1857 Dust of Ages

Meet the characters






Meera, the Princess of Navgarh

‘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 your remembrance of a father’s happiness in securing a posting for Captain Richard Smith in Navgarh.

Now if it shall please you, there is some news from Navgarh that might be of interest. The Raja maintains that his daughter, Meera, is capable of taking on the responsibilities of the kingdom.

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.

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. Her dark eyes glimmer with insolence that goes with native royalty, especially the royalty that has the right to the rank without its responsibilities.

Yours to command,

John Smith’

‘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 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.’


Captain Richard Smith

‘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….

…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.’


Shiv Sahai

‘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.

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.’


Ruth Aiken

‘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.

Ruth Aiken began her talk, pushing up the wiry rectangular glasses that threatened to fall off her nose.

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.’


Excerpts from 1857 Dust of Ages: A Forgotten Tale


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