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.’