Reclining on luxurious cushions and divans, the guests watched the dance. Among them were some of the greatest men in the empire, both Hindu and Muslim. It would have interested a skilled physiognomist to study the varied reactions which mirrored on the face of each spectator.
The grave man of affairs sat through the performance as if attending to a matter of duty. The confirmed voluptuary with half-closed eyes contemplated the youthful contours of the dancer rather than the beauty of the dance. The young men on the whole were quite frankly and openly delighted. The young Rajput, a new rising favourite at the court, followed the dance with pleasure, mixed however, with pensive thoughts, the girl or the dance reminding him vaguely of something seen long since and forgotten. While the features of the middle-aged Afghan merchant from Lahore, who sat next to him, grew more and more sinister, until it looked as if the devil’s horns would shoot on his head, if the dance lasted long enough – a possibility which, however, was forestalled in an unexpected manner.
The dancer in the middle of a pirouette stopped abruptly, hands spread out and eyes wide open, gazing as if she had seen something unearthly and terrible. She clutched at her throat, stood motionless for a few moments and then sank in the floor. The spectators were on their feet instantly, except a few who were either too flat or too indolent to make any quick movement.
The young Rajput was one of the first to reach the fallen maiden. On the other hand, the Afghan merchant remained on his seat perfectly unmoved. His thin lips curling into a cynic grin at the eagerness the youthful part of the assembly displayed in going to the succour of the distressed fair, jostling each other in the attempt to take hold of an arm or foot on the pretext of rendering help.
But their ministrations were cut short by the young woman’s limp form suddenly galvanizing into life at the first touch of male hands.
The master of the house then made his way to the fore. To his enquires, the girl, who had quickly assumed her veil, replied that she had been suddenly seized with giddiness. But that she was quite well by then, only she felt weak and begged permission to withdraw, which was readily granted.
”Does she belong to your harem?” asked one of the guests.
”To my harem!” retorted Nawab Shamsher Khan, a dignified man of sixty. “Do you think I shall allow an inmate of my harem to show herself here unveiled and let alone dance before you? She is but a slave, whom I have bought from an officer who was clearing off to take command in the south. That was six years ago. Razia was quite small then, only eight or so. Finding that she had beauty and talent, I engaged an ustad and taught her dancing. But this is the first time that she has danced before strangers.”
The assembly broke up soon after and the guests departed. But the afghan merchant from Lahore did not stir from his seat. Shamsher Khan looked at him and finding all safe, approached the Afghan and said in a whisper: “It is time.”
The man rose and walked into an adjoining room, which was small but comfortable, containing a few cushioned seats arranged in a semicircle. More people began to come in, whom the host scrutinized one by one. When the last one had passed in, he closed and bolted the door.
When all were seated, the merchant from Lahore asked, “Is it wise? To invite so many here on this very night?”
”That is a blind,” answered Shamsher Khan. “A convivial gathering to which all who are high in Akbar’s favour are invited and it will be an effective cover to the real business.”
”If you are satisfied, Nawab then, it is all right. Now, we shall proceed without delay.”
”You cannot be unaware,” the old nobleman began, addressing those assembled, “that affairs have come to a head at court. Emperor Akbar can no longer be regarded by the Faithful as a true follower of the Prophet. Brahmin pundits and Portuguese padres are now his honoured councilors. When a Muslim ruler is defeated in war, his country is annexed to the empire. But when a Hindu Raja suffers the same fate, the emperor gives him back his kingdom, makes a friend of him, marries his sister or daughter, in return for a nominal allegiance. Who are the greatest men at the court now? Not the holy Sayyads, the learned Qazis, the venerable Ulemas and not even warriors of the true Faith. It is the Rajput kaffirs like Man Singh and Todar Mall and infidels like Faizi and Abulfazl.”
”Disgraceful!” exclaimed one of the audience.
”Most intolerable in an Islamic state,” said another.
”Now in the eye of the law,” continued Shamsher Khan, “there is no difference between the kaffirs and the Faithful. Akbar has made himself head of both the state and the Faith. Islamic law is scouted. Our men in high places are dismissed in favour of Rajput favourites. The Chief Qazi is exiled for dispensing justice according to Islamic law. The same fate is in store for us if we don’t look out in time and take measures to prevent it. Now comes this crowning infamy. Akbar has proclaimed a new religion – Din-illahi – the Divine Faith, of which he himself is the Prophet!”
”He must be mad,” commented the merchant from Lahore.
”Worse than mad. He is a traitor to the Faith!” said another.
”You are right,” resumed the old grandee. “He is a trailor – to the Faith, to his own people, to this mighty empire which we have won by the sword. Should such a man be allowed to remain on the throne as the undisputed sovereign over this vast region, all-powerful to destroy the Faith, who daily degrades and insults the Faithful, raises to eminence its sworn enemies? We should decide it now.”
”He is not fit to live!”
”We must destroy him and the whole brood of idolators he has fostered, root and branch!”
When the fanatic cries had subsided, Shamsher Khan said, “So, on that point we are all agreed. How to bring it about is the real problem before us. The first thing is that we must have a leader. For that who is worthier than Prince Muhammad Hakim Khan, ruler of Kabul and Akbar’s own brother, but a true follower of the Faith? His trusted envoy is tonight with us,” he bowed in the direction of the merchant from Lahore, “in proof of the noble Prince’s readiness to lead our cause and save the Faith and the Faithful from the ruin which threatens them.”
Having thus fittingly introduced the subject for deliberation, the old man concluded by inviting suggestions from those present. The deliberations lasted till past midnight. The upshot was a tentative plan of action, the main features of which were an attack by Prince Muhammad Hakim from the northwest and a simultaneous rising in Delhi and Bengal by the disaffected. They broke up, proposing to meet again every succeeding night till the plan was fully matured.
Abusaid Khan, ascended to his apartments in the turret of the palatial mansion of his host. His stay there was intended to be a strict secret, known only to the master of the house, besides a trusted servant who brought him his food at the stated intervals. The topmost storey was where he slept. He undressed and looked out through the mullioned window. There was a moon and from that height he had a fine view of the surrounding country. The magnificent residence of Shamsher Khan stood in extensive grounds.
”No wonder our friend is so much concerned about the decline of the true faith,” said Abusaid Khan the envoy, chuckling to himself. “He lives like a king, and in return all he does is to hang round the court. The Faith indeed! The old humbug. Who would like to lose all this wealth and luxury, which would very likely happen, if preferment were to go by merit alone, regardless of one’s religious faith.”
”Akbar is wise to realize that without winning over the Hindus, who form the majority of his subjects, the empire cannot last. I should much prefer to serve him, rather than the sottish swine, my present master. He to be the saviour of the true Faith! The idea! But, curse it, my lot is cast with him and I must play my part. If he could use the present discontent occasioned by Akbar’s religious policy as a stepping-stone to the Mughal throne, well and good. He will bear the title, but all real power will be in Abusaid’s hands. And, if fortune favours it – well, why not – such things have happened several times –”
At this point his musings were interrupted by what his eyes had caught sight of, while gazing across the grounds. Among the shadows cast by overhanging branches near the outer wall surrounding the grounds, were two human figures. A puff of wind now moved the branches and they stood for some moments in full moonlight. Abusaid Khan whistled softly as he recognized the figures.
”So the fair dancer of the evening has recovered sufficiently to meet her lover in the garden! While dark conspiracy is brewing and the fate of nations and empires are being settled in this building, within a stone’s throw of it. Love will have its intrigue! Love!” he laughed cynically. “A Lying word for physical attraction and lust of the flesh. What a volume of sickening cant has been written by rhyming fools on the subject! Lust is a physical fact. I too am open to lust – even I, Abusaid, the disillusioned man of the world –”
The two people in the garden, all unaware of a human ghoul watching them from the turret above with thoughts cynical and unholy, had finished what they had to say and parted. The young Rajput vaulted over the high wall and disappeared, and the maiden retraced her steps towards the house, keeping well within the shadows.
As she passed a clump of trees, a hand silently stretched out and caught her by the arm. Another hand covered her mouth and a voice hissed in her ear, “Don’t call out. You will betray yourself.”
The girl thus taken by surprise could not resist. Her captor dragged her inside the clump of trees. She found her strength at last and struggled to free herself.
”O let me go. Who are you? Are you a thief?” she asked still struggling.
”In a way, yes,” replied the man. “I steal kisses from lips such as yours, lovely maiden—”
”I shall raise the house—”
”Do – and let all know how Razia, the chaste young maid, has been having secret interviews with strange young men – idolatrous Rajputs – in the dead of night. Yes, do cry out and raise the house. I won’t prevent you.”
She stood undecided for a while. She at length asked in a calm voice.
”What is it that you want from me? I don’t know who you are, or what has brought you here at this hour.”
”You are becoming reasonable, my sweet one. Know that I am a guest of your master. What has brought me here at this hour is the same cause which brought that young Rajput – your own sweet self! What I want is briefly told – yourself! Nay, don’t affect the prude. If you could condescend to entertain an idolator, you could do no less for a true believer.”
”You inhuman wretch!”
”You most human of the houris of Paradise!”
”If you have a mother – a sister –”
That won’t get you far. My mother died in giving me birth. I know of no sister. So better save your breath. All I ask you is to come to my room in the turret yonder, at this time tomorrow night. Refuse me and in the morning your master will know how his young favourite has been carrying on an intrigue with an unclean idolator. You cannot but know how he hates all idolators, especially Rajputs.”
”No, he doesn’t. If so, how could he invite them to his house?”
”Ah, you don’t know the devious ways of courtiers,” he laughed. “Seeming friendliness often serves as cover to dark designs. Well, that needn’t concern us.” He hastened to change the subject. “Remember, tomorrow at this hour, in the topmost storey of the turret.”
The girl stood silent.
”I take your silence as consent.” He released his hold. “Don’t fail,” he said warningly, as the girl fitted through the shadows and disappeared. The man laughed softly to himself – a long, cynical, fiendish laugh.
The following night the conspirators drew up an outline of their plan to be dispatched by a courier to Prince Muhammad Hakim Khan in the morning. His envoy would set out for Bengal later in the day to organize the disaffected elements there.
After the discussion was over Abusaid Khan returned to his lair in the turret. He did not forget in the pressure of business the assignment he had made with the girl Razia. He sat on his bed and looked out through the window. A soft moonlit night – a night for love and dalliance.
”Will she come?” he asked himself. His doubts were set at rest by the swish of a woman’s dress outside the door. He rose and softly opened the door. A figure, closely veiled was standing there. At his sight she shrank back. He caught her hand and led her inside, closing the door behind him. She was still shrinking from his touch. He caught her in his arms and pulled off her veil. In the moonlight which came through the window, her face looked flushed, her lips quivered. In the man’s eyes she appeared more desirable than ever. He carried her in his arms and laid her on the bed…
A knock was heard on the door thrice. The man in the bed did not stir. The door was softly pushed open and Shamsher Khan entered. The sleeper now rolled over and sat up on the bed still covered by the bed clothes. Shamsher Khan intimated in a whisper that the messenger to Prince Muhammad Hakim was ready to start. In answer the other indicated a sealed letter on the table, with which the old man left the apartment.
The man on the bed stretched himself and yawned. “Ah, what a night!” he murmured to himself. He covered himself again and sank back into bed for a further spell of sleep.
Nawab Shamsher Khan provided a swift horse for the use of the envoy on his proposed journey to Bengal. After accompanying him to the gate to see him off, Shamsher Khan went up to his room. Half an hour elapsed, when he became aware of a knocking sound proceeding from some part of the house.
He went through the rooms and was at last able to locate the noise. It was coming from above – from the turret. He ascended the stairs, led by the sounds which continued to be heard, to the topmost storey. He entered the room used by his guest as sleeping apartment. He noticed a door and found it locked.
”Ho, there,” he spoke through the keyhole. “Who is that inside there knocking? Who are you?”
”Is that you, Nawab Shamsher Khan?” came a voice weakly from inside. “Do open the door and let me out.”
”Who are you? And how have you happened to be un there?”
”I am Abusaid Khan, Prince Muhammad Hakim’s envoy—”
”Abusaid Khan!” exclaimed the old man. “Abusaid Khan has left here half an hour since—”
”No, my friend, he is in here. Please open the door. You shall know all.”
The door was knocked down by the joint efforts of Shamsher Khan and the one servant who had been let into the secret of the mysterious guest. From inside the closet walked out the Afghan envoy, in an exhausted and disheveled state.
He soon told his story. The previous night after he had returned there from the conference, someone entered the room in the dark and knocked him on the head from behind. When he again came to himself, he was a prisoner in the closet gagged and bound. He continued in that position until half an hour ago, when he at last got one arm free with which he unloosed himself. He carefully omitted all mention of his secret assignment with the girl Razia, who in fact had given his unknown assailants their chance.
”But who was the other one?” asked Shamsher Khan, who was now thotoughly shaken.
A spy, to be sure, and I have a good guess who it might be,” replied the other. “But one thing is beyond all doubt. Our secret is discovered.”
”Alas, it is only too true,” bewailed the old man. “I am undone! Ruined! The Emperor will confiscate my all and make me a beggar. Nay, he may even hang me for treason! Would that I had never embarked on this accursed conspiracy! I was always against it! It was against my will! I was forced into it by others—”
”My friend, this disgraceful,” said the Afghan, still retaining his composure. “Let us examine the position calmly. I am sure there is a traitor in your own household. Bring up that girl Razia here and question her.”
”You don’t mean that it was she who has betrayed us? It is impossible.”
”Well, we shall soon see. Send for her at once.”
Accordingly, word was sent to the ladies’ quarters. But the girl Razia was not to be found. She had disappeared without leaving a trace!
Shamsher Khan was pacing his room in a state of great agitation. The Afghan envoy had already left, fearing of instant arrest, if he remained longer in Akbar’s dominions. Shamsher Khan had nothing to look forward to, except the fate of all unsuccessful rebels. He was still pacing to and fro, his mind in a whirl of fear and indecision, when his servant brought him a letter, which had been delivered just then by a courier. He opened it and read:
”You must be aware by now of my having left the protection of your proof. You may have guessed part of the truth, but my whole story remains to be told. My real name is not Razia. It is Shantakumari. I am a Rajput maiden of princely lineage. I was the youngest of the family. From my infancy, I was accustomed to hear of war and fighting. My father and the two elder brothers were often away on some military adventure or other. I was only eight, when stark tragedy overtook us. A great battle was fought between the Mughals and the Rajputs in a pass among the mountains. I don’t remember the name or other details – in which the Rajputs were defeated. News arrived that my father and his two elder sons with him were among the slain and that the Mughal army was fast approaching our small fortress.
I remember my mother’s face – noble and beautiful at all times, now set in majestic grace and firm determination, though her eyes were swimming in unshed tears. There were only four of us, namely, my mother, my elder sister Indrakumari, my one remaining brother Jaya, too young to go to the wars yet, and myself. They talked long and earnestly among themselves, and I heard my mother saying to Indrakumari, “Have you the courage, girl?” and she replied, ‘Certainly, mother. I won’t disgrace the name of Rajputs.’ Then looking at me my mother sighed. ‘But what about this little one?’ said she, her voice quivering slightly, ‘too young even to understand what it is all about!’
”She too must follow us,’ replied my sister. ‘Only let Jaya escape, if he could manage it. Let him live to avenge us.’
”That evening the Mughal army arrived and began their attack on the little fort. Though leaderless and without provisions, the remnant of our garrison fought with the valour of despair. A breach was made, through which the Mughal forces rushed in. The gallant defenders stood in the breach and fell one by one. Meanwhile my mother and other ladies of the fort built up a great fire. Then I understood what I had overheard my mother and Indrakumari talking.
I was afraid of the fire. I went and hid myself in a corner under some old furniture. From there, I saw—oh, the memory of it! — my mother flinging herself into the fire! Then followed my sister in the prime of her youth and beauty. After that the other women, some after flinging their own little ones into the raging flames. When the Mughals reached the place, they found only their ashes. One of them discovered me in my hiding place. I was too terrified even to cry. He took me away with him and brought me up as a Muslim girl, calling me Razia, until he sold me to you. But in my heart I have ever remained a Rajput.
”My brother Jaya I never saw from that day, until that night when at your behest I danced before your guests. Suddenly I saw before me my long lost brother. Though he had grown, I knew him instantly. But he did not recognize me in my garb of a dancing girl. I had to pretend illness to cover my confusion. When he left and was walking away along the path running close to the outer wall, I, who was on the lookout for him, called him softly by his old name, which at once drew his attention.
”I made myself known to him, though I half feared he would spurn me for choosing to live as the slave of a Muhammad an, instead of ending my life in the heroic manner of my mother and sister. But he didn’t spurn me. He was overjoyed to find his little sister alive. We remained in your garden telling each other our histories since that tragic day in the fortress.
”Jaya had escaped and led a roving life, nursing the idea of revenge. But as he grew up he realized with many of his people that it was a rather barren quest. He agreed to come over to the Mughal court, where he is being treated with all marks of respect. He now thinks that the best thing for both the Rajputs and the Mughals is to live like brothers, forgetting old feuds.
We discussed our future plans, but did not arrive at anything definite and we parted promising to meet again the next night. But there was a witness to our meeting, the Afghan envoy from Prince Muhammad Hakim Khan, as we learned afterwards, who was living secretly in the turret. He put his own unclean construction on our meeting. He waylaid me as I went back to the house and asked that I should go to his room in the turret after midnight the next day, as the price of not divulging my ‘secret’.
Of course, when Jaya and I met again, I mentioned it to him. Some of the words the Afghan had let fall – about your ‘seeming friendliness covering dark designs’ set Jaya thinking. So we concocted our little plan and how it has fared you must have known already. Jaya carried out the deception and has become master of your secret and got away in safety. Before leaving, he loosened, at my request, one of the Afghan’s arms, so as to let him regain his liberty, which I hope he has done by now and taken himself away to escape the Emperor’s vengeance.
Have no fear for yourself, my erstwhile guardian. I have had a good home under your roof and have received nothing but kindness at your hands. Jaya feels it his duty to inform the Emperor about the conspiracy, but he has promised to do it without bringing you into it. A Rajput will never forget a benefit received or repay it with ingratitude.
But to forget wrongs is also difficult for him by nature and tradition. Nevertheless, that too will have to be learned by us, for the future well being of ourselves. Akbar has learned the lesson, Jaya says and he is now earnestly seeking to weld the two sections of his subjects by one brotherly bond. If his subjects also will learn it, the future will be bright for us all and such horrors as I witnessed in my childhood – a scene which has so seared into my memory – will never again take place in this land of Bharat.”
Prince Muhammad Hakim Khan’s attack through the Punjab as champion of the Faith proved abortive and Akbar’s policy of conciliation triumphed for the time. But, alas for our unhappy land, the same wise policy was not continued by his successors, with consequence that have lasted to this day.