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.
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Dust of Ages: An 1857 Romance
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