Shiv gazed at the paper in his hand. It was an excerpt from a diary of an unknown British soldier caught in the tumult of 1857. He was looking for his wife, an Indian princess, who had cast her lot with the rebels. The brown edges of the paper seemed singed by emotions. The large sloppy writing throbbed with life.
Accompanying the letter was a faded miniature of a woman. The green colour of her dress had blurred with the pink of the face. But the dark eyes looked at him straight across the centuries. Behind the painting, in the same large hand, a single word – Meera.
Shiv found it last night when he had been looking for the legal papers of the haveli, their ancestral house in Navgarh. The collapse of a stone railing on the terrace revived the old argument about its sale.
‘We should sell the old house,’ Shiv’s father called from Singapore. ‘Come and live with us here, Ma. The haveli is too old, too inconvenient.’
‘But I am old too. So it is convenient for me.’ As always, Amma was adamant. The haveli belonged to Amma, Shiv’s grandmother. She had inherited it from her father, and he, from his.
‘Convenient? The geysers don’t work. Neither does the air conditioning. There is seepage in some parts. And now this collapsing terrace. It is dangerous,’ Shiv’s father tried to convince Amma. He had left the old house behind when he moved to Singapore. For him, it was nothing but a burden.
‘Okay,’ Amma sighed. ‘I will ask Shiv to look for the documents of the house.’
Shiv had watched on from the sidelines. His curiosity was piqued. Did Amma mean to give in this time?
The next day she asked him to check the ownership documents. They were in a chest in the old kothari which was locked most of the time. Shiv opened it, much to the noisy resentment of the pigeon clan living in the kothari’s latticed window. The room held all the memorabilia of the past – discarded cartons and boxes, old utensils, some broken furniture, out-of-date fittings, Shiv’s old cycle and cricket bat. Through the golden motes of dust, Amma pointed at the wooden chest in one corner. Shiv dragged it out and carried it to the living room.
It was an old piece, most probably teak. Dust clogged the tiny flowers carved on the edges. Someone had made it with a lot of care. The base had four lion feet and the handles were brass. Each passing decade had left its shadow on the dark surface. But the heavy lid opened with one push; the smooth brass hinges moved without a creak. The mirror on the interior of the lid was original though the silvering had become cloudy.
On the top lay a bunch of old papers stitched crudely with red cotton string. The string was brittle and the papers stiff with age. Most were household bills – interesting everyday stuff. Perhaps they had been left by mistake and forgotten. Shiv kept them aside and turned back to the chest.
Layer by layer, the chest revealed its secrets. Papers – some yellow and some brown – official bills and letters – all came out, detailing the life in the haveli for more than a hundred years. Shiv fingered them with the reverence of a historian.
In the end, the chest disgorged its secret. The original deed of the haveli! An old parchment-like sheet covered in a spidery Devanagari script.
‘Raja Bhanu Pratap of Navgarh gave the haveli to Munshi Gangadhar Sahai of Benaras on his appointment as the court scribe,’ Shiv read out. ‘Along with it, fifty beeghas of land, two cows and a monthly salary of two silver mohors. The deed dates back to the Magh Ashtami, Krishna Paksh, in the year 1880.’
‘I have heard that,’ Amma nodded. ‘Anything else? After 1947?’
Shiv flipped through the pages. ‘Here. A document from the Home Minister’s office, with the seal of the Government of India. It confirms our ownership.’
‘Good. And what are the other papers in the bundle?’
‘Some sale deeds.’
At various points of time, parts of the property had been sold and resold among the cousins and relatives till it finally came to his Baba and Amma, Rajender Prasad Sahai and Rajeshwari Devi. The documents were in an excellent state of preservation.
Shiv kept them aside. The papers brought a sense of belonging. To him, the haveli was home. He was six when he and his parents migrated to Singapore. Since then they had visited once or twice a year during school holidays and festivals. For Shiv, the ancient mansion was a storehouse of precious boyhood memories when he had indulged in make-believe games in its maze like corridors – of brave kings defending their land, of djinns and bhoots waylaying the unsuspecting traveller. Behind the huge spike-studded doors of the haveli stood Amma, with open arms and a smile. Always.
‘Don’t fold them. No crumpling. Get a copy made. When will you bring them back? Keep them straight in a file. I’ll get you one.’Amma hurried out of the room. In her excitement, she had forgotten about her grandson’s obsessive desire for organisation. Disorder irritated Shiv. His papers were always carefully ordered. So was his room. His mother used to be proud during his boyhood. But nowadays, she was irritated when he was home, cribbing about things which were out of place. Katie, his former girlfriend, a Psychology Major, saw Shiv’s fastidiousness as a symptom of the stress common among first generation immigrants. Shiv was pursuing his doctorate in Art History in Singapore when he had met Katie. She was drawn by his looks and scholarly air. But Katie felt that Shiv needed to loosen up. They parted with little heartbreak on either side when Katie went to the U.S to pursue her PhD and Shiv joined a research project at the University of Delhi.
Now at thirty-two, Shiv Sahai had a preoccupied air about him. The thoughtful dark eyes gave in to amused friendliness when he relaxed his guard. He was a man with precise features and a thick mane of soft black hair always neatly in place. The overall impression was that of extreme tidiness and order – right from his well-ironed formal clothes to his shiny shoes.
He had arranged the papers in a neat order by the time Amma returned with a green folder. On the right-hand corner, a pile of bills detailing the everyday household expenses, then the stack of old photographs, followed by a pile of old newspapers – it was a historian’s treasure trove. Shiv decided to examine them at leisure.
Amma watched him keenly as he placed the haveli’s documents in the folder.
‘I think, I’ll run away with them, Amma,’ Shiv teased.
‘And what will you do? Become the widow of the owner and claim ownership?’ Amma laughed. ‘It’s still your grandfather’s house, and mine.’
‘And I’m your grandson. I’ll inherit it.’
‘But I plan to be around for a long time, Shiv,’ Amma was unfazed. She looked at her name along with that of her husband’s on the documents. ‘As the wife of the deceased and a Hindu widow, I have the right to his share as well. Besides, you have never lived here. You and your parents have been living in Singapore for the last twenty-five years. You won’t stand much chance in any court,’ Amma finished confidently.
Shiv enjoyed this banter with Amma. In the seventh decade of her life, Amma was no push over. Her no-nonsense behaviour contradicted the mildness in her eyes. Always in a white sari that matched her long white hair, Amma was at home in the haveli. Her day began with a visit to the nearby temple, followed by a visit to the Women’s Centre, which worked for the improvement of health, education and living conditions of the women in the rural areas around Navgarh, and then back home. Some years ago, when Shiv’s grandfather passed away, Amma had given in to the concerns of her children and tried to adjust herself to the life in Singapore. But living in a high rise apartment did not suit her and she had returned to Navgarh after a few months.
Now Amma and the haveli had become a refuge for Shiv as he pursued his research project in Delhi. His week days were scheduled by tutorials, research and visits to the archives. But during the weekends, Shiv escaped to Navgarh. The small township was about seventeen miles southwest of Delhi. But for Shiv, it was million miles away from the heated bustle of Delhi and clinical sterility of Singapore.
Over the months, he had grown closer to Amma. Shiv knew Amma saw him as her link to the future. When the entire clan – her brothers and their families, uncles and cousins – all had moved out of the haveli and Navgarh, Shiv, her only grandchild, had returned.
‘These papers say that your father willed this house to you and 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.