“THE POEM ~ A STORY FOR CHRISTMAS.” #ThePoem
Christmas without father always passes in quiet contemplation and little celebration on my part; thoughts turning frequently to his resting place beneath an unfurnished cenotaph, alone in a tomb so far removed from that of my mother.
And now, during the season of family reunion, joy, goodwill and thankfulness ~ harbingers also of the turn of the year ~ I find my mind in a turmoil of solitude, sadness and separation once more.
That time of year when the land is wrapped in the chill of winter’s embrace and a slight frost brushes the ground, sparkling as a crust of crystalline diamonds which I crush beneath my feet.
A creature of the elements, I yearn to feel the freedom and exaltation of my barely clothed and dusky skin bathing in the warming balm of a rising sun of my home country ~ for the chill and any lengthy confinement indoors always inters me in a morose and maudlin mood.
But it is there.
The thread of familial pull and direction.
An invisible thread ~ taut and insistent.
A pull ~ concentrating my mind on something I must do.
A pull ~ directing my steps towards somewhere I must go.
Reluctantly, but with the resignation of comprehension, I submit to my muddled mind, brace myself to leave the warm cocoon of my residence, light a lantern and reach for my cloak.
Although it is only mid-afternoon, what little light there is on this dull and oppressive winter’s day is being swiftly swallowed by the half-light of dusk as I leave ~ shrouded by the red hood and woollen swathes of a cloak wrapped tightly around me and setting forth to answer my familial calling.
Lantern in hand, I walk purposefully through a nearby spinney of straight, tall firs standing to attention as if soldiers, their carpet of shed needles temporarily warming and banishing the thin covering of frost from earth’s rich brown loam below.
The swishing hem of cloak reassuringly accompanies the sound deadened footsteps when, to my surprise and delight, I’m joined by the white bird of peace in flight. Laying down my lantern and pushing back my hood to better observe its fluttering passage, I ponder whether my avian companion ~ this dove ~ has followed my lantern’s light to seek a safe and late roost for the night.
This dove ~ so stark against day’s dying light ~ or has it been dispatched as an omen; one not to be ignored, to secure my hesitant footsteps with its flight?
Following dove’s flight, I emerge from the spinney and back onto frost’s sharp layer crunching underfoot, my exhaled breath swirling and mirroring grey tendrils of wood smoke curling lazily upwards from tenant’s cottage chimneys before being snatched to invisibility by the indigo void above.
Wistful eyes looking skywards crave clouds cover to wrap and shield the earth from the bite of another night’s chill, but even the constellations of stars have concealed their bejewelled presence from those below; only the sharp silhouette of a low-slung scimitar’s crescent moon against a violet sky and a dove in flight direct my onward path.
Feet placed with care crunch past, along and around stout, stone farm walls to the symphonic accompaniment of owls softly hooting in territorial warning and foxes shrill and piercing barks ~ barks met by the challenging, gruff response of domestic dogs in multiple notes and keys.
Around another rough-hewn wall I pass and through an age-weathered wooden gate creaking mournfully on its hinges, before setting my lantern down and pausing to pay my respects at the grave of a recently departed farm tenant.
A sudden rustle and beating of wings in flight briefly disturb my contemplation as I observe the shadow cast by the swiftly constructed, wooden grave marker which instils the peaceful, protective presence of a cross directly across the mound of fresh earth heaped above this final resting place ~ the headstone still being worked by a mason’s sharp chisel.
Prayers here complete I reach for the lantern, my stalwart companion flickering across the symmetrical outline of a greater mausoleum which casts a long shadow as if the guardian of all those resting below.
The shadow of a white dove, wings now silent, crosses my vision and startled, I turn quickly to see its instantaneous metamorphosis. Reaching out, I grasp at the void, my hand suddenly caressed by the rustle of a warm breeze ~ before calm brushes my hand.
And looking down, the dove is no longer a dove but Rath ki Rani. The Queen of the Night. The Moon Flower. Blooming for a solitary night only to light the path of strangers ~ for in the morning the light of her existence will be gone.
Bending, I pluck the delicate white flower ~ knowing whence it came and that I am to be the medium of its precious delivery.
Processing along mausoleum’s long shadow, I remove my shoes, enter silently and approach the centre on measured, featherlight steps to stand before my father’s cenotaph with grave below. An unfurnished tomb, but one which remains neatly swept and lovingly tended. My duty to him as a daughter.
No flowers adorn this tomb, for this is not the season of flowers, they would not survive the winters chill. But stepping up to cenotaphs’ head, I kiss the pure white flower and tenderly lay it down.
For although lying apart on this earth, this token of love, this petalled Queen of the Night sent by my mother now reconnects familial devotion through a daughter’s love for her parents and a husband’s love for his wife.
Caring not for my own comfort, I move to the foot of the cenotaph, bow my head and kneel, hissing audibly as the pin sharp, icy cold of marble strikes against feet, knees and shins.
Shivering and sitting back, balanced and poised on my heels, I raise my head, cup my trembling hands and convey to my father a deeply personal message, telling him of my grief at his loss and my happiness that he is now with my mother ~ his Begum.
Message delivered and leaning forwards, warm, salty tears drip downwards, forming tiny pools on floor’s grey blanket as testimony to my continuing anthem of misery.
Feeling as barren as the firmament above, I rise, pay my last respects and make my way out to face the night sky once more; but instinctively I turn and look back to see an increasing glow surrounding the white flower that will be gone come dawn’s first rays.
Puzzled, I exit father’s mausoleum and tilt my head upwards and eastwards, my gaze penetrating the dark, starless and unending pitch as I my cast eyes and mind towards my mother, and in doing so, I sense a growing glow of light and warmth.
And then it happens. Incomprehension is replaced with connection.
Connection to my mother ~ as suddenly shooting stars fall around me, exploding above as if firecrackers had been released and hurled from my homeland to fall to earth and land as the white petals of the Queen of the Night.
My mother’s calling card. Bringing me comfort and succour.
Gasping in wonder as the stars and petals tumble around me, they also light up father’s mausoleum in testimony to a Begum’s love, their aura causing the crushed spirit in me to turn to one of rejoicing as I comprehend their message:
“Be joyful for the once broken-hearted lovers are conjoined. Hearts, bodies and souls are as one in the heavens. They are at peace. But take heart, you are not, and will never be abandoned, Noor.”
Rising onto tip toes, I spread my arms wide, spinning as fast as I dare on the earth’s cold, treacherous surface, head raised in joy as I look up at the whirling, exploding firmament above; laughing and smiling until lack of breath, coming now in short gasps in the chill, causes me to stop.
And when I cease my giddy celebration, I take a deep breath and with crystal clear clarity project my voice so that the entire world and all the lovers in heaven can hear as I recite father’s favourite poem:
“THREADS”……OF LIFE AND LOSS……NOOR’S BACKSTORY.
“Sometimes destruction is a sad emphasis which finds itself conjoined with creation” ……and thus it forms one of the threads that tirelessly weave through our lives.
Needle, bobbin, shuttle, thread, weft and warp constantly weaving and reweaving fabrics on looms displaying perfect patterns, changes of pattern and imperfections in the tragedy and transience of life.
Threads entwined with the significant events of life, the weaver completely arbitrary in selecting threads that can no longer be re-tied, re-used or re-woven to produce tapestry’s pattern that permeates and shapes our lives.
A thread sundered in a cutting snip or torn asunder as a tiny life greets the elements of air and light and the nurturing cord of sustenance in a mother’s womb severs – new threads replacing the one rendered obsolete.
Threads which immediately commence weaving a new pattern on the loom of life.
Threads which celebrate and reverentially join sisters to their brother’s protection during Raksha Bandhan.
Threads binding man and wife together in lifelong nuptial and conjugal rites.
Threads which tie brides to their husband’s households; some terminally severed in the flaming horror of dowry death, casually attributed to “an accident in the kitchen” if the financial and material demands made of her parents go unmet.
Or if a husband’s life thread is prematurely severed, his bride’s life thread may singe before catching alight and burning in the flaming act of Sati.
Fire – so inextricably woven around our lives. Worshipped as pure and sacred, yet juxtaposed as an element capable of consuming women in unimaginable horror.
Threads woven in conception and maternal threads broken as infants fill their lungs with first breath.
Threads broken in finality at the end of lives lived to natural conclusion. Mortal remains committed to nature’s elements of fire, earth, sea or air to weave the pattern of eradication & obliteration.
And the saddest threads of all? Those that fray, yet hold fast against the anticipation of breakage, weak remnant’s bridge clinging to life so another thread may take its place when the battle is lost.
The women whose life thread finally fails and separates; the women who do not survive the demands of weaving the thread which births new life. A life she never sees.
The year 1606 – and a fourth Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, has replaced his father, Akbar the Great, on the Peacock Throne.
The Mughal Emperors, at the height of their ascendancy, presiding over a Court that has accrued learning and riches unimaginable to those whose impoverished knowledge and limited influence lies outside the Mughal orbit.
A Court glittering in magnificence in its capital of Agra.
A Court unknowing, and probably uncaring, that in Benares a woman lies dying in the throes of childbirth. Holding fast to her fraying thread amongst the exhortations, screams, cries, wails, angst, shit, blood and birth fluids that announce the arrival of her first child – a daughter.
The infant, a delicate thread of life woven from the strength and expectation of lineage, heritage and ancestry announcing her arrival at the loom of existence by wringing lusty cries from newly inflated lungs – crying for her mother’s breast – whilst a husband and father shakes, bereft with grief, as his beloved is taken from him.
Yet even as this woman utters her final sigh and drifts away in the sweet consciousness of floatation, she grasps at her husband’s hand in perception and understanding at his soft whisper of the infant’s birth name, before the final snap of the frayed thread eradicates her fading light and she is plunged into darkness.
……As a husband whispers the infants birth name: “Noor.” “Light.” “Because I pulled her out of darkness into light.”
It was in the year of 1585 that the Imperial Court relocated its capital from Fatehpur Sikri to Lahore and simultaneously the Emperor Akbar banished a teenage Prince to estates surrounding the city of Benares which lies on the banks of the River Ganges.
His misdemeanour that led to the severing of the thread to his childhood home? An ill-advised public proposal of marriage to a little girl who had not yet taken the veil. Her name was Mumtaz and she was the four year old daughter of an Imperial concubine.
The exiled Prince’s penance lasted twenty long years during which time he assiduously tended the considerable estates around Benares gifted by the Emperor to provide him with a comfortable living. An excruciating, interminable wait which saw the Prince move into his thirties, without marrying or losing hope that, one day, he would he would marry Mumtaz.
Finally, in 1605, accompanied by her mother ~ a woman whose name the Prince never knew and whose face he never saw as she remained veiled ~ Mumtaz came to him.
Intact. Yet well prepared by her mother to join the Prince’s household.
Their escape from the Imperial harem had been facilitated by a sympathetic eunuch when Mumtaz’s ailing mother indicated she did not wish Mumtaz to remain in the harem after her death. She subsequently died in peace ~ her life tapestry completed to perfection ~ the day after Mumtaz was married, content in the knowledge that her daughter had passed, in love, through the rite of passage which marks womanhood.
The Prince and Mumtaz, having married as soon as she joined him, quickly spun the threads of their newly joined lives together in creating another life, when nine months later, a girl named Noor un Nisa was born into the house of Zafar Bahadur Shah of Benares.
An ancestral house of Imperial lineage, as Noor’s father ~ the exiled Prince ~ was a half-brother to the newly installed Emperor; both being sons of the now deceased Emperor who had originally exiled him.
Thus, the infant Noor un Nisa was weighed down both by her title and the expectations of her as a dutiful Imperial Princess.
And Zafar Bahadur Shah was weighed down by grief at the loss of Mumtaz and the daunting prospect of raising a motherless daughter.
Threads now weaving on the loom of life come together and create symbiotic patterns as I recall parental influence ~ my mother, Mumtaz Bahadur ~ dying as she gave birth to me, for it was at her bidding that father pulled me “from the darkness of her failing body and into the light.” Sacrificing her life that I might live.
Father’s was an indescribable love, initially wed to the unshakeable belief that no matter how many years he waited, Mumtaz /would/ join him and they /would/ become man and wife.
A marriage cruelly terminated in just under a year as mother’s life thread frayed and snapped, whilst the threads of mine were woven with the strength of a mother’s courage and determination.
Father, left alone to raise me, swore he would never remarry. He knew he could never love again, such was his devotion to Mumtaz. Theirs was a matchless love, not so much an epitaph, but a portent of a love yet to come when it was an Emperor ~ not a Prince ~ who also mourned a Mumtaz.
A Mumtaz Mahal ~ and her death would be commemorated by the construction of the most magnificent marble mausoleum the world had even known ~ whilst Mumtaz Bahadur’s mortal remains were laid to rest in a small, simple mausoleum in Zafar Bahadur’s private grounds where he would spend hours on his knees on the cool, unyielding marble floor communing with her.
My parents’ marriage was so short that father only had time to commission one portrait of mother ~ which always hung at the foot of his bed ~ the last vision father saw before sleep claimed him and the first vision he saw on waking to continue his lonely vigil without his Mumtaz.
But I return now to the time when I first remember myself, reading the entries father insisted I kept in my daily diary. Copious journals long stored away from recollection of mind or vision, but containing events and thoughts which still speak to me over the years with picture perfect clarity, thus enabling me to recount events through the eyes of the child I was then.
Sitting cross legged on the floor, eyes glaze and close, and as my head slowly lowers, my thoughts drift back. Back along a tunnel of memories jostling for position and calling out for attention – until I see a fog before me. Exhaling, I gently blow it aside as I must also penetrate memories that the weaver of life’s loom would prefer to lay hidden……as I travel back to another time and place.
Back to my childhood as I recall my first pony, a very fat little grey called RathKiRani, which means “Queen of the Night.”
After the customary loud discussions, hand waving, head shaking, protestations of poverty, number of family members to be supported, back turning, walking away and turning back ~ all of which form part of the traditional and protracted negotiations of agreeing a price for livestock ~ father eventually purchased RathKiRani from a local villager. For me. Even though she was actually more used to pulling carts around the estates.
I was very young, maybe four years, and my chubby legs were so short they merely flapped and kicked against the saddle when I wanted RathKiRani to go faster. But faster we would go, until she would stop abruptly, drop a shoulder and eject me sideways!
Or else she would fool me into thinking she was in one of her better moods as we cantered merrily on our way, me singing followed by RathKiRani squealing, plunging her head down, arching her back, kicking her hind legs and tail in the air and bucking me off.
But she always had the good manners to stand and wait for me whilst I bounced along the ground, hauled myself up out of the dust, coughing, spluttering and rubbing my eyes before dusting myself down and clambering aboard again ~ much to the relief of the accompanying Syces who were responsible for my safety.
Looking back though on my first “schoolmistress” of a pony, I think the acquisition of RathKiRani was father’s idea of teaching me how to deal with bruised pride ~ plus other bruises ~ as well as teaching me that good horsemanship involved weaving persistence with patience. Such a vital learning thread; never to lose my temper with animals ~ or people.
I owe that fat little grey pony a lot for the multiple life lessons she wove into the young me and I cried for days when one of the Syces came to father and told him that he had found her dead in the meadow early one morning.
“It takes a skilled weaver to perceive the outline of a pattern on life’s loom and to lovingly bring it into existence” ~ and for this I recall and give thanks to a lady who had such a profound influence throughout my young and formative years.
My ayah ~ my nursemaid ~ called Pooja, whose name means “prayer” or “worship”……..but I must also give thanks to my mother for her perspicacity in recognising Pooja’s unique qualities before I was even born.
Mother had decided upon a day regarded as “auspicious” for her and father to visit the Ghats leading down to the holy River Ganges in Benares, as she wished to offer prayers of thanks for my conception.
Auspicious too because it was there that she met a widow ~ in her middle years ~ who had left her ancestral homeland, in a place far, far away shortly after her husband’s death. She was very young when her husband died, and since then, she had lived an impecunious existence on the Ghats, as did many widows.
And it was on the steep, slippery steps of the Ghats that mother first encountered Pooja ~ sitting ~ surrounded by children held in the silent thrall of mesmerisation, held captive by the words she was so skilfully weaving into stories.
On recognising my parent’s status, Pooja greeted them with the respect due to their station in life before ushering the children aside so as not to impede their progress down to the Ganges. My parents, of course, turned and acknowledged her greeting with the customary courtesy they afforded to everyone.
A short while later, after discreet enquiries as to Pooja’s conduct and character proved favourable, mother secretly returned to the Ghats, listened to her wise and patient teaching and observed her kindly interaction with her pupils; all of which persuaded her to ask Pooja to become her unborn child’s ayah.
Although a Ghats dweller and purely dependent on the donation of alms for her daily subsistence, Pooja baulked at being asked to leave her voluntary teaching mission; for there was no-one else to teach the children.
So to allay her concerns, and from her own purse, mother founded and paid the running costs of a school on the Ghats so that the children of the poor could continue learning without the burden of fees.
Thus, the threads of learning, knowledge and prospects were woven into the potential of their young and disadvantaged lives ~ and the school continues to this day. Like her name, I worshipped Pooja. She was always smiling and had an infectious laugh ~ a laugh that infected everyone around her, so that they ended up laughing too ~ although they didn’t always know why! And she was always, always kind.
Pooja was in her middle age years when she accepted mother’s offer to be my ayah, but as she aged, she was blessed with lots of deep wrinkles which made her look very characterful and wise. Even beautiful. And she also lost most of her teeth, ending up with just one tooth. In the centre. At the top.
I smile involuntarily at the recollection of her noisily supping away at soft foods, which is all she could manage in her latter years
And as I gulped at life’s first breath, it was Pooja who was entrusted with my tiny body ~ bloodied, slippery, vulnerable and soon to be motherless ~ whilst father tended my dying mother, pronouncing my birth name as “Noor”….“Light” in her hearing before she passed away.
Then, turning a fragile, yellowing, aged page in one of my journals, my heart tightens and I let out an involuntary gasp on discovering a diary entry written in my childish hand. I was ten years of age when I made the entry ~ on the day Pooja told me of her past life and of being present at my mother’s death
Ever present, Pooja was always at my side, tending my every need, presiding over the nursery, arranging and overseeing wet nurses, nursery nurses, maids, feeding, bathing, dressing, clothing, lessons, schooling, walks and my safety.
At first, she slept on the floor of the nursery next to my cradle, but when I was older, she slept on a simple, stringed charpoy in my bed chamber in case I needed anything or cried out in the night; a task she never designated to anyone else.
But /most/ of all, Pooja was the most remarkable repository of childhood fables, the telling of which held me spellbound for hours. But these were not tales from books; they were tales Pooja had learnt and absorbed at her mother’s knee.
Tales which transcended the generations ~ the story telling tradition of my country kept alive in the fertile minds of grandmothers, mothers and daughters. I tried to record some of the stories and fables at the time, but even those I neglected remained in my head, and I /still/ revere Pooja as my storytelling mentor to this day.
Pooja is dead now, but a few years before her death, both our lives were ripped apart ~ a delicate life’s tapestry torn to shreds in yet another tragedy from which, I think, she never fully recovered ~ the telling of which will come later in this tale.
I was with Pooja when she died and hope my presence gave her some comfort, holding her age blotched, skin stretched and withered hands and whispering prayers as her last thread, stretched beyond mortality’s endurance, finally severed and Pooja’s spirit left her body asleep on her simple, stringed charpoy.
In tandem with Pooja’s loving care, and as befitting an Imperial Princess, I was tutored at home in Benares in the usual skills considered appropriate to my current and future status in life. Skills which would make me an attractive proposition to potential suitors ~ dowry aside ~ as well as preparing me for marriage.
The lessons I regarded as tedious and boring, during which I would fidget and lack attentiveness as I wished to be elsewhere, included cookery, sewing, embroidery, household supervision and budgeting.
I much preferred sketching, painting, music, singing, dancing, horse riding, animal husbandry and learning how to administer father’s estates. And I also learnt play the sitar. Badly. But father did not restrict my schooling solely to the skills required to secure a good marriage; but widened the scope of my education by employing many knowledgeable tutors who taught me mathematics, astrology, languages and the art and history of ancient Hindustan.
I was also blessed to develop into a skilled healer, avidly reading mother’s journals on the subject. For although she was the daughter of an Imperial concubine, /her/ mother was descended from a long line of renowned healers, knowledge of which she passed on to my mother.
But a knowledge of medicine and healing wasn’t enough for me and I went on to develop a deeper understanding of herbalism ~ of nature’s natural store cupboard ~ and which plants and herbs would be the most effective in specific areas of healing.
And as I greedily devoured the learning gleaned from mother’s journals, I gradually added enhancements and discoveries of my own, being particularly proud of establishing a physic garden and apothecary studio whilst I was still in my teenage years.
I also practiced yoga and meditation (when my young mind was calm, still and clear enough!) for as far back as I can remember and still practice daily, immediately after rising.
Even at a young age, father instilled in me the virtues of courtesy and kindness. Deportment came naturally ~ inherited from my mother ~ and it was the wives of local notables and respectables who advised me on how to conduct myself as a lady when in company, and especially in the company of those of high status, to defer to my elders at all times, as well as how to converse freely and comfortably with men, yet remain respectful.
It was also made clear that I should be a loyal, trustworthy and discreet confidante to friends and others who confided in me ~ and if I were to be trusted as the repository of others concerns ~ they should never be revealed.
Threads ~ busily weaving hopes and aspirations into a privileged upbringing. But threads cannot weave happiness….
Despite the necessary constraints of my schooling, my greatest love remained being outdoors, especially when I was with the Syces riding RathKiRani around father’s vast estates.
Of course, I was especially proud if father rode with me as he would explain livestock husbandry, seasonal variations of crops and their rotation, irrigation, harvesting, storage of grains and crops, deciding which crops and animals to sell at market and why, as well as being aware of current market prices ~ in fact everything that went into running an estate.
Father also explained about caring for his tenant farmers and the importance of ensuring regular salaries and providing acceptable accommodation. And, unusually for a land owner, he built schools for the children on his estates ~ and I like to think that mother’s legacy and Pooja’s influence had much to do with this.
Whilst riding around we would frequently stop and talk to both tenants and children and there was always laughter and happiness everywhere. And just as frequently, we were welcomed into tenant’s homes, no matter how humble, and offered tea. Of course, we always accepted, as it would have been impolite to refuse their hospitality.
But one day, when I was still very small ~ about four or maybe just five years I think ~ father took me on his knee and told me that we were going to visit the Imperial Court in the capital city of Agra where the emperor, Jahangir lived in a huge red fort.
Father said it would involve a long journey, which I would find tiring as well as very exciting, and even though I was very young, for the first time in my life, I thought father sounded worried……….
((End of part three – to be continued))
Considered the centre of worldly wisdom and learning; the arts, culture, science, medicine and incalculable wealth and riches all swirled around and emanated from Agra (1526) Fatehpur Sikri (1571) and Lahore (1585), before returning to Agra in 1598
Although father had sounded worried about travelling to Agra, I was bursting with excitement and couldn’t wait for the journey to begin; eagerly anticipating the thrill and adventure of new discoveries, the memories as fresh in my mind now as they were so many years ago.
Childhood thoughts of the Imperial Court in all its fabled glory kindled and fuelled the day dreams in my mind to weave a vibrant tapestry of riches and colour.
I visualised kindly, beautiful ladies teaching me the most refined manners and inviting me for tea; their many, happy children teaching me new games and inviting me to join their lessons, read their books and go on picnics; indulgent gentlemen inviting me to join them as they rode on fine horses accompanied by their hunting hawks and big cats, as well listening to their intellectual views on all manner of subjects as they conversed at length with father ~ and the Imperial Court itself, murmuring in polite conversation as it presented its glittering homage before a gracious Emperor seated on a magnificent throne.
But little did I know how quickly such a tapestry could be ripped to shreds……
The journey from Benares to Agra was going to be a huge expedition for me, and my only minor disappointment came when father said we should leave the elephants and mahouts in Benares, as he didn’t wish to draw too much attention to our arrival in Agra. “Ostentatious” is the word I think he used.
Eventually the eagerly anticipated day arrived and I was up before the sun ~ I hadn’t slept much anyway ~ watching the noisy, bustling preparations for departure.
Covered wagons being covered, pack animals being packed, harness animals being harnessed, riding animals being saddled and animals that were to walk as part of the convoy being gathered together and herded by drovers.
People buzzing everywhere, buzzing like bees as they went about their appointed tasks, singing, shouting, calling out requests and commands to one another and laughing at the prospect of the journey to come and their visit to the Imperial capital.
I remember so vividly what a chaotic, noisy, colourful sight it was. Tapestry’s loom depicting the caravan, threads humming frantically and furiously until they all settled into their allotted places ~ and as the loom fell silent ~ we departed……
Camel and bullock carts were used on the sandy tracks as the horses would have found pulling carts burdened with all manner of baggage difficult over that terrain; the horses were used mainly for riding ~ although the majority of people did not own riding horses, so they walked or rode in the carts.
Sometimes I travelled with father in an open cart which was covered by material to shade us from the sun, or else separately with the ladies of high status in a completely covered palanquin. I disliked the covered palanquins as I couldn’t see out and the heat was stifling so that I felt I couldn’t breathe ~ my preference was to walk, even in the heat and the dust, covering what were quite long distances for my little legs.
RathKiRani did not accompany us on the journey as it would have been too far for her, so after bidding her a tearful farewell, I contented myself riding with father in the early mornings or at dusk ~ usually perched behind him sideways on the ample rump of his horse. I was so light he didn’t even notice I was there!
Of course, there were lots of pack animals for the tents and other supplies needed to equip a large caravan undertaking such a long journey, especially as we camped overnight and only occasionally halted at a caravanserai.
The caravan also included our best carriages and carriage horses for use on arrival in Agra. I disliked our “best” carriages as much as the covered palanquins. They were very uncomfortable for me, as being so small I was bounced up in the air and thrown around because my feet didn’t reach the floor to steady my body; but father was aware of my uncomfortable predicament and was always ready with a supporting arm.
Looking back, I remember the countryside was very dry, like a desert, but there was some cultivation, green fields and crops growing outside each village where they had wells, irrigation channels or canals cut to provide water for their fields and animals. And there was cultivation along the banks of the rivers too.
Due to the heat and the parched, thirsty landscape through which we travelled, it was essential to water our animals and refill our own personal water skins and coolers whenever we could. I always helped with this task as it was considered so important for man and beast.
And as a young child who relished their freedom, I loved scampering about the campsites asking if there was anything I could do to help ~ both in the serene, cool of the morning before the camps were packed up and we moved on ~ or else in the shattered calm that heralded the humidity of eventide as camps were noisily and hurriedly established for the night.
I remember the crackle of wood burning, sparks and embers hissing before being spat from the fire, flying skywards and illuminating the dusk like celebratory fireworks; all accompanied by the soothing smell of wood smoke.
And the picture, still in my mind, of violet hues of evening cascading over the sinking sun’s soft rose residue ~ and a lone horseman standing sentinel, silhouetted between the margins of a lessening horizon and the encroaching night’s cloak of invisibility.
Horsemen ~ the advance scouts and guardians of the head, rear and flanks of the caravan wending their way wearily into camp to cluster around sparking camp fires to share food, tea and information about the day’s, and the next day’s journey. Followed maybe by some music, songs, poetry or tales woven into their memories and handed down to them whilst they were dandled on their mother’s knees.
I wasn’t afraid of the flames. Then. That came later.
And as night painted the sky inky black, there was the familiar and comforting sounds and smell of the livestock travelling with us; most from father’s estates, plus extra animals purchased during the journey if the caravan required replenishment.
My self-appointed tasks included carrying potable water in a small clay pot on my head to wherever it was needed in camp plus unloading baggage from the pack animals ~ except I could only reach the donkeys ~ and carrying it to wherever it was needed for the overnight camp.
And the following morning I would pack and load it up again. Fetching this, carrying that, making up and packing beds, collecting warm, fresh eggs from the hens ~ wherever they carelessly laid them ~ as well as chasing, rounding up and catching recalcitrant goats and water buffalo which needed to be tethered for milking.
But my favourite task? One for which I would set all the others aside? Helping the Syces tend the horses. Although I wasn’t tall enough to brush their permanently gleaming coats, I quickly learned to mix soothing lotions in the correct proportions and apply them to legs with gentle massaging movements, at the same time feeling for any excess heat which might herald injury.
Early each morning, just as the sun rose, I would bathe with the ladies in cold, invigorating, crystal clear running water if a stream or canal was close by, or else we would bathe adjacent to a village well with bucket and jug; wearing sufficient clothing for modesty and concealed within a screened area to ensure privacy from the prying eyes of men.
After bathing, I would take father his morning “bed tea” and rusks, request his blessing and give him a kiss on both cheeks before we breakfasted on a simple but satisfying spread of fruits, flat breads, eggs, cheese and milk.
And after our larger evening meal of roti, rice, meat and vegetable dishes followed by a sweet dessert, my tiny body would droop and slump fast asleep on the sumptuous cushions in father’s tent. Only then would he raise me up and place me in the loving and protective arms of Pooja.
And my bed? A soft mattress atop a simple, stringed, village cot where Pooja would lay me down with a mother’s gentle care before covering me with a pure cotton sheet. For the most part I slept under a dome of diamond stars glittering in the night sky, a scented fire kept burning close by throughout the night to ward off the ever-present mosquitoes.
But I wasn’t afraid of the flames. Then. That came later.
But I do recall my childish happiness and pleasure, even my sense of responsibility, at performing useful tasks during what /was/ a very long and tiring journey ~ taking to heart father’s example of duty and not tolerating indolence when your time can be better spent helping others.
Sitting hugging my knees, I recall a map long lost in my head
We followed the River Ganges from Benares to the confluence of the three rivers at Allahabad. There, the Ganges flowed right, but we followed the Yamuna which forked to the left, taking us to Agra, with the old abandoned capital of Fatehpur Sikri, where I later discovered father was born, slumbering quite close by.
And the third river? The mythical Saraswati flowed ~ who knows where……
Father, most of the household staff, as well as the tenants who accompanied us had made the journey to and from Agra many times to conduct business or attend markets. So, due to their knowledge, they knew exactly where to stop for water and where to camp overnight so that humans and animals could rest and proceed the next day refreshed.
But what I /didn’t/ know was that father was responding to a summons from the Emperor and that he was making his first journey to the Imperial Court since his banishment nearly thirty years earlier.
I only discovered the truth of this after his death.
And so, in the purity and innocence of childhood, and knowing that father had family members at the Imperial Court in Agra, I was proud to be allowed to travel with him and that I was to be introduced at Court ~ especially as Pooja had packed all my best clothes, including some new ones.
Except that tapestry’s loom seemed to shudder and falter as the fabled city came into view ~ and I also looked at father with increasing concern as he seemed increasingly worried and full of tension the closer we got to Agra……
Agra! At last!
I was absolutely enchanted by the bustle of the narrow crowded streets and the hustle of the market places. There, I watched snake charmers weaving music into snake’s sensuous motion with their pipes, whilst traders hawked all kinds of goods including pots, pans, purses, puppets, fabrics, jewellery and pretty song birds confined in cages ~ as well as exotic fruits and everyday eatables for the kitchen table.
I also noticed some ladies wearing clothing I did not consider respectable and calling out to gentlemen as they passed by ~ at which point Pooja hastily ushered me away.
I was also aware that most people looked richer than those in Benares, and apart from the ladies I’ve already mentioned, many wore very fine clothing made from the finest silk Benares had to offer. My ancestral city had long been the centre of crafting the finest threads of silk into magnificent weaves of sari and other materials reflecting all the colours of the rainbow. It made me proud to see silks from Benares so prominently displayed in the Imperial capital and I knew that father had brought several bolts of silk to gift to his family members.
On arrival, we immediately set about establishing camp outside the city walls and every member of the caravan quickly settled into a routine; their excitement heightened at the prospect of a lengthy stay, mainly devoted to meeting family members who lived in Agra, relaxation, shopping and all the other amusements the capital had to offer.
But on entering father’s tent, the day after our arrival, and asking how long we might be stay in Agra, I found him preoccupied with a recently delivered and very important looking scroll which was hung with heavy, ornate and decorative ribbons and embossed with important looking red seals. Upon breaking it open, father’s response about the length of our stay was rather vague, other than to say we were invited to be guests of the Emperor himself.
I felt so honoured that we were going to stay in the huge Red Fort where the Imperial Court /and/ the Emperor resided and rushed off to tell Pooja the good news.
Any summons from the Emperor must be obeyed ~ immediately ~ so father directed the syces and coachmen to prepare our “best” carriages, to groom the horses to the highest standards and then to harness them in their most impressive turnout with all speed so that we could make an appropriate ~ but not ostentatious ~ arrival at the Imperial Court.
Meanwhile Pooja bustled around, choosing and packing my best clothing, selecting items of jewellery and brushing and oiling my hair until it shone like burnished obsidian.
Soon after leaving camp and entering Agra through one of the city gates, we were joined by an escort of Imperial cavalry who flanked our carriages and moved curious onlookers aside; lances glinting in the sun, Imperial pennants fluttering, polished helmets and breastplates violently reflecting the sun against all who gazed in their direction, the clinking of armour enhancing the melody of horse’s harness rattling as hooves tapped along the wide paved roadway which signalled the approach and entrance to the Red Fort.
I felt very important and gazed in awe as we passed under several gateways, some made of different coloured stones, gradually rising in gradient until we halted and alighted in the main courtyard.
There, one of the most important Court Officials welcomed us ~ with much bowing and exchange of traditional courtesies ~ on behalf of the Emperor before escorting us to our quarters.
At that stage, I sneaked a look towards Pooja, who had travelled in a secondary carriage, and she too seemed awestruck by our surroundings!
Father was allocated a suite of guest rooms far more richly furnished than anything we had at home, but we quickly made ourselves comfortable and I had great fun hiding behind, and underneath, the huge cushions provided for our comfort.
And my bed was so large I’m sure I could have slept in a different portion for ten whole nights. I even offered Pooja space in my bed, as there was plenty of room for the two of us ~ but she preferred her usual string charpoy, which she finally cajoled an Imperial servant into providing ~ although judging by his demeanour he was not used to fulfilling requests for a “village cot.”
My favourite discovery though, was a beautiful balcony where I could sit and watch all the comings and goings in the courtyards below. How I would enjoy myself here!
The only boys I saw were very young ones who sat in the corners of rooms pulling thick ropes attached to huge fans made from the tail feathers of male peacocks; whilst others constantly poured pitchers of scented water over muslin blinds which were suspended from large rings and wafted in the breeze to keep our rooms cool and scented.
The next day, whilst walking with Pooja in the public areas, I made sure to greet passing courtiers in a respectful manner, but I could not understand why they looked at me in a disdainful manner and ignored me most of the time. They were very difficult to talk to and this puzzled me, especially as they seemed to be turning, after passing by, and taking a great deal of interest in me ~ despite failing to respond to my greetings.
I soon realised that this was a place for grown-ups and their business……
Of course, I remained respectful to my elders and superiors, but when I asked father if I had behaved incorrectly in greeting the courtiers, I noticed a hurt, a pain in his eyes, which had never dwelt there before ~ and this troubled me.
At times though I found it hard not to laugh at the innumerable supercilious and self-important courtiers, men soaked in envy and greed, all jostling for enhanced position and favour in the Emperor’s eyes. Men like gilded peacocks strutting about in their finest breeding plumage; except there were no ladies on display to complete the brilliant public tableau ~ the tapestry ~ of the Emperor’s public court.
So /many/ coloured garments the courtiers wore, as well as brightly coloured turbans ~ and so much jewellery that it would surely weigh me down! One man was wearing a single strand of huge pearls that wound round his neck six times ~ and it still nearly touched the floor. I thought that if I wore those pearls they would have covered me completely, I wouldn’t have been able to move and might even have fallen down!
Yet even at my tender age, I quickly became aware that I was the object of licentious, covetous male eyes; but I turned my mind from them and kept my thoughts to myself as I did not wish to trouble father.
Most of the gentlemen were quite old and they all spoke in Persian. I had only just started my lessons and couldn’t really understand them – but as they were not addressing me, and it would have been impolite to interrupt, I confined myself to listening to their Persian and trying to learn from it.
Beyond the public courtyards lay the gardens. And what gardens! Emerald green grass which was soft and bounced when I walked or ran on it, fountains, water gardens, the sound of running water, everywhere, formal and informal pathways, private and secret gardens as well as a maze made with the most beautifully trimmed hedges ~ plus hundreds of malis to tend the gardens who bowed subserviently and walked backwards whenever we approached.
I explored the gardens with Pooja whenever we had time ~ taking in the scent and learning the names of jasmine, hibiscus, water lilies, ladies slipper, orchids, night stock, marigold, lotus, magnolia, ylang ylang, freesia, mimosa and gardenia……the list went on and on.
And oh! The birds that I love so much. I especially remember seeing owls, kites, swallows, peacocks, hornbills, doves, mynahs, drongos, parakeets, demoiselle cranes, kingfishers, sunbirds, bulbuls, babblers, bee eaters, hoopoes, crows and rollers ~ as well as the brain fever bird with its repetitive annoying call!
I thought I was in paradise!
But I wasn’t……..
For a few days after arriving at the Imperial Court, a very severe and unsmiling Court Official came to our quarters, quietly addressed father and then escorted us, without delay, to the topmost part of the Red Fort; where I rushed over to the edge to admire the view over Agra.
Unaware of their subsequent significance, I’d noticed a set of massive scales set in the centre of the roof and I smiled and giggled when the Court Official instructed me to sit on one of the pans, thinking how exciting it would be if I were weighed like freshly milled flour before being portioned into sacks for sale.
Jumping up and grabbing hold of the massive chains, one in each hand, I hoisted myself up and seated my tiny, unfurnished body on a huge pan; yet even as it lowered under my meagre weight, my feet still remained well clear of the ground and so, laughing now, I edged the pan into a swinging motion, only to be admonished by the Court Official for “treating the scales as a swing which might be attached to a tree branch as the plaything for village children!”
Father then smiled, a strained smile, and nodded at me as a sign I should settle down and sit quietly. This I did, crossed my legs and wondered if iron or wooden weights would be placed on the opposite pan ~ and if so, why.
But no! Two large, old but identical, carved wooden chests were brought before the scales and laid in directly in front of father. One was locked and obviously very heavy as it took no less than four sweating, straining servants to carry it, whilst the other was unlocked and seemed light and empty as just two servants carried it.
Then, several men joined father and the Court Official. Richly dressed, with hawkish eyes and thin unsmiling lips framed by neatly kept beards and pretentious moustaches, they looked me up and down, as if they were inspecting livestock for purchase ~ which made me feel very uncomfortable.
A servant then handed a solid silver scoop to the Court Official, and with all due ceremony, the heavy chest was unlocked and the lid thrown back ~ and I gasped audibly at the sight which assailed my eyes; for it was full to the brim of gold coin!
Of course, I had seen father disburse small, single gold coins to those in need of alms and charity, as is our duty, but never in my short life had I seen so much gold coin in one place.
Silver scoop after silver scoop of gold coin was placed carefully on the opposite pan, and in the entertainment of being weighed against it, I surreptitiously wriggled on my pan to try and make myself heavier ~ the innocence of childhood negating any curiosity as to why I was being weighed like this.
But eventually the ground fell even further away from me and my pan came to rest level with a pyramid of gold coin. What a game, I thought……as I laughed and pointed at the coins whilst closing my arms around father’s neck as he gently lifted me down.
But were those tears I saw clouding his loving eyes as the measured gold, now devoid of my counter weight, descended to the ground with a heavy thud which sent some of the coins scattering like seed thrown for the birds?
Observed closely by father, the Court Official then placed every single one of the gold coins used to weigh me in the empty chest, locked it and handed father the key.
Not a word was spoken, but I could not escape, nor forget, the look of defeat and abject sorrow assailing father’s eyes as he placed the key in his silk purse ~ or the look of triumph in the eyes of the Court Official and other gentlemen as they bowed to father and departed.
Puzzled, I asked father why I had been weighed against gold coin. Why not against the weights they use at the flour mill?
At which point he kissed the top of my head, as he always did when he wished to comfort me, and himself by seeking solace in my mother’s memory and said:
“One day my beloved daughter, you will understand and I pray that you will find forgiveness in your heart. But this is not that day.”
I knew then, by the catch in his throat and his troubled words, that he was desperately seeking a balm to soothe his desperation.
Here it was.
The first catch in the thread of my young life, my loom stilled in confusion, for this was the first time father had denied an answer to any question I had asked of him.
For it was at the top of a huge Red Fort that hierarchy and compulsion met at the scales of evaluation ~ differing aims resulting in a disproportionate agreement being struck at the behest of Imperial decision-making. And the tiny commodity sitting quietly on the pan of innocence as it stabilised with the pan of corruption, would one day discover that the scales were not balanced in favour of justice or equality………….
Several days after I’d been weighed against the gold coin, and as a mere five year old, I grew increasingly bored at living within the confines of the Imperial Court ~ and although I continued to walk with Pooja in what were the same public areas each day, I began to yearn for Benares and the freedom of my ancestral home.
I was homesick.
I did however start writing the daily entries in my journals again, and also took great interest in my lessons as father had arranged for most of my tutors to accompany us to Agra; but what pleased me most was that father had decided my Persian studies should have particular emphasis as it was the language of the Court.
Naturally, I saw very little of father as he was engaged in court business with his family members, sometimes returning very late and after I had fallen asleep, exhausted, whilst awaiting his return.
But one evening, as the sun was setting and casting a balmy, ochre glow over the red sandstone walls of the fort, and as Pooja was about to serve my evening meal, father came to my favourite sitting area on the little balcony overlooking the Red Fort courtyards…… accompanied by yet another Court Official.
Father invited the official to sit in the main seating area before he moved through to the balcony, sat down beside me, took my hands softly in his, and with tears in his eyes and a hitch in his voice, told me quietly that I was to be presented to the Emperor the next day.
I remember swallowing hard and being at a loss for words, as from father’s demeanour and tone of voice, I wasn’t sure if this was a good or a bad thing. So I just half-smiled and nodded.
Although I probably should have regarded it as an honour.
When I was introduced to the Court Official, and I think father said he was from “protocol”, I was frightened of him. For when he stood up, he leaned right over me. He was both very tall and thin, with piercing, almost black eyes, a hooked nose like an eagle’s beak, a dyed black moustache that almost covered his lips and an evil smile; plus a disposition which caused a chill to run right through me.
He proceeded to instruct me on how to prostrate myself on the ground before the Emperor until I was commanded to rise ~ and even then, I was to keep my head bowed at all times, looking down at my feet and not to do anything, or speak, unless directly commanded by the Emperor.
I was then made to prostrate myself on the ground several times before he was satisfied with my deportment and he also instructed that the Emperor was regarded as divine and that no-one’s head should ever be higher than his.
Fortunately, father dined with me that evening. I missed taking my meals with him and speaking about the day’s events and this time his steadying presence helped settle my fears as, by now, I was very nervous at the prospect of appearing before the Emperor.
Sensing my apprehension, and at the end of our meal, father put his arms around me, smiled in reassurance, said he would be escorting me the whole time and reminded me that the Emperor /was/ a family member ~ and then he nudged me playfully, chuckled and said that the “man from “protocol” was far more frightening than the Emperor ever was ~ at which I laughed.
The next day, and after a sleepless night pondering what lay before me, Pooja came to my room early so that she could assist in my bathing, attend to my toilette, arrange and set my hair, dress me in the gold jewellery and other pieces she had selected and help me into my finest clothes.
And to lie on my face on the floor I wore an ancestral ivory head piece from which gold strands were threaded through my hair and chains and pendants hung over my forehead with another, longer chain, running from my left temple to a nose ring studded in diamonds.
I also wore weighty gold earrings which pulled at my ear lobes, a heavy gold necklace which chaffed at my neck and my face was made up to include glossy, ruby lips which looked like they were wet, before it was finished off with a red tilak in the centre of my forehead.
My sari had been especially woven for me in rich, heavy, vermilion silk thread and its decorative border was woven from pure gold thread.
I could barely move as I joined father in our main seating area, and was desperately wondering how I would prostrate myself, before my thoughts were interrupted by a number of senior Court Officials who arrived to escort us through the Imperial Court to the throne room.
From our suite of rooms, we descended steep and winding stone steps with worn centres and irregular depths which led directly into the Diwan-i-Am ~ the Hall of Public Audiences. Lifting the hem of my sari, and assisted by Pooja, I negotiated the steps elegantly and without difficulty before turning and thanking her at the exit to our quarters.
I noticed that the Diwan-i-Am was very crowded on this particular day; awash with the gentle murmur of noise resonating around the many pillars. There, people from every walk of life assembled, often waiting many hours for the opportunity to air their grievances to the Emperor in person, or else to present him with written requests, letters, and petitions about family issues, land, taxation or other matters.
By now, my legs were beginning to feel a little weak, and we were about to enter the Diwan-i-Khas ~ the Hall of Private Audiences ~ where the Emperor received people by command only. How I wished to place my trembling hand in father’s firm hand, but observing his upright, steady and regal bearing as he walked towards his Emperor’s presence, I took a deep breath and tried to match his example.
Crossing the Diwan-i-Khas involved a long walk towards a raised platform and then up more steps to the dais and throne room in which the Emperor sat with his Court assembled around him. The path we took intersected a formal garden, whilst before us the Emperor, in all his magnificence, drew closer and closer as we progressed along the path ~ and above us the sky rumbled as storm clouds clashed, rolled and fused in heavy, humid maleficent cumulus ~ ominous harbingers of things to come.The closer we got to the dais, the more it seemed full of indivisible rainbow hued threads reflecting the glory of rich clothing offset by jewellery of incalculable value in a competitive power display between the most important courtiers, officials and advisors of the Imperial Court who attended and flanked the Emperor.
Most of all though it was the throne which demanded my young attention ~ a glittering, peacock shaped throne ~ completely covered in jewels, precious stones and pearls, its appearance only softened by lush, bolstered cushions on which the Emperor reclined.
I had never seen anything like it in my short life ~ and there would come a day when I would never wish to see its like again.
An unmistakable rustle of sari material, wafts of carefully applied scents and hushed whispers gave away the presence of ladies, and although I could not see them, rumours were already swirling around the Imperial Court about the Emperor’s recently taken beautiful, intelligent and ambitious twentieth wife who was quickly making her mark on the harem housed within the ladies quarters.
It was said that nothing happened in the Zenana without her sanction and she was also well informed about everything that transpired within, and without, the Imperial Court ~ thus positioning herself as the most powerful and influential woman there. And she had already secured influential appointments for her family; her father being the Grand Vizier ~ the Prime Minister ~ to the Emperor.
The Empress Consort, the all-seeing, all hearing power behind the throne was present, and although screened from male gaze behind the jali screens around the perimeter of the throne room, her father had the Emperor’s ear as she observed and listened intently for anything she could use to gain advantage for the Emperor, his Empire, herself and her family.
Swallowing hard, I tried not to stare, remember my manners and everything that “protocol” demanded of me, but I was already sweating under my heavy jewellery and sari and my mouth had gone completely dry so that father had to gently lay his hand on my back to remind me to prostrate myself flat on the floor and remain there until commanded otherwise ~ whilst he made a deep bow.
I wondered if the Emperor could see me trembling as I descended gracefully and lay face down on the hot marble ~ salty tears pricking my eyes and wishing, above all else, for a simple drink of water.
Finally, when the Court hushed after initial murmurs of curiosity at my presence and judgement of my person, the Emperor spoke just seven words ~ seven words with great clarity ~ the only words he ever spoke to me:
“Arise my child and look at me.”
The Emperor looked at me carefully, but without expression, for what seemed a long time before he nodded and turned to speak, in hushed tones, to some Court Officials.
And then he beckoned father to approach the throne.
Whilst the Emperor was addressing those commanded into his presence, I noticed an astrologer sitting at the edge of the throne room poring over his charts. I recognised these from my lessons, and I hoped he might explain to me what he saw in his readings, but it was father who approached him and I overheard him confirming my birth anniversary date to the learned gentleman.
Adjacent to the astrologer, was an ornately carved desk piled high with sheaves of paper, and taking a few papers from the top, some of the gentlemen, including father, read and discussed them very quietly and seriously.
So quietly I could not hear them, but it was an amicable discussion and they seemed to reach an agreement very quickly, thus allowing a scribe to reverentially present the papers to the Emperor on a writing block.
Pressing the large gold ring which served as his seal of office into a container of melted red wax, the Emperor then impressed his authority on each of the papers ~ and all the while his hypnotic gaze never left my own.
I was glad when father returned, as I had been left standing in the hot sun alone, frightened and on display for all the most important people of the Imperial Court to stare at me.
Father then bade me make my farewell respects, bow my head and walk backwards from the Emperor’s presence before he led me to a nearby chamber.
It was slightly cooler there and father explained that he and the gentlemen had been discussing some important court documents which had been prepared to confirm my ancestry and lineage and all that was required now was my signature on them ~ in my very best Persian script ~ just as I had been taught.
I was happy with this, as signing my name in Persian was the first thing I had been taught and I had to practice it time and time again until my tutor said it was perfect ~ but I noticed the documents laid before me, which father also signed, were in the most /beautiful/ Persian handwriting.
How I wished I could understand them though, but my Persian lessons had only just started………
And just before I signed my name, father explained our family history.
I /think/ he said he was a half-brother to the Emperor Jahangir himself, but not from a senior wife, and that their father had been the late Emperor Akbar who had died a few years ago. This meant that I was a high-ranking member, by blood, of the Imperial Family.
The only thing I /do/ remember is father telling me I was an Imperial Princess, but I was too miserable to care anymore as I had a nasty headache by then, my best clothes were too heavy as I had been standing in the heat for so long, I was sweating and feeling light headed and dizzy and I thought I was about to fall down.
All I wanted was a cup of water ~ so I didn’t fully understand the significance of what father was telling me until many years later.
I was also terribly homesick and wanted to return to Benares where I was happiest and could see ladies every day, play with their children, ride RathKiRani and speak with the estate workers.
In Agra I felt dejected and lonely ~ and the beautiful, vibrant tapestry I had woven before my journey started had quickly frayed and fallen apart ~ leaving my day dreams strewn around in tattered pieces at my feet.
I asked father where I should sign my name, and assisted by a kindly gentleman scribe who presented each page, I pursed my lips, frowned in concentration and signed my name, with great care, on four separate, but identical, documents.
And just as I had finished, two anonymous, silent, Court Officials arrived to sign the documents as “witnesses” ~ father said ~ to our signatures before he retained one copy, which he said he would take home and keep safely in the family archives.
I didn’t see it again until many years later.
At my tender age I had no understanding of the political games men play to gain advantage one over the other, so I was totally unaware that the Emperor had seized control of my fate, and in doing so, sought to consolidate his power and position by negating any perceived threat that father might pose in the future.
Similarly, I was unaware that the threads of my young life were now inextricably woven into the tapestry of the Imperial Court ~ with all its insidious machinations ~ which would eventually destroy my childhood.
For how was I to know that in signing a document I could not read nor understand ~ which I was told detailed my ancestry ~ I had also signed my marriage certificate?
I was married at five years of age………….
My wish, when we left our quarters in the confines of the Red Fort and the toxic atmosphere of the Imperial Court in Agra, was that my thread ~ my tie ~ to the capital city would be severed forever as I never wished to pass through its portals again; a childish wish and one swathed in blissful ignorance of the thread already binding me to a husband there.
What’s it like to be married at five years of age? That, I cannot answer, for I wasn’t aware of my marriage at the time ~ neither was I a consenting party to it.
And the state of marriage? Of course, I understood I would marry and bear children one day. All girls did. But it harboured no place in my thoughts when I travelled to Agra ~ or even for many years afterwards when I returned, with father, to Benares.
Older, perhaps a little wiser and looking back at events some years later, I tried to analyse the reasons why the Emperor and Empress Consort permitted me to leave the Imperial Court after my marriage to a close relative of the Emperor, rather than being kept there.
I /was/ still many years off my first bleed, and until that occurred, it was generally accepted that a girl should not join her husband’s household and he should not press her to do so.
But I could still have been kept at the Imperial Court.
A chill of thoughts, akin to bathing in an ice-cold stream, washed over me as I tried to fathom the rationale of the Emperor and his Empress Consort ~ the manipulative and ultimate power brokers.
The Emperor, it seemed, was content for father to live quietly on his well-tended estates as long as the Imperial coffers continued to amass considerable income in the form of taxation and other dues, with absolutely no effort on the Emperor’s part.
Estates gifted to father, on his banishment, by the deceased Emperor, Akbar.
Estates which could just as easily be gifted elsewhere if father fell into disfavour; effectively disinheriting him if I failed to return to Agra on reaching womanhood.
Equally dire, or even worse consequences could be inflicted upon the tenant farmers dependent on the estates for their livelihoods; they could be turned out and father and I hunted down without mercy.
Or was this a plan devised by the scheming Empress Consort? To immediately drive a wedge between an unwitting child bride and her husband? The husband ~ close in kinship to her own husband, the Emperor /and/ resident at the Imperial Court where she could watch him. Promising that his beautiful child bride would join him at womanhood and thus controlling the three main participants to the marriage. My husband, myself and my father controlled for several years ~ the Empress Consort buying time and the potential to manipulate events to her advantage during the intervening years.
But this was a woman /used/ to waiting ~ and waiting patiently. Previously married, she had waited many years before she achieved her ambition and married the Emperor. His twentieth wife.
Plus, she was well versed in Imperial Court power politics. Her father, Mirza Giyas Beg, had been Grand Vizier to the Emperor Akbar, and following his daughter’s advantageous marriage, he was appointed Prime Minister to the current Emperor.
We left Agra a few days after I had been presented to the Emperor. Father didn’t say why we were returning to Benares so soon, but as I was overjoyed at the prospect, I didn’t spare a thought for those who had travelled with us and who’d anticipated a much longer stay.
Bidding farewell to family, friends and acquaintances before dashing into the market places to indulge in frantic bargaining in their final flurries of shopping, everyone in the caravan had extra baggage to pack and carry on the way home. Some even had to purchase extra pack animals, so despite my impatience, the caravan took quite a while to ready itself before leaving Agra.
And father and I? Our extra baggage consisted purely of a mysterious, locked wooden chest containing the equivalent of my unfurnished weight in gold coin.
A chest of gold ~ which father secreted away as soon as we reached Benares.
A chest of gold ~ a talisman of regret; reviled and hated by father and ultimately by me.
A chest of gold ~ never forgotten, never opened and never spent.
My happiness at returning home was only diluted by my young eye’s observation that father appeared to have become a little older during our stay in Agra, which I put down to all the family issues he had to deal with; but he did appear tired and care worn and grey hairs had started to populate his facial hair.
Whilst travelling along the main highways, and where they had been constructed as distance markers between two points, I started to count the Kos Minar so that I could add up the distance we had put between ourselves and Agra.
Built to aid and guide travellers, each Kos Minar was situated just short of two miles from the previous one, and it was on these main highways that we stayed in caravanserai; but after we had deviated onto rough tracks, it was back to the fun of camping again.
I remembered much of the route from our previous journey and the excited anticipation of family reunion rose within the caravan as we slowly closed the distance on Benares. So large was the caravan that news of our impending arrival quickly reached the estates and family members who had been left behind ~ with many of them travelling out to meet us well before we even reached home!
Does anyone else’s heart skip a beat when they see the familiarity of home? Ancient walls of fort and temple hanging as a tapestry permeated by history, ancestry, legends, battles, memories, stories, chants, songs, poetry and the lives of ordinary people ~ assiduously woven by the threads of ages and fluttering in the distance.
But still “Too small, still too far away” were my thoughts when I eventually sighted Benares again ~ albeit from a considerable distance ~ my heart thudding in the joy of recognition and relief.
My formal education followed a parallel with other daughters of high birth ~ but father was also far sighted enough to ensure that informal lessons enhanced my curriculum too ~ life lessons absorbed from his estates which developed tolerance, steadfastness and strength of character. Which, one day, would stand me in good stead.
Lessons in ancestry, lineage and the accepted standards of behaviour required of an Imperial Princess continued, but I also developed empathy and compassion whilst learning the skills required to run our family estates; running barefoot, as did all the village children, playing with them and chatting to their parents, laughing and joking and understanding a way of life so very different from my own cossetted existence.
I called on those who were sick, taking baskets of food and fruits and attending to their needs, which further developed my interest in medicine and healing and I often observed childbirth alongside the village dai ~ the midwife ~ a vital preparation for my own future.
Which would arrive sooner than I had anticipated.
Every girl knows that one day they will bleed for the first time, and when they enter womanhood, members of her family, usually on the female side, start actively seeking a suitable match ~ although they have often identified one at a much earlier stage, sometimes even before or shortly after a daughter’s birth.
But a girl’s family also bears the heavy burden of sending her to the groom’s family laden with dowry; so the prudent will start assembling a dowry as soon as a girl is born, and add to it throughout her formative years.
Father had never mentioned marriage or a suitable match and, in the absence of female relatives to continually press me on the matter, it never preyed on my mind.
And it was as I bade farewell to my eleventh year, that I was horrified to learn I had been married during my one and only visit to Agra.
I was walking home along a dusty village track in the “golden hour of the cow dust,” when the sandy soil is kicked up by cattle, goats and sheep as they’re herded to their home stalls for safety during the night, when two heavily covered oxen drawn carriages clattered past ~ without so much as a friendly greeting ~ leaving me showered me in dirt and enveloped in chocking dust before they wheeled and entered our home.
Father had not said we were expecting guests, so running after them, and halting at the main gate, curiosity compelled me to watch two heavily veiled ladies exit the first carriage. Haughty and arrogant ladies judging by the way they addressed their servants, maids, our syces and all those they considered beneath their exalted station in life ~ and grasped with the pale, cold, chill of realisation and foreboding, I sensed they might be from the Imperial Court.
Why had they come here? And why now?
And still unbeknown to me, a thread tying me to Agra had been imperceptibly tightening since the day I left ~ and soon I would be completely bound, trapped and suffocating ~ in its sticky web.
Pooja was equally as puzzled by the ladies unheralded arrival, but after assuring me chambers had been hastily made ready for them, she assisted me in bathing away the dust of the day, dressed my hair and presented me with a silk sari best suited to appearing before, and entertaining, those of high status.
Running along the familiar, cavernous corridors and skipping down well known steps, I hurried to find father who was sitting in his library, staring into space, his face full of suffering as if locked into some tortuous day dream with a book, to which he was paying no attention, laying in his lap.
Poor father! He could not avoid the issue any longer and so, quite bluntly ~ and to hide his distress I think ~ he told me I had been married during our visit to Agra to a man called Khusrau Mansur; and as I had correctly surmised, the ladies were from the Imperial Court and they had arrived to prepare me to join my husband’s house.
Stunned into silence, I fell back onto a lush sofa and just stared at father ~ an expression of disbelief etched on my features, my mind spinning in recollection, grasping at the events that had taken place so long ago ~ when I was but a child.
The papers I had signed was the first thought to cross my consciousness. Was that my marriage certificate? Why hadn’t father told me? Why the secrets? Who was my husband? Had I even met him? Was he present at one of the many meetings? Were we related? How old was he? Was he present when I signed my name in my best Persian script on those four pieces of paper? Did he have other wives? And children? Would I go to him with a dowry? Would I have to live in Agra? Where was his household? How was my marriage arranged? By whom? Why?
Questions thundering through the jumble of my mind.
Finally, father broke into my silence and said that my husband was, like him, a son of the late Emperor Akbar, but closer in lineage to the current Emperor.
And he was thirty years my senior.
Married. To a paternal half-brother to my father. A man almost the same age as my father but closer in lineage to the Emperor; a man frequently guided by his Empress Consort in seeking ways to consolidate his grip on power.
My marriage, some six years previously, their manipulative way of negating any threat father might pose.
It had happened to other girls before. And it would happen to others in the future………
Now, gasping for air, I finally understood.
Not surprisingly, my carefree and happy life changed overnight with the arrival of the ladies from the Imperial Court. They were very serious and taught me about etiquette, dress, status, what my publicly accepted place would at Court would be ~ when I wasn’t confined to the zenana, which would be most of the time ~ what to expect from my marriage and how prepare myself to receive and please my husband.
Husband? A husband I hadn’t even met.
But I understood and accepted my duty, even through my distress and realisation that I would soon be shut away forever from the world that held my interest and that I loved so much. Caged like one of the pretty song birds I had seen in the markets of Agra. But at least their cage doors were sometimes opened, offering them a chance to see a world unrestricted by bars, or in my case jail screens, and offering them a fleeting chance of escape.
My father supported me as best he could during the next few tortuous months, and during our times of quiet discussion together, he implied he was bitterly disappointed at his capitulation before the Emperor’s power as he never wanted this marriage for me ~ and I did not add to his sadness by blaming him, for we both knew the Emperors’ commands were paramount and could not be disobeyed.
It was the saddest time of our lives together.
Pooja also supported me. No longer my nursemaid, but a valued and trusted confidante, I frequently confided in her, but again, our remaining time together was tinged with sadness.
When I left Benares would I ever see father and Pooja again?
And as father before me, I now took consolation in praying at mother’s tomb more frequently. She would not have wished this marriage on me ~ and when she came to me, entering my mind and speaking ~ what wisdom did she impart following her own, and her mother’s experiences of life in the zenana?
Mother told me to comply. To fit in. To remain strong. To listen. Not to trust or confide in anyone. Not to seek attention. To wait. To bide my time. And most of all ~ not to lose hope.
All of which served her and her mother well during the long years before they finally escaped and father wed his Mumtaz.
Then one morning, it happened.
I woke up bleeding, a girl’s first bleed normally being a cause for celebration, but Pooja and I just fell into each other’s arms and sobbed as I felt the life I had known drained and sucked out of me ~~ along with my blood.
I was approaching thirteen.
I went to father and Pooja told the ladies from the Imperial Court immediately. There was no question of hiding my changed status from them as it would have brought shame on father, and doubtless others at the Imperial Court were waiting impatiently to reel my thread in.
The ladies were delighted, for after several months delayed in Benares, they were yearning to return to the centre of their universe ~ the Imperial Court ~ my news prompting them to make hasty preparations for departure on what would be the unhappiest journey of my life.
Too soon it arrived and the following day I was led weeping from my father’s house, knowing I would never return there, the ladies grasping each of my arms firmly as I turned my head to see father shedding hot, bitter tears of shame and loss ~ and as the woven threads of a heavy cover were pulled down with a thud over my carriage, my last sighting was of a was a hunched figure walking sadly towards his wife’s tomb.
Snap. Went the thread.
Deeply, deeply unhappy at leaving my father’s house and protection, as all brides are, I was conducted to Agra in undue haste, exhausted horses and oxen changed in rotation as fresh legs were demanded for riding and to pull the three carriages; one for me and the ladies, the second for their staff and the third for our provisions ~ but none of my possessions left Benares as I was now the possession of my husband.
Livestock purchased at the wayside left farmer’s incredulous at their good fortune, so high were the prices paid when expediency and speed were paramount. That said, the human cargo barely paused to rest or sleep; so unlike the leisurely expeditions father and I had shared a few years ago.
Shut away in a covered carriage I disliked so much, I wasn’t even permitted to ride a horse at dawn, dusk or in the clear light of day. Neither was I permitted to help with tasks in camp ~ but as there were so few of us, we never really established one.
Shut away, I was told: “For the preservation of your unsullied reputation from the covetous eyes of men.”
And my over-riding feeling during the enforced journey was one of hunger. I was so very hungry. A girl entering the full bloom of womanhood needs nourishment, and despite us carrying adequate provisions, I was restricted to just two daily meals consisting of a thin lentil dhal, a few mouthfuls of rice, a small roti and a cup of water ~ whilst my stomach craved a cup of creamy, satisfying buffalo’s milk capable of lining it for an entire day.
It took a few days for my stomach to adjust to the lack of sustenance and cease its grumbling and complaining; and I lost a considerable amount of weight ~ which I could ill afford to lose ~ as well as a general loss of strength in the incessant heat.
Fully aware of why the ladies from the Imperial Court were depriving me of adequate meals, I bore the journey with fortitude, reasoning that as we were travelling at such speed, and with little rest, we would reach Agra in half the time of a few years earlier.
Arriving at the main entrance gate to the city, I was greeted amidst great pomp and ceremony by several Court Officials, before ascending a ramp and being seated in a richly adorned, heavily covered howdah atop a great elephant ~ a tusker with sawn off tusks which must surely have reached the ground before they were mutilated for the safety of the mahoots.
Concealed from display, I was then processed through the main streets for all the citizens to “see” ~ sadness flooding through me as I recalled my last journey to the Red Fort when I travelled in our best carriage, accompanied by father and flanked by an escort of cavalry.
There followed numerous traditional welcomes to the Imperial Court, all of them from male courtiers I didn’t know or recognise, until a lady stepped forward to conduct me, I assumed, to the ladies quarters ~ the zenana ~ where I expected to rest before being prepared to meet my husband in our private chambers.
Yet almost immediately ~ but not surprisingly ~ she conducted me instead to the scales on the roof of the Red Fort, where exhausted and short of temper by now, I was weighed against more gold coin. Except this time, I did not use my pan as a swing and my feet touched the ground before leaving it; so I just sat slumped, silent and sullen as the gold coin was heaped up, placed in a locked chest and carried away; a Court Official advising that the chest would be taken directly, under guard, to father’s estates.
Now angry, I demanded that my female escort confirm my suspicion as to why I had been kept so hungry during the journey from Benares.
“Was it to keep my weight low?”
To which she retorted:
“Of course, child……..I mean Your Imperial Highness. When negotiating your “bride price,” your father agreed to /sell/ you to your husband for your weight in gold at the time of your marriage, plus the promise of another weight when you joined his household. It is how these arrangements work.”
Violent fury then surged through me as I knew father had /not/ sold me /and/ he had told me about this shameful clause in my marriage contract before I left Benares.
Close to erupting, I checked myself, deeming it best to hold my tongue as I had realised during the journey that my deprivation was steadily driving down the price to be paid for me. I was just a commodity, purchased by a man as his bride; but it hurt me acutely to hear father’s good name maligned in this manner at the Imperial Court ~ to be spoken of as little more than a tradesman.
Thoughts flashed through my mind as I continued to rage internally at being purchased for two chests of gold; disgust at the prospect of meeting and being bedded by an avaricious husband; salty, translucent tears of anger, hidden behind a veil, bursting from my eyes, trickling down my cheeks and seeking the curve of my lips, for I was /not/ sold by my father, I had been /bought/ by my husband.
The “bride price” ~ a burden forcing a father to his knees in prayer at his wife’s tomb, begging her forgiveness for his weakness in capitulating to Imperial scheming and giving their daughter in marriage. A father possessed by the anguish and desperation of not being able to keep his daughter safe and under his protection.
The “bride price” ~ abhorrent to my father, who never paid so much as one coin for my mother, a woman who came to him willingly in love and free of financial obligation to any family.
The “bride price” ~ a tradition many grooms insist in honouring; even if it means starving the bride to get her at a lower price.
Having no need of the disgusting gold, and loathing it in equal measure as myself, father left it untouched. It belongs to me now, and much as I accept that girls are expected to come to their husband’s household with a dowry of livestock, clothing, furnishings and money, what gives /wealthy/ men the right to purchase girls?
For are we not all ~ male and female ~ born of a mother’s pain?
Leaving the roof and the scales behind, I was finally conducted to the zenana to rest, and as a junior wife, I wondered if I would be consigned to the quarters occupied by the nautch (dancing) girls and concubines whilst I awaited my husband’s pleasure.
But no, surely that could not be ~ for even though I /was/ a junior wife ~ I was also an Imperial Princess I reminded myself as a fearsome looking eunuch guarding the heavy main door to the zenana slammed it shut, with a loud echoing clatter, behind me.
Immediately, I was introduced to Rubina, the senior of my attendants, and I sensed a quiet empathy within her as she guided me along numerous, fragrant, rose and jasmine scented corridors, her softly spoken tones trying reassuring me that my husband treated all his wives fairly, and as such, I had been assigned my own private chambers plus four female attendants to fulfil my every need.
I ate a light, but filling meal that evening, and when I retired, emotions anguish continued to pulse through my wracked and shaking body, and it was several hours before I cried myself to sleep that first night at the Imperial Court ~ alone ~ and dreading the night I would meet the purchaser who would take me to his bed.
And at last, when sleep found me, I found consolation in my mother’s comforting touch grazing across my thoughts as I lay in a confusion of dreams and their questions.
My chambers were furnished with every conceivable comfort and my maids were kind and attentive; but, going unveiled in the privacy of my chambers, I could barely see through the jali screens and I was disturbed to discover I would be confined here until I had met my husband ~ but for some reason, he did not come to me for seven nights.
I realised the time had come when several ladies presented themselves, unannounced, in my chambers and devoted much time to bathing, shaving, anointing and dressing me.
Would they have thought me naïve and unworldly, which I was, if I asked them about the first time their husbands took them to their beds? But fearing humiliation, I merely listened to the intrusion of chatter, laughter and raucous joking being exchanged around me, my cheeks flaming red with shame and burning embarrassment, hidden under a heavy red veil.
I had no expectations of my husband ~ just a hope that he wouldn’t be a cruel, uncouth man ~ and he surprised me that first night, sitting opposite me for quite a long time and asking about my life; his curiosity seeming genuine and appreciative of my good fortune at experiencing a life denied to him.
After talking about my upbringing had relaxed me a little, he asked me to play the sitar and sing for him whilst one of the nautch girls danced sensuously between us, eventually taking our hands and drawing us closer to each other. From my husband’s easy smile of contentment, I did not think he was displeased with me and his cultured manners helped ease my fears.
He took my honour, of course, that night. The pain of his piercing didn’t last long, and although still a child in so many ways, I knew it was imperative that I did my duty and sought to pleasure him as the ladies of more worldly knowledge had taught me.
His loud cry mingled conquest with possession as it pierced the silence of our bedchamber ~ followed by a groan ~ and then he was finished.
And then he was gone.
From the way I was treated, I think my husband had some affection for me, but with multiple wives to whom he offered equal attention, love making seemed little more than /his/ duty to me and all his other wives ~ to be completed and then to move on.
I never fell in love with my husband, a man who never spoke of his past and who remained a man I barely knew; but I did develop an affection for him ~ despite always calling him “husband.”
He was not a cruel or unkind man ~ you must not think that of him ~ for he frequently brought me small gifts of perfumes, jewellery, books or sweets, and one evening he surprised me by slowly sliding a ring from his finger and gifting it to me; an old ring which seemed to have a deep personal significance.
My husband ~ a man who was perfectly content to sit and listen to me play the sitar and sing, a man who liked me to read poetry to him, a man who listened intently when I told him about life on father’s estates, a man seeming to yearn for a simpler way of life; but both of us equally bound by the threads of the Imperial Court.
Eventually he would take me to our bed, briefly and sometimes reluctantly it seemed, the duty expected of him equally threaded with mine ~ to conform and comply with the culture and traditions of our country, and more importantly, to fulfil the expectation of providing male heirs.
Meanwhile, life at the Imperial Court continued with the perpetual plotting, manoeuvring and machinations of those seeking patronage and elevated position in the Emperor’s eyes, especially if it involved disadvantaging their rivals; my ears always party to a great deal of gossip and embellishment in the communal areas of the zenana, and my thoughts always shrouded in secrecy.
Occasionally, the Empress Consort would grace the zenana with her presence. Secure in her position, everyone knew to be cautious in word and opinion as her impenetrable and well-rewarded network of spies, informants and eunuchs operated throughout the zenana and reported anything they considered might be detrimental to the Imperial power couple. Who was saying what about whom, the jealousies, the friendships, the alliances, how often husbands visited their wives and concubines, who was bleeding and who was not, what children were expected, when and from whom.
Always at the Emperor’s side, sometimes even presiding over the Court in his absence, the Empress Consort was a formidable force, combining strike speed with the accuracy and venom of a viper; so much was she distrusted that all the senior male members of the Imperial Court employed food tasters ~ including my husband ~ and any food served whilst he was in my private chambers was always tasted, first by his food taster and then by me, before he was satisfied and would partake.
And there I was; suffocating in the midst of a life totally alien to my upbringing; suffocating under the restrictions of the Imperial Court; yearning to be free, to make my own decisions, and although permitted to walk unaccompanied in the ladies gardens, I wasn’t permitted to ride a horse anymore.
Suffocating; and I had only lived in the zenana a few weeks……
One morning, very early it seemed, Rubina shook me awake from a fitful sleep populated by disturbing dreams and floating images. Mind unfocused and numb, I thought I’d only been asleep for a few minutes, although I did recall my husband occupying my bed for a short while, and after leaving me, I assumed he had either bedded one of his other wives or returned to his own chambers.
My husband had been found dead?
In his own bed?
I couldn’t take it in, my mind scrambling to assimilate what I was being told.
Then panic set in.
Was the Empress Consort involved? Had she set a trap to ensnare me some sort of in treachery?
I was but thirteen years, had only joined my husband’s household three months ago and certainly hadn’t developed the survival instincts of the more senior wives.
Clutched in breathless terror’s grip, I knew the Empress Consort would be aware that my husband had shared my bed a few hours ago ~ and as a junior wife ~ would I be regarded as a suspect in his death; or even a potential murderer?
A hurriedly assembled meeting of the Emperor’s most trusted advisors was held in the privacy of his chambers. Were Court Physicians in attendance to give their opinion? That, I never knew, but the Emperor quickly decreed that my husband had died from “natural causes.”
A “convenient” decision and one I had concerns about; but a decision to be accepted publicly, if not privately, both by myself and his other wives ~ now widows ~ in the zenana, although doubts about the “cause” of my husband’s death still haunt me to this day.
And adding to the mystery, the Emperor decreed that his body would not be buried as per the usual custom, but cremated, which further reinforced my suspicions about my husband’s sudden death.
Heart sinking when the news was announced in the zenana, all eyes immediately turned on me; eyes variously radiating triumph, blame, sympathy, confusion and fear could not dissipate the chill of sacrifice which now enveloped me ~ the decision to cremate my husband’s body effectively sealing /my/ fate.
Immobilised by reality and tied by the threads of duty, I knew the last time I would see my husband would be on his funeral bed ~ and mine ~ for as the junior wife, now stigmatised by widowhood
Arrangements for my husband’s cremation were already in hand; the pyre hastily constructed in the Emperor’s garden which lay beneath the balcony of his private quarters; priests, courtiers and witnesses, abruptly summoned from love making or the slumber of their beds, assembled amidst a confusion of worried glances and the hushed conversation of speculation which surrounded the sudden death of a member of the Emperor’s immediate family.
Forbidden to assist in my preparation for the pyre, Rubina and my female attendants wept as they watched me stripped of my shawl and night attire, hastily bathed in my nakedness by other female attendants, roughly thrust into the white robes of mourning, my bangles torn off and smashed to signify widowhood, my hair brushed loosely and some colour applied to disguise the waxen, sweating pallor of my face.
Borne on a gentle breeze which belied the harsh sounds of the funerary preparations outside, I heard loud entreaties for haste amidst the moving and casting down of logs and heavy blocks of wood, the muted murmur of courtiers now absorbed by echoes of prayers as, in a daze, I was dressed in white to face my fate.
With no ceremony, and no-one to offer succour, comfort, blessings, prayers or even bid me farewell, a swarm of female attendants gathered around to lead me outside and down a steep ramp; the procession only pausing at the Sati Pol (gate) where my wrist was grabbed and a tiny trembling hand forced into a red paste before being impressed as a palm print on the wall where previous Satis had left their marks.
Processing onwards towards the pyre, head spinning, floundering and dazed as if in a hypnotic trance, I attempted erasure and obliteration as a means to make sense of terror yet to come. Had my husband been poisoned? Had I been drugged? Was this reality or a self-induced night terror from which I would awake screaming in my own bed?
Faced with the grim faces of priests, physicians and male members of the Imperial Court ~ the only men I had seen, apart from my husband, since passing through the ghastly portals of the Red Fort ~ these men now bowed to me in reverential homage.
Thoughts of earlier widows ~ Sati ~ forcibly coerced, drugged with bhang or opium to suppress sensory thoughts and silence their screams as they were dragged bodily to the pyre.
Thoughts of a young widow, near collapse in her terror of entering the flames, yet determined to perform her duty to an elderly husband. Terror eclipsed as a devoted lover loosed an arrow ~ a mere twang of bow’s thread as arrow’s targeted shaft was released to carry love’s message of merciful finality ~ love’s explosive last kiss penetrating her heart in an instantaneous cure of fear and suffering. Thread’s twang unheard above screams, prayers and the crackle of the burning pyre ~ the arrow unseen by a crowd with backs turned as it found its final disguise amongst the smoke and rising flames.
Thoughts of the majority of courageous women who embraced Sati voluntarily and proudly, deeming it an honour and the ultimate commitment of loyalty to a husband deceased to perish in the flaming consumption of widowhood.
Thoughts of the previous Emperor ~ Akbar ~ who, although averse to the practice of Sati, admired “widows who wished to be cremated with their deceased husbands”….but to prevent abuse, he issued a decree prohibiting the use of compulsion in 1582. Yet he never banned the practice.
Fighting my fear of the flames, my young age immaterial, I resolved to honour my ancestors and deceased husband by refusing to join the ranks of those who showed fear; clenching my hands into tight fists, taking deep breaths, raising my chin and head proudly and, as if in reassurance, I reminded myself of the honour due to a Sati.
Sati ~ the widows who sat in the flames courageously, without uttering a sound.
Sati ~ the widows who are deeply revered by women as the givers of fertility and worshipped in Rani Sati Temples.
Then they came to me ~ mother dressed in white and reaching out a hand to me ~ and as I stretched out my hand, I saw father’s loving face behind her. The cathartic moment when I knew I would not fail them, and in recognising this, I was irreversibly committed to die with courage and dignity. Despite the fact it would break father’s heart. Would he ever hear about my fate, I wondered?
Standing cocooned in the joy of my parents love, and motionless before the unlit pyre, I smelt the sandalwood, heard the sombre priests’ chants and watched them anoint the pyre with ghee.
No longer fighting the terror of the flames, I looked steadily towards the funerary bed, steeling myself and knowing where my duty lay; mounting the pyre, sitting cross-legged and taking my husband’s head in my lap as the pyre was lit and the flames licked, lapped and reduced us both to ash.
And so it was that a thirteen year old girl, dressed in the white robes of widowhood confronted a pyre ~ mentally prepared, denying fear and defying the physicality of trembling ~ a girl who, to this day, remains afraid of fire.
But had I deviated from the script, I would have been dragged away and put to death for dishonouring the Imperial Family. One swift swipe of the executioner’s scimitar separating my head from my body. A quicker and more merciful death.
Bare footed physicians then reverentially stepped forwards, and knowing I had recently joined my late husband’s house, asked if I had bled since he first came to our marriage bed.
“I have not.”
Three words that caused a murmur of consternation amongst the assembled throng and consultation between physicians and priests, as unbeknown to me, a widow who might be with child was not permitted to burn.
Hoping for a short while that I might be carrying my husband’s child, I hadn’t yet told him ~ but Rubina and my attendants could confirm that I had not required blood napkins since my arrival in the zenana.
Continuing to stand alone ~ again~ in the searing heat just as I had a few years earlier as a five year old child being presented to her Emperor, the irony of the situation was not lost on me; except this time, I was not clad and sweating under the weight of a heavy and ornate silk sari, but dressed in the light, simple and cool white robes of mourning.
And as a few years before, all I wanted was a drink of water ~ but this time my head did not spin, my legs were not weak and I did not sway whilst I waited; yet again, my fate dependent on the Emperor’s decision following his unexpected conference with anxious courtiers.
Sensing the hand of the Empress Consort in the demise of my husband and the decision to cremate his body rather than bury it, I smiled serenely at the implication of her gamble that I, as a junior wife, and mere pawn in the game of Imperial survival, would perish too.
But she /would/ know I had not bled since my marriage, so was she gambling on my compliance, silence and acceptance of my fate? Or had my three words… “I have not”… stayed her hand? Was she present and watching? Or was she innocent of any wrongdoing? Answers that would never be available to the likes of me.
Breaking into my diamond-cut train of thought, a priest approached and quietly told me the Emperor had decreed I should not burn as I might be with child, but he had also commanded that another wife should step forward ~ voluntarily ~ to be the Sati in my place.
A barren wife.
At the current time; but this did not mean the woman who stepped forward would be without children. What would happen to them if their mother was sacrificed in my place?
Realisation hitting me that another woman’s sacrifice might be far greater than my own, and imbued with the courage of youth, I cast protocol aside, wheeled around and screamed at the Emperor’s balcony above:
“No! No! This cannot be. Not in exchange for me. I wish to petition the Emperor. I wish my voice to be heard”
Molten anger now flowing red hot through me, and wishing all present, as well as all those occupying the Red Fort and Agra to hear, I uttered the words which could not be ignored again:
“I wish to petition the Emperor!”
And as a member of the Imperial Family, and one who had spoken so vehemently and publicly, no-one could deny my right to petition.
A sign unseen was the signal for my arms to be clamped in the bruising grasp of two members of the Imperial bodyguard who roughly escorted me to the balcony where the Emperor was seated to watch the cremation on his private grounds below.
Snatching my arms free on feeling the release of the bodyguards vice-like grip, I was pushed forward and downwards to land on my knees; but I was not done with, and rather than keep my head bowed, I raised it, looked directly at the Emperor and quietly, but firmly, submitted my petition. Telling him ~ yes, telling him:
“I, Noor un Nisa, widow of Khusrau Mansur, son of Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar, being of the House of Timur, do respectfully request your Imperial Majesty’s pardon for failing in my duty as a Sati. But I have /not/ failed in my duty as a wife in that I have conceived my husband’s child. It therefore distresses me that your Imperial Majesty has decreed that another widow, possibly a mother, should step forward to burn in my place. But if your Imperial Majesty is minded that a Sati should enter the flames today, I respectfully ask that the prohibition on my burning be revoked and allow me to go to my husband’s pyre, for I would /never/ be able to live in peace with another woman’s death on my conscience.”
Dark eyes embedded in a countenance of fury flashed in anger at my display of insolence as the Emperor waved me away without so much as a word; Imperial bodyguards grasping my arms again and dragging me bodily from the Emperor’s presence as I turned my head and screamed /my/ seven-word retort at the man who had decided /my/ future on the basis of the only seven words he had ever spoken to me…….as a five year old child:
“I do not wish another to burn!”
Hauled away, I plunged into the darkness of a faint, and when I regained my senses, I was lying on a couch in an ante room with my female attendants offering me water to drink and vapours to inhale; but even the penetrating, mind restoring essence of the vapours could not conceal or disguise the acrid smell of burning flesh.
Taking one final deep inhalation of the vapours, pushing attendants aside and running across the room, I threw protocol aside yet again and, much to the alarm of the Imperial bodyguards at my unexpected appearance, I continued running until I had rushed forward to the balcony where the Emperor was seated watching the furious consumption of the flames.
I had no recollection at the time, but Rubina later told me it was only the timely intervention of one of the Imperial bodyguards that prevented me from toppling over the balcony to my death as I fell senseless again.
Carried back my private chambers, blackness was gradually infused with the clarity of colour as, overcome by the events of the day, I rested quietly until eventide; my rest interrupted by Rubina, my most loyal attendant, sobbing through the translucent tears streaming down her cheeks as she handed me a written command which bore the Emperor’s seal.
Thirteen years old. Widowed. Carrying her dead husband’s child. Wilful and outspoken. How would the Emperor, or more likely the Empress Consort, deal with me?
Death? Disgrace? Dishonour of my father’s house? Imprisonment? Exile?
Fearing the worst, trembling fingers broke the parchment open, reading that I was to be returned to my father’s house in disgrace. Immediately. And my heart then sunk to unfathomable depths as I read the further conditions that would be applied following the birth of my child ~ a child as yet unborn ~ a child who would never be able to escape the threads of Imperial power……….
/My/ disgrace? Widowed; through no fault of my own. Failing to honour my husband as a Sati due to fulfilling my marital obligations in conceiving his child; which also precluded one of his brothers from taking me in marriage immediately ~ as was the custom ~ because I was carrying another’s child. Other, barren wives, would fill that void.
Aged thirteen ~ widowed, pregnant and three times disgraced.
Dressing hastily in muted tones to avoid male attention whilst travelling and scooping up a green woollen shawl to guard against the chill of morning and eventide, I turned and cast a final glance over my chambers and “possessions.” Books, perfumes, clothing and jewellery all gifted to me ~ I wanted none of them ~ as all my /personal/ possessions remained in Benares.
There was only one gift I kept, and fingering its outline through my silk purse, I recalled the time just a few weeks before when my husband carefully removed a ring from his finger and gave it to me. A very personal gift, which he said had been painted several years ago by one of the finest artists specialising in Mughal miniatures.
And closing the door softly on our lives as I left, I wondered if he knew his days were numbered and hoped I might treasure the ring as a keepsake of our marriage.
All that remained. Of a husband I never loved. Of a man I never knew. Of the threads that once bound us.
On leaving my chambers in the Red Fort, and amidst an atmosphere of total disdain reserved for anyone considered beneath their status, the senior ladies of the zenana escorted me, without coin, possession or even a kind word, to a single bullock cart; their gestures indicating this was to be my mode of transport to Benares, but at least it was provided with a spare bullock.
My travelling companions on the journey were the bullock cart driver ~ Sohail ~ and a novice, nervous, but kindly natured young female attendant named Sumita.
Although space constraints in the cart left minimal room for possessions or provisions, I cared not, as I would soon be free of the Imperial Court, the Red Fort and Agra; but not so my unborn child, whose life thread was already woven into Imperial decree.
Once outside the confines of the Agra city walls, I sought a traveller who was heading for Benares and who was willing to carry and deliver the hastily constructed note I had penned to father telling him of my disgrace, condition and circumstances.
Fortuitously, I soon found a man I judged to be reliable as he knew of father as the “Prince” and local land owner and myself as his daughter. Imploring him to travel with all speed to deliver my note to father against a promise of payment as I was without coin, all I could do was to wait and hope my trust was well founded.
Concealed behind the heavy drapes of the bullock cart, I suffered greatly from the stifling heat during the early stages of carrying my child, and the journey in the creaking cart drawn by ambling white bullocks in rotation, without a care in the world and ignorant of my desire for haste, was so slow I feared I might reach full term and give birth at the roadside!
But at least I was fed adequately, if simply, from the stores we carried and Sumita willingly opened her purse of meagre coin to buy necessities during the journey, as well as ensuring I was kept as comfortable as possible.
Happily, the man I trusted was as good as his word, for we were still about ten or more days travelling from Benares ~ the place I always regarded as home ~ when I discovered father had shortened the distance between us, travelling with his fastest horses, outriders and lightly laden pack horses to meet me.
Through a gap in the drapes I cried out as I saw father emerging at speed through a far distant haze of dust, and as he leapt from the saddle and abandoned his horse, I ripped the drapes aside and tumbled into the tight clutch and tearful embrace of a father vowing never to relinquish his daughter again.
Frayed threads ~ coming together again ~ patching and mending the grief of separation of the past few weeks.
Weakness, plus mental and physical exhaustion were the victors now; absorbing me into a void of nowhere as soon as father took me into the safety of his arms, having no further recollection of the journey home other than a plague of hazy, shifting dreams in which the only reassuring constant was father.
Vaguely I remembered Pooja’s voice being there, and presumably Pooja too; it seemed she arrived with extra provisions and necessities for my comfort as, concurrent with his urgent departure, father had instructed two of his fastest carriages to follow him and the outriders ~ and although they were quickly outpaced ~ Pooja had insisted on provisioning and travelling with the carriages, desperate to take me into her care again.
Sohail, the bullock cart driver was amply rewarded for my care, and as a married man with family, he returned to Agra as soon as I was under father’s protection once more.
And during the journey, I discovered that my novice attendant, Sumita, was an orphan living in fear of returning to her miserable life in Agra where she had no-one to protect her and was the object of incessant, unwelcome and unwanted male attention ~ and so, with father’s permission and understanding of my pleading delirium ~ Pooja was asked to induct her into our household where she happily remains to this day.
Eventually, awakening from the void of nowhere, I found my mind inescapably trapped in a whirlpool of turmoil as conflicting emotions fought for space ~ and it was several days before comprehension and reality combined to restore my thoughts.
I was home. Safe and secure in the ladies quarters, in my /own/ chambers in Benares……..but then reality compelled me to weep for days at my disgrace before summoning the courage to face father.
Only four months?
Such a short time had elapsed since the thread to my ancestral home had snapped as I departed as a weeping bride to join my husband’s house ~ and so much had happened since then, events which had transformed a girl into a woman ~ a transition I just could not cope with.
Heart, body and soul emptied, I remained in a darkness of despair; but in tearing me from my mother’s body, father had brought me from darkness into the light before ~ and now he faced doing so again.
How could I ever repay my lifetime debt to him and our ancestors after being returned home from the Imperial Court in disgrace?
Father gave his love unconditionally during my protracted recovery; after all, I /was/ still a child to him ~ even more so in the eyes of the loving father who bitterly regretted surrendering his daughter to a life of incarceration and fear.
Between months six and eight, spirits rising and lightening slightly, I recovered enough to assist in running the estates; doing administrative tasks as well as visiting a few tenants ~ most of them old friends ~ either on foot if close by, or in a light carriage driven by one of the syces.
Two mature and trustworthy ladies drawn from villages on the estates, Sushila and Anjuli, joined my household as maids, and as they had many children of their own, they were ideally suited to assist with my confinement ~ the now elderly Pooja content in her role as my dresser and the maids supervisor. And in time, Anjuli’s niece, Navneet, would also join my personal household.
But still, my mind remained periodically troubled………..
Orange and red visions violate and snatch blank slumber away; their demonic donations a churning turmoil of noisy humanity ~ bare feet slapping on wet stone amidst prayers, lights, chants, wood smoke, incense, clanging bells and rushing water; a maelstrom of recollection mingling in my subconscious which sends me spinning, plunging and fighting towards to my ancestral birthplace of Benares.
Panic fuelled eyes snap open in immediate wakefulness; piercing screams shattering the silent night air as I raise myself in terror’s seizure and attempt to flee the burning ghats.
Hands flailing strength, ignited by panic and confusion, beat at my body under the bed sheets ~ triggering a spontaneous combustion; threads of white sheets roaring and bursting above me as they metamorphose into searing sheets of flame.
Screams, lung-bursting screams issue forth as does the sweat pouring from me as I see the deviant flames pleasuring in their impromptu resurrection, their terror licking ever closer.
Still screaming, I hurl myself from the bed, turning, whirling, lunging and stamping blindly as I try to extinguish and halt the flames in their determined, stalking quest ~ to colour me ash grey.
Tearing and ripping at my night attire, already singed white threads spread throughout my cotton shift; their brown hues turning grey before disappearing in wispy coils of smoke leaving me to flee, unclothed, the length of the ladies quarters to the door.
Screaming in despair, I find the way barred; blown backwards by the only door as it explodes in an orange inferno of flames. Spinning around, I seek the solace of rational thought amongst the waves of mounting hysteria; I must seek a means of escape.
Too late now for thought.
The flames are upon me.
Unbearable the heat’s furnace, forcing air from my lungs, and with only the searing heat to fill them, they collapse. In vain now my attempts to scream ~ no noise issuing forth as I continue flailing, spinning and beating, trying to escape flame’s oven.
But the thieving flames have stolen my air.
It is too late.
Then falling deathly silent and turning as white as the threads in the shroud which dressed me to defy an Emperor as well as the flames of my husband’s funeral pyre, I crash to the ground.
Sushila and Anjuli, sleep invaded and alerted by the sounds of my “night terrors” anxiously attend me; tenderly concealing my naked body with a blanket where I lie and hold me.
Both of them.
Holding me until the trembling melds with calm, the sweats dry as salty residue, the terror subsides into peace, colour returns, eyes focus and bewildered and disorientated, I finally recover consciousness.
For they have seen and heard it many times before….
Entering my fourteenth year and the eighth month of carrying my child, the anticipated arrival of two ladies from the Imperial Court caused my spirits to dip even further; their arrival not out of concern for my welfare, but to ensure the Emperor’s additional commands, issued at the time of my banishment and concerning the infant’s birth, were adhered to.
A child ~ innocent and as yet unborn ~ already woven into the threads of Imperial power.
The ladies from the Imperial Court, compliant with commands from Agra, busied themselves in contracting wet nurses should they need to remove a male infant from my care, supervising many other issues surrounding my confinement ~ plus making it known they would be the witnesses at the birth of my child.
Pooja, Sushila and Anjuli remained my closest confidantes and companions however; far more experienced in matters of childbirth than those from the Imperial Court and even more capable of overseeing my labour and delivery; intuitively sensing that no women ~ or in my case, child ~ should anticipate her confinement with such unhappiness, anxiety and fear clouding her young mind.
My labour ~ long and excruciating ~ was heralded by a great restlessness as might be displayed by a brood mare, circling her stall, shifting, lying down and standing again in seeking a more comfortable position.
Inescapable back pains from neck to base of spine, intense lower back pain and knots of shuddering contractions I thought could increase in severity no more ~ except they did ~ time and time again; my own knowledge of childbirth instructing me that suffering during birthing a new life was the lot of all women.
A day later, exhausted, semi-delirious and coated in a thin film of sweat, I reached out in prayer for mother’s comforting hand.
Was I destined to suffer as she did?
Or would my suffering prove worse?
Would infant /and/ mother perish from demands they could not fulfil?
Pooja, Sushila and Anjuli, all of them experienced in assisting ladies through childbirth ~ as well as the local dai ~ supported and encouraged me nobly through the progressive demands of searing pain on a failing body; whilst the ladies of the Imperial Court distanced themselves from the screams and bloody mess of labour, concerned only with sighting the gender of the resulting child.
My screams must have been especially heart rending and distressing for father after losing his beloved Mumtaz in childbirth; my final signal at the end of hours of pain, struggle and exhaustion, a penetrating scream which tore from my lungs, ripping and echoing through the house:
My scream reaching even to mother’s tomb ~ threading us together through suffering ~ my scream before silence leaving father despairing that he had lost me too.
My battle was over.
And I had lost.
For in birthing a still-born son, the cord ~ the loose thread ~ that had sustained and nurtured him for so many months, had transformed itself into a tight thread, its twisting transformation becoming the instrument which denied my son life ~ the threads of a hangman’s noose.
Even through swimming senses I was struck by the shocked silence in the birthing chamber; masks of distress etched on the faces of Pooja, Sushila, Anjuli and the dai.
No mewing wails confirming an infant’s first breath, glances of sympathy mixed with confusion and uncertainty as each wondered who should be the one to deliver the dreaded news.
And looks of total disdain on two faces ~ those of the ladies from the Imperial Court.
Pooja and I then exchanged knowing glances which transcended the years; having been in attendance when my mother died in birthing me, she now shared /my/ grief at birthing a dead son.
Tenderly she cut the giver of deaths cord, lifted, cleansed and wrapped the infant’s blue body in a tiny, milk white shroud, hastily cut from her own, age-old, robes of mourning; passing him to me, to bless and hold briefly as my own, before he was summarily removed from my maternal embrace by the ladies from the Imperial Court.
Yet in those few precious fleeting seconds, I found some comfort in mercy ~ the mercy that spared my son from being reared in the cruelty and prejudice of the Imperial Court and sparing me the lifelong torment of not knowing him ~ or what had become of him.
Aged just fourteen ~ my disgrace was now irrecoverable and complete.
Too weak to rise from my bed, father was directed to make immediate preparations for his grandson’s cremation, to be overseen by the ladies from the Imperial Court; father protesting vehemently and requesting the infant be accorded the customary funerary rites and burial in our ancestral graveyard.
But the ladies were insistent. No marker would be left or reverence shown to a child that had never known this world.
Upon whose instructions? The hand of the Emperor and his Empress Consort, just in case there was no live birth?
A mere two hours ~ that’s all it took ~ between my un-named son leaving the protective sanctuary of my body and his lifeless body being reduced to ash.
Ash gathered up under supervision and removed from father’s estates in a tiny unmarked box.
My son; once a tiny, sentient being who had saved me from his father’s pyre ~ and be in no doubt ~ that if I had recovered my strength, I would certainly have entered the flames, sat on my son’s pyre and cradled him in my lap as we were both reduced to ash……