A Roman Column
Neeman A Sobhan
I love the voice of history. It is the most powerful story teller. It is no wonder that in Italian, the word for history is 'storia.' Fiction and history are wedded wherever the imagination craves to see through the mists of the Past. As a writer, reading historical fiction and experimenting with my own has been a favourite exercise of mine. Below is an excerpt from a long ago manuscript of mine abandoned after a few chapters. Let us call the following….lost beginnings. The name of the aborted novel appears at the end.
The Parrot said: Long ago or yesterday, a caravan from Qandahar entered Hind. It left behind it more than a trail of dust. In the howling solitude of the desert rose the whimpering of a baby. Hours passed and the sun rose to its zenith. Soon, there came upon this scene two wandering men. As they stood looking at a patch of wild brush in the visible distance, they saw a slight movement. Drawing closer they were struck by an amazing sight. Before them was a cobra coiled around a sleeping baby, the fanned hood of the serpent casting a pool of shade over the infant.
The tribal man looked questioningly at his black robed companion. The Fakir continued to roll his beads whispering, “Be still and observe. The 'naag' may not harm the baby.” Soon, the sun shifted behind a passing cloud, and the cobra uncoiled and slithered away. Raising his hands skyward the Fakir muttered shaking his dusty locks, “Allah be praised!” Then coming closer and sinking to his knees before the baby he said, “Sitaram! That was no ordinary snake. Mark my words. If this infant survives, she will rule many lives.” (The Parrot's Tales: Hindustani Myths)
Lahore, 18 December 1645
Strains of azaan from across the banks of the Ravi had woken Hakim Shakur as he lay dozing on the couch in the chamber adjoining the room of his patient. The Begum Sahiba had been delirious through a restless night. He listened and waited for Zaafrani, the maid-in-waiting, to bid him enter. Hearing no sound from the adjoining room, he decided to breach etiquette and entered the bedchamber, finding his patient awake and gazing towards the draped window. He bent and made a brief kornish out of habitual respect.
Zaafrani, had fallen into a deep slumber with her head resting on the Begum Sahiba's bed, one hand still holding a long handled fan. “Let her be, Hakim Sahib. Just, move aside the curtains.” Her voice, woodsy and sweet like cinnamon, betrayed no trace of aging or illness, and yet, like that fragrant spice, it was also sharp in a subtle waythat was the nature of her lingering authority.
Hakim Shakur pulled back the drapes to let in the dribbling dawn-light. Outside the jharoka windows, mist was floating on the river. Soon, the minarets would be discernible where Dilkusha Gardens lay.
The woman in the carved four-poster bed lay still like a painting that the miniaturist Bahari himself may have executed, but her feverishly glittering eyes moved about the room like a trapped sparrow. As they rested on the Hakim's face, he wondered anew at the tenacity of true beauty even in the face of death. Startled at the spontaneity with which the word 'death' had leapt to his mind, he looked guiltily at the supine figure. She smiled, as if reading his mind. There was always something uncanny about the Begum Sahiba.
As if consolingly, she said, “Never mind, Hakim Sahib. Even your venerable Court Physician, the great Maseeh-uz-Zaman, what's-the-name, whom your noble Emperor so generously sent to attend on this insignificant naacheez, has also given up!” She laughed for the first time in days. Though the low laughter transformed her face into a semblance of her former beauty, it brought a chill to Hakim Shakur's heart. Zaafrani stirred but did not wake up, and the Begum Sahiba continued to speak in her teasing way:
“Hakim Sahib, since you are now my closest friend and confidant, my hum-dard and humraaz, sharer of my pain and my secrets, I will admit to you: I am not willing to live.”
Hakim Shakur started to protest, but she raised her slender white hands to stop him: “No, my good man, we know that the coffers of my destiny are emptied. There is no reason to go on with this travesty of life.”
“Madam, I beg you not to speak like this. It is a sin…. 'Jaan ast jahaan ast'…..while there is breath, the world exists…..” Hakim Shakur mumbled confusedly grabbing at the first proverb he could think of in his attempt to stop the morbid mood of his regal patient.
“Ah! But what if ones jahaan, one's world, has already stopped existing? What use is the jaan, this useless spirit? My universe crumbled 18 years ago.” The lady, plucking at the silk coverlet, suddenly changed the topic. “Hakim Sahib, do me a last favour.”
“Basro-chashm,” Hakim Shakur bowed, touching the tips of his right hand first to his forehead then his eyes in the courtly gesture of acquiescence to her wish. Meanwhile Zaafrani had woken up in a fluster and bowing to the Begum Sahiba had backed out of the chamber. The lady ignored her as she pointed to the corner of the room.
“In that sandooq chest over there, you will find a purse of gold asharfis. I want them to be used to buy my kafn cloth for burial, for the feeding of the poor, and for other funeral expenses. I don't want my daughter Laadli Begum, or the Emperor to pay for anything. And…..no…no….my good man, you must not….” She looked away embarrassed because Hakim Shakur's eyes were bright with tears.
“You know that I wish to be buried near my departed husband, may his soul rest in heaven. The top of my tomb is to be left free, and unmarked. I have put it all in writing too, still I had to tell you personally. Inside, you will also find some of my personal writings and correspondence. I wish no one to read them and want them all to be either burnt or buried with me. Perhaps you can help me burn them later.” She closed her eyes, then almost at once opened them: “Hakim Sahib, I have given you much trouble. Please, find it in your heart to forgive this old woman and to indulge her last wishes, not as a command but as a favour.”
Queenly habits took a lifetime to die. On her, even humbleness was regal, Hakim Shakur thought as he quickly came to her side and took her pulse. It was irregular. He urged her to take a sip of the ruby-red pomegranate juice. She refused it and gazed out of the window. Soon she sank into a light doze.
Hakim Shakur, her personal physician for many years, suddenly felt dismissed and at a loss as he regarded his mistress. As he came out of the chamber, Zaafrani and another maid-in-waiting were entering it. In the outer room, he found the Royal Physician, Maseeh-uz-Zaman, pacing the floor, one hand behind his back and the other tugging at the single strand of pearl hanging over his embroidered <>angarkha<>. “How is she?” He turned to Hakim Shakur. Acutely conscious of his own crumpled tunic, Hakim Shakur replied with a perfunctory bow: “ She is weak, but not incurable. It's just that she has no will to live."
“Yes, she has sentenced herself to death," Maseeh-uz-Zaman remarked with an ironic but not unsympathetic smile. It irritated Hakim Shakur but he did not respond.
“Have you tried the medicine I prescribed?" Maseeh-uz-Zaman asked."It was useful the last time. Of course, the dose must be doubled now,”
“She refuses it. I put it in the pomegranate juice but she won't take even a sip."
“Who could ever fight her will? So now it's between her and the Almighty Healer!" Maseeh-uz-Zaman shook his head. "Allah hu shafi!" He raised his hands heavenwards.
Zafrani came rushing from the bed chamber, “Huzoor, please come and look at her!”
Both the physicians came back to the sick room. The Begum Sahiba was crying out in delirium: “No…no they cannot blind him! Don't let them touch Nashundi .... Sire, you must not let Bedaulat lead the forces.”
Hakim Shakur bent over his patient, then looked up to Maseeh-uz-Zaman: "We must send for her daughter and the Emperor's sister. Bibi Zaafrani, go quickly. Your mistress' condition is critical. Get Badshah-Begum Jahan Ara and also Laadli Begum. Hurry! Ya Allah! The end is near.”
Last night I saw Saleem…..and now again I see him, leaning lazily against the pavilion archway, his head thrown back in laughter. There he is again, reclining on the garnet hued cushions, pulling absently at his drooping moustache while pondering over the chess pieces. I know the game is over, but he is still innocent, unprepared for the truth. “Jahanpanah! Your Highness! Shehmat.....checkmate… the king is dead.' I whisper reaching for his pale, bejewelled hands. They are icy but the clasp is firm. 'Mehru, you are mine' he is whispering. 'No, my love… Shehmat…...' I try to let go but he holds tight…
Hakim Shakur, held on to her limp wrist feeling for her feeble pulse. A middle-aged lady at the bedside tried to put a spoonful of liquid into the pale lips repeatedly whispering “Ammi Jaan! Dearest Mother…” The chanting of the Quran from the corner of the room increased and rose in waves. “Have you sent word to Princess Jahan Ara? And to Begum Sahiba's brother Asaf Khan?” Hakim Shakur's voice trembled as he fought for control.
It is fluttering away, and I run after it. I hear the wings batting somewhere close by. “My Lord, the bird flew away like….this,” I say as a whole flock of pigeons leave my hand one by one. “Wait, what's your name?” Prince Saleem wheezes as he comes after me. “I don't know,” I answer breathlessly. It's hard to breathe, my nostrils are gritty with dust. The wind is blowing from the desert and I hear the faint tinkle of caravan bells in the distance. Please wait, don't leave me behind. Tell me my name, tell me my story…
Slowly Hakim Shakur closed her eyelids and chanted in a choked voice, “Innal lillahay wa inn illahay rajayoon…What belongs to Allah returns to Him”. There was a stunned silence in the room as the chanting of the Quran stopped abruptly. Then a wailing started among the few ladies in the room. An official outside the door edged up to a weeping maid and asked her to take a note to Hakim Shakur. Distractedly the Hakim read the message: “Sir, how should the deceased be referred to in the death announcement during the Khutba at today's prayer at the mosque?”
Hakim Shakur, personal physician and friend of the 'deceased' turned to the official waiting outside the door and in a collected voice said loud and clear, "Check with His Royal Highness the Emperor Shahjahan, of course, but I would announce thus: Badshah-Begumey-Jannat Makani-Shahinshah Jahangir…the consort of former Emperor Jahangir, Dukhtarey Itimad-ud-dowla…the daughter of the former Prime Minister Ghyasuddin Beg, Jannatey Ruhani Mehrunninssa Begum …. the former Queen of all Hind, Badshah-Begum Noor Jahan departed this world today!”
(Excerpted from an unfinished novel by Neeman Sobhan: 'The Veiled Crown,' a fictional autobiography of Mughal Queen Noor Jahan).
(R) thedailystar.net 2007