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from the June 2009 issue

His Majesty

When I was a child, until someone told me a story I couldn't sleep. One day I was down with a high fever from morning to night. My mother, Ammajan, sat by the bed massaging my head. Granny Mughlani, whose house was next door, heard the news about me, so she came over and began rubbing the soles of my feet. My loving Granny Mughlani must have been around eighty at the time. Her love for me was boundless. To this day, I remember her face, her love, the things she said. Her face was the face of a houri; her words were draughts of honey.

I was moaning from the fever; Ammajan and Granny Mughlani were doing their best to soothe me. When the massages failed, Ammajan said, "My son, close your eyes and try to invite sleep. Will it help if Nani Mughlani tells you a story?" I quickly said, "Yes, Nani, please tell me a story."

Granny Mughlani sat by my side and began: "Well listen, it's not a tale about fairyland, but an event of this very Delhi, when the Fort1 was still alive and the king on the throne. It was no longer like the old days when the princes and half-princes were taught archery and swordsmanship. The only games left to them were children's games, or cockfighting and kiteflying. Some were such mollycoddles that even at seventeen and eighteen years of age, their wet nurses would wash their faces, and their feeding-women would still form their morsels for them and feed them. If they went out into the city to see a fair, or to the wedding of some prince or nobleman, several old men would accompany them, praying for their well-being on the way.

Among these princes was one Mirza Shabbo. I won't tell you his name, may God not embarrass his soul, just take him to be Mirza Shabbo. He was extremely good-looking, but so bashful, even at nineteen, that the girls of the palace would tease him and he wouldn't raise an eye. On top of that, God bless him, he was so susceptible to falling in love that one day he would lose his heart to someone's laughter, and on another, he would be bedridden, having heard someone weep. And until someone laughed that laugh, or wept in that way, he wouldn't touch a morsel. But there were those who would indulge these graces, for he was a close relative of the king, and a darling of his parents.

One day there was a wedding of great pomp in the city. The princesses of the Fort and the wives, daughters, and daughters-in-law of the noblemen of the city came to attend it. The bridegroom was so intimate a friend of Mirza Shabbo that in the groom's procession, he sat with the groom on the elephant. The procession came to a halt at the bride's threshold. The noblewomen descended from their carriages. The groom descended from his elephant. Mirza Shabbo followed. At that moment, the bearers of a palanquin tripped, the palanquin dropped from their shoulders, its curtain fell open, the hem of the passenger's gold-embroidered dupatta2 hung out, and at the same time, a very fair, hennaed foot became visible.

In an instant, Mirza Shabbo drew the dagger from his back and sliced off the hem, so no stranger's eye would fall on it. Yet in that moment, he himself fell madly in love with the foot of the lady in the palanquin. He was like a pigeon pierced by an arrow—in convulsions. His companions brought him home with great difficulty, and he collapsed on his bed in grief. Palace girls told such tales of Mirza Shabbo's condition that the ladies of the palace were struck with terror. One said that he had fallen under the evil gaze of the ghost of someone who died in his youth. "I've told him a thousand times not to dress up so before going out, the spirits of witches hover above like eagles." One began cursing this misfortune. Another threw herself in prostration, praying fervently for deliverance. Yet another had the necessary arrangements made for a sacrifice. A train of hurried people ran between the men's and women's quarters. Exorcisms and counter-spells were performed. Wise priests were called. The prince was asked, "Please say something, Sahib-e-Alam! What happened? You went out wearing your sword—how did the evil eye manage to strike you?" But Sahib-e-alam was so devastated that he wouldn't even turn in his bed, to say nothing of actually speaking, or indicating something with a nod or a gesture.

The officers of the Fort weren't made up of sycophants. Even in the least of houses in the Fort, when they employed someone, they investigated seven generations of his family. For the companionship of the princes themselves, the inquiry would be as strict as if a marriage were being arranged. The sons of the purest and most noble would be sought out—good-looking, accomplished men, who would consider it a matter of their purity and nobility to let their blood flow rather than the sweat of their Lord.

Sahib-e-Alam had many young men in his companionship. All of them were saddened by the prince's condition, but the one who was most troubled was Banke Mirza. For hours on end, Mirza would weep at His Majesty's bedside. On the fourth day, His Majesty yelled, "O Lord!" removed the quilt from his face, and looked at Banke Mirza. At that moment by chance, there was just the two of them.

"Who? Banke Mirza?" said Sahib-e-Alam.

"Yes, my Lord, your slave," replied Banke Mirza.

"For God's sake, go home. Why are you dying here with me?"

"It will be my dead body that leaves here, and you will see it is so."

"Why, for Heaven's sake?"

"Sahib-e-Alam, I curse such a life in which the one who I serve does not even consider me worthy of his confidences."

"And what if the matter is not one that can be told?"

"This is why I submit that Your Majesty considers me contemptible. Very well, do not tell me," said Banke Mirza, drew the dagger from his back, placed it on his chest, and was on the verge of piercing his heart, when Sahib-e-Alam leapt to seize his hand. After much struggle, Sahib-e-Alam managed to take the dagger from Mirza's hand, and then sat him down and told him how at the wedding the bearers of a palanquin had tripped, its curtain had fallen open, and the hem of the dupatta of the palanquin's lady had fallen out; to avoid any breach of modesty, he had cut off that hem. "In doing this, I glimpsed the sole of the passenger's foot, seeing which I collapsed. I feel no hunger, no thirst. Life appears revolting. If she doesn't come to my side within another few days, then I intend to eat something that sends me to my eternal sleep, or to cut my throat."

"Is that all," Mirza exclaimed.

Sahib-e-Alam heaved a sigh. "You know how given I am to persevere in my inclination."

"Very well, Your Majesty should now get up, eat, drink, and stop worrying. To find the lady from the palanquin, and to bring and seat her by your side is the work of Banke Mirza."

"You will find her out?" Sahib-e-Alam smiled, pleased.

"If I don't find her out, I will not show my face. Please grace me with the hem of that dupatta."

Sahib-e-Alam took out the hem from under his pillow. "By when?"

"In two weeks! At most, in a month. Have faith in my nobility. I will now take my leave of Your Majesty," Mirza said.

In the enthusiasm of his friendship and out of obligation for his nobility, Banke Mirza had made his promise, but on leaving the Fort he began to wonder about his folly. Thousands of women must have come to that wedding. How could he find out who it was with merely the hem of a dupatta to go by? But a man's word is his life.

On the day of the wedding, by chance, he had been in Agra, so he hadn't even seen the carriages arriving. He thought of the city's clever procuresses. He told them the story in allusions, offered a lavish prize, and charged them with the search. They hunted every street, but couldn't find a clue. After all, what noblewoman would have exposed herself! The days of the promise approached their end. How could he show his face to Sahib-e-Alam? Banke Mirza resolved to kill himself. He bought some arsenic and kept it under his pillow, thinking of swallowing it before going to sleep. He hadn't even told his wife. Nobody knew what a herculean task had befallen Banke Mirza!

But strange are the ways of God! On the very day Banke Mirza bought the vial of arsenic, his wife took her wardrobe out to sun. Suddenly, Banke Mirza's eye fell on a dupatta. The hem appeared to be missing. He leapt up, took out the hem Sahib-e-Alam had given him, and matched it: It belonged to his wife.

"What are you looking at?" his wife asked.

"Please come inside the chamber and I will tell you," a grave Mirza said.

His wife withdrew in fear. Mirza took a naked sword, seized her arm, and took her inside.

"Whose dupatta is this?" he asked.

"It is mine," she replied in a voice soaked in fear. "You are the one who had it made for me, do remember."

"I well remember, but how did its hem get cut off? Tell me truthfully, or you're in trouble."

The chaste wife was flustered, but she gathered herself and told him about the incident in detail. She laid her head at his feet and said, "Your slave is certainly at fault to the extent that I did not tell you. Now it is your privilege." Her words shook Banke Mirza. The sword fell from his hand, and he stood there as if in a trance. After a while Mirza suddenly seemed to have woken up. He stepped back and said, "My lady, I have given my word." She raised her head in astonishment. "What word have you given? To whom?"

"Don't ask me this. Do what I say." He ordered.

"When have I refused your command?"

"Then wear the very dress of which the dupatta's hem is missing. Make yourself up, as you were on that day. I will go get the carriage. Come with me where I will take you."

She just stared at his face and tears dropped from her eyes. Mirza gathered his courage and said, "My lady, to this day you were my wife, and I your husband, but today I end this relation."

His words turned her pale, and her body began to shake. She spoke in a trembling voice and said, "All right! Tell me, at least, are you displeased with me?"

"My lady, do not say such things. If I waver today, the family will be dishonored and you will see my corpse in its death-rattle." Banke Mirza left. He returned with a palanquin and had it set on the doorstep. His trembling wife boarded it and it followed him. He entered the Fort and headed for Sahib-e-Alam's chamber.

He had the palanquin set down at the threshold and went inside. Sahib-e-Alam was lying on his bed. He rose promptly and said, "Tell me Mirza, is our work accomplished? There is only between today and tomorrow left in the time of your promise."

"Who do you think Mirza is, Sahib-e-Alam? The essence of purity is still present in our blood. I have come with the object of your desire."

A wave of impatience overtook Sahib-e-Alam. "Where? Where?"

"The palanquin is in the ante-chamber, Your Majesty."

Sahib-e-alam was indeed His Majesty, and what's more, was very susceptible to love, but he still had respect for the honor of his elders. He was not accustomed to looking at the daughters and daughters-in-law of his subjects with impure intentions. He was suddenly struck by terror and looked around uncomfortably.

"Why have you become agitated, my Lord?" Mirza asked.

"I am afraid of the Emperor."

"I have made preemptive arrangements for that," Mirza replied.

"Then bring her in."

"But you must understand that I have played with my life to make this happen. I have promised that she will be back in four hours. She is a married lady, not a widow or a harlot."

"Very well, send the lady inside. But don't you go off somewhere."

Mirza went to the palanquin and called out to his wife. Startled out of her worries, in a breaking voice she said, "Yes, my lord."

"These are the male quarters of my lord and master. Sahib-e-Alam presides inside. Present yourself in his service, comfort him, I divorce you…"

His voice began to falter. "I am turning my face away. Descend and go inside. Sahib-e-Alam's presence graces the room in front."

She alighted from the palanquin, shaking, and staggered inside. Her face was covered with her dupatta; tears were streaming from her eyes. She stood in front of Sahib-e-Alam.

Sahib-e-Alam raised his eyes, looked at her, and lowered his gaze. He was young, a prince, madly in love, but he could not muster the courage to extend his hand. Her sobs pierced his ears.

Sahib-e-Alam kept his eyes lowered. "O chaste one, you are weeping! I ask nothing of you, just tell me who is your noble husband?"

She struggled for a long moment. "Banke… Mirza…"

Sahib-e-Alam was stunned. "You are the wife of Banke Mirza! It was your dupatta that hung out to the ground?"

She was crying. "Yes, my Lord, look."

"Calamity! Calamity! God protect us!" An agitated Sahib-e-Alam rushed out of the room, barefoot and bareheaded. Beside herself now, the woman flung herself in prostration, westward to Mecca.

In the antechamber, Banke Mirza sat with his eyes closed, his head resting on a footstool. As soon as he walked in, Sahib-e-Alam said, "Mirza, who have you brought here? It appears a jinn is in love with her. As soon as I held her hand, a hideous hand emerged from the lattice, and a voice said, èBeware, she is my wife! If you touch her, I will strangle you to death.' Please take her away from here."

"Sahib-e-Alam, you have wasted all my hard labor. Do not fear, my Lord! If that hand appears again, please call me. If it appears in my presence, I will chop that hand off," Mirza said.

Mirza's friendship and loyalty moved Sahib-e-Alam's heart. His Timurid blood swelled and he thought, "Mirza has brought his wife to me. Now, I too, should show my nobility." He turned to Mirza. "Well Mirza, let us see how brave you are. Go and lay your hand on the lady, and combat the jinn. And let me make a quick trip to the palace."

Sahib-e-Alam set out toward the women's chamber, and Mirza arrived in the room with his sword unsheathed. When he looked at his wife, she was lying prostrate in prayer. He called out to her; she continued praying. He stood by the bed and his eyes were fixed on the lattice. Suddenly a black hand emerged through the lattice and a voice called out, "Beware! Don't you dare touch this woman. Take her immediately to her house."

Mirza hesitated for a moment, then gathering himself, he stepped forward and taking the Lord's name, struck the black hand with his sword, and closed his eyes. The hand fell on the bedstead, and someone fell behind the lattice. The servants ran to find Sahib-e-Alam lying there drenched in blood. There was an uproar. The enemies of Sahib-e-Alam have murdered him! Mirza rushed outside. "Oh, Sahib-e-Alam, my Lord!" He cried out and fell next to Sahib-e-Alam. Mirza gathered himself, and after sending his wife home, had Sahib-e-alam moved to his chamber. He had the surgeons secretly brought, had Sahib-e-alam bandaged, and began looking for ways to bring him back to consciousness.

After many prayers, in about a month, the wound began to heal. One day, at midnight, Mirza addressed himself somewhat harshly to Sahib-e-Alam. "My Lord, what was it that got into you? Was it necessary to blacken the record— of all people—of my deeds?"

"Mirza, because you insisted, I told you of my predicament and you even sought the woman out and brought her to me. But when with great difficulty she told me, èI am Banke Mirza's wife,' my honor was so provoked that if suicide were not a sin, I would have ended my life right there and then. Mirza, an ordinary man, should be so loyal to his salt, and I, the offspring of kings, shall I be a wolf to the rights of my subjects? At that moment, all that made sense was that the very hand with which I had touched the hem of that chaste lady, should be cut off by the sword of the man against whom I had sinned."

"In any case, my Lord, my eyes cannot see you like this. Please rest now, we'll talk tomorrow."

In the morning, when the servants headed for Sahib-e-Alam's chamber, they saw patches of blood on Mirza's bed. When they removed his quilt, they found a dagger in his chest. Mirza was dead.

Granny Mughlani fell silent and stopped the story. "What became of that hapless wife?" Ammajan asked her. "Whatever God sent her way, she bore patiently. The women of those days were not given to making a public show of their grief. Banke Mirza had left enough for her entire life. So she lived out her life quietly and with honor." "How I wish I could see her!" mother said. Granny Mughlani heaved a sigh and said, "Here, my dear, take a look then. That wretch who is Banke Mirza's widow is right here." Mother stared at her face in amazement. I sat up. A terrible silence descended on the house.


1That is, the Red Fort in Delhi— an architectural complex built in the seventeenth century by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jehan. It included the royal court and palace, as well as houses for other members of the royal extended family. The mise-en-scène of this story is the Fort some time in the penultimate years of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who reigned from 1838 to 1857.

2 A large piece of cloth worn by women that serves as a mantle and wrap.

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