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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 all ills, one and only hurdle to kingship, for Queen Karmavati and Vikramaditya; friend in absentia to Raja Puraji Kika; bully and repeatedly beholden to Mangal; lover and looking desperately for Kausalya; plaything of Bhootani Mata stroke who is she stroke fate, stroke the void; indefatigable voyeur and reader of crumbs and leaves from Babur’s diary; murderer of ten thousand innocent (are there such beings on earth?) Gujarati soldiers; dysfunctional husband of Medini Rai’s daughter; hypocrite and destroyer of the one woman who is fit to be his wife and future queen of Mewar, Leelawati. What next, Prince? Any more fillers, any more homilies? Yes, yes, yes. Anything to put off facing up to the enormity of the question mark that is the future. To complicate matters, there isn’t at any one moment in time, one future but many futures.


* * *


Future number one: What do we do with the Sultan of Malwa?


At the cabinet meeting to which Medini Rai and Silhadi were invited as special advisers, this simple matter was debated for four and a half hours. The Pradhan Pooranmalji and Silhadi were of the same view but for different reasons. Pooranmalji felt that we should hold the Sultan hostage and prisoner for six months and thereby ensure that all war reparations were cleared. Silhadi was convinced, along with nine-tenths of Mewar, that we were being foolishly lenient and lax. Khalji, that ... (expletive deleted), ought to be clapped in a dungeon and left there for a year or two. Had we forgotten the forty thousand massacred at Mandu, the humiliation that Rao Medini Rai and the other Purabiya Rajputs had suffered at the hands of the feckless sovereign, etc. etc?


Lakshman Simhaji was remarkable that day. My uncle kept a lid on his impatience till Silhadi had finished his diatribe. Further amazements were in store for us. The most upright and outspoken man in Chittor forbore to remind Silhadi that he had sat on the fence till the very last minute; that at least partly because of his procrastination, Rao Medini Rai could well have lost Gagrone, Prince Hem Karan and his followers, and that for this extraordinary contribution to the Malwa campaign, Silhadi had been awarded no less than three jagirs. Instead, Lakshman Simhaji was at his courteous best.


‘Do you suggest then that we leave Malwa headless for a year or two? Chaos will ensue. Nature cannot endure a vacuum. The Sultan has brothers and an adopted nephew who would be king. Civil war is not an unthinkable possibility.’


‘Good. We’ll carve up Malwa and take what is ours.’


‘What is yours is a moot point, Highness. But even if you did manage to grab whatever you could on a first come, first served basis, do you think Gujarat or Malwa’s other neighbours will sit tight and watch as spectators? Won’t they jump into the fray and want a piece of Malwa?’


‘Perhaps I am speaking out of place but it might help if we could know our minds first before we decide upon the Sultan’s fate.’ That soft voice which went for the jugular couldn’t be anyone else’s but Adinathji’s. As Finance Minister he would listen to all your raving and ranting and then suggest, humbly always, that you compute the cost before you act. ‘What is it that we want? Vengeance and short-term gains? Or do we wish to secure peace so that we can build and strengthen our own fiefdoms? If the latter, then stability is the first prerequisite. Stability, however ephemeral and illusory, will come from law and the natural order of things. Which would seem to suggest that the earlier the sovereign of Malwa returns to his throne and his people, the more we stand to benefit.’


‘Are you going to swallow this specious reasoning, Highness?’ Silhadi Rai turned upon Medini Rai as if the Mewaris were conspiring against the two of them. ‘They can mouth such fine and noble sentiments for one reason and one reason alone: because they didn’t lose a single man, woman or child that day when Muzaffar Shah of Gujarat and his obsequious, knee-scraping, toadying host, the rat of Malwa, fell upon forty thousand of our family members and put them to the sword. Have you not wondered every waking night since then about one thing: what kept the Mewar forces from coming to your rescue? Lakshman Simhaji says that they left as soon as they got word. Maybe I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the fact is they were not there when they could have made the difference between life and death for forty thousand of our people.


‘I have seen the smile of sheer gratitude appear on your face every time the Maharaj Kumar greets you. Gagrone was in dire distress and about to fall to the Khalji menace and all Lakshman Simhaji could spare for the relief of Prince Hem Karan and Gagrone was three thousand five hundred men. The Maharaj Kumar told the Sultan that he headed a force of forty-seven thousand seven hundred men and the fool believed him. But you and I were not born yesterday and we aren’t taken in by these childish fabrications. Granted, the bluff worked. It was a fluke and lady luck was his mistress for that day. But what if that idiot Sultan had called the bluff? Where would we have been today? Think about it, Rao. It won’t bear thinking.


‘Lakshman Simhaji and the Jain Minister of the Exchequer want us to be politic and diplomatic, they appeal to the statesmen in us and ask us to let the Sultan go back home. I say no. I trust false gratitude will not overwhelm you and you too will say no. Let the Khalji pig rot in prison till doomsday.’


Before Medini Rai had a chance to recover from Silhadi’s onslaught, His Majesty intervened.


‘Your Highnesses, Medini Rai and Silhadi Rai, we must beg your indulgence. We have known the grievous loss you suffered and we’ve grieved bitterly for it. What we perhaps failed to appreciate fully was the intensity of your feelings against His Majesty the Sultan of Malwa. But it has been our experience that a military defeat is in itself so devastating a blow to the enemy that any further humiliation beyond territorial and war reparations is counterproductive.


‘You are, however, our allies and our dear friends. Beyond all else, Mewar values the strength that issues from a commonality of interest, a shared heritage and principles, and respect for each other’s deepest and innermost feelings. The Sultan, we assure you, will remain our prisoner.


‘It has been a long and overwrought day. I’m sure you want to rest a while. To our honoured guests, I say this, stay as long as you wish. Chittor cannot pretend to be your first home but it begs you to treat it rightfully as your second home.’


Was ever a royal conference dismissed with greater finesse? Most meetings end with the participants exchanging notes, lingering and loitering before they part. That day we took our leave of each other instantly and went our separate ways. I am not quite sure what Silhadi stood to gain from his performance but there wasn’t much mystery about his methods or motivation. He had ostensibly targeted the axis running through Lakshman Simhaji, Adinathji and me and sown, or at least made an overheated attempt to sow, dissension between Medini Rai and us but his real quarry was the Rana.


Who had put Silhadi up to such a barely-concealed attack on His Majesty? Do I set my long-cherished scruples aside and hint without saying a word (how does one do that?) to Mangal to put Queen Karmavati under surveillance? And if the man is already doing it, for who is more protective of the Rana than Mangal, how do I elicit the information? Worse still, if there is bad news, what action can one take against His Majesty’s favourite queen?


* * *


Future number two: the parijat tree.


My tree is dying. There are plenty of leaves yet on the branches and every morning there are still drifts of parijat blossoms on the dew-drenched ground. But I know that my friend has turned its back on me. I have no idea what unspoken covenant I have broken, what unwritten law of nature I have transgressed or in what way I have disappointed my joyous companion of the mornings. Who knows what pain we cause our dearest ones? And yet I tell you, tree, however grave the error of my ways, it cannot compare with the hurt you inflict when you shrink at the sight of me.


I can see you shrivelling, the sap slowing down, the heart growing fainter. Even in terminal cases, the doctors have told me that if the will to live is strong, both the disease and death are kept in abeyance. Who or what killed your will?


What is it, tree? Speak to me. You were like a three-hundred-armed goddess and your bounty was prodigal as a summer shower, day in and day out. I remember the leap of joy in your face and the goose-pimples on your body the first morning after I returned from the Malwa campaign. A thousand parijats leapt down and covered me; not even the pet dogs I had when I was a child have missed me so and made me feel so welcome. And now, barely ten weeks later, you are willing to fold your three hundred hands, withdraw into your tight little cocoon and bid goodbye to the concourse of creation, birds and worms and bees which nested in your breast.


No fever, no bruises, no symptoms and yet I know that something happened, something terrible.


Can we talk this over? I guess not. You can’t talk to someone’s back, to someone who’s stopped listening.


I’ve brought Befikir’s manure and buried it under the topsoil. I turn the earth every two days. I water the ground myself. I have rushed back sometimes even during office hours like an anxious parent or lover. I have played you the flute for hours. I’ve hugged you tightly and said I’ll not let you go. You were but a fledgeling shoot when I brought you from Kumbhalgarh. I don’t know whether you missed home; or the terrain and nourishment here are different from those where you were born. You almost died but you didn’t give up. You were a tough fighter. Do you know how young you were when you started flowering? Queens and princes and the most beautiful odalisques would stand and gaze in wonder. I thought when I grow old, I would sit in your shade and let your flowers drizzle on me.


Has the thing I fear most happened? Is there death in my touch?


Has that Bhootani Mata been here? Has she cast the evil eye on you?


* * *


Future number three: How do we greet Sultan Bahadur Shah?


If you believe that you are the captain of your own destiny, I’ll tell you that I share your view. And were your friend, neighbour and wife to warn me that it’s all ultimately in the infinite number of hands that fate has, I’ll concur energetically with them, too. Look at what happened to Sikander Shah, Sultan of Gujarat, and you’ll begin to see that nothing makes sense and that’s the way it was meant to be. The essence of fate and God is to move not only in mysterious ways but to be incomprehensible.


Sultan Muzaffar Shah died on March 16th, 1526. Two months and nine days later on May 25th, his son Sultan Sikander Shah was no more. They say he had an evil disposition and his slave Imad-ul-mulk, acting in concert with others, strangled him to death.


I remember the day Shehzada Bahadur rose out of the morning mist while I stood at the window of the top storey of the Victory Tower and took in the panoramic view. He had spent years in search of that elusive headgear, the crown of his father. Now in a trice, one of those storybook quirks of fortune had decreed that the golden orb come looking for him. Imagine, Prince Bahadur had been in touch with Babur and was contemplating joining him, when an envoy from Gujarat came to receive him and invite him to sit on his father’s throne.


Congratulations, Sultan Bahadur Shah. I rejoice in your good fortune.


The Sultan’s first act on ascending the throne was to pass a sentence of death on the slave Imad-ul-Mulk who had disposed of his brother, and on the amirs who had instigated him.


I would like to send an embassy of goodwill and gifts to the new Sultan and when the time is ripe, remind him of the peace treaty that we had talked of so often. Perhaps we can go beyond that and sign a military pact in case of an act of war on either of our kingdoms by an enemy. What chance do I stand of persuading the members of the cabinet to proffer a hand of friendship to the new Sultan of Gujarat?


The only chance I may have is to cite the Babur factor.


* * *


Future number four: Will someone please tell me what His Majesty, the Rana, is up to?


If Babur had been like the other visitors who invaded Hindustan from the north-west, he would have plundered Delhi, left a few hundred thousand dead or maimed, taken back slaves along with famous craftsmen and artisans, and the crown of Delhi would have passed on to Mahmud Lodi who unlike his brother Sultan Ibrahim, had escaped unhurt from Panipat. For the time being, however, Mahmud Lodi has had to be content with being the Sultan of Hindustan in absentia only. War and misfortune, I’m aware, are reputed to make strange bedfellows but Father has not only offered Mahmud Lodi asylum but struck an alliance with him to drive out Babur. Wherefore such misplaced haste and enthusiasm to make a commitment and to a former enemy at that? What happened to the classic rules of wait-and-watch when a new man comes into the neighbourhood, especially one who is aggressive and flush with victory? Does Father wish to dare Babur, see how far he can go? But if you think that His Majesty was deliberately going out of his way to provoke the new Padshah of Delhi, you haven’t heard the rest of the story.


Father has taken and occupied the formidable fortress of Kandar and driven away its ruler, Hasan. That, however, was merely a foretaste of things to come. Like a desperado running out of time, he has been picking up towns and cities from the erstwhile Lodi kingdom. The tally as of now is two hundred new territories, some minor and trifling, others substantial. The spoils of war, they call them. But the fact is, the spoils did not belong to His Majesty. The Rana neither fought nor won the war against Ibrahim Lodi; Babur did. All this landgrabbing has also led to a lot of displacement. In some cases Muslim chiefs have been replaced by Hindus, not all of whom are tolerant and open-minded. What we are ensuring is that all these malcontents will gravitate to Babur and start looking upon him as their leader and saviour. While Father’s helping himself to whatever he can, the two most interested parties, Mahmud Lodi and Babur, are watching the dismemberment of what they consider their territory with growing resentment. The former can do little about it, at least for the time being. The latter can, and I suspect, will.


A war with Babur at some point or another, may be inevitable but does His Majesty want, what other conclusion can one draw, a war right away? (Why now? Delhi was there for the taking all these years but he turned a deaf ear to my pleas.) This seems unnecessary and foolhardy. The Padshah is eminently capable of seeing sense and self-interest. All we’ve got to do, at least for the moment, is propose a pact from a position of strength whereby both sides respect the boundaries between the two kingdoms.


* * *


Future number five: Kausalya.


I ask the same stupid questions of Mangal every two or three days, sometimes twice or thrice on the same day.


‘How do you mean it seems that she’s disappeared? This is Chittor, Mangal, the capital of Mewar, not some ancient village where the natives are still savages. I’m telling you, she can’t disappear. It doesn’t make sense. You are not doing your job, that’s what it is.’


‘I checked with the police, Sire. They showed me their records. Every year from Chittor alone close to seventy people are found missing and are never heard of again.


‘Mangal don’t give me this....’ I have to stop abusing him. What’s the matter with me? I’m edgy, crabbed and short with everyone and not just on my bad days. All that meditation and talking to myself gets me nowhere. I’m still screaming. ‘You are the head of intelligence, I got Father to appoint you. And you can’t find your own mother. Everyday you give me the same,’ I switched the word just in time, ‘story. Instead why don’t you find her?’


‘I’m trying, Highness. I have contacted the Malwa, Gujarat and Delhi police. My people have been questioning pilgrims returning from Kashi, Mathura, Prayag, Kedarnath, Madurai. I haven’t given up.’


‘Did Mamta have a fight with her? Did you say something nasty to her?’


‘You know Mamta, Highness. Mother was never close friends with anybody and Mamta was no exception. But Mamta never had the courage to raise her eyes to look at Mother and talk to her. The last time Mother came over, she seemed pleased that Mamta was carrying.’


‘When is the baby due?’


‘Another month, Highness.’


‘You had better find Kausalya before that, hadn’t you? I mean what’s she going to say if she was not there for her grandchild’s birth?’


‘I’ll do anything to find her.’


‘Do you remember what they told us when they couldn’t find Leelawati? They said she had been smuggled out of Chittor or Adinathji had done away with her. We couldn’t find her but she was right here in the fort. Imagine my humiliation when she turned up pale and starved and said that I would have found her if I had tried hard enough to look for her. Search every house in Chittor, Mangal, every hut. I’ll speak to the Commissioner of Police.’


‘I already have. His Majesty signed the search warrant. We are combing the third muhalla now.’


‘Don’t leave out the houses of the rich. Don’t leave anybody out. And what about your underworld connections?’


‘They doubt that she was kidnapped or murdered for her jewellery or for a ransom. They usually know about these matters and they haven’t heard anything.’


I knew I would start again tomorrow. Talking distractedly and in circles got me nowhere but that was my only way of keeping her alive. It occurred to me then that barring that one foolish mistake on my part, Kausalya and I had never fought. I can’t explain this but my image of her was of her riding a tigress. Things always got murky at this point. Was she the tigress or was she the lady who rode one? Or was she both?


I was her’s and to keep me she would share me with whoever I wanted.


I felt unprotected without her. What was the point of being Maharaj Kumar if I couldn’t even look after my own?


Where are you, Bhootani Mata? What have you done with Kausalya?


* * *


Future number six: the Padshah of Delhi.


Things may change but since the time Babur defeated Sultan Ibrahim Lodi and occupied Delhi there was really only one future for Mewar: the resolution of our relationship with the Moghul king. Our allies as well as all our other small and big enemies knew this. On the 17th of October, Father has called all the leading Rajput, Muslim and Bhil princes and kings to a War Council to confer and to decide upon the future course of action.


I’m not quite able to answer the question why the whole confederacy of Rajputs and many Muslim jagirdars, amirs and kings had invested Babur with such importance and were persuaded to think that the threat to their lands would come from him. Till very recently he was nothing but a minor, displaced king who had after many wanderings and vicissitudes secured the inconsequential throne at Kabul. Did Delhi have something to do with it? Was it the defeat and death of the Delhi Sultan at the battle of Panipat that enhanced his reputation and made him the focus and centre of our lives? Or was it his avowed claim, repeated almost like a mantra, that he would take possession of Hindustan? I’m certain that there are many answers to these questions and yet I doubt if anyone will ever be able to give one that is wholly convincing.


Since the Moghul Padshah has been preoccupied with travel, battles, messages to and from Kabul, embassies to distant kingdoms, and his administrative duties have doubled if not tripled, one would have expected the entries in his diary to have dried up entirely or become perfunctory. But the conquest and annexation of a kingdom at least thirty to fifty times larger than his eyrie in the Hindukush mountains seems to have had exactly the reverse effect. Perhaps he has more than a couple of amanuenses and calligraphists to take notes and make copies.


Hindustan certainly excites his curiosity, disdain, opprobrium and sense of wonder. He sounds more self-assured now – and with good reason – but his self-importance hasn’t drowned his wit or sharpness of observation. And as always, he is one of the most objective reporters of geography and scenery, people and their habits and mores, that I have come across. But more of that some other time. What concerns Mewar now is his mood, tone of voice and strategy at Panipat.


‘After dispatching the light troops against Ghazi Khan, I put my foot in the stirrup of resolution, set my hand on the rein of trust in God, and moved against Sultan Ibrahim….in possession of whose throne at that time were the Delhi capital and the dominions of Hindustan, whose standing army was a hundred thousand, whose elephants and whose begs’ elephants were about a thousand.


‘When everything was ready, all the begs with such braves as had had experience in military affairs were summoned to a General Council where opinion found decision at this: Panipat is there with its crowded houses and suburbs. It would be on one side of us; our other sides must be protected by carts and mantelets behind which our foot and matchlockmen would stand. With so much settled we marched forward, halted one night on the way, and reached Panipat on Thursday the 12th of April.’


I drew sketches and diagrams to understand the schematics of Babur’s defence, the placement of his army and his strategy. He had ordered every man in his army to collect carts. The final tally came to seven hundred carts. The idea was to treat even the open battlefield as a moveable fortress. The carts and mobile shields of thickets of branches called mantelets were tied tightly together in front of the infantry to form a protective barrier. Ibrahim Lodi’s men would have to breach it to come to grips with Babur’s forces, an interregnum in which the Delhi cavalry and infantry would suffer heavy casualties. Babur had secured the right flank by using the town of Panipat and its suburbs as an impregnable wall. On his left and elsewhere Babur had dug ditches. At intervals of an arrow’s flight, there was enough space left open for a hundred or two hundred horsemen to sally forth. All this was not only very interesting but an eye opener. Where the Turki tactics differed from Sultan Ibrahim’s – and our own – concepts of defence was in extending the principle of fortification to every point of the battlefield itself. The ditch, for instance, was nothing but the moat around the fort.


‘From the time that Sultan Ibrahim’s blackness first appeared, he moved swiftly, straight for us, without a check, until he saw the dark mass of our men, when he pulled up and, observing our formation and array, made as if asking, “To stand or not? To advance or not?” They could not stand; nor could they make their former swift advance.


‘Our orders were for the turning-parties to wheel from right and left to the enemy’s rear, to discharge arrows and to engage in the fight; and for the right and left wings to advance and join battle with him … Orders were given for Muhammadi Kukuldash, Shah Mansur Barlas, Yumas-i-ali and Abdullah to engage those facing them in front of centre: From that same position Ustad Ali-quli made good discharge of firingi shots; Mustafa the commissary for his part made excellent discharge of zarb-zan shots from the left hand of the centre. Our right, left, centre and turning parties having surrounded the enemy, rained arrows down on him and fought ungrudgingly …. By God’s mercy and kindness, this difficult affair was made easy for us! In one half-day, that armed mass was laid upon the earth. Five or six thousand men were killed in one place close to Ibrahim. Our estimate of the other dead, lying all over the field, was fifteen to sixteen thousand, but it came to be known, later in Agra from the statement of Hindustanis, that forty or fifty thousand may have died in that battle.’


Firingi and zarb-zan. I was finally face to face with the new technology. Unlike us, Babur was not only using matchlocks routinely, he had field-cannons for that’s what those two marvellous-sounding words signified. Forget casting them, just buying and transporting them from abroad would take at least a year or a year and a half. No point thinking about that time-frame now. The important thing was to find out who would sell them to us and order them instantly. Lakshman Simhaji was my ally in this matter and he has asked Mangal to make enquiries with the Portuguese and the Persians.


Mangal has been instructed to buy at least half a dozen of these field-guns from whoever was willing to supply them to us.


Here is the strangest note I have come across so far in the Padshah’s diaries:


‘While we were still in Kabul, Rana Sanga had sent an envoy to testify to his good wishes and to propose the plan: “If the honoured Padshah will come towards Delhi from that side, I from this will move on Agra.” But I beat Ibrahim, I took Delhi and Agra, and up to now that Pagan has given no sign soever of moving.’


Was I to give credence to this entry? And if I did, for my experience and assessment so far are that Babur is not given to fabricating stories, what does one make of Father? What could his motives be and what did he expect to gain? Did he really believe, as did so many of my ancestors and Rajput brethren, only to discover without fail how grievously mistaken they were, that my enemy’s enemy is my friend? Did the Rana of Mewar wish to invite a foreigner into Hindustan merely in the hope of splitting the bounty of war and perhaps even the Delhi Sultanate? Did His Majesty have so little confidence in his army and his leadership that despite being the most powerful sovereign in the region, he felt he needed the help of Babur to reduce a decadent and debauched Ibrahim Lodi whose hold on the Delhi Sultanate was fast slipping? But there was something even more inexplicable: why make an offer if you have no intention of backing it with action? That, it would seem evident to anyone, is the surest way of turning an unknown king into the worst kind of vindictive enemy.


But the deed is done and it is so much water under the bridge.


There is no dearth of malcontents in Agra and so we are never short of reliable information about Babur’s court from Mangal’s agents in the city. Every Monday morning, sometimes during the week too, Mangal sends reports with quotes and analyses, revenue figures, military movements, who’s in favour and who’s not and an update about the thinking and debates in Agra regarding Mewar. One thing is clear, that while Babur views us with extreme hostility, he is fortunately preoccupied with troubles nearer his new home. The peasantry and the previous soldiery are afraid of Babur and his men. More importantly, almost every Afghan amir in the service of the late Sultan is in either open or insidious rebellion against the Padshah. Babur’s son Humayun had already ridden to Junpur in the east to subdue some of the more troublesome rebels. All this is to the good. We need to buy as much time as possible to get those field-cannons, purchase at least ten thousand matchlocks and train our men in their use and we need to do some major rethinking about both attack and defence strategies against Babur’s battle tactics.


But the omens don’t augur well. It is my habit to give Mewar’s enemies their due and to take even the weakest of them seriously. Babur, however, is in a class by himself. As I got to know him from the odds and ends from his diaries, I grew not just to like him but to respect him. I felt he would make a good friend and a worthy enemy. But in the last few months he has begun to exhibit facets that I find disturbing. These are doubtless a consequence of his faith, but faith, it seems to me, must be tempered by wisdom and tolerance, especially if you are a king. Babur’s language has undergone a radical change since he came to Hindustan. It is only while talking about a war with us that he repeatedly speaks of a Holy War. What then does one call his wars with Ibrahim Lodi and all the other Shia and Sunni chieftans, not to mention kings and sultans?


It seems sad, not to say counterproductive, if one has only contempt for the people one has conquered, and all one wants to do is to dash, to quote Babur, the gods of the idolaters. Follow this path and you’ll never look upon the vanquished as your own subjects and will not want to take care of them as a father must. If a king is to be strong he must be close to his people. They must all feel that he is their shield and sword regardless of their religion or caste or creed. Anybody who thinks that these are new-fangled ideas is a fool. Any enlightened leader will tell you that this is but self-interest, for in division lie the seeds of the destruction of your kingdom.


Even at the time when Babur attacked Bajaur on one of his earliest forays into India, he thought of himself as a defender of ‘the Faith’. He reverted to the ways of his ancestor Timur, sacked the town and massacred all the denizens, barring the few who managed to escape to the east, because they were not true believers. Now that he’s assumed the throne in Delhi, he has begun to cast himself in the role of a Ghazi, Avenger in the name of God. Strange word that, avenger. For what slights and grievances, does Babur wish to exact vengeance from infidels on whom he has never set eyes nor had any social or other commerce? Our only crime seems to arise from an accident: that we were born to another faith.


Since his victory over Sultan Ibrahim Lodi, the Padshah has been razing temples and building mosques on the same sites or if time and funds are short, converting Hindu places of worship to that of Islam.


Nothing special about that. We’ve done the same with Buddhist sacred places as well as mosques, as the Muslims have been doing with our temples since they first invaded India.


This is truly one of the great mysteries of life. Why this obssessive need to occupy the very precincts of a defeated belief? However, while the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism may have been adversarial, they did not think of each other as tainted or unholy. But what could be more profane for Islam than the idolatrous temples of Hindu gods?


I’ve heard it said that the conqueror will forcibly take over the geographic site of another faith because there is an inherent sacred quality to the place which he wishes to appropriate. There is as much substance to this reasoning as there is sophistry. Perhaps a far simpler explanation will suffice. It is the naked assertion of brute power. The victor is signalling that the old order is dead and letting his new subjects know who the new master is.

The night of his debacle with Sugandha, he went straight to the Little Saint’s room.


‘Where have you been?’ she grabbed his arm and shook him. She was in a rage of impatience and had difficulty speaking. ‘How you make me suffer. How can you be so cruel and heartless?’


Was he late? They hadn’t fixed a time for their tryst last night, they never did. As far as he could make out, he had arrived at about the same time, give or take a minute or two, as he had done all these nights.


‘What is the matter?’


‘You should ask.’


Was it the Flautist’s birthday? Couldn’t have been, or the whole of Chittor would be celebrating it. He must have looked blank for now she was incensed.


‘You have forgotten, you really have.’ She stamped hard on his foot. ‘It’s Holi.’


Alarms went off in his head like a series of violent firecrackers. How could it have escaped him? Self-preservation alone would have dictated that he keep his eyes glued to the calendar. What was he going to do? He had thought about the spring festival since the first day he had walked into her room when they were in Kumbhalgarh. It was not the coloured powder that he dreaded but the coloured water. He could see the blue of his skin trickle down leaving him naked and exposed as she sprayed him with a brass syringe. Should he take the offensive, rush her and daub her with vermillion, yellow, mauve, green and violet powder, fling some of it in her eyes and make his escape?


‘Stand still and put on this blouse.’


There was no doubt about it. She really had lost her mind. ‘Why would I want to wear a blouse?’


‘Because you are a woman today.’


As simple as that.


‘Didn’t you tell Rupa Goswami that there’s only one male in the world and that’s the Blue One, and the rest are women?’


‘Men and women have genders. Gods are simultaneous. Which is why like Ardhanareshwar, you are both man and woman. You should know that better than anyone else.’


‘That doesn’t make sense.’


‘Life is not meant to. Ambivalence is the essence of life. Or rather ambiguity is. Besides you never have problems wearing a woman’s clothes when you are with your favourite milkmaid, Radha. Radha this and Radha that. Even your name gets changed to Radhekrishna.’


There was no way, absolutely none, that he was going to wear a blouse. He was a Prince, perhaps even heir apparent. Can you imagine the Maharaj Kumar of Mewar as a transvestite? If his bumpy and highly fluctuating fortunes had not already put paid to his ambitions, this new wrinkle would certainly seal his fate.


He was a fool, he told himself. How come he hadn’t realized all these years that it was a conspiracy? Was his wife, in reality, in league with Vikramaditya and Queen Karmavati? The pieces suddenly began to fall in place. The Princess and the Queen had hatched the plot from the very beginning, from the time she had married the Maharaj Kumar. Queen Karmavati had pretended to hate the Princess while the two of them worked hand in hand. Even as his wife set him up and humiliated him at every stage, made him Mewar’s number one cuckold and brought public obloquy upon the house of the Rana, the Queen howled for her blood and played the role of the Princess’ enemy with a deliberate lack of subtlety, so that it appeared to be in character with her public image, and thus accelerated his descent into ignominy. Now his wife was about to administer the final and fatal blow: expose him as a closet queen. Queen Karmavati would do the rest. This time he would lose the kingship for good.


She took hold of his right hand and slipped his arm into the blouse and then did the same with the left. ‘Turn around,’ she tied the strings of the backless choli and gave him a once-over. ‘Seems to fit okay, what do you think?’ She didn’t wait for his response. ‘Wait, wait a minute. I’ve got the order of things all wrong.’ She tugged at the knot of the blouse and pulled it off again. She ran out of the room and brought back a razor. What now, did she want to shave his head off? She tested the blade on her left index finger and then in swift firm strokes shaved his arms, armpits, chest and back.


‘What are you doing?’ he whispered in disbelief.


She was short with him. ‘How can a woman have hair in the wrong places?’


Her hand was light and yet he twitched uncontrollably as if she was removing chunks of his flesh.


‘What is it? Why are you shivering so?’ She ran her hand over his body gently and soothed him. Now she undid his dhoti. He stood there naked. He had not felt so humiliated, not even when the people of Chittor had booed him when he and his armies had returned from the Gujarat campaign. He wondered whether she intended to parade him through the main avenues of the city. Or was she going to cut his member off to make a full woman of him? She slid the razor over his underbelly, the triangular patch of hair he had just above the buttocks and then over his legs. What was she doing? More to the point, what was he doing? Why didn’t he snatch the razor from her and slice off her hand?


It was time to dress him. First the black silk skirt with a soft Dhaka cotton lining, then the red and black bandhani blouse and finally a red chunni. He had to admit that she had an eye for colour. She brought out her jewellery box, parted his hair in the middle and pinned a gold chain in the divide so that the minakari pendant hung over his forehead. Now the glass bangles, black, red and gold to match the colours of his clothes. He was certain that she would not be able to get them beyond the knuckles. He was wrong. Like Sunheria, she too pretended that the hand and wrist are boneless and all you had to do was gently massage them and then slip the bangles up almost as an afterthought. The anklets posed even less of a problem. She hooked two of them together, pulled up his skirt and tied them above his feet.


‘How lovely you look.’


He stared at his image in the mirror she had fetched. But for the ghastly uneven blue with the red-pink lips sticking out and the flat breasts, he could easily have passed as a woman.


She dropped her own clothes in a hurry. What now? She laughed out loud when she saw the bemused look in his eyes.


With astonishing speed she tied his pitambar around her waist. She was right, he was stupid. If he was Radha (perish the thought, his wife would not hesitate to slit his throat if she thought he was confusing her with her legendary rival), if he was Greeneyes, then she was the Flautist. She stuck the peacock feather into her headband.


How far would the Little Saint go down this dangerous path? He had vaguely heard of the weird practices of the fringe sects who worshipped the Blue God. Make-believe was the crux of their adoration and they took turns at being the Flautist. Gender was a fuzzy line and they crossed it continually. Surely at some point such sexual indulgence could become an end in itself and lead to some bizarre perversions and decadence?


The Princess crossed her forearms and held his crossed hands in hers. She began to go round slowly. He didn’t quite know what she had in mind but he followed her. They were face to face and still he had the feeling that they were stalking each other. What game of cat and mouse had she devised this time? Nothing of the sort, he soon realized, all she was doing was playing kikli. Their hands locked into each other, feet barely lifting off the ground as they circled. They gradually accelerated their velocity. The palace walls, the parijat tree, the Victory Tower, the tulsi plant hurtled past and just as swiftly reappeared. Faster and faster they went, each leaning as far back and away from the other as possible. Their chunnis slipped, skirts flared and the sky see-sawed madly. He felt a strange sense of elation, the sweat leapt off their bodies, they had gone to the limits of their energy and then beyond and yet would never stop.


He envied the simplicity of her universe where everything she did or thought of was an act of devotion. Sex was worship and so was looking after his father and cheating while playing cards and laughter and standing on the swing and tossing the earth back and forth and singing and dancing. Her whole life, the highs and the lows, the tantrums and the pleasures, everything was an offering as much to herself as to her god. She was the essence of the Flautist’s idea of a karmayogi, or rather, yogin for whom the life of action made life worth living. She engaged life as if there was no tomorrow. Perhaps moksha lies in not thinking about the afterlife.


‘My Prince,’ Bhootani Mata was standing demurely behind the parijat tree.


‘Haven’t seen you for so long, I had begun to fear that you had met with an accident.’ He had still not learnt there was no point being sarcastic with her.


‘Did you miss me that much? But you should know by now that I’m always within hailing distance. Frankly I am, like your beloved, lodged in your heart.’


‘I advise you to keep off my wife if you know what’s good for you.’


‘May I refresh your memory, Highness, it was I who suggested to you, while you were whining and importuning me on an hourly basis, that you should not just keep off your dear wife but,’ Bhootani Mata smiled reproachfully, ‘forget her altogether. I am pleased to see that there has been a radical change in your wife’s fortunes. The country no longer thinks of her as a whore. Little Saint, isn’t that what they call her these days? The townspeople would be most impressed by the Little Saint’s saintly acts every night.’


‘Spare us your sarcasm.’


‘Don’t wince, Maharaj Kumar. You will agree that there has been a rapprochement among parties who one would have wagered, would become friends only when heaven and hell change places. You look bored, Prince, and impatient to be rid of me.’


‘Can we come to the point? I have other matters to attend to.’


‘I do not wish to delay your dalliance. Let me give you the good news. From now on anybody who has had the misfortune to have come in contact with you is under threat. People who are totally unaware of the pact that you made with me will pay the price for your sins and the vagaries of your mind. I hope you rot with guilt and the enormity of the havoc you will unleash on innocents. We’ll get even yet, Highness. I must take your leave now.’


She turned to leave. He knew she wasn’t finished with him.


‘Oh, how could I forget? I say, aren’t you going to ask me about the parijat tree and Kausalya?’


‘No.’


‘You don’t care?’


‘Let’s just say that I don’t care to give you credit for whatever’s happened to them.’


‘You think, my friend, that the earth opened and swallowed Kausalya just as it did Sita in the story books and your parijat dropped dead out of exhaustion one sunny morning?’


‘You are getting to be a megalomaniac, Bhootani Mata. Do you want me to believe that the drought in Vijayanagar this year, Babur’s victory at Panipat, the latest Portuguese ship sinking near Surat, are all your doing? If that’s the case, why don’t you play with your equals, the Flautist, for instance? You are like all the third-rate babas, gurus and saviours of the world. All you can do is play upon the fears of men and women. But I’m through with fear, fear of what you can do to me.’


His feet had begun to shrink and worse, he no longer minded the bangles on his arms. He had the distinct feeling that he had grown small and delicate. If he had been horrified at the thought of masquerading as a transvestite, why was he not incensed that his step had become light and his torso lissom? Or were the reasons for this quite simple and banal? That at heart he was a woman or perhaps all human beings are really bisexual? What was the source of a person’s sex? Did clothes play a role in it? Could he really get under a woman’s skin merely by wearing a ghagra and choli? All these years he had believed that the only difference between men and women was their bodies. But were their minds made differently too? What does it mean to be a woman? Is it long, flowing hair tied in a plait or knot, is it the fullness in the breasts, is it patience and nurturing as much as strength and intelligence? What is the most complete and sufficient idea that mankind has had? God. And yet if you assign sex to God, then he or she too becomes finite and incomplete.


Her choli and chunni were wet. She saw him looking at her and the wheeling, careening sky stopped abruptly. She slipped into his arms. He tried to hug her tightly but her liquefying flesh kept slipping away, he went out of his mind with that slithery touch, he wanted to annihilate the separateness of their bodies and become one with her. There was no way they could hold on to each other. She bent down, scrabbled in the ground, stood up and frantically rubbed earth on herself and him. The scent of the wet earth cleared his head.


Spring was in the air and her flesh broke out imperceptibly into tendrils that grew into vines. They entwined themselves around her arms and breasts and spread out over her thighs and calves and toes. And all the while, tiny green leaves stirred and essayed forth. And shyly, ever so slowly, yellow and red buds crept out and almost soundlessly popped open. He stretched a finger to touch flower and leaf. Before he knew it, the green had leapt over and entwined itself around his hand and drew him to the creeper-woman. Nothing, he knew then, could break them asunder.


It was then that she called out to him, ‘Krishna Kanhaiyya, Krishna Kanhaiyya.’

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

3

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

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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

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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

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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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