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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 been gracious and hospitable and has even moved out to a smaller palace ten miles from here so that Father doesn’t feel that he is in the Rao’s way. The Rao rides by every day to make sure that Father is comfortable and doesn’t lack anything. Unfortunately the only thing lacking, neither Rao Himmat nor I can offer the Rana. Father wants his friends and companions, lively conversation and bustle, the intimacy of women, anything that will take his mind off the catastrophic tragedy at Khanua. Frankly, I still haven’t grasped the magnitude and depth of either the slaughter or the defeat.


I must confess that I am a little surprised by this unexpected invasion from Mewar. Where were they all these weeks? Why this sudden concern and solicitude? That’s not being quite fair to our guests. They had explained the purpose of their visit almost as soon as they came. They want His Majesty to go back with them to Chittor.


Rao Bhoopat Simha, Rawat Manik Bhan and the five others are not my favourite people at court. They are trustworthy in one sense. You always know which way the wind is blowing by the company they abandon or keep. His Majesty, I observed wryly to myself, must be back in favour at Chittor.


‘We are not going to take a no from you, Your Majesty,’ Bhoopat Simha told father. ‘We are taking you back with us tomorrow.’


It did Father good to know that he was awaited impatiently in Chittor.


‘Not tomorrow, I have to say thank you and goodbye to my host who’ll be visiting tomorrow evening. But day after tomorrow’s fine. I must be fated to return to Chittor. It’s only an hour ago that I told the Maharaj Kumar that we’ll be heading for home in a couple of days.’


‘Let’s drink to that, Majesty. Rawat Manik Bhan shot a deer on the way here especially for you, since you are fond of venison.’


Father was beaming now and placed his hand on Bhoopat Simha’s shoulder. ‘That is grand. I am touched that you remembered.’


‘Then we are going to touch you again,’ Bhoopat Simha seemed pleased with his play on words. ‘We’ve also brought your favourite liquor.’


The servants got glasses and Rawat Manik Bhan poured drinks for all of us.


‘Your Highness, Maharaj Kumar, I need hardly mention that you are our second guest of honour at dinner tonight.’


I would have thought of excusing myself anyway since our age-groups are different, no, that’s not the reason, I don’t fancy the company of sycophants and this band of seven was laying it on a bit too thick for my liking. Fortunately I had a valid reason. ‘I would have loved to but I’ve promised the villagers that I would go to a bhavai with them this evening and then eat with them later.’ They looked genuinely disappointed. ‘We’ll leave some venison for you. You could have a bit of it when you get back, just a taste. Fortunately, the weather’s still cold and the venison will keep for a couple of days at least.’


‘Thank you, that’s kind of you.’


‘Rawat Ram Simha, I hope you have no prior engagement?’


‘My only appointment is to be at the side of my liege,’ the chief of the elite guard said a little sententiously but there was no doubting the sincerity of his words.


‘Noble words, Rawat. Did you know, Your Majesty, that the Security Chief and I were in the same batch at the military academy?’


‘Yes, I remember. Distinctly. I was two years your junior,’ Father’s face crinkled mischievously, ‘and I recall the thrashing I got because you went and told my father, the Rana, that I was warming myself inside a whore’s skirts in Tamarind Lane when I should have been at the academy.’


Bhoopat Simha went red in the face.


‘That’s because,’ the Chief of Security chipped in, ‘he wanted to be nesting where you were.’


‘Shame on you, Rawat Ram Simha, for revealing my secrets,’ Bhoopat Simha had more than recovered his equanimity. ‘We are going to have such a feast tonight, you’ll remember it for a lifetime.’ He went to the window and shouted to the guards. ‘You there, dig a fire-pit. I’m going to roast the finest venison in Mewar. All of you are invited for drinks and dinner. We will celebrate His Majesty’s imminent return to Chittor.’


I could see that it was going to be a very boisterous party that evening.


‘That reminds me, how are the Prime Minister, Pooranmalji and Mangal Simha?’ I asked as I was about to return to my room.


‘Very well, very well indeed and looking forward to seeing His Majesty and you.’


* * *


The bhavai was rambunctious. I hadn’t laughed so much for years. The gods came in for some hilarious spoofing as they always do in our folk theatre and there was some sharp political satire which incidentally included His Majesty and me. We were out of jobs and looking desperately for employment. We were found unfit as cooks, washermen, syces, construction workers, jewellers and carpenters because we had no skills whatsoever and always had our hands in the till. Finally it was discovered that we had more wives and women than we needed or could handle and the people of our kingdom set us up in business as pimps.


I was having dinner with the village elders at the mukhiya’s place when one of the servants announced that I had a visitor.


‘Ask him to wait. I’ll be out in a few minutes.’


The man was back in a moment. ‘He says it’s urgent.’


My hosts accompanied me out. It was dark and I couldn’t see the man’s face. He prostrated himself and touched my feet.


‘Ghanikhama, Durbar. Forgive me for disturbing your dinner.’


The accent was clearly bureaucratic Chittor. A minion serving the seven who were visiting His Majesty? I was short with him.


‘What is it?’


‘My name is Ishwar Simha. I’ve come from Chittor.’


‘Then why did you not wait for me at the Baswa Palace?’


‘I asked one of the villagers for directions and he said you were here. Sire, may I have a word with you alone?’


I could see him a little better now. His clothes were dirty, the dust and sweat had dried on his face leaving it a dark, earthy brown. His turban was wrapped around his arm. He was shaky on his feet and I had to steady him. The cloth of the turban was wet and sticky. There was something a little too theatrical about his bandage and his appearance.


What message could this man possibly have for me? Was he really alone? Was I being set up? Where was his horse? How come after all these weeks, there was such an influx of people from Chittor? I dug deep into his arm. The wound was real. The blood welled up and he passed out. The villagers carried him into the house.


‘Bring me some hot water, please. Then leave us alone.’


There was a deep gash in his arm, clearly a wound from a sword. I undid his turban, tore open his sleeve and washed his wound and face.


‘Who sent you?’ I asked him when he opened his eyes. If he was a messenger, then the earlier I learnt his mission, the better.


‘Shiraz Ali, Highness. I was to warn His Majesty and you that Rao Bhoopat Simha, Rao Manik Bhan and five others were on their way to Baswa.’


‘Does Shiraz Ali apprehend danger to His Majesty?’


‘He said that you were to be vigilant and not to let His Majesty out of your sight.’


‘A little late for that. His Majesty has been with them for hours.’


‘I’ve been remiss in my duty to His Majesty and you. I deserve to forfeit my life.’


‘Let me be the judge of that. Just answer my questions. What took you so long?’


‘I was followed by Prince Vikramaditya’s men. They wounded my horse at Chandor and I had to abandon him.’


‘Is that when you got the wound on your arm?’


‘No, Sire. That was later when I tried to take every byway I could to reach Baswa.’


‘Where’s Mangal Simha?’


‘His body was found four days ago in the Gambhiree, seven miles downstream from Chittor. It was badly mutilated and unrecognizable. His wife was able to identify him by his ring.’


‘Thank you, my friend. Wait here for me. Don’t leave till I get back.’


‘There’s one other thing, Sire. The day before Mangal Simha died, he gave a letter addressed to you to Shiraz Ali for safekeeping. He said if something should happen to him, Shiraz Ali was to hand it over to you.’


I pocketed the letter and I asked my hosts to feed the messenger.


Somewhere in my heart, I thought that I knew the ways of the world, that I had taken the measure of good and evil and nothing could surprise me. It was clear now that I knew little or nothing about human nature. How else could I have been so blind? And yet, even as I asked myself this futile question, I found it difficult, if not impossible to believe that Queen Karmavati’s and Vikramaditya’s ambition would dare to touch the person of His Majesty.


Was my father still alive? There was only one way to find out.


The visitors would be waiting for me to ride back to the palace. I left Befikir at the village. I took long detours and got to the back of the palace. It was quiet as death but so it was every night in this loneliest of places. Were Shiraz Ali’s and my fears unfounded? A little bit of patience, however, revealed one of Father’s visitors standing guard in the shadows of the servants’ entrance. I’ve never missed my bow and arrow as much as I did that night.


‘Jagte raho. May God keep an eye on us.’ My voice sounded strange in that thick silence. The man on duty was out of the doorway, his sword in hand. Did I make a convincing sentry? I was still far away. Besides, a night watchman couldn’t have been such an unfamiliar sight. Every palace, village and city had at least one who went around on the hour till daybreak. I walked steadily towards him.


‘Jagte raho. All is well.’


He relaxed but the sword was still out. I was alongside him now. ‘May God keep an eye on us.’


My left hand was on his mouth and my dagger in his heart.


I lifted him up and dragged him to the stables. He was heavy and it was a relief to set him down. The horses stirred softly as the dim light from the oil lamp in the courtyard threw my shadow on them. I unlatched the gate to the stables and led the horses out one by one.


Time to start a minor conflagration. I went back and picked up the lamp (not much oil left in it) and let it drop in the hay. It was a terrible way of repaying our host for his hospitality but I had no other means of flushing out our visitors. Within minutes the overhead beams of the stable and some of the rafters in the left wing of the palace were in flames. The horses were terror-stricken and running wildly into the woods at the back. A few of the servants were up and shouting frantically. Three of His Majesty’s security guards joined them now and ran to the well to fetch water.


I was standing in the recess behind the stairs when the visitors came tearing down. Should I take on all seven of them? Six now to be precise. It was hardly the time for heroics.


‘The horses, save the horses,’ they screamed at each other as they rushed out of the building.


I waited for His Majesty. He did not follow our guests down the stairs. Nor did Rawat Ram Simha, the Security Chief. What had happened to the rest of the elite guard?


Where are you, Father?


I climbed the stairs reluctantly. Lord Eklingji, let him be lost in the oblivion of nocturnal sleep and not in the other one that lasts forever. The door to his room was open, the lamps still brightly lit. Even from where I stood his lips looked green. The poison had worked but not painlessly. His right hand was a claw trying to tear open his throat, his eyes seemed to be searching for air but the rictus of pain and horror on his face suggested that all the air in the world would not do him any good. I went over and closed his eyes and mouth. Dear God, how swiftly is a man dead and cold. Forgive me, Father, I’ll grieve for you later.


The venison and a little bit of pepper powder in a bowl were waiting for me in my room.


I went to check on the security chief and his band of men merely to confirm my suspicions. The visitors from Chittor had indeed served a feast, a feast of death. It was not difficult to guess why they themselves had not suffered the same fate. The poison, as any primer on statecraft and intrigue will tell you, was not in the venison but in the pepper powder that we Rajputs sprinkle so liberally on our food, especially roast meats. All you had to do was to avoid the pepper and you were fine. The three guards downstairs who were trying to douse the fire had obviously skipped the pepper.


For sycophants and toadies there’s nothing more important than self-interest and survival. The murderers would come looking for me only after they had located their horses and secured their own safe return.


I was back in the village. Everybody was asleep. I wasn’t sure if the messenger, Ishwar Simha, would still be waiting for me at the village headman’s house. I needn’t have worried. Mangal did not hire men who are false or faint of heart. Life without Mangal, now that was one possibility that had never occurred to me.


‘Your Highness, how is His Majesty?’


‘Dead.’


He was about to commiserate with me but I stopped him short.


‘I will give you some sealed papers. Deliver them to Sajani Bai, the court singer at Chittor. Here’s my necklace. It will make it worth your trouble. Now wait outside and keep watch.’


When he went out, I undid the seal on Mangal’s letter.


It was an almost illegible scribble.


Jai Shri Eklingji


A very brief letter, Your Highness. I suspect the very worst is about to befall Mewar. There is a plot underfoot to murder His Majesty and you. Do please take the most extreme measures to safeguard both your lives.


There is another matter that I must now share with you since it is likely that I too have been targeted by Prince Vikramaditya’s men. I’m aware that you’ll never forgive me once you’ve learnt the contents of the accompanying letter. But I gave my word to my mother and so must suffer the one thing I cannot bear: your displeasure.


Fly, Your Highness, fly.


Your servant, Mangal


I moved to the other letter.


To His Highness, the Maharaj Kumar,


May Lord Eklingji shower his blessings upon you and preserve you from all harm.


I’ve asked Mangal to write this note for me. He’s the only person to whom I can trust the contents of this letter.


You were Mewar’s and my great hope. The future of Mewar belonged to you. You were mine but my ambitions for you were my ambitions for our country. I am a very possessive woman. But I knew that if I were to keep you, I would have to let go of you.


I had prepared myself for your marriage from the day I first breast-fed you. But nothing could have prepared me for the Princess. She was a devoted wife but not to you. It took me a long time to realize this but I finally understood that she would destroy Mewar. The saddest part in all this was the influence she had over you. You seemed to lose your mind when you were with her. She would not give you a son and she made you the laughingstock of Mewar. It was a matter of time before both the Mewaris and our allies lost all respect for you.


I warned the Princess and asked her to mend her ways. She paid me no heed. I decided to take action. Your enemies had had the same thought but they messed up the job. Instead of the Princess, they killed her maid, the innocent Kumkum Kanwar.


I planned the Princess’ death far more meticulously. I also took good care not to be caught. I poisoned her food as well as mine except that the dose I gave her was at least ten times stronger than the one I had. Since I was also a victim, nobody suspected me. Unfortunately I too did not succeed in ridding Mewar of the Princess.


Is it an evil force or the gods who protect her? Sometimes I wonder if they are not the same thing. I have no regrets about my actions. The Princess and you have come closer over the years. But no good will come of it because your relationship is based on a lie. I am powerless to save you. Needless to say you do not wish to be saved. You can’t even see that it is you and not she who stands to lose everything.


The legend of the Little Saint will become greater with every passing year. The whole world loves a lover. Love and overheated poetry will make her immortal. As for you, Highness, if Queen Karmavati and Vikramaditya don’t get you, the Princess and her lover will. Either way, they’ll wipe out your memory.


You were meant for greater things, Highness. You have it in you to be the greatest Rajput ruler the country has seen. You have the vision and wiliness to beat all our enemies and become Maharana of the whole of India. Can you break with your wife? Only then will you be able to get the better of your brother and his mother and concentrate on Babur and our other enemies.


Will you do it? I know in my heart that you will not. There is only one woman for you. It is the Princess. It would have helped if she had loved you too. But no matter. You seem to do it for both of you.


I’m leaving, Prince. There is no place in Mewar for a murderess, not even a failed one. But neither can I stand by and watch your fall.


I pray that you’ll prove me wrong.


Your servant,


Kausalya.


I have almost finished my last entry. In a minute now I’ll seal these bits of my memoirs and hand them over to the messenger and ask him to head for Chittor. It’s merely a matter of time before His Majesty’s assassins come for me. But I still have one job to do, something I have been postponing for years, but which can no longer wait. I have to settle scores with someone at the temple.


Besides, if I can help it I won’t be an easy target for Queen Karmavati, Vikramaditya or their six lackeys yet. Don’t forget I still have Befikir, and the mountains and Raja Puraji Kika are not far from here. And I am longing to be in Leelawati’s arms.


Why do I keep deceiving myself?


There’s no question in my mind that both Kausalya and Leelawati are dead right. Their counsel is irrefutable. If I am to make something of myself, I must turn my back on that woman. Banish her from my life.


Yes. I must.


But there is only one woman for me. It is not Leelawati and it is not Kausalya. It is my wife. I will follow her to Brindaban, to Mathura, to the gates of hell, even to heaven if the gods will have me.

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Chapter 14-

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Chapter 26-

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Chapter 27-

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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

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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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