Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance (4)

Time is a strange storyteller. It writes, erases and rewrites endlessly. Things change, places and people become unrecognisable, but stories are repeated endlessly.

Navgarh, too, has changed with time. Supermarkets and cyber cafés encroach and obliterate the most influential names of the old bazaar. The wide and well-lit roads meet at the central crossing of the bazaar where the ancient banyan, now trimmed and fenced, serves as a parking place for bicycles.

Besides these changes, the small town ethos are still strong. Everyone takes a deep interest in everyone’s life. Scandal mongering and gossiping are the favourite pastimes of the town.

Like its history, the changes in Navgarh too are shaped by its proximity to Delhi. A huge canal on the south east and a highway on the west of Navgarh are the umbilical cords that tie the township to the metropolis. Large quantities of raw material and cargo move on the highway between Delhi and Navgarh. The canal on the other side once joined the Navgarh jheel to river Yamuna in Delhi. It was built to ward off the flooding of the Yamuna but a miscalculation in the depth of the canal led the water to flow the other way. Within a year, the jheel had poured itself into the river. With the jheel disappeared the forests of Navgarh. Now the south of the town hosts a large sunken stretch of land, full of cracked yellow mud. It is the empty basin of the Navgarh jheel.

Beyond these paradoxes of modernisation, the past also lives on in Navgarh. Some colonial bungalows still exist in the cantonment area, but most are now unrecognisable. Beyond the arid basin of the jheel, stands the quila on the hilltop. It was once a site for adolescent adventure for the local lads till the Historical and Archaeological Survey, or HAS, cordoned it off for research and study. Since then, the quila has kept a lonely watch over the town.

These neglected old places were hosts to the only memorable event that had happened in Navgarh – the one recorded in history textbooks as a minor aside to the events of 1857.

‘The Battle of Navgarh was a subsidiary event of the mutiny in Delhi. In 1857, confident of the support of the then-Raja of Navgarh, the sepoys planned to attack the British troops besieging Delhi from the ridge outside the city. The sepoys from Delhi intended to move along the jheel under the cover of the forest and take the enemy by surprise.

‘But when the sepoys reached the outskirts of Navgarh, the Raja procrastinated. By the time, the rebel sepoys were allowed to enter Navgarh, their morale was low. Drenched in rain, famished and disoriented in the unfamiliar territory, they advanced, only to find that the enemy had anticipated the move. The British troops stormed the camp. On the other flank, another British regiment closed in and destroyed all the villages on the way, cutting off the routes of retreat or the possibility of local support. The old Raja of Navgarh surrendered and died a few days later.’

In letting the rebels enter the kingdom, Navgarh became complicit in the rebellion. Yet by delaying them, the Raja became a dubious character in the annals of Indian history – another royal thinking only about his kingdom.

But over the last few days, the story of the Indian princess married to a British officer had taken over Shiv’s imagination. On Saturday evening, he accompanied Amma to the temple. The ancient temple stood at the end of the eastern road – one of the four roads that forked from the banyan tree in the bazaar. Over a hundred years old now, the temple had fared well through the ravages of time. Its gleaming white shikhar stood tallest in the marketplace. Steps leading to the white marble platform were cleaned twice a day.  The temple came alive every evening with smell of incense and flowers. In the sanctum sanctorum, the idols smiled on the gathering as if the loud aarti, the bells and conch shell had caught their attention.

Shiv stood with his head bowed after the aarti, trying to remember the last time he had attended the ritual. He wasn’t an atheist but God was a tricky question that he seldom paid attention to.

After the aarti, one of the younger pandits offered prasad to the devotees. Amma nodded towards the frail man with white hair sitting on a cot propped against the side wall of the temple.  Bade Panditji. Shiv folded his hands and bowed in his direction. The old man raised his hand. Was it to bless or to indicate that they were to wait?

After taking the prasad, Shiv sat on the floor near the cot while Chotte Panditji brought a small stool for Amma. People continued to pay quick visits to the Gods and children returned for more prasad.

‘The last Raja died without any heir,’ Bade Panditji said when Shiv asked about the rulers of Navgarh. ‘That was the end of the kingdom. The angrez took over after that.’

‘But didn’t he have a daughter?’ Shiv looked at Amma for confirmation.

‘What could a girl have done? If there was a son, he would’ve become the Raja and the British wouldn’t have got Navgarh,’ Panditji answered.

Shiv refrained from pointing that despite the Rajas and Rajkumars all over India, the British did take over the country. Heir or no heir, Navgarh did not stand a chance. But Panditji was already looking sullen.

‘Suna hai, there was a Rajkumari,’ Amma took over from Shiv. ‘She married a firangi.’ Her tone was softer than usual. It smoothed a few creases on Panditji’s wrinkled forehead.

‘A daughter like that doesn’t count. This is what happens when you thrust a man’s job on a girl… pollution in the family, the throne, the whole town.’ Panditji was visibly unhappy about the topic.

‘That means the king had a daughter,’ Shiv caught the inconsistency. ‘And she married an angrez.

‘I don’t know. I haven’t heard of her. Never.’ Panditji looked the other way.

‘But you said she polluted…’

‘Then why remember her?’ Panditji snapped. Amma frowned at Shiv. ‘Even if there was a girl like that, the family would’ve become untouchable after the marriage. Even a royal family.’

‘But if the king had agreed to the marriage…’ Shiv prodded further.

‘Arre, the king and the royal family of Navgarh were God-fearing Hindus. Poojas were held day and night. They built this temple.’ Panditji looked at Shiv with irritation. ‘There was no such girl. What you’re saying never happened. Such a marriage is not possible – not even today, how can you think such a thing happened back then?’

A sharp silence followed the outburst. Panditji folded his arms and bowed in Amma’s direction, before closing his eyes and leaning back to rest against the wall. The interview was over. Amma and Shiv got up, once again bowed to the idols in the sanctum and stepped out.

‘Why was he angry?’ muttered Shiv on the way back. ‘Why protest so much? And the inconsistency when he mentioned the princess… it is obvious that he knows the truth and would deny it.’

‘Or does not want to remember.’

‘But why? Just because she was a girl and…’

‘And she married an Englishman,’ Amma shrugged. ‘Whatever her reasons, Shiv, you must realise that such things aren’t accepted in the small towns of India. Why, even an inter-caste marriage can lead to riots. And the princess married an angrez. Panditji must be a century old. Did you expect a eulogy?’

‘He said that the king thrust a man’s job on a girl and she brought disgrace…’ Shiv mused.

‘The fact that he does not remember tells much more about Rajkumari Meera. Now I’m certain there is some truth in this old piece of gossip.’

Walking through the bazaar, pondering over the existence of a princess who had been erased from Navgarh’s history, Shiv noticed the hoarding that dominated the marketplace. A 20 feet tall Mahesh Chander, the member of the State Legislative Assembly from Navgarh, greeted the people with folded hands and a kind smile.

‘Doesn’t he trace his lineage back to the royal family?’ Shiv pointed at the hoarding.

Amma frowned at the picture. ‘Yes, he does.’

The poster emphasised the humility and kindness in the face. But there was a hint of stubbornness in the eyes and the jutting nose. The hair and the moustache were painted black to make the man seem young and energetic.

Mahesh Chander and his family had held the reins of political leadership in Navgarh since India’s independence. They claimed to be the kinsmen of Raja Bhanu Pratap, descending from his nephew and heir apparent Jai Chander Pratap. The family had lived in the zenana palace of the quila before being evicted by HAS. Later, the Chanders entered into a legal dispute with HAS over the property. The case was still pending in the court.

A large part of Chander’s political influence in Navgarh came from his royal lineage. It was strengthened by Gyan Chander, Mahesh Chander’s grandfather, a local legend who had walked along with Mahatma Gandhi to the Dandi coast to break the salt laws. After Independence, Gyan Chander assumed the leadership of Navgarh as its elected representative.

This mix of royalty and patriotism sealed the ideologies of Navgarh’s political leadership. While his grandfather had fought to free India from the British yoke, Mahesh Chander saw himself as the guardian of that freedom. Mahesh and his followers wore their Indian-ness literally – from the khadi clothes to their vociferous support against any tampering with the local customs. After three generations of being in power, Chander saw Navgarh as his personal kingdom; he knew what the people wanted, what was good for them.

‘It would be interesting to talk to Chander. Don’t you think so?’ Shiv asked as he and Amma entered the haveli.

Amma did not look eager. ‘I wonder if he knows anything. He is pretty conservative, not very different from Panditji. And he is always busy.’

Amma’s Women’s Centre repeatedly invited Mahesh Chander for inaugurating their projects.  Support of the local government was essential for the organisation. But Chander always sent his ‘earnest’ wishes and promised to be a part of the future projects. No, Amma did not think it would be easy to meet him.

Shiv shelved the thought for the time being. Perhaps he could meet the politician sometime in the future.

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Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance (3)

Gateway to the past

1852: Navgarh Quila

 

If only he could hold on to this moment. From the parapet of the fort, Raja Bhanu Pratap watched the caravan begin its trudge to Dilli. Despite the flash floods at the end of the season, the year had been good. In a region prone to drought and floods, he was grateful for the normal seasonal changes for once.

Perhaps it was the havan that they had performed.

Bhanu Pratap thanked the gods. The caravan will return with supplies. People will get by this year. But what about the next year? Or the year after that?

If only he could get money for the canals. Bhanu Pratap remembered the excitement when the French friend of Sinclair Sahib, his daughter’s English tutor, had presented the plan – a network of canals taking water from the jheel to the farthest corners of Navgarh. The Frenchman talked of water storage and using that water during drought – an answer to the perpetual problem that plagued the farmers of Navgarh.

But the excitement plummeted soon. It required huge funds. In the earlier days, he could have petitioned the Mughal court, but now the kingdom of the Mughals was a shadow of what it used to be. That option was gone, may be forever.

So for this year, they settled for the havan. It gave him time to worry about the funds and other pressing issues – issues which he tried to forget at the moment. Soon he would descend into the mire once again.

Bhanu Pratap turned determinedly to the sight in front of him – the city bathed in the orange and gold hues of the setting sun. The waters of the jheel reflected its colours. On the other side, the Aravalli hills formed a perfect backdrop for the quila. The hills, the fortress, the jheel and the city – all in continuity. His kingdom, Bhanu Pratap thought possessively, ignoring the white buildings of the English in the cantonment area.

 Kingship did not sit easily on Bhanu Pratap’s old shoulders. Three decades ago, his father had ruled Navgarh with the arrogance of the one born to rule. It was the privilege of the people to be ruled by him. No one could wrest this privilege as long as he was diplomatic with the neighbours, as long as there was British army in Navgarh, and as long as there was a male heir.

 Bhanu Pratap had seen these privileges erode with time. The relationship with the neighbouring kingdoms had changed. The British Company became too strong. And there was no heir, or rather, no male heir. Queen’s life-threatening illness after the birth of their daughter meant that there would be no other child. Havans, sacrifices and upvaas – nothing helped. Bhanu Pratap and Rani Leelamani had come to terms with their fate.

It was only Meera, their beloved daughter, on whom they pinned their hopes.

Till some years ago, it would have been a minor hiccup in the line of descent. A girl could be trained to take over – rule or act as a regent till there was a male heir in the line. Such arrangements weren’t unheard of. Raja Bhanu Pratap had trained Meera to be the ruler of Navgarh. He smiled as he remembered his courageous and often foolhardy daughter. She had all the makings of a good ruler. Bhanu Pratap even appointed Master Sinclair to teach her the language and the ways of the firangis. The British made him feel insecure. But he ensured that Meera dealt with them as an equal. He knew Meera was looking forward to take over the responsibility. She would be a better ruler than him.

But the Company was already making noises about the legibility of the native rulers. They refused to accept adopted rulers. Would they accept a girl in Navgarh? Wouldn’t they use it as a chance to take over Navgarh? They were doing it everywhere – doing away with the local rulers and taking over their land.

Bhanu Pratap also knew Meera would not give up easily. She would put up a fierce resistance against such a take over.

How could he push her in such troubled waters? Veer Singh of Faizpur had asked for Meera’s hand in marriage years ago. The proposal was still open. Navgarh could merge with Faizpur.

Or Meera could become a regent for seven year old Jai Chander, Raja Bhanu Pratap’s nephew. But the thought, mentioned once in an impulsive moment, had led to another set of problems, triggering another battle of  power in the zenana.

Bhanu Pratap sighed wearily. The inheritance had become a never-ending game of chess that he played constantly in his mind. He remembered the first truth about Navgarh he had learnt from his father, a fact drilled into him ever since he learnt the language of power and politics – whoever ruled Navgarh controlled the road to Dilli. The quila was not only a seat of power in Navgarh; it was meant to offer fortified defence to Dilli. Any attack on Dilli coming from the south-west had to first conquer Navgarh.

The Mughals always kept a small party of troops at Navgarh. The troops were looked after by the kiledar of Navgarh. When the power of the Mughals began to dissipate, there were continuous attacks on Navgarh to make inroads into Dilli. But Navgarh stood firm, war-torn, yet protecting its greater neighbour. The power and influence of the Kiledars increased and soon they established themselves as the rulers of their own small estate -the Rajas of Navgarh. The attacks stopped when they entered a subsidiary alliance with the troops of the East India Company.

But the alliance brought another group into this game of power. The East India Company and when it came to power and politics, no one knew it better than the Company.

Bhanu Pratap’s reverie was interrupted by a polite cough.

‘It’s time. Raja Sahib has to go to the zenana. Rani Leelamani is waiting.’ It was Munshi Sahai.

Bhanu Pratap drew a deep breath. The foot soldier standing behind him helped him heave his six-decade-old frame from the ramparts to the ground. As he walked to the zenana, Bhanu Pratap wondered who had asked for an audience – his wife or the queen of Navgarh. What did Leela want to talk about – their daughter, the household, or the kingdom? There was no distinction between his personal and political life.

 

 Age respects none, thought Munshi Sahai, the king’s chief advisor and trusted friend. Bhanu Pratap walked with a heavy gait and the pronounced stoop of someone suffering from severe joint pain. Forced to stay in bed due to inflammation of joints, the king had ample time to ponder over the troubles that were mounting inside and outside the kingdom.  But Rani Leelamani was impatient. She had sought Sahai’s help. After all, he was the chief advisor to the king. But as a friend, Munshi Sahai wanted Bhanu Pratap to have these rare moments of peace.

Now Rani Leelamani’s summon indicated that she was ready to take the matters into her hands.

 

The king entered the zenana amid a show of obeisance and respect. The place was full of women from the extended royal family – numerous aunts, sisters and cousins. All who met him on the way to queen’s chambers bowed down to him. He smiled at some and frowned at the vague unknown ones. The royal household was getting bigger by the day. Distant cousins and friends arrived frequently. According to the rules of hospitality in the royal family, none asking for refuge could be declined. But times had changed. The royal pockets were no longer bottomless. He would have to speak to Leela about it.

Before stepping in, Bhanu Pratap paused at the door. A maid announced his arrival. The queen sat on a low diwan silhouetted by the fading sunlight from the lattice windows behind her. Leela’s chambers were bigger than the other chambers in the zenana. As he entered, she rose and gestured to the maids. The girls lighting the lanterns bowed and left. He took the ornate chair opposite his wife.

 And so begins the game. Bhanu Pratap was painfully aware that they were no longer the allies they once were. Leela had seen him as an opponent ever since he put forward the idea of Jai Chander as his heir. He had not made a public announcement, but he had expressed the idea. For Leela that was enough; it was betrayal of faith that she and Meera had in him. The fault lines had widened ever since.

 ‘I see some more new faces now,’ he began.

The queen pursed her lips. ‘Sheetala’s distant cousins. They arrived yesterday.’ The cool tone expressed her disapproval of Jai Chander’s mother and his brother’s wife, Sheetala. Sheetala and several others in the zenana and the court felt that Jai Chander was the rightful heir to the throne of Navgarh.  But Leela had her own coterie of loyalists. In their minds, the idea of Meera’s kingship was beyond dispute.

 ‘I don’t see Meera,’ he mentioned.

‘She has gone riding.’

‘Alone? The darkness gathers. Shouldn’t she be back?’

‘She’ll be, any moment. Don’t worry. She must be in the town, meeting people under the banyan tree,’ Leelamani smiled. ‘You’ll get the news tomorrow.’

Bhanu Pratap smiled back. ‘Those meetings were a good idea. I hope she has others with her.’

‘Sukriti and Chaya follow her shadows. There are others also.’ Leelamani went to stand near the window. Sukriti and Chaya were the daughters of Bhanu Pratap’s dead sister. The girls had grown up in the zenana with Meera. When he had decided to train Meera in martial arts, Leela insisted that Sukriti and Chaya join her. These days the three girls were often seen teaching the skills of horse riding, sword play and archery to the younger girls in the zenana.

Bhanu Pratap joined his wife at the window. Somewhere in the lights of the city were the lights of the bazaar where their daughter was holding her court under the banyan tree.

It was an old custom. A courtier close to the king would hold a small assembly every evening in the bazaar to convey messages from the king and hear the woes of the people. Accompanied by a munaadiwala, the courtier was the source of information and entertainment. The tradition had faded long since. People now approached the court directly and the banyan tree was seldom used.

 Some months ago, Meera had revived the forgotten routine. She even found an out of work munaadiwala. Many gathered to hear him beat the drum and bellow out the messages. Even the British folk began to come for a peek.

And so his daughter gathered the unsure people of Navgarh around her and began her durbar, appointing herself as the king’s emissary, bringing in the news of people to the court. Every evening, the princess sat under the banyan tree, listening and talking to the people.

At first, no one took them seriously. The cantonment snidely referred to it as the ‘women’s durbar.’ The men of Navgarh shied away. What would the princess know about their grievances? She might be royalty, but she was a woman.

But the absence of the men did not deter Meera. The women gathered every day under the banyan tree at sunset to talk, share their concerns, or to just gossip. Meera’s durbar became a regular feature of the bazaar.

‘The gatherings are getting bigger now,’ murmured Leelamani. ‘The workers from the bazaar and the nearby farmhands often come for the meetings.’

It was true. Slowly, men had begun appearing on the peripheries of the women’s durbar – especially those who didn’t have any access to the King. They came with their small issues and disputes. With her suggestions and sometimes her orders, Meera had eventually gained acceptance among the people.

 ‘The girl would make a good ruler.’ Bhanu Pratap sighed. 

 ‘Will she? What about Jai?’

 ‘You know our plans might never come to pass, Leela. Neither for Meera nor for Jai. You forget there are other players. Veer Singh, the Company …’

‘No,’ Leela interrupted. ‘Nothing will happen if we remain strong. We cannot give in to the pressures of the Company. They get only a share of Navgarh’s revenues. They are paid to fight for us. You can terminate the alliance, send away their troops.’

‘And then? Our neighbours, whom we call our friends, will attack us and the Company will be the first to pounce on us. Don’t you understand, Leela, this peace between all of us is an illusion. We sit quietly not because we don’t covet each other’s land but because each one of us depends on the Company. Their troops are everywhere. The day we terminate the services, Navgarh will be wiped out. Wouldn’t it be better to let Meera marry Veer Singh, or anyone of her choice? Let’s have grandchildren to spend our last days with. Let us—’

‘Give up? And what will we tell our grandchildren, Raja Sahib? How will we tell them that we gave up their rights without even fighting for them?’ The queen yearned to take matters in her own hands.

Bhanu Pratap turned away impatiently.

‘I’ll see, Leela. If there is nothing else…’ the noise outside the chamber interrupted him. He could hear loud voices and quick footsteps. He thought he heard his daughter’s voice. Leela hurried out. As she passed him, Bhanu Pratap saw his wife’s face for the first time that evening. Faint crow’s feet enhanced her large and luminous eyes. Strands of grey sprinkled her dark hair. Age agreed with Leela. She smiled as she went to meet her daughter.

Bhanu Pratap followed his wife to meet Meera, Sukriti and Chaya in the courtyard. Meera folded her hands and bowed. Her dark eyes glowed with excitement; her dusky complexion was flushed with robust exercise. The girl had not inherited her mother’s fair patrician looks, but Bhanu Pratap could detect traces of similarity in the mother and the daughter – from the bright eyes to the stubborn jaw.

But Meera’s demeanour had something that Leelamani’s did not have. It had attitude and arrogance – like her grandfather – the one born to rule.

‘People are looking forward to Janamashtami this year. They want us to be a part of the celebrations at the temple,’ Meera informed her father. ‘The year has been good.’

Bhanu Pratap smiled at Meera’s excitement. If only he could travel in time and get a glimpse of what was in store for Navgarh.

 

 

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Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance (2)

 

2016: Delhi-Navgarh

 

The sun slid behind the ramparts of the fort. It stood outlined against the crimson hue of the sky. Shiv was on one of the arterial roads of Delhi, waiting for the signal to turn green. He would be in Navgarh in an hour. It had been a week since he had found the paper and the story had been haunting him ever since. He gazed at the red walls of the fort. The writer must have stood somewhere around here as terror had raged on the streets of Delhi.

A blare of horns brought Shiv to the present. The signal had changed and everyone surged ahead. Hurry, heat and impatience – all were at their peak on Delhi roads in the evenings.

But history lives on in the city, despite the uncaring multitudes. The walls of the forts give way to busy flyovers. The boundaries of century-old bungalows line the roads. And at the centre of all this stands Red fort. One of the several architectural feats of Shah Jahan, Red Fort or Qila-I-Mubarak is the symbol of the Indian republic. It links the country to its past, the era of the Mughals. For most of the people, the British remain intruders in the history of India.

But the story in the old paper revealed a rare sliver of the country’s Anglo-Indian past. During the week, Shiv had shown the paper to his friend in the department, Dr Raghavan. But Raghavan dismissed it.

‘Another English soldier who wanted to play a Raja – an Oriental pipe dream,’ he said. Raghavan was an eminent scholar in the fields of art, architecture and history. He also headed the research on Mughal era murals at the Department of Art History in the University of Delhi.  Shiv had joined the project right after he got his doctorate in Indo-Islamic art and was looking for an opportunity to come to India.

It was exciting to work with Raghavan, but he was often rigid. Despite the soft eyes and avuncular air, students called him ‘fighter prof’. Ever since Shiv joined Raghavan on the project, they had often been at loggerheads. Despite their disagreements, Shiv valued the opinions of his senior colleague. But this time he wasn’t sure. ‘An Oriental pipedream.’ Shiv did not want to dismiss the story as one – not till he knew the truth behind it.

Shiv took the last turn into the street of Navgarh and slowed down for a moment. The haveli loomed up ahead, framed against the hillside. On the hilltop stood the quila, the fort of Navgarh, once home to Navgarh’s royalty. The sight never failed to excite Shiv. Two oldest structures of the town stood at a distance of a few kilometres, the quila on the hilltop and the haveli at the foothill. The quila was old and dilapidated but the haveli looked lively. Its yellow façade was covered with climbing vines. The jharokhas looked out into the busy street.

Shiv remembered his grandfather’s stories.

‘Your great-great-grandfather did accounts and record keeping for Raja Bhanu Pratap of Navgarh. Our family used to be the richest in the area,’ Baba would tell them.

‘So where is our treasure now?’ Shiv would pretend to be practical and all grown-up.

‘Finished. The British took over everything. Taxes, droughts, famines. And then the independence of India. No king, no court and no scribes.’

On his annual visits to Navgarh, Shiv gleaned as much knowledge about Navgarh and his ancestors as he could. In his neat mind, the family tree – which he could trace back to the nineteenth century – had a special place – a niche which was his.

Everything was in order apart from the small scrap of a journal entry and the painting he had discovered.

That evening Shiv broached the subject with Amma. To his surprise, Amma had heard about it.

‘A vague rumour,’ she said. ‘My father said that one of the daughters of the king eloped with an English man. Some say that the king prohibited anyone to even utter her name.’

‘Sounds filmy,’ Shiv mused.

‘Yes. But from what I heard from my grandmother, Raja Bhanu Pratap married her to a British officer so that his grandchildren would inherit Navgarh. Poor king, he had no son. And the East India Company was hell bent on taking over Navgarh.’

‘And as a young girl, the princess couldn’t do much.’ Shiv thought about the girl caught in the centre of the fight.

‘She could. It’s not as if there never were women rulers in India. But the conditions must have been different. The East India Company was using any pretext to take over the kingdoms. In Navgarh, probably the ruse was the absence of a male heir.’

It was the same all over India in the years preceding 1857. The East India Company was annexing the kingdoms. From inheritance to governance, everything served as an excuse. Their arrogance increased with each acquisition and so did the discontent of the populace. It had reached its climax in 1857.

‘I think there is someone who can help us,’ Amma said thoughtfully. ‘We can talk to Bade Panditji.’

‘The one who looks after the mandir?

‘Chotte Panditji looks after the mandir,’ Amma answered.

‘Chotte? He is Chotte Panditji!’ Shiv chuckled. He had seen Panditji in the temple ever since he was a child. With his white beard, the man seemed at least eighty.

Amma rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, he is Chotte Panditji. Bade Panditji, his uncle, is too old to look after the mandir. Now that I think of it, he was always old … must be more than hundred. If he feels well, he comes for the aarti in the evenings.’

‘Would he meet us?’

‘I can request. Let’s see.’

The next morning after her visit to the temple, Amma told Shiv that Bade Panditji had agreed to meet them after the evening aarti.

‘What do you think, Amma?  Shiv asked as they had their breakfast. ‘Did the princess elope or did she marry according to the king’s wish?’

‘Who knows?’ Amma raised her eyebrows. ‘Why do you think it was politics? They might’ve been in love.’

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(CT) Chapter 14: Things of Beauty…

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Khushi drew the shawl closer, savouring the crisp cold air on her face. The mansion gleamed at distance. The blanket of mist was slowly taking over the mountains, shrouding them in the dark. The blurred points of light that lit the driveway to Chandrataal gave it an unreal feel. And like she did often these days, Khushi wondered if it was all real?

Today she had finished one of the pictures early in the evening and had decided to call it a day. She had been working speedily and this one was the sixth painting that she had managed to finish. Another month and she would be able to finish with the paintings in the gallery. Anjili had mentioned some others in one of the rooms upstairs, Arvind Malik’s room. But she could sense Anjili’s reluctance to go into that room. So Khushi decided to concentrate on the task at hand. As it was, she was becoming more and more tangled in the life at Chandrataal.

Of late, her life here had taken on an enchantment of its own, especially since that trip to Chanderpur two week ago. She could not deny that much of this pleasantness was due to Arnav whose mood had mellowed into something warm, delicious and dangerous. There was something about their new found friendship – an undercurrent that she was always aware of and yet could not really put her finger on. It lay behind the bright anticipation with which she went downstairs these days for the breakfast. Usually Arnav was already in the room, often with Sheetal who would go stone as Khushi entered. But Khushi brushed her aside. It was with his gruff good morning and the teasing smile that started her day.

And then there were those moments of surprise when he decided to visit the gallery unannounced. ‘To check if I am getting the money’s worth,’ he would tease. And she would tell him what a philistine he was that to see art only in terms of money. On these occassions he rarely showed any hurry to leave. HE would sit with his coffee near the window as she worked and Khushi had a hard time concentrating on the paintings.  The sun filtering through the window behind him, would light up the face and Khushi often felt reaching out for her own paint book to draw Arnav Singh Raizada. And then he would turn to look at her suddenly with that teasing smirk and she would hide behind the canvas, a red blush staining her face.

All in all, each night she told herself not to think too much about him, only to forget the admonitions in the morning as he intruded at the most unsuspecting moments of her day.

Like now.

Arnav stood a little way ahead, ready to take the walking lane she had taken about half an hour ago. He stood facing the mansion, leaning slightly against the stick strapped on his hand. There was a stoicism in the stance and Khushi could almost picture the frown on the forehead as he gazed at the house he loved so much. Her heart skipped a beat as she realized that he had come out at the time she usually took her walk.  Today she had been an hour early since she had wound up the work earlier.

Uncomfortable at butterflies that seemed to have found a new home in her stomach, Khushi wondered if she should turn around and hide behind the bend. She would wait till he had left and then go in. But it was of no use. Perhaps he had eyes at the back of his head.

‘Khushi, I see that you have finished your walk early today.’ He said still looking at Chandrataal, his back to her.

‘I..i’ her voice came out all breathless. She cleared her throat. ‘I finished the painting early today.’

He turned with a smile and Khushi felt her lips curve upwards in answer.

‘It’s kind of silent in the house today.  There is no one else,’ he said.

Despite the cold, Khushi felt warm around her ears. Anjili must have left long time back and Sheetal had returned to Chanderpur since her college reopened. Khushi was uncomfortably aware that apart from the servants, they would be the only two in the mansion today.

‘Oh..I ..I just had early dinner. I thought you were in Chanderpur, so I ate and came out. Have you eaten? I am sure Raghavan can make you something quickly. Perhaps we should go and ask…’

‘Relax.’ The teasing voice stopped her rambling. He was smiling widely now. The frown had nearly disappeared. Shoulders appeared a little straighter and the air of grimness was receding. ‘Raghavan had saved some for me. I just had my dinner. But I must say I had been expecting some company.’

‘Then you shouldn’t take it for granted, Arnav.’ Khushi recovered some of her composure. ‘You could have called me.’

‘And told you to wait?’

‘Requested me to wait for dinner.’

‘Ah…thank you for correction. Would you have agreed if I had requested?’

‘I might have. Why don’t you try your luck next time?’

‘No time like now, Khushi. If you aren’t too tired, that is. Would you join me for another round of the grounds. It’s a request.’

‘Request granted, Mr. Raizada.’ She shook her head, smiling at him. There was little she could refuse him, she realized.

They walked on silently for a while.

‘Is everything ok, Arnav?’ She asked as she remembered the tension in his stance when he was watching the mansion.

‘Why? Why do you ask?’ he replied with a question of his own.

‘Just a hunch. I thought you didn’t you look happy over here…that is before I joined you?’ she pestered.

‘Didn’t know you observed me so closely.’ It was his turn. Khushi rolled her eyes and waited for him to continue. He shook his head as if shaking off the lightness that last few minutes had brought. ‘You are right though. The trust is not ready to budge. They are going to turn Chandrataal into a heritage resort. Their plans are in full swing.’

‘Is there nothing you can do?’

‘Not much. I just own these lands. And today they offered me money to buy that. An MNC is ready to back the up their plan. That’s the reason they aren’t open to negotiation.’

‘So there is no way out?’

He pursed his lips and shook his head. ‘Not for us. But maybe, if the girl is found.’

‘You are still looking for her?’

He shrugged. ‘The lawyers think she is in Mumbai.’

The lawyers were obviously on the wrong track then. Her heart had leaped up on hearing Arnav mention the girl.

‘She could be our only hope, if she agrees to sell this to us,’ he continued. ‘But then the trust and the MNC would be making their offer too…all depends on her, that is, if she is found.’

‘And what if she falls in love with this place too.’

‘NO. she wouldn’t,’ he said cooly.

‘She wouldn’t? how do you know?’ Something in his tone annoyed her.

‘Its obvious, isn’t it? For her or her mother, this house was never important. Neither was Arvind Malik. Not once did she look back at the heart break the left in their wake. I don’t think such people can love. I am sure she would prefer taking the money and…’

‘You are being unfair to them.’ There was a ring of anger in her voice. Arnav looked at her curiously.

‘I am being unfair to them. On what basis? And you think they have been fair…’

‘But they had nothing to do with this, Arnav. It was your Baba, who…’

‘Who was a fool. The woman obviously was happy to take the money that Arvind Malik’s family offered her to leave.’

‘Offered her money? She was thrown out of the house. Pregnant. No place to go. What if she took the money? Can you blame her? There was no one with her.’ Khushi argued rashly.

Arnav gazed at her silently through narrowed eyes. ‘Why are you defending her? How do you know so much?’

‘I…I ..heard the rumours. I just feel sorry for her.’

‘Oh yes…the rumours that you find so interesting that you are hearing them all the time,’ He muttered.

Khushi stopped walking. The earlier excitement had all but faded. Her heart beat fast. She had committed a major faux pas. Yet Arnav’s tirade rankled and she could not help but defend her mother.

‘I feel tired. I …I think will go back.’ The walk would deteriorate into a fight if they continued. As she turned to walk away, Arnav reached out, with a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

The heat of his palm seeped into her skin, warming her body. Yet the anger did not recede.

‘I am sorry, Khushi’ he whispered. She remained silent, surprised by his apology. But he continued. ‘I am being unfair by taking it out on you. Please, forget it.’ She turned around to gaze at him, refusing to budge.  ‘Ok. If you…if you come a little further then….’

Then?

Well, I can show you a place. My secret getaway,’ he coaxed.

You secret getaway?

‘I often escape Anjili’s and Sheetal’s prodigious attention by just going there. Come.’ His eyes twinkled and he looked boyish.

‘Is that a bribe, Mr. Raizada?’

‘If you think of it that way’ he smiled back. ‘Come.’ this time the hand on her shoulder slipped into hers and tugged her down the lane. At the end, instead of taking the turn to continue down the lane she took everyday for the walk, Arnav pulled her on a rough mountain trail. It was a narrow trail going away from the house. They negotiated through the trail, Arnav going on clumsily over the roots of trees in the path, testing the ground with his walking stick as he his other hand held on to Khushi’s.

They came to a clear patch and Khushi gasped and then rushed ahead. In the dark of the night, the small clearing glittered with thousands of fireflies. In the mist of the mountains, it seemed they walked in clouds, with stars glittering all around lighting up the small patch with an unearthly glow. A firefly buzzed near her and Khushi reached out to touch. The creature, buzzed away, escaping her fingers. Khushi pouted and then giggled, delighted at the beauty spread before her. ‘It’s beautiful.’ She breathed.

‘Yes. Very beautiful,’ the roughness in Arnav’s voice drew her attention away from the scene. His eyes were fastened on her.

‘Th..thank you for showing me…this..this place.’  She murmured, her heart racing.

Arnav smiled and extended his hand. Khushi looked down. Between the closed fingers, there was faint light emanating in his palm. Khushi extended her hand beneath his but before she could close her fingers around the firefly, it had already floated away.

‘You missed it,’ he whispered, his warm palm now on hers. She felt reluctant to take hers away. So she did not.  Khushi took a step closer and felt the hand move up her arm to her shoulders and then up to cup her face. Khushi looked up, spellbound by the intensity of eyes, the beauty around her and then as his head lowered, she closed her eyes and lost herself.