1857 Dust of Ages by Vandana Shanker

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.
1857 Dust of Ages
1857 Dust of Ages by Vandana Shanker
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 The room held all the memorabilia of the past – discarded cartons and boxes, old utensils, some broken furniture, out-of-date fittings, Shiv’s old cycle and cricket bat.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 Baba – a 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. Chapter 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.’ Chapter 3 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. Chapter 4 2016: Navgarh 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. Chapter 5 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. Chapter 6 2016: The National Archives of India, New Delhi Shiv stretched his arms and twisted sideways. It was Friday afternoon. A long lonely weekend stretched before him, sitting in the same chair and going through the old documents. Shiv had been visiting the National Archives regularly for his research on Mughal era murals. But of late, he found himself deviating from the course of his official research. After he had learnt about the anonymous soldier and the forgotten princess, Shiv couldn’t help but look for a mention of Navgarh in the archives. He had found some references and chased those scraps of information. But they ended in nothing substantial. Most of the references were concerned with the administration of the township of Navgarh, its municipal records, and an environmental project about the changing ecosystem. Nothing about the drama that the diary entry hinted at. So by the second week, Shiv had worked out a neat schedule – Fridays and Saturdays were kept aside for Navgarh while on the other days, he concentrated on the Mughal murals. But working on Saturday meant staying in Delhi and it was going to be his third weekend here. Seeing his frustration, the curator had suggested that he look over the records of Delhi. They might hold information about the neighbouring kingdom. After that Shiv started going through the mountains of official dispatches sent to-and-fro between Delhi and its neighbouring kingdoms in the early 1850s. On Friday afternoon, his patience was running thin when he came across a slim bundle of letters pressed between the records of the British affairs in Delhi and its neighbouring territories. They were written by John Smith, the British Resident in Navgarh to Thomas Metcalfe, and the agent of East India Company in Delhi in the early 1850s. Shiv hurriedly scanned the dates. The soldier’s journal mentioned that the marriage with the princess had taken place three years before 1857. The scandal of a British man marrying a native princess would have caught the attention of the British Resident and he might have found it necessary to convey the news to the Governor General in Delhi. But instead of the infamous marriage, it was the tussle over inheritance that dominated the correspondence. Shiv decided to make careful copies. John Smith, Resident, Navgarh to Sir Thomas T. Metcalfe, Agent of East India Company, Dilli, June 20th, 1852 Sir: Your highness’ friendly letter dated June 8th, I have received; by which I understand of your good health which God long continue. I thank you for remembering a father’s happiness in securing a post for Captain Richard Smith in Navgarh. Now if it shall please you, there is some news from Navgarh that might be of interest. I was with Raja Bhanu Pratap of Navgarh last night. He sent his messenger earlier in the day, inviting me for discussions on the future administration of the kingdom. It is a constant source of worry for him as he feels that his end is nearing, he said. It was surprising since the old man seems in good health. But the lack of a male heir coupled with the news of the installation of British administration in Chotta Nagpur and Jhansi seems to have contributed to his anxiety. The Raja maintains that his daughter, Meera, is capable of taking on the responsibilities of the kingdom. He proposed her name as his successor. On my expression of uncertainty, he grew agitated, reminding me of the 1802 treaty between Navgarh and the East India Company wherein the Company only maintains its troops in the kingdom. I pointed out that the Company owed loyalty only to the legal ruler of Navgarh. He insisted that Meera’s claim to the throne of Navgarh just and legal. The discussion ended in a stalemate. I will closely watch the royal family, especially the character and disposition of the girl, and what the King has decided about her marriage and future, and enlighten you regarding these matters soon. Yours to command, John Smith. John Smith, Resident, Navgarh to Sir T. Metcalfe, Agent of East India Company, Dilli, August 3rd, 1852 Sir: My last to you was of June 28th, where I made known my decision to inquire further into the matters of inheritance in Navgarh. It pleases me now to relate the details of succession in Navgarh. Meera, the proposed successor of the King, is his only child and a great favourite. Her mother, Queen Leelamani, wields great influence on the King and the court. The indulgent father has given the girl the freedom and training that is rare in a native household. Princess Meera is well versed in Urdu and Sanskrit. The King has taken care to instruct her in history and geography of Dilli, Navgarh and surrounding territories. He even appointed Mr Sinclair, the English school master at the cantonment, to tutor the princess not only in the English language but also about the customs and the ways of our land. Great time and emphasis is given to physical training which, I am told, is particularly agreeable to the princess. She is said to be accomplished in fencing, hand-to-hand combat and horsemanship. All these illustrate the King’s plans of installing the girl as his successor. But this unnatural training has distorted the already coarse nature of native femininity. I have seen the princess several times, racing on horseback through the bazaars with her band of women followers in a particularly annoying display of Eastern savagery. Though the people shake their heads, the populace in general is indulgent to the rulers. Her dark eyes glimmer with insolence that goes with native royalty, especially the royalty that has the right to the rank without its responsibilities. Yesterday, these women beat up a man who was rumoured to have cheated an old couple out of their house. He was allowed to go with threats of dire punishment should he trouble the old couple again. Such is the administration of justice. This is the princess whom the old Raja proposes as his successor. These and various other rumours cast her as an arrogant, insolent and headstrong girl, in need of discipline and training in womanly duties. I barely know her myself. Though we both recognise each other well, she has often passed by me without any greeting or acknowledgement offered to my person as the in-charge of British troops protecting Navgarh. In my opinion, the appointment of Princess Meera as the successor to the throne will hinder the Company’s interests in Navgarh and Delhi, especially given the strategic location of this small town. I have been invited by the Raja again. I would continue my enquiries and report the details. Yours to command, John Smith Shiv mulled over the information. Princess Meera, the heroine of this romance, was not as he had imagined. He remembered the faded photograph he had found along with the diary entry. The eyes gazed at the viewer – direct and straight, with an eyebrow lifted in a questioning manner. Her head was covered in a green scarf, yet it did not bend coyly. No, she was no docile Hindu girl waiting to be rescued from the tortures of religion. Resident Smith did not like her. For him, she was a rotten scion of a decadent royalty – a threat to be overcome rather than a victim to be rescued. Shiv returned to the letters eagerly. John Smith, Resident, Navgarh to Sir T. Metcalfe, Agent of East India Company, September 15th, 1852 Sir: Recently I had two meetings with the members of the royal household. Some intrigue is brewing in the palace. The events can take a turn any time now. My first meeting was with Raja Bhanu Pratap. The old king expressed his intention to marry the princess to Veer Singh, the ruler of Faizpur, a small territory, the border of which touches the western boundary of Navgarh. Though the two rulers had skirmishes in the past, attempts are being made to bury the differences. A matrimonial alliance would merge the two territories and reduce Navgarh’s dependency on the Company. Veer Singh is known for his strident views against the East India Company. Faizpur has also resisted the entry of the British merchants and traders into its markets. In such a situation, an alliance between Veer Singh and Princess Meera might be a cause of concern. The purpose of the meeting was to convey a warning of a possible Navgarh and Faizpur merger. When I asked if his plans were confirmed, the Raja reiterated his earlier demand of appointing Meera as the heir apparent. He pointed out the arrangements in Sirmur and Bhopal where queens and begums are ruling in agreement with the British Company. The meeting once again ended in an impasse. More interesting was my meeting with the queen, Rani Leelamani a few hours ago. A domestic servant, probably the gardener, brought the message last evening. The invitation was intriguing. The Queen requested an interview at the time the King was away on a hunting expedition. I decided that the meeting would be an opportunity to test the rumours about the marriage because, in a native household, the zenana often makes up for its ignorance by being well versed in gossip. I report my interview with the queen in detail lest I overlook any important point. I was met at the fort enclosure by the same messenger who delivered the news. He guided me to the women’s quarters. The zenana lies towards the north of the quila. Its entrance opens into a large courtyard garden, lined with peacock arches. A sandstone path from the entrance leads to the fountain at the centre of the courtyard and in the straight line, opposite the gateway, a peepal tree shades the entrance to the chambers. However, my guide led me through a corridor on the left. We passed several sparsely furnished rooms before coming to the Queen’s room. As the messenger went ahead to announce my presence, I looked around taking in the surroundings. I was under shade of the peepal, gazing at the fountain in the garden and beyond it the entrance of the zenana. We could have walked through the garden instead of the maze of corridors we took. Clearly, the Queen wanted the meeting to be a secret. Once inside the room, I took the armchair set in the centre. There was a purdah at the end of the room. From behind, I could hear low murmurs. I suspected there was more than one person behind it. Once I settled down, a loud shrill voice invited me to come closer to the purdah. Rather than skirting around the issue, the Rani (whom I assume I was conversing with now) asked me if I was aware of the plans of succession in Navgarh. I told her that the King had conveyed his plans. The queen wanted to know what the Company Bahadur thought about Meera’s succession. When I said it was a difficult decision, she, like the Raja, drew parallels with Bhopal. I told her that the rulers of Bhopal and Sirmur were trustworthy and capable. This offended her. She asked if the Company thought Meera was otherwise. Given the archness of the tone, I thought it was unwise to answer her. So I evaded the question saying that the decision rested with the higher authorities in the Company. A silence followed my words. The queen asked if I was aware of the plans of the Princess’ marriage. She said that the British regiment might have to leave Navgarh if Meera married Veer Singh. Annoyed by the implications, I told her that the Company Bahadur might take over the responsibility of Navgarh in the absence of suitable rulers. She found this outrageous. ‘So that’s the plan of the Company,’ she exclaimed. ‘To become the rulers of Navgarh.’ ‘Navgarh has been ours for generations,’ she raged. ‘Your troops were paid to protect it.’ ‘We will not be puppets in your hands. Meera will not be one. That’s the problem. Isn’t it?’ I did not aggravate her rage with a response. She thought I had revealed a great plan she had set out to discover. To me, she revealed her despair and helplessness. After some raging, she continued in a mollifying tone, ‘But Veer Singh is too old and Meera doesn’t want to marry him. So all this might never happen.’ She then started to assure me of Meera’s goodwill and cooperation. In turn, I said she should not worry herself about matters like succession. The Company Bahadur would be in touch with the King. I urged her to use her influence with the King to cooperate with the Company. ‘Zaroor.’ She said archly. The interview lasted for less than an hour; and before I took my leave I had talked the lady into my way of thinking. Yours to command, John Smith. That was the last letter. The drama enthralled Shiv. He leafed through the documents in the folder. There were a few more papers but nothing of significance. The labelled box carried records till August 1853. He needed the next set and the library was about to close. It meant waiting for another week to read the rest of the correspondence. For a moment, Shiv was tempted to break his weekly schedule and return on Monday. But he managed to reign in the impulse and decided to return on Friday. Chapter 7 2016: Delhi University ‘Did you find anything?’ Amma asked when Shiv called that evening. ‘My project is about the Mughal era murals, Amma,’ Shiv drawled. ‘But you can keep an eye.’ ‘There is something,’ Shiv said. ‘Will tell you in the evening tomorrow.’ ‘So you’re coming tomorrow.’ Amma veered away from the topic. ‘What time? Some women from the Centre are coming over for lunch,’ Amma reminded him. Every third Saturday, she called them for lunch at the haveli. ‘So I should come in the evening?’ ‘Yes, it would be better. I don’t want the meeting to be marred with commiserations,’ Amma said light-heartedly. ‘Commiserations, why?’ ‘You know... most of them wonder how old you are and why are you still single when bechari Amma should be enjoying her last days with her great-grandchildren. Tut tut.’ Shiv snickered. ‘There is a rather interesting seminar tomorrow… might continue late into the afternoon. ‘Working on a Saturday!’ Amma drew a deep breath. It sounded dramatic even on the phone. ‘Now, if you were married…’ ‘So I will reach Navgarh late in the evening,’ Shiv cut in. ‘I think that would give everyone enough time to commiserate about my dreary life.’ ******* Despite the grumblings about the weekend seminar, it was a decent gathering. Shiv glanced around the air-conditioned room. According to the seminar details, the paper ‘Intimate Encounters: Everyday Colonial Interactions and Literary Returns’ by Dr Ruth Aiken from London, was a result of the speaker’s research on the Anglo-Indian interactions in early colonial literature. It might offer interesting insights, Shiv thought. Perhaps what had escaped history might have found its way in fiction. On the way to the seminar room, he tried to discuss the Smith-Metcalfe letters with Raghavan. But Raghavan persisted in seeing it as a story of a fortune hunter. He felt Shiv’s interest was coloured by his personal involvement in the story. The observation bothered Shiv by its accuracy. Ruth Aiken began her talk, pushing up the wiry rectangular glasses that threatened to fall off her nose. ‘The understanding of colonial history has undergone tremendous changes over the last few decades. There have been attempts to re-read colonial history through the lens of popular narratives, stories of intimate encounters…’ Behind the glasses, the brown eyes lifted from the paper regularly to meet those of the audience. Her features were clear cut and the dark brown hair was wound into a neat bun at her nape. According to the brochure, Dr. Aiken had particular interests in the field of nineteenth-century colonial studies and women’s travelogues. Shiv wondered if she would have heard about Navgarh and if he could talk to her about it. The problem was Shiv’s uncertainty about his family’s involvement. Shiv did not want to make the information public at this stage. It could be a goldmine for the scholars of colonial history like Dr. Aiken. Perhaps he could give her an outline and gauge her reaction, he thought. Her paper was quite interesting. Chapter 8 2016: Delhi University Saturdays were not a good time for academic seminars. If not for this talk, Ruth would have been enjoying a lazy brunch with her friends. But this small seminar had offered an opportunity to share her views with a closely knit scholar community. And it had gone rather well. From scepticism to genuine interest – the response had been remarkably varied. All in all, it had been a good morning, Ruth thought as she looked around. ‘Dr. Aiken, you must talk to Dr Sahai!’ Prof. Raghavan who had been talking to her few minutes ago, introduced her to a serious looking man. He had just joined them. ‘He has something which might interest you. I don’t agree with him, but to each his own.’ ‘Nice to meet you, Dr Sahai,’ Ruth extended her hand with an expression of polite interest. ‘Hello, Dr Aiken. The paper was interesting,’ Shiv said. ‘You must tell Ruth about the letter you found, Shiv,’ Raghavan was persistent. ‘A diary entry,’ Shiv said. ‘An excerpt really. I found it in old family papers. It might be nothing.’ ‘But it could be something,’ Ruth was curious. ‘Definitely something, as he has been trying to convince me,’ Raghavan continued, unmoved by the frown Shiv sent his way. ‘It might be interesting to you, Dr. Aiken, given your research area. But for me, it carries shades of… how do I put it…probably of romanticising the Raj.’ Ruth was irritated. So was Dr. Sahai, she suspected. He was shaking his head. The phrase ‘romanticising the Raj’ was used among the academic circles to deride the supposedly nonsensical narratives such as a colonial romance. Ruth had encountered similar arguments in the course of her research. ‘I would like to know,’ she said to Shiv. Raghavan excused himself as his phone rang. ‘We can discuss it some time.’ Shiv Sahai answered politely. His face gave away little. ‘Well, I have an hour.’ Fifteen minutes later, the two sat in Shiv’s blessedly cool faculty room. Ruth knew as soon as she saw the papers. They were authentic – the note and the faded painting that accompanied it. It told a fascinating story. A story of a young British officer married to an Indian woman. No, a princess, Ruth peered at the painting. Princess Meera. A perfect piece to support her hypothesis. It could be the highlight of her career. ‘Any idea how old your ancestral home is?’ she pushed the glasses on her nose and looked up. ‘The earliest document dates back two hundred years... that’s when the house was transferred to my family. The house itself might be older than that.’ ‘All those papers would make a fascinating study,’ Ruth said. ‘The legal documents of ownership? They are very important papers. I have copies. You can see those.’ Ruth nodded and returned to the diary entry. ‘And did you find anything more about this story?’ ‘I found some letters in the National Archives,’ Shiv hesitated for a moment. ‘Don’t know yet if they are directly related to this soldier?’ ‘Can I see them?’ ‘Again, I only have copies. But we can visit the Archives on Friday.’ ‘I am going out of Delhi. But I’d return on Tuesday… so if you’re free before Friday, we can…’ ‘Friday,’ Shiv said firmly. ‘Friday would be good for me.’ ‘Friday it is then,’ Ruth smiled. She handed back the papers reluctantly and watched as Shiv put them back in the folder at the same place from where he had taken them out. He then, put the folder in his bag between the smaller books and the larger notebook. The neat arrangement of books in the spotlessly clean leather bag mirrored the tidiness of the room. The books in the shelf behind him were arranged in accordance to their height. There were no decorative knick-knacks on the shelf or on the table. A pen stand with sharpened pencils, some post-its and a small notepad in a corner. No speck of dust, no tea stain. Ruth was sure the drawers and cupboards, too, would be equally tidy and organised. Did he see people in the same manner – neatly compartmentalising them into different categories? Ruth wanted to know more about the man. ‘Any guesses who could have written it?’ she asked instead. Shiv shook his head. ‘A small British community used to live in the outskirts of the town during that time. We call it the cantonment because it was meant for the families of the troops posted in Navgarh. The writer must’ve been one of them. The cantonment folk didn’t mix with the populace. That is what I had heard till now. Obviously it isn’t true. ’ ‘Must’ve been a small community.’ ‘Navgarh was small, but it was important. Still is… so near to Dilli.’ ‘Exactly how big is Navgarh?’ ‘It has a population of nearly ten lakhs in the town, that’s about a million for you. And about another ten lakhs in the neighbouring rural areas. The place is spread over nearly 4500 square kilometres. Very close to Delhi and joined by a highway.’ Shiv repeated the facts he now knew by heart. ‘And then? I mean, in the nineteenth century?’ ‘There is a record of the British Land Survey in the Archives. The population was remarkably low. Nearly half of what it is now. There was a jheel, a lake about half a mile long and a quarter mile wide near the quila. It has dried up now. The market was built in the early nineteenth century. The records mention the temple in the market. And, of course, the quila where the royal family lived. Now it has been taken over by HAS.’ Ruth nodded. Neat. Dr. Sahai catalogued and stored information. ‘What happened afterwards? After 1857?’ she asked. ‘The same as everywhere in India. The British took over. Nobody talks about those years, except the British.’ Ruth was aware of the glaring fact. The records of the British abound with the story of the mutiny told by the survivors, the soldiers, the loyalists; the gory details were reported graphically in the periodicals and newspapers, the numerous accounts of violence, murder and rape which justified the counter-violence. But in India’s memory, 1857 was surrounded by a rather horrified silence till it was reconstructed later as the first war of Independence. What did Shiv Sahai think? Ruth wondered. He would definitely have an opinion. The man was too neat to leave a strand of thought unfinished. Chapter 8 1852: Delhi Tomorrow he would embark on the last leg of this journey- the journey that had taken ten years of his life. Richard Smith closed his eyes. The decade flashed past his mind. He remembered the damp morning when he had embarked from London, the stench of animal hides in the East Indiaman, five long months on the sea, the heat of Chandpal Ghat on River Hoogli and a decade of wandering to the remote corners of India. Tomorrow he would be home – in Navgarh. Richard Smith was born in Navgarh, soon after his father, John Smith, took his position as the British Resident in Navgarh. His mother passed away when he was a year old and the busy father had appointed an ayah to take care of young Richard. The ayah’s love had soothed away the loss and the boy grew healthy and strong. But the father watched on with misgivings. With each passing year, his boy grew too familiar with the natives. He spent time with the boys of the bazaar, speaking their language and playing their games. Indeed at the age of ten, young Richard, son of John Smith, Navgarh’s British resident was in imminent danger of going native. So he was packed off to an English boarding school specifically meant for the sons of officers in the British Army and Navy. It was an honourable institution that trained men who would head out all over the world, to live and die as pioneers. Despite feeling homesick and lonely in England, the ten year old boy learnt fast. He learnt soon that his yearning for India was unacceptable in his new surroundings. It did not suit the colour of his skin. He needed to be white here. So Richard spent seven years in the British School complying with its ideas and rules outwardly and secretly waiting for the day of his return. At the end, he even emerged a successful student, a boy scout par excellence, the captain of the Cricket team, hugely popular student among the teachers and his peers. But in the seven years in an English boarding school, the schism became a part of the boy’s mind. He played the role of an Englishman just like he played that of a native. He carried the rift within him, one that made him restless wherever he went. It simmered beneath the pleasant brown eyes and jovial countenance. Once in India, his complexion turned rich brown; with his dark hair he passed off as a native whenever he wanted. But there was little Richard could do for his divided mind – a mind which was as English as it was Indian. After landing in Calcutta, Richard wanted to rush to Navgarh. But his father ensured that the soldier who returned to Navgarh was no impulsive adolescent but a man of the world. There was work to be done. So Richard spent another decade travelling around various parts of India as a troop of the East India Company. His father deemed it necessary for knowing the land he was destined to govern under the aegis of the Company. Richard plunged headlong into life. From Calcutta, he went to Madras Presidency. During his short stay there, Madras faced one of the worst cholera epidemics ever. Friends disappeared overnight. There he befriended Charles Avery, one of the few lucky ones to have recovered from the illness. A firm believer in the mission of civilisation when he had arrived, Charles had mellowed down after spending years in India. Richard puzzled Charles by his inclination to all things Indian. Charles often accused Richard of playing native, but Charles knew that his friend wasn’t merely playing; Richard Smith lived on the boundaries. The two friends left Madras together. Richard thrived joyfully once they moved to Lucknow. By that time, his knowledge of India had been enhanced by years of travel. And then came two heady years in Dilli, the final phase of the long journey. Richard had spent his last evening in the city on the vibrant streets of Chandni Chowk, gazing at the hard glitter of Dilli’s business district. Later in the evening, he attended a small dinner at Matka Kothi, the house of Thomas Metcalfe, the British Agent in Delhi and his father’s friend. After dinner, as he stood smoking in the veranda, gazing at the distant minarets, he looked like a man marked by India – long days in the sun, nights in the open, the heat and dust – he bore the stamp of the land in the swarthiness of his skin, in the fine lines on his forehead, and his wide smiling mouth. The sound of footsteps drew his attention. It was Suraj Singh, a lancenaik of the regiment. With years of experience, Suraj Singh commanded enviable loyalty and leadership among the men of the regiment. Men like him were important conduits between the local soldiers and the handful of British military men in the capital. Yet despite his capability, there was little chance that Suraj Singh would rise any higher than his present position in the army. But Suraj Sigh never complained. Over the years, Richard had heard several grievances. The native soldiers had several things to complain about. ‘Wait for the right time,’ Suraj Singh would tell them detachedly. Indeed there was a certain stoicism about him as if he was really waiting for the ‘right time.’ Suraj saw Richard in the veranda and bowed. Years ago, when they had first met, Suraj had been wary of Richard and Charles. But over time, Richard had developed a tentative bond with the brooding and silent man. Richard enjoyed talking to Suraj; he valued the man’s insights on local affairs, his keen intelligence and sharpness. ‘What brings you here, Suraj?’ Suraj nodded. ‘I had to give some papers to Metcalf sahib. I left them in his office.’ ‘Then stay and talk to me for a while. I don’t wish to return to… to the affair inside.’ Of late Richard had heard and noticed certain things - things that he wanted to discuss with Suraj. Suraj bowed and took his place next to Richard. They stood in silence for some time. ‘I heard some rumours about an incident,’ Richard said finally. ‘At Dilli College.’ ‘Two Hindu masters baptized at Skinner’s church. It’s going to be seen as further evidence,’ Suraj said in a low voice as he watched the city lights. ‘Evidence of what?’ Richard turned to him. ‘Attempts of Christian missionaries. Conversion. Threat to our customs, our caste.’ ‘You believe that? The men are educated. They made their choice,’ Richard pointed out. ‘I hope that people remember that when the time comes,’ Suraj turned and looked at him directly. ‘What time? What is this time that you are always talking about, Suraj Singh?’ ‘The time when these resentments, these tensions that erupt so frequently, they would burst like a volcano,’ Suraj said enigmatically. ‘Sooner or later, the lava will flow.’ ‘You mean these small revolts that we face periodically? These small dissatisfactions?’ Richard was surprised by the turn of the conversation. ‘No,’ Suraj Singh shook his head. ‘I mean the final confrontation.’ There was steel in his voice. Richard raised his brow sceptically. ‘You don’t think so?’ asked Suraj. ‘Yet you’re aware about this incident because people are talking about it. They disapprove. Just as they disapprove of several other things that are going on here. The local populace, the sipahi, so many more in numbers than the English soldiers…’ ‘But the English are too strong. For bringing about a change, you need power and strength. Numbers are not enough.’ ‘Sometimes anger and frustration are strong enough,’ Suraj bowed quietly and took his leave. His words had an unreal, prophetic quality. Months later, when Richard thought about his years in Delhi, he remembered this conversation in most vivid details. The next morning, Richard woke up with the call of the muezzin and set out for Navgarh, along with Charles Avery. When he met his father that day, he played a cool and collected English man. They shook hands and shared Port. John Smith rejoiced in such a civilised meeting. It was so much more preferable to the spontaneous embraces and embarrassing warmth that the boy had displayed in the past. He was polite to his friend Deputy Hopkins and even talked to his wife about the latest fashions in Delhi. On the whole, John Smith was proud of the young man who returned to Navgarh. Chapter 9 1852: Navgarh Cantonment Navgarh Cantonment turned out to be a surprise. When Richard had left, it consisted of a battery of soldiers, an eccentric young schoolmaster, Mr Sinclair, and an old English doctor. Over the years, it had grown into a lively place. With the arrival of more families, the small group had evolved into a close-knit community. Much to his amusement, Richard discovered that his father, Resident John Smith, saw the cantonment as his own domain. He tried to recreate the memories of his beloved England in the arid Indian plains. Resident Smith organized and encouraged soirees, picnics, walks along the jheel and hunting. Cricket matches and rides were the order of the day. And then there were the girls, as fresh as English roses, bringing life and colour to the cantonment, even the Whitney sisters were described as charming despite their complaints about everything, from the servants to the heat to their desperate attempts at growing tulips. There was Adela Cutter – the cool and proud one and the studious and quiet Jane Sinclair, the daughter of Mr Sinclair, the royal tutor and the king’s favourite. But the belle of Navgarh Cantonment was Emily Dunstaple, daughter of Jeremy Dunstaple, who looked after the Company’s funds and accounts in the smaller towns of Northern India. Twenty-year-old Emily had joined her family in Calcutta a year ago just before their sojourn to Navgarh. Emily came to India with the common desire of the young people of the day – the desire to know the ‘real’ India. She was often seen sketching – at times near the temple – or walking with her sketching pad to the jheel in the company of Jane Sinclair. Other than the obvious difference in their temperaments – one sunny and bright, and the other placid and serene – the two girls were sensible, intelligent and young. Resident Smith watched fondly as Richard struck a rapport with Emily. The growing friendship allayed his fears about his son going native again; it led him to pleasant day dreams about the future. Little did the content father know that trouble would arise from the very quarters that he had been admiring so complacently, for it was Emily and Jane, who introduced Richard Smith to the courtly affairs of Navgarh, particularly Meera, the wayward princess. One late afternoon, nearly three months after his return to Navgarh, Richard was coerced to accompany Emily and Jane to the bazaar. Emily needed a few yards of silk to complete her new ensemble for her birthday party. Most of the ladies at the cantonment ordered the merchants to bring their wares to the cantonment. However, Emily insisted on going to the bazaar herself- a decision that did not go down too well with her mother. Richard arrived at the Dunstaple household when the mother and the daughter were in the midst of a heated argument. A visit to the bazaar sounded refreshing to Richard. He resolved the quarrel by agreeing to escort Emily and Jane. The shop the girls wanted to visit was one of the biggest in Navgarh, right in the middle of the marketplace. Decades ago, the king’s planners had carefully designed the marketplace of Navgarh. Four wide lanes began from the ancient banyan tree at the centre. At the end of the eastern lane was the temple built by one of the earliest Rajas of Navgarh. The richest of the establishment occupied the position of eminence near the banyan tree crossroad. Mohanlal Vastra Bhandar was one of the oldest shops in Navgarh. Mohanlal, who had set up the shop, was long dead and the trade was now run by his sons and nephews. It claimed to have the best fabric and merchandise from all over India. Rolls of cloth were stacked against the walls while the salesmen sat on a low cushioned platform. Emily sat on a stool near the platform, marvelling at the bright colours and beautiful textures trying to find the right shade of blue to go with her gown. Jane moved around, touching and feeling different kinds of fabric. A lanky youngster followed at her heels, telling her the speciality of each. Richard took his place near the door of the shop, drinking in the sights of the marketplace, occasionally interrupted by Emily for translating a word or a phrase. The bazaar was waking up from the laziness of its afternoon siesta. A bhisti watered the road from a large water skin. Richard was about to ask for a cup of tea from the nearby tea stall when the sound of hooves jerked the marketplace awake. A small group of riders rode into the market, and halted near Mohanlal’s shop. Probably from the royal household, thought Richard, going by their stance and the reaction of the people in the bazaar. The rider swung her leg to dismount. The long, flared skirt swished in the air. She wore a plain long tunic. The legs were encased in loose pyjamas and the face was covered by a scarf flowing from a turban like a headdress to avoid the dust. She uncovered her face as she stepped into the shop. The insolent princess. The princess was not beautiful in the classical sense. Her complexion was dusky, dark satin eyes set in smooth skin and an ordinary nose and mouth. It was the stance that caught the eye. The confident stride made her seem taller than she was. She walked into the shop, past him without sparing a glance. A pleasant whiff of jasmine wafted around Richard. The shopkeeper rushed to meet her. ‘We have packed the clothes for the queen.’ The man who had been attending to Emily and Jane left the English girls and bowed to the princess. ‘We would’ve sent it to the zenana by tomorrow morning.’ ‘Doesn’t matter,’ said one of the girls who accompanied the princess. ‘We wanted to see it ourselves.’ The girls were dressed like the princess. The unruly gang, Richard remembered his father’s words. Resident Smith’s disapproval of Navgarh’s royal family, especially the princess and her friends, was no secret. But much to Richard’s astonishment, Emily and Jane met Meera and her friends with warm smiles and easy familiarity. ‘You must attend to those who were here before us,’ Meera said pointedly to the attendant. The man looked embarrassed as he moved back to his earlier post. ‘So, clothes for the cantonment?’ Meera looked at Emily. She spoke in heavily accented English. ‘We heard that the bazaar is not for the cantonment ladies. Mohanlalji, don’t you send your merchandise to the cantonment?’ ‘Yes, yes, of course, we do,’ the man stuttered. ‘We wanted to choose some pieces ourselves,’ said Jane. ‘I believe the prices change between the bazaar and the cantonment.’ The girls laughed at the expense of poor Mohanlalji. ‘No… no, it isn’t like that… price remains same, good quality.’ The man squirmed as five pairs of female eyes twinkled in amusement. ‘We know that,’ quipped one of Meera’s friend. ‘It happens on the way to the palace also,’ the princess continued to give the man a hard time. The attendant, enjoying the master’s plight, started showing the fabrics with renewed enthusiasm. Richard watched on from the shop’s doorway. The arrival of the princess and her friends had infused the dull atmosphere with excitement. Emily and Jane talked to Meera with little self-consciousness, enquiring about some horse that was hurt when they had last met. The princess replied with an easy smile. Emily and Jane finalised on a light blue silk fabric. Meera merely pointed at a vermillion-coloured piece and asked the attendant to add it to the material she had come to collect. At last the group turned to the doorway. Emily noticed Richard. ‘Oh, I hope you weren’t too bored, Richard,’ she laughed. ‘Here is the reward for your patience. Let me introduce you to my friends – Her highness, Princess Meera of Navgarh and her cousins, Sukriti and Chaya.’ Richard bowed. ‘And this is Captain Richard Smith, son of Company Resident John Smith. He has joined the British garrison here.’ Meera inclined her head slightly. ‘Welcome to Navgarh, Captain Smith,’ the princess paused before adding in her accented English, ‘I hope you like Navgarh…as much as your father.’ Her companions smiled slyly. They knew of Resident Smith’s disapproval. ‘Yes, your highness.’ Richard replied in perfect Hindi. ‘My father talks about you often.’ Meera tilted her head in a royal gesture of acknowledgement. As she walked towards the horse, Richard couldn’t resist adding, ‘He is quite an admirer. Of you as well.’ The princess stopped for a second and turned around to look at Richard. Someone giggled and then attempted to disguise it by coughing. Meera’s gaze was penetrating; an eyebrow went up slightly. Her mouth did not even twitch but amusement danced in her eyes. Once again, she acknowledged him with a haughty tilt of her head before climbing the steed. Turning the horse around, she rode away, leaving behind a cloud of dust and silence. Richard’s eyes followed the erect figure on the horseback. ‘That was…interesting,’ Richard turned to Emily and Jane. They were astonished when he told them what he had said to the princess. ‘Well, you must have made an impression, Richard. I wonder if anyone had the gall to tell her that Mr Smith admires her. I can’t believe you said that,’ Jane said while Emily sniggered. As they turned back towards the cantonment, Emily told Richard about their first meeting with Meera. Emily had befriended Meera when the latter had pulled her out from the muddy slush near the Navgarh jheel. Richard heard in astonishment as Emily continued. ‘It’s not as if she saved my life or something, but yes, she did help me when I was in deep trouble. Quite literally.’ A few months ago, Emily had persuaded Louisa and Lucy Whitney and Adela to go for a walk along the jheel. Emily wanted to explore the green trails that crisscrossed through the jungle. It had been a bad idea from the start. For one, their voluminous skirts were not right for the trails full of brambles and thorns. Lucy and Louisa complained at every step. Adela, on the other hand, was too proud and went along as though the thorns enhanced her regal demeanour. Emily found it irritating. ‘Served me right,’ she told Richard, ‘for thinking that we might enjoy and become friends in this “god-forsaken” place, as Lucy put it.’ The jheel was beautiful with the first of the migratory birds of the season making their way to Navgarh. Near the trees, where the girls sat to rest, were lotus flowers in full bloom, standing dramatically over the large leaves in the marsh. Lucy wanted to take one home. And Emily could not resist. An adventure, even a small one, would make this disastrous evening worthwhile. And so she moved carefully to the edge where the water turned into muddy slush. ‘I held the stalk in my hand when the ground gave away beneath my feet.’ Emily told them. ‘Much to the horror of everyone, I fell into the slush, holding the flower over my head like a laurel as I sunk into the mud up to my knees.’ ‘What a comic picture I must’ve made,’ Emily remembered the curl on Adela’s lips as she tried to help while the Whitneys shrieked in the background. The sound of horse hooves surprised them into silence. It was Princess Meera. Emily did not remember what she had thought or expected of her, probably a laugh or a jeer, going by her reputation in the cantonment. But to her astonishment, Meera took in the scene silently before shaking her head and getting off the horseback. She pulled and sawed off a long branch from a nearby tree with her dagger. She walked to the edge of the lake, carefully testing the ground with her weight and stopped at what seemed to be the edge. She held out the branch and said, ‘Can you reach that?’ Emily did not know what surprised her more, Meera’s English or the offer of help. She reached for the branch and held on to it tightly. Meera pulled at it while Emily made an effort to pull herself out. Adela joined Meera. After some unlady-like grunts, Meera managed to pull out Emily. The girls panted as they took in each other’s muddy appearance. Meera offered a clean cloth to Emily to wipe her hands and face and then turned to them with a smile, ‘So how did that happen?’ Emily knew the princess was suppressing a laugh at her muddied form as much as at the terrified expressions of the Whitneys. Now that she was out of danger, Emily realised how comical they must have looked. ‘Well,’ she said lifting her muddied nose, ‘we were gathering flowers.’ Meera burst into laughter. Emily joined her. Even Adela smiled before she launched into a narration of their adventurous morning. By the time they reached the road leading to the cantonment, Emily had accomplished the mission she had set out on: that of making friends, not with the Whitneys (it was unlikely they would ever plan excursions together in future) but with Meera, the princess known for her insolence. Chapter 10 2016: National Archives of India ‘Have you read Steven Ashley’s work?’ Ruth asked Shiv. ‘He has written some interesting books on the subject.’ They sat in a small canteen outside the National Archives. There was half an hour before the library opened. Ruth had arrived exactly on the time Shiv asked her to and he had been embarrassed to admit that he had called her earlier, thinking she would be late. ‘Not much. I have some reservations,’ Shiv answered her question. ‘It’s admirable – trying to look for human narratives, an individual’s story among the general mass of historical material. But…’ Shiv shrugged. A boy wiped their table before placing a tissue paper in front of her and Shiv. Then he carefully placed the tea cups on the paper and left. He obviously knew Dr. Shiv Sahai. ‘But what?’ Ruth pushed her glasses up from the tip of her nose. She wanted to know. The themes of Steven Ashley’s books were remarkably close to her own research – cultural intermingling between the British and the Indians. But unlike her, Ashley was a storyteller and the enchantments of storytelling often glossed over the realities of the past. ‘You don’t agree with Ashley’s approach?’ she asked Shiv. Shiv frowned. Ruth watched him keenly. It was pleasant to see the emotions show on his face. Like the sheepish smile earlier when he told her he had called her early to the library. Generally his face remained inscrutable. She waited for him to speak ‘You must admit that these are minor stories,’ he said at last. ‘Even this one. A simple story of a British officer and a princess. Hardly enough to build a generalised account of intermingling of races. There I don’t agree with Mr Ashley, or with you, I suspect.’ ‘Because you believe that this is just one such story. But I can point out several instances of intermingling in various forms. If we dismiss each as an individual story, then we lose a mass of historical material…’ ‘Well, individual histories have their own place but…’ Shiv granted grudgingly. ‘But you don’t agree with Dr Raghavan either. His understanding is pretty general – a fortune hunter, a small time soldier playing a Raja and then things went wrong.’ ‘You think so?’ ‘No.’ Ruth shook her head. ‘The story we have found indicates something entirely different. But you have dismissed my theory about individual histories. Now I want to know what you think.’ ‘I didn’t mean that,’ Shiv replied immediately. ‘I mean individual stories do hold some weight. But as of now, I don’t know what to think till we find something more significant. Something concrete.’ Ruth saw the faraway look return as Shiv twirled his cup. ‘There is another way to find out,’ she leaned back in the chair. ‘I can write to my friends in England. Something might turn up there.’ ‘I don’t know,’ Shiv snapped back immediately and shook his head. ‘It might be a wild goose chase.’ ‘We wouldn’t know till we explore all avenues, would we?’ Ruth went on excitedly. ‘We need to cast the net wider. There are some letters here. There may be something in the archival documents in England. There are more chances of finding something there.’ Shiv frowned at that. ‘I mean, the archival resources are better organised,’ Ruth said hurriedly. ‘Come on, you have to agree. It’s easy to miss something here. But if there is something in the London archives, it won’t be difficult to find… my friends can—’ ‘No,’ Shiv interrupted with a firm, steely look. ‘Until we find something concrete, I don’t want to share information.’ Ruth watching him carefully. She was sure there would be some mention of John Smith or Navgarh in some archives in London. Even the records of birth, journeys, and returns could be significant. It was a logical step. As she told Shiv, Ruth believed in casting her net wide. But Shiv Sahai was determined. Was it only because they had nothing concrete? Ruth doubted that. Her first thought was professional insecurity. But as she looked at him, another idea occurred. ‘This is personal, isn’t it?’ Ruth asked. ‘This isn’t just academic research for you.’ ‘Maybe.’ Shiv shrugged. ‘I’d like to see where it all leads before going public. It might be nothing after all’ He gestured towards the open doors of the library. ‘Who knows? It might change the way you understand your family, even yourself.’ Ruth stood up, picking up her bag and moving towards the now open doors of the library. Her optimism brought a smile on Shiv’s normally serious face. The man can be charming if he tried, Ruth thought. She understood his reservations. If the research became public, they would have no control over it. It would be hijacked by theories, interpretations and misinterpretations. Hopefully, by that time Dr. Shiv Sahai would have resolved his issues. Chapter 11 1852: Navgarh After the meeting at Mohanlal’s shop, Meera saw Captain Smith quite often. He rode through the bazaar in the evenings when she met her people under the banyan tree. With a sly smile and twinkling eyes, he would raise his hand and she would nod her head in acknowledgement. At first, Meera was confused. She had expected the son to be like the father, a crusty old curmudgeon. But unlike the old English Resident, the son had a sense of humour. His audacity during the first meeting had surprised her. What puzzled her anew everyday was the easiness with which he moved through the bazaar – talking to the traders in their language, driving bargains for his compatriots and urging them to try the tea in the marketplace. It had been the same with Emily and Jane. Meera had been equally surprised by Emily’s pleasant friendliness. It was so different from the general suspicion and coldness that she associated with the cantonment. And Jane, despite her quite ways, was always open and eager. Her new friendships seemed to have opened a whole new world of possibilities to Meera. She thought her friendship with the young people of the cantonment could overcome the suspicion that existed between the residency and the palace; that such relationships could withstand the giant monster called the Company which was swallowing territory after territory in India. These days she believed that with her new-found understanding she could make a difference in Navgarh. That Navgarh was only a part, a mere speck in time and space, was something which Meera did not yet understand. Her ambition was only for Navgarh and its throne; it circumscribed her vision. But in the midst of optimism, some event would occur that would throw her into a pit of despair. The account of the recent meeting between her mother and Resident Smith had distressed her. Resident Smith had confirmed her mother’s suspicions. ‘We need to do something or Navgarh would soon be stolen,’ Leelamani fumed. ‘We have been far too patient. The insolence of the man employed by your great-grandfather to protect this kingdom – it will be the end of us. Times have changed and so must we.’ That night Meera had ridden alone into the forest to her favourite haunt, a grove near the jheel. She sat there under the trees watching the large full moon through the dark branches. River frogs, cicadas, nightjars, a glimpse of a firefly, and the solitude of the night –it soothed her nerves. She felt a sense of freedom, of unfettered endlessness that took away despair and stirred the mind. Meera looked at the barren hills around her –- my land, she thought possessively. She wanted to own it, nurture it, help it grow – a grand scheme, a bright future for Navgarh and herself. Later, she could not remember how long she sat in that darkness. But as she had started feeling better, there was a change in the air. In the stillness of the night, she became aware of a presence. Something stirred against the shrubs on the side. Eventually, the faint movement resolved into the outline of a manly form. Meera stiffened, reaching for the dagger sheathed at her waist. A gang of thugs had been looting and killing people on the road to Dilli. It could be a highwayman. Meera sat still with her dagger drawn. The footsteps neared. As soon as they reached the groove, she rose with the speed of lightening with her dagger raised. In a flash, a hand closed over her wrist in a vice-like grip. She thrust her other hand towards the man’s chest. He let go of her wrist as he groaned in surprise. He recovered fast enough to parry the next blow. She attacked, he defended. Meera believed she was fighting a thug, one particularly skilled in hand-to-hand combat. He evaded another blow with a swing of his hand that dislodged her turban-scarf. Her braid fell over her shoulder. She panicked at the loss of precious moments as she pushed the hair away from her face. But her opponent was equally astonished. ‘By Jove!’ he became still. Taking advantage of the lull, Meera tackled him, bringing the man to his knees with her arm clamped around his neck. He no longer resisted. ‘I surrender, Princess.’ Meera let go immediately. She stepped away, doubling over, gasping for breath. The man lumbered up, drawing large gulps of air – all the time keeping a keen eye on her. Heart beats slowed down. Fear was replaced by surprise and consternation. Meera walked to her horse and drew out the water skin and offered it to him. ‘I apologise, Captain,’ she said as he drank thirstily. ‘I was under the impression that I was alone.’ He took his time to recover before he replied. ‘And so was I,’ there was a smile somewhere in the voice. He handed the water skin back. It was empty. ‘What are you doing here at this time?’ ‘Exactly what you were – seeking solitude.’ ‘A little late to say that. There are thugs on the road to Dilli.’ She returned to her perch on the stone near the jheel and put the water skin next to her. He was breathing heavily. ‘I hope you aren’t hurt,’ she asked. ‘I don’t think so. Except my ego.’ Richard felt the subtle presence of jasmine in the air. ‘Don’t worry, Captain. You fought well. But you lost the advantage when you recognised me, I think.’ She turned to peer at him in the darkness. ‘So, has Resident Smith decided on night patrols near the quila?’ ‘I wouldn’t know about that. I told you, I was walking away my restlessness.’ Meera wiped the dagger with the skirt of her tunic before returning it to her waist. ‘I’d be more careful hence,’ Captain Smith continued. ‘That blade looks deadly.’ ‘If you sneak in the dark and frighten the unwary, you should be willing to risk it.’ Richard laughed and walked to the nearby tree to lean against it. ‘So, Captain Smith,’ Meera asked after a while. ‘What makes you seek solitude in these bushes instead of the comforts of the cantonment?’ ‘Probably the same reason a princess seeks it here, instead of the palace. The comforts start to crowd and suffocate.’ ‘You presume too much. There is no crowding and suffocating – I belong here as much as in the palace,’ Meera answered haughtily. ‘But I thought Resident Smith’s son would more comfortable in one of those English gardens of the cantonment.’ That was unfair, she knew – to rub in her royalty and point out his status as an outsider. But the queen’s meeting with his father still lurked at the back of her mind. Perhaps she should leave, Meera thought. There was something inappropriate about this meeting. The man was a stranger and an Englishman to boot. ‘The English gardens are beautiful… and neat,’ his cool formal tones stopped her. ‘Everything in order. No place for those who disturb the order.’ Richard refused to mull over her words. They had aroused an uneasy feeling– something akin to betrayal. Perhaps he would have been better if she had ignored him with haughty disdain the first time he had doffed his hat in the bazaar. Those meetings had created a bond between them – of acquaintance, of familiarity, of recognising his presence in Navgarh. Now when she withdrew that bond, it upset him. ‘And is that why you’re here? You disturb the order in the cantonment?’ Meera’s voice brought him back. ‘At one time, I liked to think that. There is some heroism in the idea,’ he looked for words. ‘Not so now. There is something about order that tends to absorb you. That tells you that you can either belong or you would be spitted out like a wasteful thing.’ Richard watched her keenly. She was sitting upright, gazing across the waters. What was she thinking, he wondered. ‘What does a princess seek in the wilderness that she cannot find in the palace?’ Richard asked after a few moments of silence. ‘Looking for things absent in the palace,’ Meera said in a stronger voice. ‘Here, on the other side of the kingdom, where there is no order, perhaps there is something to solve the dilemmas of order.’ Richard was surprised. She was acknowledging her problems, her vulnerability. Something was bothering her. Meera twisted around to look at him. ‘I like to think that way. That there is another way, other than belonging to the order or being spit out. That is what this place tells me. That order is not everywhere. It’s limited. It can be changed, wrought anew.’ He bowed to her. It was a courageous thought. Richard had heard enough about her arrogance and insolence. But Princess Meera had surprised him at every turn. He thought of the courts she held under the banyan tree. The courts which were dismissed with derision in the cantonment. But the circle around her in the marketplace was growing every day. He knew that the tea stall owner near Mohanlal’s shop had approached her when the rich merchant had tried to remove his stall near the shop. He also knew that the entire bazaar looked forward to the evening meetings now, as much as he looked forward to his ride through the marketplace when he would greet the princess. He sought to merge; she stood out. Yes. Princess Meera was bent on changing the order against all odds. Richard found it admirable despite the mulishness. He had caught her in a moment of weakness. Meera dusted her tunic as she walked towards him only to stop midway where her scarf lay on the ground. She picked it up and went to her horse which waited patiently for its mistress. She was leaving. Richard felt a twinge of disappointment. And then, as she had done on their first meeting, she turned towards him and said. ‘Wilderness has a place for everyone, Captain Smith. As much for a soldier as for a ruler. There are no outsiders or insiders here.’ With that, she galloped away without a backward glance. Chapter 12 2016: National Archives of India The first day proved to be prophetic for Ruth and Shiv’s working relationship – a day full of strange discoveries. They found the next set of letters easily. If the first set had surprised them, the revelations in the second set were shocking. The events had taken a turn that neither of them could anticipate. John Smith, Resident, Navgarh to Sir T. Metcalfe, Agent of East India Company, Dilli, March 17th, 1853 Sir: I must apologise for the delay in communication. A most embarrassing event in Navgarh has left me at a loss. Despite my distress, I wish to convey the news directly to you, though the rumours must have reached Delhi by now. Ere I report the details, I assure you of my complete loyalty to Her Majesty. Some days ago, I noticed the absence of my son, Captain Richard Smith, during the dinner. But I was not bothered. Earlier that day, Capt. Smith had informed me of his plans for a hunting expedition with his friends. I had expected him to return in a day or two. His absence for two subsequent evenings also did not cause alarm. Young boys are known to extend the expeditions and camp in the forest for a night or two. A day later I was alarmed to hear his senior mention that he had not reported from duty while others had. I made up my mind to talk to him as soon as he returned. Another day passed and I was still pondering over the continued absence of Captain Smith, when during the after-dinner port, I received an urgent missive from the king. Despite the late hour, I hurried after the anxious messenger. Unlike the other times when he would be reclining at ease on an ornamental chair, that evening, I found Rajah Bhanu Pratap pacing the floor. As soon as I entered, he turned and sat on the chair, attempting to assume authority. He turned to Munshi Sahai and jerked his head towards me and continued to glare. Munshi Sahai asked me the whereabouts of Captain Smith. I informed the court that he had gone hunting. ‘Hunting’, growled the old king as he stood up. ‘Hunting or furthering your nefarious greedy plans?’ My blood boiled. I asked him to talk in clear words. ‘As if you aren’t aware, Smith Sahib? Your son, your firangi son, has kidnapped the Rajkumari. The princess has been kidnapped. She has been missing for five days. Five whole days!’ the king roared. I was overcome by shock. I asked him how he had arrived at such a preposterous conclusion. ‘She went for an outing to the forest beyond the jheel. She hasn’t returned.’ ‘That does not prove that Captain Smith abducted her.’ ‘It does,’ he turned to his scribe, ‘Call the girl.’ A frail young girl, perhaps one of the maids, entered the room and looked around with eyes large with fear. A scribe translated her story. ‘We were at the outskirts of the forest in the north, gathering jamoon. We planned to return later in the evening. Then the firangi arrived. He stood there looking at us. This irritated the Rajkumari who asked him to leave. He laughed at Rajkumari Meera and continued to loiter around. Rajkumari decided to leave, but as we were leaving, his horse blocked our way. Rajkumari got angry and there was an altercation. He dragged her on his horse and raced away. It all happened so fast, Maharaj. We were shocked. We ran after them, but they had disappeared into the thicket. We didn’t have horses or anything. There are wild animals in that part of the jungle.’ ‘But… but why did the princess not defend herself?’ I asked the first question that came to my mind. The girl looked at me as if I had taken leave of my senses. ‘But what can a helpless girl do?’ She turned to the king. ‘A firangi solider, Maharaj. What could poor Rajkumari do?’ At this point, the entire story struck me so blatantly untrue that I stared at the girl in disbelief. But the court was looking at me for answers. A man was sent to the cantonment to search for Captain Smith. He returned with the news that Richard had still not returned from the hunt. The other officers who usually accompanied him were questioned. A tight lipped Charles Avery told us that Richard never joined them for the hunting expedition. This confirmed their suspicions and I spent a frantic night surrounded by distrust and hostility. Till now, there is no news of either the princess or Captain Smith. I am sure things are not as they are commonly believed. I can vouch for Captain Smith, not only as a father, but as his senior officer and a fellow countryman. I also reiterate my loyalty to the Queen. The cause of Britannia is above any filial concerns. Yours to command John Smith. Thomas Metcalfe, Agent of East India Co. , Dilli to Major John Smith, Resident, Navgarh, March 30th, 1853 Sir: A sudden visit from the Rajah Bhanu Pratap of Navgarh last evening took me by surprise. It apprised me of the latest developments which have not been communicated by the official channels even after the passage of a week. Such cavalier handling of a potentially unstable situation is disappointing. I require your explanation on the matter and expect you to arrange the same, post haste. The Rajah’s visit was intended to put forth the case of the royal family of Navgarh. I hear that Princess Meera and Captain Smith returned to Navgarh a week ago. Since then, Captain Smith has been in the cantonment while the princess has been living in the palace. The princess, the Rajah tells me, has been silent about the events surrounding the abduction and the week-long absence of the duo. What Captain Smith has to say, I am yet to learn. The Rajah was quite articulate on the point of the princess’ reputation and blamed your son for besmirching the honour of his ancestors. He also conveyed his worries about the princess’ future. Veer Singh of Faizpur is now hesitant in forming a matrimonial alliance with the girl. But the Rajah thinks he can be brought around with a bit of cajoling and the promise of Navgarh as dowry. His plans have caused of great worry and concern here. The union of Navgarh and Faizpur would be a thorn in the flesh for the East India Company and its interests in the region. We need to keep the kingdoms divided to rule the land. I can see only one solution to the impasse – an alliance between Captain Smith and the princess. This single unconventional act of diplomacy solves several problems at once. Not only will this bring Navgarh within the Company’s grasp, this arrangement would also weaken the position of Faizpur. With some effort, Captain Smith can strengthen the British interests which have suffered greatly due to him. The unions between the British officers and the natives were common in the past though the present establishment frowns on such alliances. With some careful handling, we can keep the affair from assuming scandalous proportions. The opposition to union in the British circles will be overcome by the benefits that the alliance brings. This one act - one bloodless coup over the region -would turn around your current precarious position. I would not be short of words when I recommend your commitment to the Queen. You have conveyed your loyal sentiments. I hope the passion in those sentiments is strong enough to channel your domestic upheaval into the interests of Britain. Yours in faith Thomas Metcalfe.


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