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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 resolved without my intercession, beckoning me. Am I stupid, am I incapable of learning that no human intervention can alter fate? Perhaps. But the day I acquire that wisdom, or rather, accept its behest, I will be unfit to be king. There’s indeed a time to let go. I’ll tell you when that is: when I am dead and gone.


There’s a desperation to my impatience this time, however, which is new. I have no idea what it is that I expect to forestall but I have half a mind, make it three-quarters, to leave all the rais, sultans and princes, behind and ride Befikir non-stop to Chittor. And if Befikir collapses, I’m willing to run the last fifty or seventy miles to knock on Mangal’s door. News, Mangal, give me news.


I’ve taken to meditation twice a day, instead of just-once along with the rest of my yoga. I’m afraid I’m not doing too well. Babur intersects my attempts at equilibrium with parabolas, ellipses, trajectories and tangents that fragment and dislocate my mind and leave me feeling jangled. Fortunately, everybody else is in good spirits and ignores me.


It was difficult to tell whether the Sultan saw himself as a prisoner of war or as a guest of honour. Barring the occasional flash of temper, he was easy to like and did not have Prince Bahadur’s arrogance. He had only one problem. He was in the wrong profession. He would have made an excellent shopkeeper selling diamonds or saris. He had a story for every occasion and could talk you into anything. He was jolly, convivial and willing to listen as much as he liked to talk. Even the lowliest soldier or sweeper could go up to him and tell him about his first amatory conquest or the death of his six-month-old son. The Sultan had a genuine capacity to share in the joy, sorrows and perplexities of the populace, a rare gift for a king. Unfortunately, that was one of his few royal qualities. When in power Mahmud Khalji tried hard to be Sultan but he failed miserably. Now he was just a soldier, albeit a royal hostage, and he no longer had to play-act. You could see how relieved he was to be himself and what a good time he was having.


We were still close to three days from home when we got the news that Muzaffar Shah of Gujarat had died and his eldest son, Sikandar, had ascended the throne. Where was my one-time friend and guest Prince Bahadur? Was he still wandering around in search of a following and the crown? Had the new king of Gujarat, Sultan Sikandar issued a fatwa for his brother’s head? One thing was certain, so long as Bahadur was alive, neither Sikandar nor any of his other brothers could rest easy.


I needn’t have bothered to rush home. Delhi had fallen to Babur. Sultan Ibrahim Lodi and the King of Kabul had done battle in Panipat and the Sultan was no more. How simple it sounded when the courier read out the message. Was that all it took, a few words from a breathless rider to capture the most important crown in Hindustan? Was this the calamity that I had frantically hoped to avert by speeding to Chittor? Not Babur, but we, Father, should have fought Sultan Ibrahim Lodi and taken Delhi.


Five times Babur had negotiated the frozen, inhospitable passes of the Hindukush mountains and crossed the Khyber Pass and each time he had progressed further into Hindustan. How many years had I been following Babur’s career? All I had to do now was ride to Delhi and see the new Padshah face to face. Frankly, I knew that I wouldn’t even have to do that any more. I had little doubt that we were destined to meet sooner or later.


* * *


The Malwa campaign was everything I could have asked for. It got me the triumph I had so longed for after we had reinstalled Rao Raimul on the throne of Idar. Three-quarters of the township of Chittor crossed the bridge over the Gambhiree and were waiting behind the entire court and the Maharana of Chittor. His Majesty alighted from his elephant and took two steps towards Raja Medini Rai and me. This was contrary to all protocol and a signal honour. The Maharana stands firm and rooted to the ground regardless of the gravity, urgency or joy of the occasion. Whatever the rank of a vassal or prince, it is he who must step forward and bow to the sovereign. Medini Rai was about to bend forward to receive His Majesty’s blessings when Father placed his hand on the Rai’s shoulder to restrain him.


‘May Lord Eklingji look upon you always with favour. You do Mewar and us great honour by visiting us immediately after defeating His Majesty, the Sultan of Malwa.’ Father turned his head a fraction and the Pradhan Pooranmalji placed the victory turban in his hands. ‘Never in the history of the Rajputs have so few overwhelmed so many. It is our privilege to bestow the Veer Vijay saafa on such a victor.’


‘Your Majesty, there is no greater honour for a Rajput than the Veer Vijay of Mewar. I shall wear it proudly always. But I must in all honesty confess that the credit for this remarkable victory is due not to me but to the Maharaj Kumar and as such the Veer Vijay is rightfully his and not mine.’


The Mewar court seemed to hold its breath, wondering whether this was excessive generosity or crass ingratitude on the part of Rao Medini Rai. Father, however, was in no humour to take offence and lightly chided the Rai.


‘Your Highness, this war effort may have emptied our coffers somewhat but our Minister of the Exchequer, the venerable Adinathji, tells me that things may look up a little now that His Majesty Mahmud Khalji may pump some life and lucre into our treasury. We may, therefore, be able to afford a separate Veer Vijay saafa for our son.’


Pooranmalji was already holding the second saafa which Father set on my head.


‘They tell me that you acquitted yourself rather well, son and have brought a rare and precious gift for me. Your mother and I and the Little Saint are proud of you.’


The solid regiments of soldiers behind us parted as Tej and Shafi escorted His Majesty, Mahmud Khalji.


‘Your Majesty, we are happy to present His Majesty, the Sultan of Malwa.’


The Sultan was not sure how much back-bending he had to do in front of the man who was at least temporarily his master and whose captive he now was. But Father could afford to be the soul of graciousness today. ‘We cannot tell your Majesty, how honoured we are to have so exalted a personage visit Mewar. Chittor throws its doors open to you and bids you welcome. We trust you will not find our hospitality wanting at any time.’


The Sultan decided that it was wise to bow before his captor now. The crowds went wild after that. It was Jai Maharana, Jai Raja Medini Rai and Jai Maharaj Kumar for a full ten days. Mother was a little bemused by the sudden change in my fortunes. She kissed me on the forehead and cheek and asked me, ‘Did you really beat that evil-looking man?’


‘No, Your Majesty. Our armies did. And I’m afraid we must all look more than a little evil to him. He appears a little lost to me.’


‘Well, so long as you are safe, I’m happy. Have you eaten, son?’


I could not help smiling then. My dear simple mother. I think she was the only one who put our victory in perspective.


‘I’m not impressed,’ Queen Karmavati bestowed one of her dire benedictions upon me. ‘Those who have meteoric rises have meteoric falls.’


But I’ll grant you this, Queen of all my ill-wishers, I, too, am not impressed by my victory. Don’t get me wrong. It was not an inconsequential battle and the prelude to the actual conflict was excellent training and experience. But we’ve subdued Malwa, not conquered it. And a new man sits on the throne of Delhi.


* * *


Babur is, at least for the time being, distant and unreal for the people of Mewar. There is an euphoria at home which even I find hard to resist. Sultan Mahmud Khalji has ceded Mandasaur to us. Medini Rai is now Rao of Chanderi and Silhadi has been awarded the jagirs of Bhilsa, Raisen and Sarangpur. Victory celebrations in Chittor have always lasted for seven days. This time His Majesty has decreed that the festivities be extended to ten days. Was the Maharana making amends for the triumph I was deprived of the previous time, or was he underscoring a point to my brother Vikramaditya who has arrived from Ranthambhor without his permission?


‘It is a pleasure, albeit an unwarranted one, Prince Vikramaditya, to see you in the capital,’ Father had refused to see my brother privately and had chosen to speak to him at the durbar held to honour the victors of the Malwa campaign, ‘but I believe the invitation we had sent was for your uncle Surajmal. Are we to understand that Ranthambhor is unguarded and if an enemy had an eye on it, could seize it without much resistance?’


‘The blame, Your Majesty, is entirely mine,’ Queen Karmavati spoke before her son had a chance to say something foolish. ‘I missed him terribly and I knew that his brother, the Maharaj Kumar,’ she snatched my hand, ‘would be most upset if Prince Vikram was not here to share his joy and celebrate his victory.’


Nice move, my never-say-die second mother.


‘This assembly finds your maternal yearning most affecting, madam. It is for mothers to call their sons back and for fathers to send them away.’


The Queen let go of my hand and before I knew what she was up to embraced me with a theatrical flourish. ‘May your star rise to the meridian, Maharaj Kumar, and if it were possible, higher still. Take care of your little brother, Prince Vikramaditya.’


If anyone was in dire need of care, it was I. I felt I’d just received the hug of death.


From across the room I saw my wife looking at me. She was deliberately keeping a low profile and staying in the background. Not just the humble people of Mewar but even the courtiers can forget where they are and do the unthinkable: turn their backs on His Majesty and prostrate themselves at the Little Saint’s feet.


I thought I could handle my brother’s sudden surge of fraternal affection but I had a premonition that the relationship between Father and Queen Karmavati had reached some kind of turning point It was likely that she still shared his bed more often than any other queen or concubine but I had the inexplicable feeling that she had broken free of him. In the past, however peeved or aggrieved she was with him, he was the final arbiter; she would perforce turn to him for redressal and a sly reinveigling into his affection. She was, I suspected, past desperation now. Perhaps my wife’s ascendency had something to do with it though I was sure that the Queen knew from her spies that there was nothing sexual afoot between the Princess and His Majesty and that the Little Saint did not fancy politicking. This is extremely simplistic. I mention it merely because the Queen believed at some deep gut level that the way to control a man was through sex. Time was running out and if she did not make a decisive move, her son Vikramaditya might find it difficult to gain the throne of Mewar.


I feared her but at the moment my fears were on behalf of Father.

The essence of life is not cause and effect. It is perversity. There is no telling the consequences of one’s actions. As you sow, so shall you reap has a neat ring to it but you are making a grievous mistake if you put your faith in that kind of cheap sentiment. There are no just deserts. The wages of sin are not necessarily hell and the path of goodness is often lined with treachery for the world is predicated upon the principle of randomness.


Who would have imagined that Medini Rai of all people would do me in?


‘I do not need to protest in what high esteem I hold you and your family, Highness. Do not ask me to give you reasons for it but I beg you, do not do this.’


‘It’s rather late for that, Maharaj Kumar. The deed is as good as done. The Rana himself has given his approval.’


The Rai had called me over to the Atithi Palace for a drink and we were sitting on the terrace in the chill evening air.


‘I do not know how to phrase this, but perhaps you feel beholden for what Mewar did for you.’


‘Nobody’s forcing my hand. I am grateful to you and to His Majesty. But is it not possible that I might have developed a fondness for you over the past few months?’


‘I do not take this honour lightly, nor am I ungrateful, but I hear the drums beating in Babur’s camp calling us to war. Perhaps we can take up the matter after Mewar and its allies decide on a course of action.’


‘If we resolve to confront the new ruler at Delhi, as I suspect we will, then will you ask us to wait for the outcome of the war?’


‘It would be reasonable to assume that, wouldn’t you agree? Not everybody returns from war.’


‘Precisely. If I do not return, I would like you to be the shield and light for my family.’


‘That we already are, Highness, even without the formality of an alliance between the two families.’


Perhaps I spoke that last sentence a trifle too eagerly for Medini Rai laughed out loud.


‘We know how devoted you are to the Princess from Merta but a saint is no substitute for a wife. My daughter is a loving girl, Sire. She would have brought cheer to any home, but Chittor has a special place in her heart. She worships you since you rescued both her brother and her father.’


‘I do not wish to sit at an altar. One saint in the family is more than enough.’


The Rai was as taken aback by the sharpness in my voice as I was.


‘My daughter thinks the world of the Princess and aspires like most of our countrymen to be her companion and confidante but she is no saint, Highness. You’ll find a woman in your bed, one made of ordinary flesh and blood.’


The only one apart from me who was against my second marriage was Queen Karmavati.


‘Mark my words,’ she interrupted Father and me while we went over the guest list, ‘he’ll make a mess of it. That wouldn’t upset me so much except that he will ruin our relationship with Medini Rai.’ Then she turned to me. ‘We know what you intellectuals are like, you cup your hand over your ear and you think you hear the sea. Still waters don’t always run deep, Maharaj Kumar, it’s usually just wind in an empty tunnel.’


I am, as usual, intrigued by the Queen’s linguistic reconditeness. It matters little that my second mother’s words will not bear close scrutiny. There’s an aphoristic condensation in her turn of phrase. What it succeeds in doing is to set up a chain of dissonant images that are compelling because they seem to share a common thread or belong to a family of metaphors. Is Mother at heart a poet? She appears to be saying something deep even when we don’t understand her or worse, when she is talking gibberish. She is not through with me yet.


‘Do I need to tell you which vessels make the most clatter? You’ll rue the day you get married, Prince. God help the poor girl.’


‘If you are finished with prophesying, Madam,’ Father remarked impatiently, ‘the Prince and I could get back to more pressing and mundane business.’


Is it possible that venom and loathing incinerate deception, politesse and euphemism and go straight to the heart of the matter? The Queen certainly saw the future better than my misgivings allowed me to.


My wife Sugandha had disowned the burden of her father’s looks when she was born but there was something engaging about her innocence and her wish to please and be liked. Medini Rai had not exaggerated when he had advised me that she was made of flesh and blood. She was not chubby but there was a softness in her that was disconcerting. I was convinced that if I pressed my index finger into her arm or the knot at her navel, her flesh would gently wash and settle over it and I would not see my fist again.


I am convinced now that wedding nights don’t suit me. This is not belated wisdom but short of running from the marriage ceremony, I had done everything in my power to resist a second betrothal. I was gauche, if not downright offensive with the Rai, and anyone but my father-in-law (how strangely that phrase sits on my tongue) would have taken umbrage and not just withdrawn the offer of his daughter’s hand but nursed a lasting and vindictive grudge against Mewar. The Rai, however, thinks of me as his friend and well-wisher. How long will it take him to discover his mistake? And what form will his regret assume?


And what about the Little Saint? What kind of equation does she have with my new wife? As always I have no clue. A week before the marriage, she came into my study and announced rather theatrically, ‘I’ll be vacating my rooms.’


‘Why?’


‘You may not suspect it but I’m not exactly unaware of the momentous event which is about to overtake Mewar.’


Did I detect a note of mockery in her voice or was it really the sarcasm of the wounded? Not only has my wife been the keenest backer of the concept of bigamy, she has practised what she teaches. A wife-in-law (is that what a wife calls her husband’s second wife?) would ease the pressure of domestic duties on Greeneyes, not to mention free her from the onerous task of making small talk with the said husband so that she could devote herself full-time to the Flautist.


‘You’ll want your privacy with the lady.’


‘I’m not the first nor will I be the last in the Mewar royal family to get remarried.’


‘What if I want to?’


‘Want to what?


She knew I was being deliberately obtuse but she was not fazed.


‘Remarry?’


‘There are enough rooms in the palace and I believe a wing has been redone.’ I continued to talk at cross purposes.


I had, however, merely played into her hands but it was too late to do anything about it.


‘For whom? Me or you?’


I have neither the skill nor the quick-wittedness for the lethal riposte and thus failed to point out that with or without a separate wing, her assignations and affairs of the heart had continued undeterred.


I sometimes wonder if my wife is a conundrum without a key. Or if there was one, it’s been lost a long time ago. For what does one make of the Princess’ behaviour with my new wife? It must have been a week after my second wedding. I was coming home from work when I saw Sugandha calling out ‘wait, wait, wait’ to the Little Saint. Greeneyes stopped at the bottom of the stairs and allowed Sugandha to catch up with her.


‘Can I come with you to the temple?’


‘The correct verb is “may”. You can come to the temple with me but you may not.’ The Rai’s daughter was too naive to take offence at the Little Saint’s pedantic snub.


‘Why?’


‘Your place is with your husband, not in my hair.’


Why is Greeneyes, for the first time since I got married to her, going out of her way to make enemies? Has my luck suddenly taken a turn for the better? Has she become jealous and possessive?


Sugandha looked at my wife, then at me, ran up the stairs and locked herself up in her room. If she expected me to take her side, she was mistaken. I was not about to arbitrate between my two wives or encourage a race between them for the number one position.


The Little Saint may have accelerated the alienation of the Rai’s daughter, but however loath I may be, I must give credit where it is due: to me and me alone. I did not will it so, quite the contrary. But what use are good intentions if all we end up doing is to subvert their results?


* * *


I had decided to go through the marriage ceremony with stoicism and detachment. Instead I got involved. My Sanskrit is not what it used to be but I was pleased to note halfway through the rituals that I could make sense of many of the stotras and verses. There was a young priest who reinvented the language by a simple trick, perhaps the right word is insight. He did not reproduce a text he had learnt by rote. He spoke Sanskrit as if he was talking an easy Mewari. The key to Sanskrit, the pundits never tire of telling us, is crystalline diction. They are right, absolutely right. What they forget to mention is that diction will make sense only if it is illuminated by understanding. Eschew meaning and context and even your mother tongue will sound dead. The most condensed and closely reasoned or lyrical verse, the priest seemed to suggest, is not so much rhyme or metre as it is spoken language.


Who killed Sanskrit? How does a language die? It wasn’t as if a cataclysm had wiped out the populace of the country or the Muslims had decreed one day that Arabic or Afghani would replace the mother of our languages. Was language like a woman from the zenana that we could abandon any time we felt like it? Would Sanskrit have survived if not just the brahmins and the court, but all castes had spoken it? Will the language of Mewar also die? Along with geography and religion, a mother tongue is the destiny of a people. I have the strange feeling that man created language but now it creates us. This is too big a thought. Am I talking rubbish? I need to examine this interaction closely.


Suddenly my bride and I were alone in the bedroom. Sugandha had her back to me. It was a scene that every Mewari couple has re-enacted on its first night together. It was the time, I had a feeling, when the fate of most marriages is decided. Please, don’t be afraid. I won’t touch you. I won’t touch you till the day you ask me to share the bed with you. I give you my word. I’ve got some alta powder with which I’ll stain the sheet so that when the maid comes to clean the room tomorrow, she’ll not carry any tales. I’ll just remove one blanket from the bed and sleep in the corner here.


I stood in front of the door unable to move and kept going over the same sentences over and over again till she finally turned around and looked at me. I could hear her pulse from where I stood. I thought I detected a passing smile as she looked at me expectantly. I realized then that my internal monologue was misplaced. She wanted me to do my husbandly duty by her. I was overtaken by the same desire I had seen in her eyes. I walked up to her and gently undressed her. I played with her till both she and I were fully aroused. She had closed her eyes and waited for me. She might as well have waited for me till she was dead. I could not perform.


I watched myself in horror as I shrank into myself. I was in an impotent rage. My world had lost its moorings. What was left of life if I could not depend on sheer, straightforward lust? There is no certainty more immediate than the hardness at the crotch. And now even that was taken away from me. Unable to cope with the betrayal of my body, I began to rail and rant at my new bride. She drew her knees to her chin and made a tight ball of herself. She waited for me to strike her as she cowered. I did not raise my hand but I could not stop my ranting.


I hated marriage, I said, I had done everything possible to spare her and myself the pain and indignity of being together. But does anybody listen? Everybody but me knows what is best for me. I have no idea what connections, or rather disconnections, my mind was making but I brought Babur and the coming war with him into the picture. I was surrounded by enemies on all sides, did she know that? All my brothers had an eye on the crown. Did she want it too? And what if the legal heir didn’t get it? Was she going to blame me for it? There was no end to people’s expectations of me. I’m not superman, is that clear? I couldn’t guarantee her the throne or anything. Did she know that people thought I was a coward?


It was obvious that she was responsible for everything that had gone wrong with my life from the time I was born, perhaps even when I was in my mother’s womb. There was more, much more but the fact was, nothing was going to cover the gaping hole of my inadequacy. I knew I had to shut up, this was Medini Rai’s daughter and my wife, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. Did I doubt it for a moment that Sugandha would run to her father and tell him all? Did I wish to wreck Mewar’s friendship with the Rai at such a critical time?


‘Forgive me, Sire, forgive me for hurting you.’ She still had her head between her knees and I couldn’t hear her clearly.


‘What? Don’t mutter, woman,’ I lashed at her with renewed fury, ‘speak up, I am man enough to take whatever you have to say.’ By now my one-track mind had deciphered her words and I was even more incensed than before. ‘I’m treating you like a swine and you want forgiveness? Oh God, how I hate these martyrs. Can’t you stand up for yourself and tell me to shut up and leave you alone?’


I was dressing with my back to her (I had got my dignity and prudishness back) when she pulled my belt towards her. Before I knew what was happening she had got my scimitar out of the scabbard, held her hand over the bedsheet and cut her index finger.


* * *


I was working on a speech for the passing out parade at the Gurukul, when Mangal walked in with a shade more urgency to his step than is his wont.


The curious fact is, even when Mangal is silent, everybody listens to him. I’m no exception. Long before he became head of intelligence, it went against Mangal’s grain to reveal what was going on in his mind. The natural rider to that article of faith has been an impassive exterior, an economy of body movement and zero degree of excitability. But there is a paradox here. Despite his stoniness, Mangal is approachable, very much so, otherwise he would be useless at his job. I think his unique quality is that he lets you think you have a special rapport and reciprocal relationship with him without ever allowing you to discover how wrong you are. He will not show his hand even after the game’s over. How could he? All through our childhood, not that things are very different today either, I hogged the attention, I was the one who had moods and tantrums. He had to pretend that that was all right, that it was a perfectly just world and that he was without feelings or likes and dislikes. But I don’t want to grieve overmuch about Mangal’s deprived childhood. It has made him the best listener in Mewar and perhaps the second most powerful person in the kingdom.


I looked at the note he had placed on my table. It was addressed to me but I couldn’t make out who it was from, since the handwriting was unfamiliar and the seal was smudged.


To


His Highness, the Maharaj Kumar of Mewar Greetings.


Would you do us the kindness to see us? We await you outside the city limits.


Yours,


Prince Bahadur.


‘Is Shehzada Bahadur really waiting for us?’


‘In the shade of the rain tree outside the banyan grove, Highness.’


‘Any chance of an ambush?’


‘I doubt it, Sire. He has only eleven of his companions with him.’


‘They were twenty-seven the last time he was here.’


‘I believe the Shehzada is much reduced in circumstance.’


I have mixed feelings about Bahadur. I should hate him and a part of me does for what he did to Rajendra, however provoked he may have been, and yet I cannot deny my fondness for him. There is a quickening in my pulse and a repressed excitement at the thought of seeing a friend I had not imagined I would run into again, except perhaps on the battlefield. I will of course not allow myself to articulate the one question that needs to be asked: of all people in the world not excluding my new friend and likely enemy, the Padshah of Delhi himself, what is Bahadur doing on the outskirts of Chittor?


Mangal was right. Time has not been kind to the Shehzada. He had always been self-indulgent but he had taken care in the past to camouflage the cruel streak in him with humour and easy, likeable ways. But he had either given up the attempt or he no longer cared that he now had the air of a dyspeptic lout.


His deep-set eyes had turned beady and watched you shiftily. They measured your good fortune against his. Disappointed ambition, hard times and a wavering faith in his destiny had made him bitter and given him an evil eye. He could and did wish you all the ill in the world. The most unsettling change in him was that he could no longer focus on or attend to anything for more than a few minutes. He would ask you a question, start to listen intently and lose interest. He was a man who was through with impatience and would go over the edge any day now.


We embraced each other. He had obviously been drinking steadily. Liquor is like garlic. Its miasma and stale smell envelop the whole body.


‘Are you surprised to see me, Highness?’


‘Pleased to see you would be more precise.’


‘You were always the perfect gentleman, Maharaj Kumar, And how has life been treating you?’


‘The usual ups and downs.’ I wondered if we were going to exchange banalities for the next couple of days.


‘Have you finally been officially declared as the successor to His Majesty, the Rana?’


‘No, Highness. But His Majesty has, God willing, many more useful years left to him.’


‘My old man’s dead but I’m still not the Sultan of Gujarat.’


‘I was sorry to hear about His Majesty’s death. But take heart, Prince. If it’s written that you’ll be the sovereign, then no power on earth can prevent it. Our best wishes are always with you.’


‘But is it written, Maharaj Kumar?’ he asked me with not so much vehemence as rancour.


‘Shehzada, I, too, am just as keen to decipher the hieroglyphics of destiny as you are.’


‘Highness,’ his tone changed suddenly, ‘I’m a homeless man looking for a home. We were on our way to Malwa when we were told that you had not only defeated the Malwa armies but taken Sultan Mahmud Khalji prisoner. You’ve shut the door of Malwa on my face. Without the Sultan there, they’ll not give me asylum.’


I refrained from telling Bahadur that had the Sultan been in Malwa, he would have been even less welcome there than in Mewar. Gujarat and Malwa had been allies recently but I don’t think Sultan Mahmud had any illusions about Gujarat’s intentions. The slightest provocation and the late lamented Muzaffar Shah or now his son, Sikander, would swallow Malwa whole and without a burp.


‘I’m fed up with going from pillar to post. I need a temporary home. Will you let bygones be bygones?’


‘I do not live in the past, Shehzada. You’ve known my views for a long time. Gujarat and Mewar need to be friends and at peace. If anything, I believe that even more now. If it was up to me, you could stay with us as long as you wanted. But I must be candid with you. The people of Mewar will not welcome you. Not after what happened on your last visit.’


‘Are you saying no to me, Highness, even though I’m begging you to give me asylum?’


‘I’ve no say in the matter, Shehzada. However, I’ll arrange for you to rest and recover incognito in one of our villages for the next couple of days. I’ll also give you a loan of ten thousand tankas from my personal funds to be paid back when you can.’


‘I’ll accept your hospitality,’ Bahadur told me imperiously. I have to admit that he made me feel that I was the recipient of his benevolence and largesse. ‘Your generosity, however, is misplaced, Highness. I have an elephant’s memory. I’ll not forget that you refused me shelter. Beware, Maharaj Kumar, you sent ten thousand Gujarati men to their death by deceit. You masqueraded as a Gujarati soldier and killed Malik Ayaz. You took Idar back. No one has ever inflicted such a devastating defeat upon Gujarat. Vengeance is mine, Maharaj Kumar. Mark my words. I’ll hound you from village to village and town to town and I will overrun the whole of Mewar.’


I couldn’t help smiling. Was this the talk of a supplicant or of an autocrat at the peak of his power?


‘You are tired and at the end of your patience. But your luck will turn, hopefully very soon, and then your elephant’s memory will remind you of all the good things that transpired between you and me. If ever there was a chance of two hereditary enemies coming together, becoming friends and fighting for peace, it is Gujarat and Mewar.’


‘And what of honour and vengeance?’


‘Why not try an honourable peace, Prince? Its consequences are little short of wondrous. It will give us the time and the funds to build new cities and renovate old ones. It will attract artists and musicians to our courts. I may then even find time for my favourite obsession: the sewers of Mewar.’


He smiled tentatively. ‘You think so?’


‘Yes. I believe that with both my heart and head.’


‘Khuda hafiz, Maharaj Kumar.’


‘Khuda hafiz, Shehzada. Till we meet again.’


* * *


On the morning of the last day of the victory festivities, the Sultan of Malwa, Medini Rai and the Rana of Mewar signed a peace treaty. That night Sajani Bai sang for us at the palace.


Normally Kausalya would have looked after the arrangements since I was the host but Kausalya has ditched me. She was not there to greet me when I returned to Chittor.


‘She sent Mamta a message about a month ago saying that she was going to her village on some pressing business. We have not heard from her since then,’ Mangal said.


‘Does she know that I am back?’


‘I suppose she does.’


Why do my conversations with Mangal about his mother always turn obtuse and cagey?


‘What’s that supposed to mean? Don’t be supercilious with me, Mangal. Does she know or doesn’t she?’


‘I don’t know, Sire. Would you like me to send for her?’


‘Yes.’


Two days later he was back.


‘She’s not in the village, Maharaj Kumar.’


‘Where the hell is she?’


‘I don’t know. Ghanikhama Durbar, but I need hardly tell you that my mother is an independent woman and not answerable to me.’


‘Did she go some place else after visiting the village?’


‘She never did go to the village.’


‘So where did she go?’


‘I have reported her missing to the police. They are combing the city and checking out with their underworld connections. I have spoken personally to the Inspector-General. He’s sending messengers with mother’s description to every town and city in the kingdom.’


‘Is she all right, Mangal?’


I had to get a grip on myself. What was Mangal supposed to say? Mother’s missing for over five weeks now but she’s doing fine?


‘I have alerted our intelligence network too, Highness. I took the liberty of borrowing one of her portraits from your collection and have asked one of the artists at the temple to make a dozen copies of it.’


‘Thank you Mangal. I appreciate this.’


Mangal smiled wryly. ‘We may not always get along, Highness, but she is my mother and I’m concerned about her.’


‘You are right. Let me know if you hear anything. Anything at all.’


I needn’t have worried about the hospitality and the protocol for the guests. In my absence the Princess routinely managed dinners and banquets for anywhere between twenty-five and two thousand five hundred people. She plans and organizes while Mangal’s wife, Mamta, executes her orders. You’ll find more than a trace of Merta cuisine at the palace these days but as always the Princess makes sure that no one can accuse her of partisanship by introducing some Delhi or Ahmedabadi dishes in the meals. Since that night’s recital was in honour of His Majesty Mahmud Khalji, the menu for the dinner was Malwa all the way. My wife’s grapevine was obviously a sound one for the Malwa King was delighted with the meal and in terrific back-slapping humour. I, too, must have been feeling lightheaded and expansive for I was caught unawares when he disingenuously slipped in a query while we were walking after dinner to the Rana Kumbha hall where the concerts in the palace are held.


‘Now that it’s merely a memory of little consequence, perhaps you may care to tell me whether you brought an army of fifty thousand along with you on the Malwa campaign or was it only a bluff?’


When I think back on it, it was a good thing that I had not rehearsed my answer beforehand for my look of surprise had nothing false about it. I recall Medini Rai who was accompanying us slowing down and awaiting my reply with as much curiosity as the Sultan himself.


‘It was, Your Majesty, not a bluff so much as a rounding off of numbers.’


‘How much?’ the Sultan paused almost as if he was asking himself whether he really wanted to know the truth. ‘How much of a rounding off are we talking about here?’


‘We were forty-seven thousand seven hundred Mewaris, which didn’t sound half as impressive as fifty thousand, so we padded the figure a little bit. Why, why do you ask, Majesty?’


He looked relieved. ‘I thought someone mentioned yesterday that you had taken the latitude of adding a zero and had turned forty-five hundred soldiers into forty-five thousand.’


‘I would like my children to believe that I was heroic, almost supernaturally so, but I don’t want to be the laughingstock of Mewar, Sire. Soldiers are the worst liars in the world but I do believe that your source was overdoing things a bit.’


The Sultan hadn’t finished with me yet. ‘And how would you explain so large an army covering so great a distance in so short a time? Three days to be precise?’


I tried to avoid answering that one. ‘You don’t really want to know, Majesty.’


‘I do.’


‘It was an egregious lie and you’ve caught me out. It was a matter of dropping a zero this time. His Highness Medini Rai asked for assistance from his Majesty, the Rana, immediately after you left Mandu. We had a little time, so we divided ourselves into ten groups, each one leaving after an interval of two or three days and never by exactly the same route.’


I knew what the next question was going to be.


‘And the business of dog and monkey eating, is that true?’


‘Entirely. It’s something we learnt from a Chinese traveller who visited us some years ago. Their belief is that the meats of these animals, especially the brains of monkeys, increases aggression and virility to the power of ten. That explains why so few of us were able to take on so many of you.’


‘That is disgusting. A dog is a man’s best friend. For no gain on earth would I consume dog or monkey flesh. I feel like throwing up.’


He didn’t. One thing I was certain of: when he went home to Malwa, he would order monkey brains at least once a day. The Sultan took his duties of servicing his seraglio a trifle more seriously than the care and administration of his kingdom.


‘I cannot begin to tell you how honoured and touched I am that the people and princes of Mewar have recalled me to their midst. My salutations to His Majesty, the Rana. My adaabs to His Majesty the Sultan of Malwa. My special greetings to His Highness, the Maharaj Kumar and His Highness, Lakshman Simhaji. Each and every one in this august assembly is special to me. I will name each one of you separately and singly when we are alone, one to one, just the two of us,’ Sajani Bai paused. What alternative did she have? She had brought down the whole house and they were never going to cease clapping. She had not lost any of her magnificence. She had the royal audience waiting on her every word, and more than her words, on her every gesture, for it is with her nazakat and nakhra that she is the equal of any king or emperor. ‘But before I sing for you, I am going to ask a favour from a very special patron of the fine arts. On behalf of all of us lovers of music, I am going to ask His Highness Raja Medini Rai to render a song for us.’


If you think the men went berserk, then you should have heard the women. They would have put to shame the entire populace of stalwart ladies working in our red light district. Catcalls, hooting, howling, ululations, clapping. Soon they had joined hands and trooped down to where His Highness Medini Rai was sitting and formed a circle around him and danced an impromptu dandiya. The Raja raised his hands several times to quieten the audience, then gave up.


Don’t be shy


Medini Rai


Don’t be shy


Sing us a lori, hori or thumri


Else we’ll follow you to Chanderi


Sing us a lori, hori or thumri.


The Raja of Chanderi smiled and the women of Chittor sighed and swooned.


‘There’s no point, none whatsoever, in pleading with me to sing,’ his smile grew bigger and the dimples in his cheeks were deep enough to play parallel games of gilli-danda. ‘Did you people really think that I was going to let you go without singing with Sajani Bai?’


Listen now, cut out the weeping, nip it in the bud.


It’s only a story, even if the people in it were real, like me and you.


Nothing new about it, just a boy and a girl and some spilt blood.


Listen now, cut out the weeping, nip it in the bud.


After all, neither you nor I are Dhola or Maru, are you?


Sajani Bai closed her eyes for the lovers Dhola and Maru and for my dead cousin, Rajendra, who had died while listening to the song. How innocently Medini Rai of Chanderi had opened wounds that had not yet had time to develop scar tissue. Sajani Bai kept us waiting and wondering, would she sing on or would she move on to another song ? Then her clear, source-of-the-Ganges voice dug into the wound and drew blood and cleansed us all.


Death will not part them, so the song tells us with authority.


How would you know, songster, did you die and check out your story?


Speak not to me of the afterlife, it’s the here and now I’m interested in.


Can you make Dhola Maru come alive, uncross the stars, change the ending?


If not, cut out the weeping; better still, shut up and do our bidding.


Say what you will, the story will be told, Dhola Maru may live only in the retelling.


Sajani Bai stopped and looked around. This was not unusual. Our singers and instrumentalists, even classical ones, will interrupt a taan, a raga, bhajan or folk song to recount its history, tell an anecdote, give a comparative analysis of the way different singers or schools treat the same words, or comment and philosophize about any matter whatsoever. Instead Sajani Bai zeroed in on me.


‘Does not our song give you pleasure, Maharaj Kumar?’


‘It does, madam, but I cannot deny that it awakens painful memories.’


‘And you fear that some terrible catastrophe will follow as on the previous occasion? But there is no cause and effect operative here, Sire. If we consign a song to amnesia because of the burden of our own memories, then it is possible that an entire people will push a dastardly act or even the life of one of their own into the black hole of oblivion merely to seek forgetfulness and absolution.’


‘Do you really think one can wipe out people and events that easily?’


‘We rework our own memories and reinvent ourselves to suit our tastes and predilections every day. Who is to notice a hiatus in history a few centuries down the road?’


‘Why is it so important,’ Father spoke almost inaudibly, ‘to remember, Sajani Bai?’


‘Because otherwise our lives would be lies and we may never tell our children to speak the truth again.’


‘Will you be the remembrancer of Chittor, Sajani Bai?’


‘I would be honoured, Your Majesty.’


‘Then the truth will never be in jeopardy, at least not in Mewar.’


A regal pronouncement, eminently suited to such a public occasion and yet even as fond hopes go, I thought His Majesty was getting a little carried away.

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