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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 since I had come to office? There was something wrong, terribly wrong. How could the bird-sounds have died so suddenly? And where had all the people of Chittor disappeared: the children playing marbles and spinning tops on the streets; the steady, hypnotic swing, bash and splash of clothes at the dhobi ghat on the river; the vegetable, fruit, pearl and precious-stone vendors calling out and hectoring passers-by and of course the continuous quarrying of stone for Sahasmal’s water and sewage system?


I felt uneasy and decided to find out what was going on. There was not a cat or dog, bird, child or grown-up on the streets. A knot of terror was tightening at the pit of my stomach. Even during the cholera or my grandfather, Rana Raimul’s funeral, there wasn’t such an eerie silence. Had Babur stolen into Chittor and like Allauddin Khilji, run his sword through all living things in the city and massacred them? Was Father all right? I started to run dementedly calling out for Mangal I know not why.


And then I looked up at the sky.


In the dead centre of the starless night was a perfect black full moon with a fuzzy halo around it. What was it, this evil bindi in the forehead of the sky?


My good friend and protector Mangal, papers in hand, ran in the dark to save me from whatever demons were pursuing me.


‘Highness, please,’ Mangal was yelling at me, ‘don’t look at the solar eclipse.’ He threw his hands around my eyes and buried my head in his chest. ‘Are you all right, Maharaj Kumar?’


A total solar eclipse. Couldn’t the Sun-god have chosen another time and place for his own annihilation? What was my ancestor trying to tell me? Was it the most unambiguous message the god of light was sending us about how inauspicious a time we had chosen to meet the Moghul menace? But the eclipse must have been on simultaneously in Agra and the Padshah too must have seen it. Whose side was the Sun-god on? Did the conjunction of the sun and the moon signify doom for Mewar or the Moghul Padshah? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. This was one time when I was going to use the full weight and thrust of superstition to try and postpone the forthcoming engagement with Babur.


‘What were you doing staring at the eclipse, Sire? We must get the Raj Vaidya to treat your eyes immediately.’


‘Later, later. I must meet His Majesty first.’ There were flaming circles at the centre of my eyes and I stumbled as I ran but there was no stopping me.


‘Your Majesty,’ I was a little breathless, ‘I urge you to heed the signs and omens. I beg you, let wiser counsel prevail. Our ancestor, the Sun-god himself is warning us that this is not an opportune moment to take on the Moghul Padshah.’


‘Quite the contrary, my son,’ His Majesty laughed and patted me on the back. ‘Our ancestor has sent us a messenger who has just told us that Babur is dying.’


Everything’s come to a halt. There’s a moratorium on war preparations. You would think we were celebrating Diwali in December. The clerks stopped writing in mid-sentence, the stable-master who had shod three of a horse’s hooves abandoned the fourth, the sword-makers have doused the smithy, tied up the forges and gone to the nautanki. Believe it or not, they are distributing sweetmeats in some localities. Even the government offices and cabinet ministers who’ve been working overtime for three months running have taken the last two days off. The bells in the temples ring all day long and everybody including all our Muslim brothers are giving thanks.


Sultan Ibrahim Lodi’s mother whom the Moghul usurper had kept, out of kindness to an old woman, under his own roof at Agra, had got one of her retainers to poison the Padshah. Babur has been vomiting copiously for over twenty-four hours.


‘Any moment now,’ Shafi’s father told me, ‘the Padshah will breathe his last, may his soul fly to heaven.’


He was followed by none other than His Majesty. If there’s a problem to discuss, instead of standing on his dignity and summoning me, he drops by and the two of us clear both the problem and the file on the spot ninety-five per cent of the time.


‘You should have summoned me, Majesty.’


‘Summon you for what? It’s a holiday, albeit an unofficial one. You and Mangal are the only two people in Chittor who are still at work.’


I smiled and got up and gave my chair to him.


‘You are such a pessimist, son. Why do you think Babur won’t die or isn’t already dead?’


‘The old lady’s retainer, I suspect, botched the job. In- poison cases if you are not dead within twelve hours, you’ll very likely survive.’


‘What makes you so sure?’


‘I don’t know whether God is on his side or not, but he has survived all these years on faith and his faith seems capable of seeing him through many a tight spot. Cats have nine lives, Father; Babur has already run through nineteen or maybe twenty-nine.’


‘Are you feeling fatalistic about this campaign, son?’


‘No. I just don’t want to leave anything to chance.’


‘In that case, I, too, better get back to work.’


‘Father, before you leave, may I ask you a question?’


‘You may.’


‘Who did you wish to appoint governor of Chittor and acting head of Mewar while we are away?’


‘I’ve been puzzling over it for weeks without coming to any conclusion. When the cat’s away not only will the mice be at play, other cats too will be eyeing our territory. I tried to broach the subject to my old friend, Lakshman Simhaji, but this time he is adamant. He wants to be by my blind side so that he can see for me and protect me. Who did you have in mind?’


‘Mangal Simha.’


‘Have you learnt of the whereabouts of his mother yet?’


‘No, Your Majesty.’


‘He’s a fine man, unblinkered, ruthless and fair. And utterly loyal to the throne. But they won’t have him. He is young and is not directly descended from royal blood. If that was all, he might still stand a chance. But Rao Pooranmalji, our Pradhanji, would take grievous offence if he was not appointed acting head of Mewar. I have, however, a solution. I’ll appoint Mangal governor of Chittor. That way no one will be upset and Mangal can keep an eye on things internal and external.’


* * *


There’s something punitive about the way I play the veena these days; more like an act of repentance and a desperate seeking for forgiveness, if not absolution from Sugandha. I practise whenever I can. Since I have no free time during the day, I have to cut into my hours of sleep. I guess the fact that I am more than proficient at the flute and have some acquaintance with classical theories of music must have its advantages. My fingers no longer bleed since they are developing protective calluses and barring glissandos, my fingerwork is improving almost by the day. If I continue to work at it as hard as I have been for the past few months, Rana Kumbha, the master veena player, may even approve of his great-grandson following in his footsteps from wherever his soul is wandering.


I have realized now that I am at heart, an inveterate show-off and exhibitionist. If I was a little more accomplished at the instrument, I would go public today and hold professional concerts in the courts of all the leading rajas and get myself invited to the durbars of the Sultan of Gujarat, maybe, even play for the new Padshah of Delhi. Unfortunately, my desire for unceasing applause is not commensurate with my talent, at least not yet. Every time my ambition gets the better of my commonsense and I want to perform for a select group of music lovers, I think of my guru and in her unobtrusive and gentle way, she shakes her head and advises me to be patient.


Now that’s curious, this is the first time it has registered in my mind that the word ‘patient’ must stem from suffering and so relate to the sick and the ailing. It is they who are expected to be forbearing and to have the patience and fortitude required to recover. Or die. I have no idea why Sugandha was patient, patient as hardly anybody I’ve known has been. Why did she not cry and howl, rend the skies, smash everything in sight, stab and assault anyone who had the good fortune to be healthy and walking? Why did she bear such unconscionable pain? I know that one has no choice in the matter but isn’t that the very reason why she should have screamed and sworn at the gods? Did she not know that mankind may be powerless but the impotent too can curse and imprecate? Who knows, sometimes even the gods must fear the wrath of creatures who cannot retaliate. Sugandha was a fool. She bore her fate magnificently. What heroism is there in bearing pain? All pain humiliates and debases. The least she could have done was to make all of Chittor witness to the pettiness and nastiness of our Maker.


As all of us hovered over her, His Majesty, Queen Karmavati, her brother, Hem Karan and her father who had been summoned, it slowly became evident that there was no hope for her. Yes, even the Little Saint and I watched her in silent complicity, grateful that she had been struck and not us. Oh, make no mistake, we grieved and we sympathized and we tossed in our beds full of remorse and disquiet. Greeneyes pursued and pressurized the Flautist with her prayers and implorings till he probably fled the Palace, Chittor and maybe the cosmos itself but without so much as a glance at Sugandha.


And I, what did I do? I bet I bled internally, my backbone and brains cracked with the sheer weight of my megalomaniac guilt. I had little doubt that it was I who was responsible for Sugandha’s condition. The betrayal of my member was just the beginning. It was my seed, or was it Vikramaditya’s, which was lodged in her, waiting to explode in her Fallopian tube. What if Sugandha had lived and given birth to a fine, healthy Rajput prince or princess whose patrimony would always be in doubt? Perhaps I could exercise my benevolence and concern and anguish only because Sugandha had decided to die.


The night before she died, she looked at me and asked, ‘I am dying and so is our child because I was unfaithful to you, isn’t that so?’


‘That’s not true,’ I yelled maniacally at her, ‘that’s not true at all. There is no justice on earth, no tit-for-tat. Because if there was, Vikramaditya should have died a long time ago and I’ll have to die at least ten thousand times for all the people I murdered on the Idar campaign and once more for the way I treated you.’


But she was past listening. The foetus inside her was being strangled and making sure that she paid with her life for making it suffer.


Besides, she wouldn’t have believed me anyway.


* * *


It must have been six in the morning. The fiery orbs which came between me and everything I saw on the day of the eclipse are my constant companions now, even when I close my eyes and sleep. I’ve consulted the Raj Vaidya repeatedly. He has given me eye drops with camphor and other herbs which are supposed to be soothing but they do not put out the fire. He is evasive when I ask him how long the effects of the eclipse will last. Has the Sun-god taken the light from my eyes and turned his back on me? I had had about two hours’ sleep and was taking a bath when a maid knocked on the door.


‘The Commissioner of Police has sent a man to ask whether he can come and see you in an hour and a half. The messenger says that the Commissioner has found a suspect who may be the woman you have been looking for.’


‘Tell the man I’ll be at the police station in seven minutes.’


I was damned if I was going to wait an hour and a half to see the Police Commissioner’s suspect. I had never thought of Kausalya as a suspect. I was still wet and in a tearing hurry, an apt phrase, because I tore my duglo trying to get my right arm into it. I buttoned up as I mounted Befikir and was at the police chowki in less than seven minutes. It was dark inside the police station but the lady certainly looked like Kausalya, a little frailer than I remembered her and her hair was turning grey but hard times could have done that. Her clothes were unwashed and her hair uncombed. She would not look at me, not because she was afraid but because she was not interested in me or anything else for that matter.


‘Where did they find her?’ I asked the policeman on duty.


‘One of Mangal Simhaji’s agents spotted her at Rishikesh.’


‘Leave us alone.’ The woman rose and started to go with the policeman but she tripped.


‘Why have you tied her up?’


‘That was the way she was brought here. I guess she didn’t want to come to Chittor.’


‘Untie her.’


It took a while to undo the knot. The woman was patient but the moment she was free of the rope, she walked out. The policeman ran after her and brought her back.


‘I would like to talk to you.’ She sat down neither reluctantly nor happily. She seemed past emotion. ‘Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?’


‘No.’


‘What is your name?’


‘No name.’


‘Where do you come from?’


‘From wherever I was.’


‘May I ask where you are going?’


‘It doesn’t make a difference.’


‘Do you have any children?’


‘May I go back to my dog? He must be waiting for me in Rishikesh.’ Her language, tone and accent were so nondescript, they certainly weren’t giving any clues.


‘What’s his name?’


‘Anand.’


‘That’s a strange name for a dog.’


‘Not at all. That’s what he is, the happiness of my life.’ She came over to me and suddenly held my arm. I could feel her right hand through the rent in my sleeve. ‘Please let me go back to my Anand. Please.’


I had been wondering if I would have to do a body check. What was I going to tell the policeman, the Commissioner of Police, His Majesty, Mangal or the lady herself? I want to see you naked. Would you please make love to me? It was not Kausalya, the woman’s hands told me that Just to make sure, I took her hands in mine. They had gentle, soft palms but they were not Kausalya’s.


Mangal walked in then.


‘I’m sorry I’m late. I was held up in a meeting. Is it my mother?’


‘You tell me.’


He hesitated. Did he wish to tell me that I knew her far better than he would ever know her? If he did, he phrased it differently.


‘I have not lived with Mother for close to fourteen years now. She looks like her but I don’t know.’


‘She’s not.’


I gave the woman some money, enough for her and her dog Anand to live off for the next couple of years.


‘Do you wish to go back to Rishikesh?’


‘If that’s where Anand is.’


I called the policeman and asked him to send her back with any group of pilgrims doing the rounds of the sacred places in the north.


‘Don’t you ever sleep, Mangal?’


‘About as much as you, Sire. Just got a message that Babur is rushing reinforcements to the fort at Bayana since he thinks that it may be under threat from us.’


‘Who’s heading the troops?’


‘Muhammad Sultan Mirza, Yumas-i-ali, Shah Mansur Barlas, Kitta Beg, Qismati and Bujka.’


Babur, as you’ve made out by now, did not succumb to the poison though it appears that he has had a close shave and that he gave profuse thanks to God for saving his life.


* * *


Since my secretary was down with malaria, I had to open the letters myself when the mail-bag arrived. Letters from grain merchants about supplies for the war; the dealer of horses says that there’ll be a shortfall of four hundred and seventy; the armoury at Raisen wants money in advance for five thousand swords. There are about thirty pr thirty-five others. But the one I opened next had no official seal on it. It was marked personal. I knew the handwriting but couldn’t put a name to it.


To


His Highness, the Maharaj Kumar,


May Lord Eklingji be your armour and inspiration. May he always look after you and keep you safe.


My condolences to you on the death of your second wife. I did not know her and will speak neither ill nor glowingly of her. She is, however, not the reason for this letter.


I have asked myself the definition of a wife and/ or friend since the time we last met and I have to confess that I have found myself wanting. If we don’t speak the truth for fear of hurting our closest friends, then we let down both our friends and ourselves. I remember your telling me as a child that we have to earn our friendships. I am both friend and wife to you and if I wish to remain so, I must speak up now. If you are my friend and husband, you, too, will understand that even if my words are harsh, you must consider them on their merit and not be peeved or discomfited or think that I am jealous or about to abandon you.


Kausalya did not speak to you about it. The Princess doesn’t mention it. Sunheria is dead but I suspect she would not have broached the subject with you either. I will.


There is nothing between you and the Princess. There never was and there never will be. Proximity may have brought you closer, it certainly has me and my husband. It was in your power to do violence to her and force her to be a wife to you in bed and in life. But you are a proud man and will not stoop to coercion. She is then, at best, your friend and no more.


You do not know after all these years if you love your wife, or are besotted with her because she loves someone else. The only reason you hanker after her is because she rejected you. You cannot forgive one thing and one thing alone, that she rejected you for someone else. That is the only reason you hate her and yearn ceaselessly for her.


No living creature can be more self-centred than saints. They are self-sufficient. There is no life beyond themselves. When they need you, they use you. There is no malice in them, nor is there memory.


There has been enough self-deception. It is time to put an end to it.


You know as well as I that it is inviting trouble, if not destruction on your head if you fight two wars on two fronts simultaneously. You are in the direct line of kingship. Your wife’s lover is not your enemy. Babur is. The Moghul deserves all your wiliness, obstinacy, imagination, innovation and most of all, flexibility. Hardly anyone, I’m certain, shares your views about how to tackle him. You are alone as you’ve always been. Which is why you must make sure that you persevere and overcome despite your foes at home and despite people who mean well but do not know how to secure the interests of Mewar.


Let the Princess be. Leave her to her god.


There are, you used to tell me, two Flautists. The warrior and the lover. We need to study the warrior. Instead the Princess’s pursuit of her paramour has made the philanderer Blue God the paradigm for Mewar. This is sad. We are a warrior race, not a tribe of adulterers and gay blades dallying with maids in our sylvan dales.


It would be timely to remind the Mewari people that the Flautist’s greatest achievement is the Bhagavad Gita. Its avowed purpose was to tell a warrior called Arjun to stop shilly-shallying, to take up arms and to fight the righteous battle.


One last thing. You are my husband. I love you as I have loved no man or woman. You are the most lonely man I know. You love me and need me. If I strive to be worthy of you, you too, I trust, will want to be worthy of me. I’m a good, strong and sensible woman. I’ll be your partner in life and share your burdens and joys at work. I am a patient woman but don’t try my patience long. It is not infinite.


Defeat the Padshah and on your way back, take me home.


May the Sun-god shine on you always.


Leelawati.

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Chapter 27-

19 January 2024
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Chapter 28-

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Chapter 29-

19 January 2024
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Chapter 30-

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