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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 not a round hundred or ninety-three out of the hundred and seventeen who went to Pushkar? Mangal tends to get flippant when he wants to be cagey. But he meant what he said and he was right. Queen Karmavati’s chief eunuch was not just powerful, he used that power to hurt and destroy people. He liked the women in the zenana to be beholden to him so that at some critical moment he could ask for an exorbitant favour or exact a terrible price. He could be charming but always with an ulterior motive and even the queens were afraid of him. Mangal was right, barring Queen Karmavati and Vikramaditya, all of us at Pushkar could have borne the eunuch grievous ill will.


‘Has he regained consciousness?’


‘No.’


‘Has his condition stabilized?’


‘No, the doctor says he’s bled profusely plus his system has suffered a terrible trauma. There’s no saying yet whether he’ll make it or not.’


‘There was not a single slash or wound on Bruhannada’s back. He knew who was attacking him but did not retaliate or defend himself. Nor did he try to run away. All he seems to have done is to shield himself from the blows with his hands and arms. Do you think he believed he deserved to die?’


‘Perhaps.’ It was monosyllabic day for Mangal.


‘Who was it, Mangal, who? You think it was someone so powerful that Bruhannada felt he had no choice but to take an assault on his person without raising his hand in self-defense?’


‘The thought has crossed my mind, Highness.’


‘Will you stop acting officious with me and be more forthcoming? This was a crime committed within hailing distance of His Majesty. Anybody who could get to Bruhannada could have got to His Majesty.’


‘The police are aware of the lapse in security, Highness, but they are not happy that I’ve been given charge of the investigation and are not exactly being cooperative.’


‘Do you think someone’s putting the screws on them?’


‘It’s possible.’


‘Have you talked to Rani Karmavati?’


‘She informed me that she was under no compulsion to speak to me since I was in Intelligence and not with the police. But she did finally give me an audience yesterday.’


‘And?’


‘She was short with me. Would I not have told you if I knew who did it, she asked me.’


‘Does she suspect anybody?’


‘Everybody, she said, everybody.’


‘You think she’s coming clean?’


‘I don’t know.’


‘Have you questioned my second wife?’


Mangal looked blankly at me.


‘Don’t play games with me, Mangal. She was the one who found the mutilated man.’


‘She said she had skipped her bath in the morning because it was cold and was going to take one in the afternoon in a quiet place since the water would be tolerably warm then.’


‘Do you believe her story?’


‘I have no reason to doubt it, Sire.’ I thought I could read Mangal’s mind and even hear him say, ‘Why don’t you ask your wife and get all the details first-hand yourself?’


‘Did she see anybody else around?’


‘She said no.’


I was irritable and frustrated. I knew I was making Mangal do all the dirty work because I didn’t expect the Police Commissioner and his men to come up with answers. This was a Palace matter and they would be out of their depth. But all either he or I had turned up so far were blind alleys and blanks.


‘Let me know if something comes up.’


‘The Queen, it appears, has asked her maid-in-waiting, Urvashi, to go back to her home in Bundi.’


‘A falling-out with one of her maids is nothing new for Queen Karmavati.’


‘The word is that Urvashi may have missed her period two months running.’


‘Why would I be interested in Urvashi’s menstrual cycle? This won’t be the first or last time that my brother Vikramaditya has cohabited with one of his mother’s ladies.’


‘But it would be a precedent of sorts if the lady is really pregnant with Prince Vikramaditya’s child and is being sent away from Chittor.’


‘I don’t get the connection Mangal.’


‘It bothers me that I can’t get the link either, Sire.’


‘Maybe there’s none and you are reading too much into the Queen’s displeasure. Why not accost the lady while she’s wending her way home and check matters out?’


‘I intend to, Highness.’


Mangal must have been halfway to his office block when I ran after him.


‘Where have you kept him, Mangal?’


‘In one of the rooms in the quarantine section in the Atithi Palace, Highness. I’ve posted one of my own men there.’


‘Can we move him without anyone coming to know of it?’


‘I believe Rasikabai rents some of her outhouses behind Tamarind Lane to visitors from out of town.’


‘Transfer him there but not before you’ve got a completely bandaged double who can take solitary confinement for a couple of weeks at the minimum, maybe a month.’


‘When do you want it done?’


‘Tonight if possible. Keep at least half a dozen alternative accommodations in mind. We’ll move the eunuch as often as necessary.’


The rear wing of the Atithi Palace which houses the infectious diseases section went up in flames two days after we transferred Bruhannada. His replacement was lucky to have got away with only twenty-five percent burns.


From day one I had been going over the same question over and over again: Why would anyone want to crosshatch the genitalia of a eunuch? It didn’t make sense. Defacement of Bruhannada’s face, that I could understand. One could apprehend some kind of motive there. The chief eunuch was a goodlooking man and conscious of it. If anyone wanted to get back at him, the face might be a good place to start. I was not sure who we were looking for. Was it a personal thing or a political vendetta? Was it a man or a woman? And whoever it was or they were, why would the eunuch not defend himself?


Mangal and I went for a swim in the Gambhiree where we had decided to meet every night while we struggled to sort out the Bruhannada case. It was the only place where we could have some privacy. We were running out of time. Father was getting impatient, the matter of the Padshah of Delhi demanded Mangal’s and my full attention and the atmosphere in the Palace reminded me of that evening in the Gujarat campaign when I had watched a buffalo’s throat being slit while the rest of the cattle awaited their turn in cowering anticipation.


The ladies in the zenana would not take a bath or go to the toilet except in groups of three or more. A curtain or shadow moving was enough to start one of them screaming and within seconds the whole lot would be convinced that they were about to be murdered, and ran shrieking for cover. It’s not as if Chittor is innocent of crime. We have our share of wife-beatings, thefts, stabbings, highway robberies, and murders. But something about the viciousness and brutality of the attack on the eunuch seemed to have caught the imagination of the women and made them terribly nervous and fearful.


The hijadas of the city who share their genderless state with the royal eunuchs in the palace, have adopted Bruhannada as their patron and are going to take out a silent procession at ten tomorrow morning and march around the city both as a mark of respect and as a way of highlighting their plight. This is indeed a curious turn of events which would surprise no person more than the said Bruhannada whose worst nightmare, along with that of all the eunuchs in the royal household, is to be confused with the hijadas. What is more curious and to the point is that I have been deputed to safeguard a man for whom I bear nothing but the most unmitigated antipathy.


Both Mangal and I have always suspected that the brains and subtlety behind Queen Karmavati’s schemes belong to her chief eunuch. He knows what he wants and knows how to go about getting it. He also has that rarest of gifts: sustained application. He wants to be kingmaker and the power who rules from behind the scene. He has chosen his vehicle carefully. He may not love Vikramaditya as much as his mother does but he loves him far more wisely.


Now when he was at the peak of his powers and was perhaps the most feared person in the Palace, who would dare to touch him and why would he let them?


‘Rani Karmavati called me over today and told me to hand over Bruhannada to her since I was incapable of taking care of him.’


‘Why didn’t you tell her that it was too late to do anything about it now, Mangal?’


‘I did. I even gave her his ashes and bones. She smiled and told me to tell these old wives’ tales to my wife or some other credulous fool. She had no intention of allowing me to murder the chief of her household staff.’


I was about to ask Mangal who was snitching on us when I realized the folly of the question. Nothing, absolutely nothing escapes Queen Karmavati’s ears.


‘What about her maid-in-waiting, Urvashi, have you questioned her?’


‘She won’t talk, Highness.’


‘Is she pregnant?’


‘The midwife is convinced she is.’


‘Is it Vikramaditya’s baby?’


‘I doubt it. Since she wouldn’t talk I threatened to call Prince Vikramaditya. Do that, she said, and I’ll kill myself. She meant it, I think.’


‘Let her go to her parent’s place in Bundi, Mangal. If Vikram or his mother find out that we waylaid her, I’m sure they’ll tell His Majesty that we tried to molest her.’


‘I would like to keep her for another week or two though.’


‘Why?’


‘As I was about to terminate my interview with Urvashi, she enquired after Bruhannada.’


‘Why not, the whole world’s talking about him?’


‘Still, it’s a little odd that of all the people in the world, she should ask after him.’


‘Have it your way. Just make sure neither Vikram nor his mother find out where she is. Are you shifting the eunuch tonight?’


‘I already have. Whoever’s out to get him is as well-informed about his whereabouts as Queen Karmavati.’


‘What does the Raj Vaidya say? When will he gain consciousness?’


‘He’s not hazarding any guesses.’


‘I keep getting the feeling that we are missing something. What do you have on the Chief Eunuch?’


‘Nothing much really. When Prince Vikramaditya felt like a change of pace, he sodomized the eunuch from time to time.’


‘Does Bruhannada have another lover? Some young boy or another prince?’


‘I don’t think so. Sex doesn’t seem to interest him much, not even with His Highness.’


‘Do you think we are barking up the wrong tree? Maybe it’s not a sex crime at all. Whoever did it wanted us to think it was.’


‘So what kind of crime was it?’


We were back to where we had started. Nowhere.


That night when I got back home after the swim, there was no light in my room. The Bruhannada fever had got to me. My hand was on the hilt of my sword. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness when two hands clutched at my ankles.


‘I beg you not to put on the light.’


It was hardly a voice, just the broken remnants of a person transiting into the nether world. What if I had heard Sugandha’s voice half a second later? Who would have believed that I had killed my faithless wife by accident?


I dropped my sword and picked her up.


‘Please don’t look at me.’


Even in the darkness of the room, the purple of her bruises glinted like the shot colours in a Kanchipuram silk. Her body had swollen grotesquely.


‘Who did this to you, Sugandha?’


‘It doesn’t matter. There is no punishment in hell commensurate to the shame I have brought upon your name.’ Her flesh shifted like heavy liquid in my arms. She groaned in pain.


‘Hold me tight. Promise me you’ll never let go of me. Never.’


I felt such unbearable love and tenderness for her then, I was willing to foolishly promise her anything, declare bondage to her for the rest of my life as reparation for having let her down. And yet something held me back. Was this pity for her or for myself?


I looked at her baby face. Oh God, what had I done to this childish and childlike woman? How could I have allowed her to go to Vikramaditya? Did I not know that my brother would not be able to resist the soft invitation of her flesh to damage and disrupt it? Suddenly I saw myself for what I was: a petty, vindictive man who was relieved that his wife was committing adultery so that he could have a clean conscience and be free of any guilt towards his father-in-law. What had my brother gone and done to her? What did Rajput honour expect of me? Should I challenge Vikram to a swordfight, should I split his head and spill his brains, should I tear off his clothes in public and force him to walk naked on the streets of Mewar? And yet the only infamy I thought he was worthy of was the worst kind of un-Rajput conduct: stab him from behind and carve his heart out and see the bloody thing palpitate like a fish flapping and tossing for air on land. And yet I was aware I would do none of these things. Instead I would be circumspect, there was enough scandal attached to my name like shit to the sole of a sandal. I would tell myself that I did not need to shove my foot any deeper than I already had. I would be heroic in my self-restraint and find any excuse not to confront Vikram.


I felt a wave of such revulsion against myself, I tried to smother it by crushing my wife in my embrace. Her lips brushed mine and her breasts clamoured against me.


Why is it that the oldest questions we ask about ourselves never have answers? Where do violence and pain stop and sex start? Is lovemaking nothing but loneliness trying to break out?


‘Princess,’ I asked her afterwards when I lay quietly against her breasts, ‘why did my brother fly off into a rage today?’


‘He’s been doing it every day. It’s just that it got out of hand today. His temper has been unstable since Pushkar. He’s afraid that I know something.’


‘Do you?’


‘Would you believe me if I told you?’


‘Yes, I would.’


‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to know.’


There was good news the next day. Bruhannada had regained consciousness.


I looked in on him, enquired after his health and left. I thought I would give him another day, let him regain his strength but I also had some less than honourable motives. He was a smart man, he had a pretty shrewd idea about how the world worked but he was also arrogant. He didn’t just know it all, he knew better. He would expect to be put through a round-the-clock grilling immediately. Be a good idea, I thought, to leave him alone and make him wonder what was going on. A little uncertainty never did anybody any harm.


‘How long have you known?’ I asked Mangal.


‘Known what, Highness?’


‘You know what or who I am referring to.’


‘I’m no mind reader and you, Highness, are getting more and more cryptic.’


‘Don’t try my patience, Mangal.’ I had not been able to wipe that invisible grin off his face though there was one appearing on mine now. ‘I’m going to have to take you down a peg or two, very soon. Now, are you going to talk or be evasive for some more time?’


‘A couple of days, Highness, though it’s still just a hunch. But it would appear you are more knowledgeable than I am.’


‘Just a hunch, Mangal, same as you. Nothing more. We still need proof.’


Our conversation must have sounded like pure nonsense to any passing listener but Mangal and I were so much together, I just took it for granted that he had access to my innermost thoughts. Well, I hope not the whole lot.


I knew that Sugandha had lied to me last night. She was privy to something that my brother Vikram was afraid she might share with me or someone else. I didn’t think she was dissembling or that Vikram had put her up to it. My guess was that she was trying to protect me. Like most people who rush to conclusions, Vikram is, by nature, deeply suspicious. But he has a limited and straightforward mind which is not given to analysis or working a thought through. Unless Sugandha had been in the know of something, it would not occur to him to try to shut her up. I could be wrong but I suspected that she had run into Vikram at the wrong time on the day of the crime. I wanted to test my thesis with Mangal but as usual he’s far better at these matters than I and had zeroed in on the suspect much earlier than I. But even Mangal had no answer to one question: why would Vikram want to kill his staunchest ally? If His Majesty were to ask me to submit a report to him tomorrow, there was no way I could tell him that Vikramaditya was our prime suspect. I would merely come across as a man who was trying to frame his brother because of an ancient vendetta.


It was past eleven forty when I got back home at night. Sugandha would not allow me to light the lamp.


‘How long do you plan to stay in the dark?’


‘I’m not a vain woman, Highness. I am also not the prettiest of women,’ she told me with a simplicity that was not feigned. ‘I do not want to lose whatever little affection you may bear for me by seeing me in the state that I am in. You shouldn’t have provoked your brother, Highness. You do not know what a vengeful and dangerous man he is.’


Sugandha was referring to a short expedition that I had taken the previous morning. There was consternation amongst Vikramaditya’s security guards and his retinue of servants as Mangal and I strode unannounced into his palace in the morning. His aide-de-camp was so flabbergasted that he asked me, ‘Who should I say is calling?’ I ignored him and walked into my brother’s bedchambers. He was still in bed with some woman from Rasikabai’s establishment who made a considerable fuss about her dignity and honour being compromised. I threw her clothes at her and asked her to leave.


‘Who do you think you are that you can order a guest of mine out of my house?’ Vikram yelled at me. ‘Guards. ADC.’


Who-shall-I-say-is-calling had not recovered from seeing me stomp in but had had the presence of mind to follow us in case his master was in danger. I waited till the lady had left.


‘Shut up, Vikram, and listen to me carefully. If you raise your hand on my wife again; if you are anywhere within a hundred yards of her even by accident; if either you or your hired hands try anything funny with her; no, let me state it a little more precisely: if anything should happen to her, typhoid, pneumonia, a fall from a horse, an innocuous fire lit under her, or a poison that finds its way into her food, I will hold you personally responsible and I will kill you. Regardless of the consequences.’ I turned around to his ADC, guards and servants and asked them, ‘Do you get my drift?’


‘Hey, cuckold, which of your faithless wives are you referring to?’


I went over to Vikramaditya’s bed. For some reason he pulled the blanket up to his throat as if to cover his modesty. I slapped his face hard with the back of my hand.


‘Now, why didn’t I do that all these years?’ I asked myself in puzzlement. ‘Either one, Vikram, either of them.’


* * *


‘I don’t think he’ll dare touch you, Sugandha.’


‘It’s not me I’m worried about. Your life’s at risk.’


‘May I ask a favour of you, Princess?’


‘Are you trying to change the subject, Highness?’


‘No. It’s something that occurred to me yesterday.’


‘What is it?’


‘Will you teach me to play the veena?’


‘You are making fun of me, aren’t you?’


I shook my head.


‘You mean it?’


‘Yes. I don’t think any other instrument barring the sarod has the richness of sound and depth that the veena has. Did you know that my great-grandfather Rana Kumbha was not just a fine veena player but that he wrote several books on music?’


‘I know. I had to study him.’


I laughed. ‘Did you hate him?’


‘He does have a rather ponderous style and takes forever to come to the point. But it’s curious, now that nobody’s forcing me to study him or to play the instrument, I’ve been going back to him. He takes a different tack from all the classical thinkers who have written about music. He makes you rethink many of the things that you take for granted.’


‘I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve not read him so far.’


‘But you must.’


‘I will. But first the lessons.’


‘When do you want to start?’


‘Tomorrow morning at six, is that all right with you?’


‘I’ve never woken up that early.’


‘We can drop the idea then.’


‘Highness, you’ll make a good wife of me yet. I’ll be ready at six.’


The question of course is whether I would make a good husband.


Impotence is a strange thing. It may strike you just once in a lifetime but you are a marked man. You live in perpetual fear of when it will visit you again. You learn for the first time that the body is no longer your creature; you are its plaything. It’s a terrible and terrifying realization but there’s worse to come. It doesn’t make sense, it is totally and utterly irrational but no defeat on the battlefield or anywhere else can eat at the heart of a man as the fear of being let down by his member. One of these days, it doesn’t matter when, it’ll happen again and I will begin to resent Sugandha for revealing my failure to me. Will I end up hating her? Who knows, for the time being happy days are here again.


How little it took to make Sugandha happy. A bit of attention and affection and she would follow me around everywhere and do whatever I wanted.


‘Highness, I’ve something to confess. I lied to you yesterday.’ Sugandha had made me lie oh my stomach and without my asking her to, she was massaging my back and neck. My face was deep in the mattress and my answer came out a little garbled.


‘What did you say?’ She bent down to hear me better.


‘I said I know.’


‘You know? How?’


‘I surmised that my brother was, in his usual friendly fashion, warning you to keep whatever you had seen that day, under your odhani. Or else …’


‘He said if I told you anything, or anybody else, he would kill you.’


‘And what would you tell me that could provoke him to fratricide?’


‘Do you really want to hear this? I’m afraid of losing you all over again.’


‘It’s up to you and me not to let the foolishness of the past come between us again.’


She was quiet for a minute before she spoke. ‘We had an assignation in the woods near the Mrikand Muni Kund Ghat. I had lost my mind in those days, I was impatient to be with the Prince and arrived a good twenty minutes before I was supposed to. I heard his voice, it had a demented tone to it and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t see him but I heard him repeat the same sentence over and over again. “Let’s see how you can …” she hesitated, ‘you really want to know what he said?’


‘Yes, it may be important.’


‘Let’s see how you can fuck anybody anymore.’


‘Did you hear a scuffle?’


‘No. The Prince began to cry then like a child who’s terribly afraid. I ran out and I held him to me saying “Everything’s fine, don’t worry” and he said “What’s fine, you stupid fool?” and then he turned on me and asked me, “What are you doing here so early? Weren’t we supposed to have met when the hour struck two? Can’t you ever do what you are told?” He struck me then and walked away in a huff.’


We had made progress, I would finally be able to report to Father that we had identified the culprit and yet in some ways we were now in greater darkness than when we had started out.


Why had my brother fallen out with the eunuch? What did he mean by ‘Let’s see how you can fuck anybody anymore?’ It was indeed an odd expletive to use about a eunuch. Or was Vikram using the four-letter word figuratively? Perhaps he was incensed that Bruhannada had tried to harm or ruin someone dear to him.


I was fairly certain that the murder attempt had come as a shock to Queen Karmavati as it had to the rest of us. Not only was she deeply upset by the near-fatal assault on her favourite eunuch and adviser, it appeared that there was for the first time, serious dissension between mother and son.


But the Queen’s perception of the situation had altered radically since then. Vikramaditya had been able to persuade her that while the doubly castrated eunuch lived, he posed an unacceptable threat to both of them. What did Bruhannada know that was so dangerous?


One thing I’ll vouch for almost blindly: Vikramaditya and his mother have misjudged their own retainer. He’s not the type who talks or tattles.


‘Do you think coercion will make me blabber?’ the eunuch asked me with a thin sardonic smile that sat slightly unbalanced on his face.


My answer was matter-of-fact. ‘I don’t think so. But that’s what the people who tried to murder you, not once but on four occasions, seem to believe and would therefore like to shut you up for good.’


‘What is your interest in this case then, Highness?’ His asthma was acting up and he had to sip hot water to ease his breathlessness but he had lost neither his hauteur nor self-assurance.


‘His Majesty has put me in charge of the case so that whoever assaulted you is brought to justice.’


‘Fine word that, justice. Nobody brought anyone to book when I was violated and neutered as a child. Why should anyone take interest in the same act and consider it a criminal offence now?’


‘I cannot put the past to rights, Bruhannada, but will endeavour to do so with the present’


‘Good luck to you, Highness, but I must take you into confidence and tell you that it was a suicide attempt on my part.’ He was once again in full control of the situation and he was enjoying playing with me. I saw little point in continuing the conversation.


I wished him a quick recovery and was about to leave when Mangal escorted my brother’s one-time odalisque, Urvashi, in. It was a long shot but Mangal wanted it to be a surprise for both Bruhannada and Urvashi.


It was.


Bruhannada lost his poise but only just. For a second his mask of supercilious urbanity cracked but he recovered it almost instantly. Urvashi was far more spontaneous. There was no stopping her joy as she rushed into his arms. ‘Oh God, you are alive, you are safe.’


One can discount Mangal’s hunches only at one’s own peril. He had thought there was something between the Queen’s maid and her chief eunuch and he was right. The question was, what was that something?


I made my exit then.


* * *


I thought it would be a good idea to keep up the pressure on the chief eunuch.


‘Are you moving me every day to make a show of how endangered my life is?’ It was obvious Bruhannada had regained his flippant spirits by the next day.


‘Maybe. Would you rather that you stayed in the same place?’


‘No, I’ll play along. I’m just as fond of the theatre as you are.’


‘I found your talk on the Mahabharata thought-provoking. It raised some important issues.’


‘Highness,’ the chief eunuch shook his head coyly from side to side, ‘flattery won’t get us anywhere.’


‘Where would I go with you, Bruhannada? Your life’s come to a dead end.’ I said that without malice but it had the desired effect. ‘If you’ll allow me to, I want to go back to the subject of your speech. May I?’


‘Yes,’ he was a little less sure of himself now, ‘Yes, please.’


‘I think our countrymen have a rather warped idea of loyalty. Bhishma is the ultimate icon of our notion of sacrifice and loyalty. But it might have helped if he had ventured to question his beliefs. Is he recommending that we abdicate ethical choice and thus abandon the responsibility for our acts? Do we stick to people, however mistaken or evil they may be, merely because we were born on their side or have familial bonds or should we owe our loyalty, not to people or institutions but to values? Bhishma may have served humanity better if he had had the courage not to follow tradition blindly but to weigh in on the side of right, especially because he was perceived as a man of great moral fibre.’


‘You’ve got it wrong, Highness. Go back to your Gita. Whichever side of the river you are born, the Gita-god tells us, whichever caste or profession you belong to, be true to it.’


‘So he does, Bruhannanda, so he does. But gods too may be wrong occasionally and one must have the courage to go against them, perhaps even contravene their fiat.’


‘Beware Maharaj Kumar, you are overreaching and inviting the wrath of the gods. Bhishma, I would have you remember, is the expression of the highest integrity.’


‘Integrity, I’m afraid, is not enough Bruhannada. Only when it is in the right cause, is it worthwhile.’


‘You would rewrite the Mahabharata then, Maharaj Kumar?’


‘I believe you were doing the same when you traced the eunuch lineage to Bhishma.’


‘Where is this chatter leading us, Highness? I’m not interested in making any deals with you unless I can secure the future of my wife and child. I want an assurance with the full weight of the royal imprimatur behind it that no harm will come to Urvashi and the child she bears. I want it stated unambiguously that my child will not be a concubine if it’s a daughter or a eunuch if it’s a boy. As you can see the bloody surgeons, barbarians really, could not even do a clean job of it on me.’


‘No deal, Bruhannada.’ I let that sink in while I tried to grasp the fact that Bruhannada was the father of Urvashi’s foetus. ‘We don’t bargain with anyone by holding women and children to ransom. His Majesty will give you his word that no harm will come to Urvashi and your son or daughter regardless of what transpires between you and me,’


I had had enough of the man’s trade-offs and deals. When I was at the door, I turned around. ‘Have you ever tried exercising your right to make a moral choice, Bruhannada? You’ll be amazed, truth too, has its lures and gratifications. More to the point, probity needs a Bhishma.’


Did I really mean any of this nonsense? You’ll be surprised.


* * *


‘When did you learn that the male principle in you had not been fully extirpated?’


‘I was puzzled when I had the occasional nightly emission in my teens but did not think that it contravened my genderless status.’


‘Would you define the approximate interval between two emissions?’


‘Anywhere between four and seven months.’


Bruhannada’s hearing was in its third day. Since the commission sat in secret, Mangal had to take down the deposition of the victim. At the end of each day, the eunuch went over his testimony to check whether he had been misquoted and then signed the original.


‘Did your perception of your gender alter when you grew to maturity?’


‘I wasn’t certain but around the time I was twenty-five, it occurred to me that maybe I was not all eunuch.’


‘Why did you not report this to the concerned authorities?’


‘Every eunuch has just one regret and just one dream: that he has no gender, and wishes that he had. If I was even occasionally a man, I was not about to deliberately destroy my good fortune. Besides I wasn’t sure of my status since I never dared discuss it with anyone.’


‘When did you come to know Urvashi?’


‘About ten years ago when she first came to Chittor and was put in my charge.’


‘Did you know that she was Prince Vikramaditya’s mistress?’


‘Yes, but only for the first month. After that he lost interest in her.’


‘When did you start seeing her?’


‘Seven years ago.’


‘Did the Prince ask for her while you were secretly carrying on with her?’


‘Not once, Sire. He had declared that she was so shy and frigid that he would dismiss me if I ever brought her name into our conversations or suggested that he bed her.’


‘When did you discover that Urvashi was pregnant?’


‘About four months ago. I didn’t believe her at first when she told me that she had missed her period. But there was no mistaking it in the second month. Urvashi was really pregnant.’


‘How did you know it was your baby?’


‘It is my business to know who sleeps with whom in Queen Karmavati’s and the Prince’s palaces.’


‘How did you plan to handle Urvashi’s pregnancy in the seraglio?’


‘I thought I would send her to her parents’ place after the third month.’


‘When did the Prince discover that Urvashi was pregnant?’


‘He did not, at least not then. Later despite my best precautions, he caught me with her in the second month of her pregnancy.’


‘What did he say to you?’


‘My master finds the bizarre highly provocative and becomes maniacally excitable.’


‘Did the Prince requisition your services in bed after he discovered your relationship with Urvashi?’


If the eunuch was disconcerted by my switch in subjects, he didn’t show it.


‘He thought I was a freak of some sort and couldn’t leave me alone.’


‘Was the Prince’s interest in Urvashi rekindled when he came to know of your affair with her?’


The eunuch, or rather the former eunuch closed his eyes then. It was the first time since I began to question him that he showed any sign of emotion.


‘It was no affair, Highness. Urvashi and I were secretly married a long time ago.’


‘I’ll make a note of that. But that is not the answer to my question.’


‘The Prince was incensed that Urvashi had responded to a eunuch and not to a real man like him. At first he only hinted at getting back with her. Then a few weeks later he said she had better visit him. I told him that I had engaged two virgins for him for that night. Stop stalling, he said, I want Urvashi, do you understand that, nobody else. I told him then that Urvashi was my wife. I should have known better for that only seemed to provoke him all the more. He had her. Not once but again and again. I won’t use the word hate because it is so inadequate but the more she withdrew into herself and resisted, the more he wanted her.’


‘Did you have any inkling that he planned to kill you?’


‘My master is an impulsive man, Sire. Sometimes I think he’s truly deranged. He had been friendly and even considerate on our way to Pushkar. He insisted that I share his tent with him. He asked me to see him after lunch when everybody was either asleep or sailing on the lake. I thought he wanted his pleasure with me and started to undress when he attacked me.’


‘Why did you not defend yourself?’


‘I’ve eaten the salt of this house, Highness. I cannot be disloyal to it’


We had come to the end of the investigation. I had little sympathy for Bruhannada but I respected the way he had conducted himself. There was a bad taste in my mouth and it was mostly due to my brother. What does one do with people like Vikram? Self-indulgence is bad enough. But combine it with power and your appetite for brutality and evil becomes boundless. Your pleasure is the only law and in its pursuit you may ruin a stranger as readily as your closest companion.


Bruhannada had encouraged my brother to think that his wishes took precedence over all else. He had been his pimp and procurer in matters of state as much as in his indulgences. I could be a moral prig and rejoice in the fact that Bruhannada had got his dues. I now had the power to lock up the eunuch for good. But the intolerance and wilful blindness of the self-righteous is far more dangerous and dehumanizing than the rampant destructiveness of someone like Vikram.


‘Why are the Queen and her son trying so hard to kill you now? What threat can you pose to them?’


‘The best of friends make the worst enemies, Highness.’


There was no point pursuing the matter. Bruhannada had proved that he was not afraid of dying, nor was he about to abandon loyalty to the two people he had loved most.


‘What do you plan to do with me, Sire?’


‘You broke the law of this land and of this house, Bruhannada, and under normal circumstances, you would either lose your head or be incarcerated for life. But you’ve already paid a terrible price. I intend to recommend to His Majesty to let you go in peace.’


He looked at me quizzically and then laughed, ‘Do you expect me to believe you? We’ve been enemies so long, you’ll take your time with your vengeance.’


‘I may dislike you, Bruhannada, but don’t confuse me with you or your friends. The purpose of justice is not settling personal scores or vengeance. I believe you’ll be out as soon as His Majesty signs your release papers.’


‘That’s neatly done. You’ll wash your hands off me knowing that Prince Vikramaditya will do the dirty work for you: finish me and my wife.’


‘The state will relocate you wherever you want. In or outside Mewar. You and your wife will be given a new identity and some money to start a new life. Though I believe you won’t really be needing the latter since you are one of the richest men in Mewar.’


Mangal informed me that it would take him about a week to make the arrangements for Bruhannada’s and Urvashi’s migration. I had half a mind to ask him where he was planning to settle the couple but I knew what his answer would be: why do you want to know? He would of course be right. Ignorance, in some cases, is the better half of wisdom. And what about Vikramaditya, I wanted to ask Father, what did he plan to do with this barbaric murderer masquerading as his son and a prince of the realm? But of course I didn’t do anything of the sort. I didn’t want to be told to mind my own business or worse, that Vikram had been asked to read stories to the children in Nandanvan, the state orphanage at Chittor for three consecutive evenings as atonement for his crime.


I had fortunately little time for this kind of asinine carping. I was always behind in my work these days and there was also the question of Sugandha. She was now truly alone. Her one-time patroness, the Queen, had abandoned her and so had the Queen’s son. The Little Saint, I’m afraid, was behaving in a singularly unsaintly manner. I thought I had detected a thaw in their relationship when Greeneyes had recruited Sugandha for the veena recital on our journey to Pushkar. But Sugandha’s break with Vikram and the consequent rapprochement between her and me had rekindled the antipathy in Greeneyes. And since Greeneyes cut Sugandha dead or ignored her, the other women in the seraglio made it a point to ostracize her too. Who, after all, would risk the Little Saint’s displeasure now?


I started going home for lunch just to keep Sugandha company. She would be loath to let go of me and I got into the habit of sitting down for a second veena lesson with her. Her face would light up at such times and she would cling to me gratefully. But the pleasure of this companionship was short-lived. I came home one day to find the Little Saint waiting for me.


‘Sugandha won’t be serving you lunch any more.’


‘Why not? Is she unwell?’


‘You need not perturb yourself unduly on her behalf. She is strong as a buffalo and shares many of the creature’s habits, one of them being laziness.’


‘I am not interested in her pedigree. Where is she?’


‘Doing a little bit of work for a change. I have asked her to supervise the annual cleaning of the ladies’ quarters.’


I was not about to interfere in zenana politics and left but Sugandha was not home the next day either.


‘Don’t you think, Highness,’ Greeneyes was there to greet me again, ‘that Mewar would benefit if you sacrificed your post-prandial dalliance?’


‘When I need counsel about how to conduct the affairs of my office, I will hire your services, Madam. In the meantime, I would appreciate it if you refrained from offering advice gratis.’


I was about to ask her to send for Sugandha when I thought the better of it. Both the Little Saint and the rest of the zenana would only humiliate and isolate her further.


‘May I suggest Your Highness, that pity is no substitute for love? Nor is duty.’


Was she a mind reader, this woman who would not be my wife nor would allow anybody else to be? She knew she had scored a direct hit and smiled her saintly smile.

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.
1

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

16

Chapter 16-

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

17

Chapter 17-

16 January 2024
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0
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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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0
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He was returning from a seven-mile walk along the parapet of the fort at eleven at night when he saw his wife sitting at the Flautist’s temple. He turned towards the palace but something about her mad

19

Chapter 19-

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

20

Chapter 20-

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

21

Chapter 21-

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

22

Chapter 22-

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

23

Chapter 23-

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

24

Chapter 24-

18 January 2024
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0
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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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0
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Who, Mangal, who?’ It was seventeen days since ‘the accident’ as the court bulletin preferred to call it. ‘Could be any one of a hundred and fourteen people.’ I looked sharply at Mangal. Why

26

Chapter 26-

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

27

Chapter 27-

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

28

Chapter 28-

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

29

Chapter 29-

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

30

Chapter 30-

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

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