or sixty thousand Mewari troops? There were not even ten thousand massed together in the valley. The Sultan raised his hand for his armies to come to a halt. For the next hour they kept pouring in and arranged themselves in respectable units: the camel corps, cavalry and infantry. The Sultan and his commanders had had time to look around by now. They were puzzled. Silhadi’s men were atop the northern mountains, Suraj Rai’s on the western heights and close to seven thousand of Medini Rai’s men stood guard above the southern slopes. Exactly how many troops were there in the mountains? Thirty, forty, sixty – or barely ten thousand? What were they doing up there instead of being with their brothers in the valley? Did Medini Rai and the Maharaj Kumar of Mewar want to take on the Sultan’s forty-five thousand with a force of a mere seven or eight thousand? There had to be a catch. The Sultan could mow down the entire cavalry on the ground in an hour, or hour and a half at the most. But then those thousands of troops on the ridges of the mountains whose numbers it was impossible to ascertain could swoop down and draw a deadly noose around the Malwa armies. Or had we taken up these positions merely as a temporary decoy so that while we delayed the Sultan, the greater part of our armies would race to Mandu and capture it?


It was an odd tableau. Two enemies ranged against each other, one tired after riding for close to seven hours and hungry to boot, the other full-bellied and fresh, and neither willing to make the first move. The Malwa Sultan seemed to be paralyzed. I thought it was time to relieve his agony. Tej detached himself and taking a position ahead of the Rai and me, and barely seventy feet from the Sultan, took out a scroll tied in red brocade.


‘Can you hear me, Your Majesty?’ Pause. ‘Because if you can’t, I will draw closer to you.’ He did not wait for an answer but went forward another twenty feet or so. ‘His Highness Medini Rai, His Highness the Maharaj Kumar of Mewar, His Highness Silhadi and His Highness Suraj Rai send you greetings from His Majesty Rana Sangram Simha of Mewar. His Majesty, the Rana wishes you a long and healthy and prosperous reign. Which is why he wishes to stress again that he bears you only goodwill and would avoid confrontation with you. It is his belief that both the people of Malwa and Mewar desire peace and that it is a foreign power which wishes to lord it over you, and which is instigating you to fight against Mewar and its allies.


‘Ask your soldiers, enquire of your farmers and villagers, listen to your townspeople, they’ll tell you they would be rid of the Gujarati forces who treat your sovereign land as a vassalage and its people as second-class citizenry. They want to be left alone. They wish for peace.


‘All His Majesty, the Rana, asks for is fairness and justice. Give Chanderi to the man who helped you regain your throne and your lost capital and who was your closest ally and friend, His Highness Medini Rai. As the Sultan of Malwa, you alone have the power to make a generous peace with their Highnesses, Silhadi and Suraj Rai. As to reparations to Mewar for our troubles, we can work them out as two great nations in a spirit of amity and goodwill.


‘Once again we wish to extend our hand towards you. Will you hold it forever in friendship?’


Tej stopped and looked up at the Sultan and his commanders and then at the common people and soldiers of Malwa whom neither their Sultan nor any previous Maharana had ever taken cognizance of before.


‘Make peace, Your Majesty, or you’ll rue this day for the rest of your life. This we promise you. This we swear, that seven thousand five hundred Mewar and allied men, unnatural men without conscience or human heart, fed on that which no civilized men will eat, dog and monkey meat, which makes them invincible and beyond the reach of Yama, will ride forth and slaughter, destroy and erase without trace all Malwa soldiers here present.


‘No idle threat, this, Your Majesty. For how else can you explain the preternatural confidence that permits us to ask the host of our armies to stand aloof and still on distant heights instead of joining fierce battle with the enemy?


‘Think, Your Majesty. If we do not receive a friendly reply within ten minutes, you and you alone will be accountable for the deaths of forty-five thousand innocent soldiers.’


As a parting gesture, Tej rode up to where His Majesty the Sultan sat on the howdah of his royal elephant, rolled back the scroll, tied the strings into a neat knot, bowed deeply, handed it to the monarch of Malwa and joined us. Medini Rai and I retreated to the sidelines while Tej, Shafi and Hem Karan took command of the three divisions into which the army had been divided.


I had woken up in the morning and broken my resolve not to send Hem Karan into battle and risk his death. I did not wish to test his good luck any further but we are warriors and sentimentality is but another word for fear and I had to learn to live with my fears, not close my eyes to them.


‘The war we have initiated and pursued so far is a war of nerves,’ I had told our soldiers in the morning. ‘One you cannot see and which seems either like child’s play or a waste of time. There is, however, some proof that it works. You cannot deny that Prince Hem Karan and his braves are with us without our having shed any blood. But the war of nerves is first and last an aid to conventional and guerrilla warfare. Its purpose is to break the backbone of the enemy, his morale, before we attack. Have we succeeded? I don’t know. You alone can bring in the results of that experiment this afternoon.


‘Your swords are seven inches longer and yet weigh a little less than the conventional sword that the Sultan’s men use. They are lighter but not a whit less sturdy and thirty percent more tensile. In short, your reach and efficacy are greater.


‘Prince Tej and his men will stay behind with us. They are our emergency group. If you can’t force the Sultan’s men back into the narrow orifice from which they issue forth, if we find instead they have us on the run, then of course we’ll call down the troops from the mountaintops. Do you want that to happen? Our new allies are opportunists. They have joined us after all these months only because they think our chances are good and they can share the fruits of war and glory with us. Seems a bit unfair to me that you do all the work and they arrive to collect the laurels.


‘Can so few beat so many of the enemy? I think so. Go forth and make history. Godspeed.’


The Sultan’s ten minutes were over. Fifty massive ladles, with forty-foot long handles which had been pinned down to the ground sprang up suddenly like behemoth shot-putting arms and flung out great comets of whooshing, hurtling fireballs. I doubt if these oil-soaked cloth and cotton wool-bound rocks did much physical damage to the enemy but they did cause pandemonium in his ranks. The ladles had been staggered and placed strategically after much testing the previous day so that the fire barrage would catapult all over the enemy.


At the height of this inflammable rain, Shafi and his men formed themselves into a tight triangle and headed for the Gujarati division. Their programme was limited: destroy the Gujarat cavalry within thirty minutes. Simultaneously a hundred megaphones addressed the Sultan’s men. ‘Malwa brothers, we have no intention of killing you. Drop your arms and withdraw to the sides. No one will raise his weapon against you. Brother will not fight brother.’


It would make a rather elegant story if I could report that the Malwa troops watched from the wings while Shafi and his men struck and ravaged Muzaffar Shah’s Gujarati troops. Nothing of the sort happened. Most of them swung valiantly into action. But there was hesitation and few things work as effectively in the enemy’s favour as a divided state of mind. For a brief moment but long enough for our purposes, the Gujaratis felt isolated. They were good, experienced warriors and slashed out for the kill but discovered seven inches of deadly extra blade had overtaken and dismembered them.


All armies are made up of companies of men led by an amir, rao, raja, sardar or whatever honorific the vassal may bear. Feuds and rivalries, between two villages, royal houses, subcastes, or religious groups are invariably transferred and carried on to the battlefield regardless of who the common enemy is. Hem Karan’s men slipped in and exploited the cracks, drove in wedges and left them wide open and then as those long, long blades cut down men like grass in late autumn, the Sultan’s men began to lose heart. Soon they were in earnest retreat. The battle, however, was not going according to my plan. We had been fighting for an hour and ten minutes but we were behind schedule. We were behind schedule because of one man, Sultan Mahmud Khalji himself.


I have seen some good warriors in my time, Father, Rao Viramdev, Rao Ganga, Malik Ayaz, but they were not in the same class as the Sultan on that day. The Sultan was heroic and murderously effective. We could have swords a yard longer, but no tactic could trap him. His own men were already rallying around him. Another forty-five minutes and visibility would be poor and the day would end with neither a decisive winner or loser.


Tej, Medini Rai and I set out with five hundred men. Within minutes we were engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Then I was face to face with the Sultan. I had lied to myself. He was good, very good but that was not why I had joined the fray. I wanted him dead so that we could appropriate Malwa and put an end to the foolishness that could very likely have already lost us Delhi. Mahmud Khalji was mine to finish off despite the circle of magic that had made him invulnerable so far. My sword was about to fall on him when I saw the Rai shaking his head and looking askance at me. It was an accident, I wanted to tell him, come on Highness, this much you owe me, back me up and tell a lie to His Majesty, the Rana, for your own sake and the sake of Mewar. We don’t need a victory over Malwa, think about it, we need an annexation. A permanent one. But by then the moment was past. The Sultan brought his sword down on me, I lunged to the right. The blade glanced off, struck sparks upon my chainmail and sank into the flesh of my left arm. He must have struck an artery for blood shot out and hosed his face. His eyes closed. I must have blacked out for when I came to my sword had fallen to the ground. How quickly blood congeals. He was trying frantically to open his eyes and rid them of the glue that blood is. I took the tip of the Sultan’s sword in my mailed right hand. It was difficult to get a grip on it. I had little choice but to bring my left hand into play. I suddenly rose and leaning forward for better leverage drove the hilt of his sword with such force into his chest that he teetered and keeled over. He lay awkwardly on the ground, one of his feet tangled in the stirrup. I dismounted. My sword was in my hand and I had my right foot on the Sultan’s chest. For safety’s sake, the sword tip rested in the hollow under his adam’s apple, the same spot where many, many years ago Father had cold-bloodedly stabbed my mother’s throat when a chicken bone had got stuck in it. He wiped the blood from his eyes and face and looked at me.


‘Why, Maharaj Kumar? Why the moment of hesitation? It was either you or me.’ He had a childish voice, not unpleasant but the kind that would make you go back after a picnic to check whether that dreamy-eyed little boy had got left behind. ‘I certainly wouldn’t have spared you had my sword not missed its mark.’


I smiled. Dreamy-eyed people, I had learnt through experience, can be a shade more deadly than even mercenaries.


What should I tell the Sultan? That I was a boy of seven who did not disobey my Father?


When in trouble, always pull out the most egregious rhetoric.


‘One does not strike so valiant a warrior, Sire.’


Perhaps it’s time I gave up being a prince and took up my true vocation: become a court chronicler or charan turning defeats and stalemates into triumphs.

More Books by kiran nagarkar

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Articles
Cuckold
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Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold is a historical novel on the life of Meera, her affair with Krishna – a scandal for which she was criticised and persecuted – and the predicament of her husband who felt betrayed by none other than the blue-bodied god himself.
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Chapter 1-

11 January 2024
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The small causes court sits on Thursdays. When Father’s away I preside. There were fourteen plaints to be heard. I dealt with them all, albeit as the sun rose to the meridian and then crossed it, I be

2

Chapter 2-

11 January 2024
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It’s such an elementary rule, I wonder why almost nobody follows it. If you want to find out how a department’s functioning or how the work’s progressing on a project, go unannounced. It has nothing t

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Chapter 3-

11 January 2024
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He had been the most eligible bachelor in this part of the world. It took them a long time to find a bride for him. Two or three proposals along with horoscopes arrived every day. They had to appoint

4

Chapter 4-

12 January 2024
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Who makes up or invents proverbs? They are so often a crockful of never-mind-what. They pile up platitude upon platitude which the officious and unctuous mouth in and out of season and are taken to be

5

Chapter 5-

12 January 2024
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I have avoided speaking about the rights of succession as much as the other forbidden subject which tears my guts and paralyses my mind. But Prince Bahadur has touched a particularly raw spot and the

6

Chapter 6-

12 January 2024
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The wedding party returned home. Her favourite uncle, Rao Viramdev accompanied her to Chittor. She was allowed to bring a friend or servant along with her who would stay with her all her life. She bro

7

Chapter 7-

12 January 2024
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The news from the front hasn’t been either very bad or very good. Sometimes I think that Sultan Muzaffar Shah has lost his nerve and that’s why he has retired to Champaner instead of leading his armie

8

Chapter 8-

13 January 2024
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‘You think this is a laughing matter? You are going to tell me who it is. Now. I’m going to kill him and then I’m going to kill you.’ His voice was a strange and violent inhuman screech. ‘Have you no

9

Chapter 9-

13 January 2024
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She was a deep one. He had to hand it to her, it was, frankly, close to a master-stroke in the escalating war of nerves between him and her. You want a name, say it again, you want a name, you really

10

Chapter 10-

13 January 2024
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He was returning from work when he first heard the singing. It was faint and very distant and he didn’t know whether it was coming from the heart of the town or from one of the exclusive areas of the

11

Chapter 11-

13 January 2024
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Should he pull her tongue out, he wondered, or stuff a large silk handkerchief into her mouth? Was she perverse? Was she doing it deliberately to annoy him? He had broken the ektara into two. That did

12

Chapter 12-

15 January 2024
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When the Maharaj Kumar reached the palace, the guards on duty saluted him. Should he dismount? Why had he come home anyway? Befikir stood patiently while he tried to figure out what he was doing at th

13

Chapter 13-

15 January 2024
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When I look at my peers, friends, colleagues, cousins and brothers, I realize what a dullard I am. They carouse together, they go out whoring, they are lively and full of fun and pranks. I would like

14

Chapter 14-

15 January 2024
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Poor Malik Ayaz. He was recalled home in disgrace and disfavour. War is a risky pastime for generals, more so for them than for kings and princes. A sovereign is hardly ever dethroned because he loses

15

Chapter 15-

16 January 2024
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We left next morning. By evening we had joined Shafi Khan and the main Mewar army. The Merta, Dungarpur and other forces have gone their separate ways. Rao Viramdev and Rawal Udai Simha have accepted

16

Chapter 16-

16 January 2024
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It was a morning of sullen and lucid beauty. The Gambhiree was a festering gold rupture in the plains below Chittor. Someone had plucked the sunflower in the sky and torn off the petals and smashed th

17

Chapter 17-

16 January 2024
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Within a week, Greeneyes was walking about the house. On the tenth day she visited the orphanage. Rather, she intended to. The people of Chittor had got word that the Little Saint had resurfaced and s

18

Chapter 18-

16 January 2024
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He was returning from a seven-mile walk along the parapet of the fort at eleven at night when he saw his wife sitting at the Flautist’s temple. He turned towards the palace but something about her mad

19

Chapter 19-

17 January 2024
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Things had not changed much. Father pleaded indisposition when I asked for an audience to lay my head at his feet. Why had he called me back? When I went to the Victory Hall in the evening, a bandage

20

Chapter 20-

17 January 2024
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Raja Puraji Kika and I may be soulmates but it’s mostly a long-distance closeness. Besides, even when we are together, neither of us is very voluble. What we share is taciturnity and silence. I often

21

Chapter 21-

17 January 2024
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I got news from home mostly from Mangal. The first phase of the water and sewage system was coming along nicely. Lakshman Simhaji had had a stroke but was recovering fast. The royal barber’s wife had

22

Chapter 22-

17 January 2024
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I am like a schoolboy, I am always rushing home. From Idar, from Kumbhalgarh and now from Dharampur. It’s as if I need to pretend that there’s always something of moment, a crisis that cannot be resol

23

Chapter 23-

17 January 2024
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The good times had idled by. The party was over. It was time to get back to work. What next, heir apparent, question mark; husband of the Little Saint; black sheep, black cloud on horizon, source of a

24

Chapter 24-

18 January 2024
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I should have seen it coming but my vaunted prescience was malfunctioning or has it been just a matter of guesswork and some luck posing as clairvoyance all these years? Political considerations alone

25

Chapter 25-

18 January 2024
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Who, Mangal, who?’ It was seventeen days since ‘the accident’ as the court bulletin preferred to call it. ‘Could be any one of a hundred and fourteen people.’ I looked sharply at Mangal. Why

26

Chapter 26-

18 January 2024
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The day before Bruhannada and his wife were to leave Chittor, he sent me a message asking if we could meet. ‘Forgive me, Highness, for not coming myself but as you know it is not wise for me to sti

27

Chapter 27-

19 January 2024
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Had I really been that preoccupied formulating the new tax proposals to finance the war that I hadn’t noticed the night descend? How could that be, surely it wasn’t more than two and a half hours sinc

28

Chapter 28-

19 January 2024
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‘Krishna Kanhaiyya, Krishna Kanhaiyya,’ she had called him. He had decided that night that he would never, not even on pain of death, enter her bed. And yet here he was, going through the blue charade

29

Chapter 29-

19 January 2024
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At the final meeting of the War Council on the night before the battle, the mood was buoyant, even jocular. Most of the talk was about how small the Padshah’s army was and whether the ditches had been

30

Chapter 30-

19 January 2024
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That afternoon a party of seven came over from Mewar to meet His Majesty. Father was delighted with the company and the attention. Baswa is a godforsaken place though its ruler, Rao Himmat Simha, has

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