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.

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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.

 

 

Launching on September 1, 2017, Romance of Meera and Richard

All the volumes of Dust of Ages together as Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance 

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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.’

COMING SOON: BOX SET of Dust of Ages (PRINT and eBOOK)

dust of ages full book cover

Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance (1)

2016: Navgarh

Shiv gazed at the paper in his hand. It was an excerpt from a diary of an unknown British soldier caught in the tumult of 1857. He was looking for his wife, an Indian princess, who had cast her lot with the rebels. The brown edges of the paper seemed singed by emotions. The large sloppy writing throbbed with life.

Accompanying the letter was a faded miniature of a woman. The green colour of her dress had blurred with the pink of the face. But the dark eyes looked at him straight across the centuries. Behind the painting, in the same large hand, a single word – Meera.

Shiv found it last night when he had been looking for the legal papers of the haveli, their ancestral house in Navgarh. The collapse of a stone railing on the terrace revived the old argument about its sale.

‘We should sell the old house,’ Shiv’s father called from Singapore. ‘Come and live with us here, Ma. The haveli is too old, too inconvenient.’

‘But I am old too. So it is convenient for me.’ As always, Amma was adamant. The haveli belonged to Amma, Shiv’s grandmother. She had inherited it from her father, and he, from his.

‘Convenient?  The geysers don’t work. Neither does the air conditioning. There is seepage in some parts. And now this collapsing terrace. It is dangerous,’  Shiv’s father tried to convince Amma. He had left the old house behind when he moved to Singapore. For him, it was nothing but a burden.

‘Okay,’ Amma sighed. ‘I will ask Shiv to look for the documents of the house.’

Shiv had watched on from the sidelines. His curiosity was piqued. Did Amma mean to give in this time?

The next day she asked him to check the ownership documents. They were in a chest in the old kothari which was locked most of the time. Shiv opened it, much to the noisy resentment of the pigeon clan living in the kothari’s latticed window. The room held all the memorabilia of the past – discarded cartons and boxes, old utensils, some broken furniture, out-of-date fittings, Shiv’s old cycle and cricket bat.  Through the golden motes of dust, Amma pointed at the wooden chest in one corner. Shiv dragged it out and carried it to the living room.

It was an old piece, most probably teak. Dust clogged the tiny flowers carved on the edges. Someone had made it with a lot of care. The base had four lion feet and the handles were brass. Each passing decade had left its shadow on the dark surface. But the heavy lid opened with one push; the smooth brass hinges moved without a creak. The mirror on the interior of the lid was original though the silvering had become cloudy.

On the top lay a bunch of old papers stitched crudely with red cotton string. The string was brittle and the papers stiff with age. Most were household bills – interesting everyday stuff. Perhaps they had been left by mistake and forgotten. Shiv kept them aside and turned back to the chest.

Layer by layer, the chest revealed its secrets. Papers – some yellow and some brown – official bills and letters – all came out, detailing the life in the haveli for more than a hundred years. Shiv fingered them with the reverence of a historian.

In the end, the chest disgorged its secret. The original deed of the haveli! An old parchment-like sheet covered in a spidery Devanagari script.

‘Raja Bhanu Pratap of Navgarh gave the haveli to Munshi Gangadhar Sahai of Benaras on his appointment as the court scribe,’ Shiv read out. ‘Along with it, fifty beeghas of land, two cows and a monthly salary of two silver mohors. The deed dates back to the Magh Ashtami, Krishna Paksh, in the year 1880.’

‘I have heard that,’ Amma nodded. ‘Anything else? After 1947?’

Shiv flipped through the pages. ‘Here. A document from the Home Minister’s office, with the seal of the Government of India. It confirms our ownership.’

‘Good. And what are the other papers in the bundle?’

‘Some sale deeds.’

At various points of time, parts of the property had been sold and resold among the cousins and relatives till it finally came to his Baba and Amma, Rajender Prasad Sahai and Rajeshwari Devi. The documents were in an excellent state of preservation.

Shiv kept them aside. The papers brought a sense of belonging. To him, the haveli was home. He was six when he and his parents migrated to Singapore. Since then they had visited once or twice a year during school holidays and festivals. For Shiv, the ancient mansion was a storehouse of precious boyhood memories when he had indulged in make-believe games in its maze like corridors – of brave kings defending their land, of djinns and bhoots waylaying the unsuspecting traveller. Behind the huge spike-studded doors of the haveli stood Amma, with open arms and a smile. Always.

‘Don’t fold them. No crumpling. Get a copy made. When will you bring them back? Keep them straight in a file. I’ll get you one.’Amma hurried out of the room. In her excitement, she had forgotten about her grandson’s obsessive desire for organisation. Disorder irritated Shiv. His papers were always carefully ordered. So was his room. His mother used to be proud during his boyhood. But nowadays, she was irritated when he was home, cribbing about things which were out of place. Katie, his former girlfriend, a Psychology Major, saw Shiv’s fastidiousness as a symptom of the stress common among first generation immigrants. Shiv was pursuing his doctorate in Art History in Singapore when he had met Katie. She was drawn by his looks and scholarly air. But Katie felt that Shiv needed to loosen up. They parted with little heartbreak on either side when Katie went to the U.S to pursue her PhD and Shiv joined a research project at the University of Delhi.

Now at thirty-two, Shiv Sahai had a preoccupied air about him. The thoughtful dark eyes gave in to amused friendliness when he relaxed his guard. He was a man with precise features and a thick mane of soft black hair always neatly in place. The overall impression was that of extreme tidiness and order – right from his well-ironed formal clothes to his shiny shoes.

He had arranged the papers in a neat order by the time Amma returned with a green folder. On the right-hand corner, a pile of bills detailing the everyday household expenses, then the stack of old photographs, followed by a pile of old newspapers – it was a historian’s treasure trove.  Shiv decided to examine them at leisure.

Amma watched him keenly as he placed the haveli’s documents in the folder.

‘I think, I’ll run away with them, Amma,’ Shiv teased.

‘And what will you do? Become the widow of the owner and claim ownership?’ Amma laughed. ‘It’s still your grandfather’s house, and mine.’

‘And I’m your grandson. I’ll inherit it.’

‘But I plan to be around for a long time, Shiv,’ Amma was unfazed. She looked at her name along with that of her husband’s on the documents. ‘As the wife of the deceased and a Hindu widow, I have the right to his share as well. Besides, you have never lived here.  You and your parents have been living in Singapore for the last twenty-five years. You won’t stand much chance in any court,’ Amma finished confidently.

Shiv enjoyed this banter with Amma. In the seventh decade of her life, Amma was no push over. Her no-nonsense behaviour contradicted the mildness in her eyes. Always in a white sari that matched her long white hair, Amma was at home in the haveli.  Her day began with a visit to the nearby temple, followed by a visit to the Women’s Centre, which worked for the improvement of health, education and living conditions of the women in the rural areas around Navgarh, and then back home. Some years ago, when Shiv’s grandfather passed away, Amma had given in to the concerns of her children and tried to adjust herself to the life in Singapore. But living in a high rise apartment did not suit her and she had returned to Navgarh after a few months.

Now Amma and the haveli had become a refuge for Shiv as he pursued his research project in Delhi. His week days were scheduled by tutorials, research and visits to the archives. But during the weekends, Shiv escaped to Navgarh. The small township was about seventeen miles southwest of Delhi. But for Shiv, it was million miles away from the heated bustle of Delhi and clinical sterility of Singapore.

Over the months, he had grown closer to Amma. Shiv knew Amma saw him as her link to the future.  When the entire clan – her brothers and their families, uncles and cousins – all had moved out of the haveli and Navgarh, Shiv, her only grandchild, had returned.

 

‘These papers say that your father willed this house to you and Babaa joint ownership.’ Shiv noted. ‘It must’ve been a strange will, at the time. I mean it’s usually the sons who inherit.’

‘There was no son,’ Amma shrugged. ‘Your Baba, Dr Sahai, was posted in our medical centre. He was charming, sincere and good at his job. Before we knew, he was everyone’s favourite. I was nineteen when we got married and I moved out of this house to a smaller one near the cantonment.’ She smiled to herself. ‘And then he was transferred to another city. You should have seen the amount of tears I shed that day. I missed the haveli so much and now we had to leave Navgarh too. But your Baba quit the government job and set up his own practice. Fortunately, people liked their doctor sahib and they flocked to him.’ Amma’s eyes had a soft, affectionate look. ‘On the other hand, most of my family – uncles, cousins, brothers – all were moving away one by one. Everyone wanted to sell their share in the property. And my father kept buying them out. When he couldn’t, your Baba pitched in. He knew how much I loved this place.’  Amma was lost in the past.

The rustling of papers brought her back. An old paper had fallen from the bundle. Shiv picked it up. It was a handwritten journal entry in pale blue ink and a faded painting.   The entry dated back to August 1857 when chaos around Delhi was at its peak. The unknown writer had stood on the outskirts of Delhi searching for his wife when the fate of the two sides – the Indian rebels and the British soldiers – hung in a delicate balance.

Shiv read the note as Amma mused about the past.

The princess of Navgarh.

History did not mention any such remarkable figure in the legends of 1857. But Shiv had to admit that he had never really paid attention to Navgarh’s past. The events that happened in this small town were always peripheral to the larger and more complicated events in Delhi. Till now, Shiv had assumed that the history of Navgarh was untroubled – the kingship passed down from the father to the son till the great uprising, after which the British took over the administration of the town and integrated it with Delhi. There was no news about Navgarh’s royal family till India’s independence in 1947 when an aspiring leader, claiming to be the direct descendent of the last king of Navgarh took over the political leadership. From then on, like the earlier monarchy, the leadership of Navgarh had passed on to his son and then his grandson.

Perhaps the lost princess belonged to the same family. Why did she marry a British soldier? And above all, how did the paper end up in the haveli?

Shiv read out the anonymous excerpt to Amma before keeping the paper and the painting carefully in his bag.

Amma watched the glint in Shiv’s eye silently. She had heard rumours about something that had happened very long time ago, a scandal that lingered in the forgotten passages of this small town. But she decided to let him explore the past of this old town on his own.

COMING SOON: BOX SET of Dust of Ages (PRINY and eBOOK)

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Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance

 

Hello everyone. As I prepare for the print release of ‘Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance,’  I would be uploading some part of it here.  The print version will have all the 5 volume of the series together. Enjoy and please read and review. 🙂

Prologue

 

Camp, Delhi Cantonment, 16 August, 1857.

Things have changed forever. A day spent in the company of my old friend Knox made it clear. These distances can never be bridged.

The pole of his tent snapped in the storm yesterday; and for the sake of old friendship, I offered Knox my humble abode. But his rancour was jarring. His determination to teach the enemy a lesson, the unshaken belief in the rightness of our mission– such bitterness asks too much of friendship and duty.

Earlier we went over the battlefield. One of our regiments was destroying the village near the bridge to prevent the enemy from getting cover in it. Elephants were pulling down the walls. The villagers stood by as their houses turned into mud while the monsoon clouds gathered on the horizon. Unfortunately, they were the Jats, who, for the most part, are our friends. We decided that the destruction of their homes and fields was necessary. Twenty-three men – their countrymen – were lying together in the ditch at the back of the village; we weren’t sure if they were the rebels. A party of Rifles killed then en masse, just to be sure.

We left the village with our bags swollen like raisins in water. And who can blame our light-fingered gentry? Armies are said to travel on their stomach.

At some distance from our camp, I can see the sun setting over the fort of Delhi. It isn’t much different from the first sunset I witnessed here years ago. How things have changed! We came with a mission – to know this exotic land, to bring the light of knowledge and civilization to its darkness. Now the memory leaves me embarrassed. These massive red walls made me uneasy even then. Today they mock our camp again. Whatever be the outcome of this devil’s wind, it has revealed the banality of our mission.

Knox’s bitterness is an expression of the anger in the camp. When the cannons are quiet, the silence resounds with confusion, with terror, with rage, but most of all with the question ‘Why?’ As we sit around a small fire every night, the question rages in every mind. ‘Why the mutiny? Haven’t we brought the glory of civilization to this land of superstition?’ These thoughts simmer as we deal with hunger, heat and rain.

But soon these questions will be forgotten. The winners will annihilate the other side. Already I see the madness in the eyes as rumours reach us from other places – Cawnpur, Jhansi, Lucknow. Madness will soon be let loose.

I often feel that the answers that elude me today were within my grasp a short while ago. They are somewhere near, yet unreachable, like the time gone by.

I promise to look for them once I have found her again. For she, I feel, holds a part of it.

So every evening, I try to escape this madness by thinking about her, Princess Meera of Navgarh, a rebel soldier and my wife. It is the third year of our marriage. Three years of tenuous links and fragile understanding. It was only a matter of time before an explosion happened. And it happened that eventful week when Navgarh too burnt in the fire raging all across India. The news that the sepoys in Meerut had rebelled spurred both of us. Did I expect Meera to be a dutiful wife when all her beliefs, her convictions pulled her in the opposite direction? Was I surprised on knowing that she was in Delhi, amongst the rebels? Would she be surprised on knowing that I have followed her as an enemy… a British officer? And as I follow her, I stand here once again, after five years, outside the walls of the Red Fort in Delhi.

 

On Amazon: Print coming soon 🙂

1857 Dust of Ages: A Forgotten Tale

Dear readers,

A quick offer of a download of 1857 Dust of Ages – The Forgotten Tale. This is the first volume of the five volume series – available free for KINDLE KDP SELECT members and for a nominal and to others. Would be great to have your feedback.

And if interested, I would like some of you to give me feedback for another historical romance I am writing.  Try this one first, and if you feel you want more, write to me. Will email you the new story and wait for your reviews.

Here is the pdf copy, click on the file and it will download

1857 Dust of Ages -The Forgotten Tale