Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance (5)

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1852: Zenana, Navgarh Quila

 

Meera looked at her mother in astonishment.

‘You want to meet the English Resident in the absence of the king? It’s dangerous. And desperate.’

But her mother was serious. Meera watched her keenly. Every night, she sat listening to Rani Leelamani as she worked out the solution to Navgarh’s inheritance crisis. During that time she was not the Rajkumari. She became Meera, Leelamani’s daughter.

Raja Bhanu Pratap had left for a hunt in that morning. Meera knew it was an excuse. Her father was too old to hunt. But whenever he grew tired of being the king, he took this escape route.

But her mother was not one to rest.

 ‘We need to assess this situation from all angles,’ Leelamani advised. ‘What is in the mind of the Company Bahadur? Raja Sahib thinks we cannot fight them. Remember, Meera, those you cannot fight, you should befriend.’

Meera scoffed at the idea. Being friendly with the Company’s representative in Navgarh, the haughty British Resident, John Smith, was out of question. She often saw him in the court and town. Resident Smith never made any effort to hide his disapproval of her or the royal family. His disdain, his interference, the thinly veiled warnings sent from the cantonment to the court – all these fuelled Meera’s dislike for the man. She knew that the Resident and his Company coveted Navgarh’s land and income. At the moment, British got only a part of the kingdom’s revenue. The major portion was retained by her father – not like other kingdoms where the Company took the lion’s share. Her forefathers had been shrewd. But things seemed on the verge of change now.

 ‘Sheetala has asked for bigger chambers.’ Leelamani veered towards other problems. ‘And why not? She is going to be the queen mother soon. Raja Sahib has been putting off the decision for such a long time. If he lets us know his plans then we can make the arrangements. .’

‘What would you do if Raja Sahib decides to make Jai the king? Shift to the smaller chamber?’ Meera smiled at her mother.

 ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Leelamani cast an irritated look at her daughter. ‘Even if Jai Chander becomes the heir apparent, I’ll be Rani Leelamani till the end of my days. It is you, my daughter. I’m worried about you.’

Meera knew that. While she went around with her friends in the forest and the bazaar, Leelamani waged another battle in the zenana. Not the kind to be fought with a sword or the bow. The rules of war in the zenana were different. But the spoils were the same. Meera had heard stories of the merciless power struggles in this cloistered world – in Delhi, Awadh and now in Navgarh. She had never paid attention to the power her mother wielded in this small fierce world. Now, with the troubles mounting from every quarter, Meera found herself turning to Leelamani often.

Both mother and daughter knew that the only way for a usurper like the British Company to take over Navgarh was through the line of succession. Once the king passed away, there would be chaos.

Meera clenched her fists at the thought. Her whole being flared up with resentment. Navgarh could not slip away from her. It was hers to look after. She had allies neither the King nor the British Resident knew about, friends like Sukriti and Chaya, who would do anything for her. Friends in the British cantonment. A pair of brown twinkling eyes on a handsome face flashed through her mind. Meera smiled. Yes, she had some aces up her sleeve, some loyalists in the enemy camp.