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Fiction

Emperor:
Duleep Singh & The Company
Chapter III

A Serialized Hiistorical Novel
by T. SHER SINGH

 

 

 

Previous and subsequent chapters are accessible by clicking on the DAILY FIX icon on the HomePage. 

 

 

CHAPTER  III

He stepped forward. The light from the lanterns inside the tent fell on him.

I knew not this man. I stared at his wizened features and searched for clues. Is this the man they’ve summoned here?

“May the Munificent Allah be with you!”

Have they brought in a stray by mistake? I begin to panic.

“Please inform the Latt Sahib … Hajji Pasha is here to see him,“ he says, in crisp Punjabi.
 
His stringy, greying hair is dishevelled, even streaming over his eyes which seem distant in their twin caves. Much of the face is hidden behind a red thicket: he’s dyed his beard in henna. He’s a hajji! Displaying the proud emblem of one who has done the hajj, his religious duty, in Mecca. His body is bent, taut like a bow, but hidden under a chola which cascades from the shoulders all the way to the ground: sack cloth, also dyed in deep red, with patches crudely sewn all over it.  

I nod at the sentries and pull the mendicant inside, lowering the tent flap behind him.  

His ear-rings catch the light once he’s inside. I notice his multiple necklaces. A dozen of them, at least. A large and heavy jhola hangs from one shoulder -- reminds me of a snake-charmer’s bag carrying his wares. On the other dangles a long, crude stringed-instrument. One string - an ik taara.

As he straightens up, the hem of his gown reveals … bare feet. They’re caked in  mud. As I am staring at them, trying to figure out what to say, and how not to offend, he jolts me: “How are you, Amir Singh?” he blurts in my face. In English.

That was no Punjabi accent, not this time.

I recognize the rasp in his voice. And the heavy brogue from the Highlands -- the Scottish Highlands, that is -- that I have learnt to recognize from the constant string of visitors Wade Sahib used to receive in Lahore. Sharp and unmistakeable, as if fresh off the boat.

The voice belongs to a man I used to see accompany the English doctor his Lordship had sent to the Sarkar late last summer. Dr Drummond was the Lord’s personal physician; he’d been graciously loaned to the Lahore Court to tend to the Emperor’s ailments. The man with this voice, I recall, was an old Sikh who was, the doctor had explained, his guide. His sole qualification, it had appeared then, was his broken and barely adequate English. I had heard the "guide" switch, to my utter surprise, into this same brogue when the two had dropped in to visit in Wade Sahib’s haveli.

Neither Wade Sahib nor Dr Drummond had commented on it, or had cared to dispel the shock on my face.   
 
And then, I remember being puzzled when I’d heard the same voice, conversing in Farsi, when Wade Sahib and I were maneuvering our way once up the Elephant Path for an audience with the Sarkar and we had run into the Dogra, Dhyan Singh, and his entourage. He had introduced my master to a horse-trader who, he had said, had travelled all the way from Persia. I remember staring at him, wondering where I had heard the same scratchy voice before.   

And here it was again, but in yet another guise.

I announced him. The Colonel stood up and smiled at him. Did I see a glint of amusement in his eyes?

Lord Auckland stayed seated. He nodded at the visitor, and then waved him to a chair; his countenance did not suggest that he was at all impressed by the apparition before him. I rushed forward and positioned a chair next to the Colonel’s facing his Lordship and his desk.

The Hajji strode across the floor, grabbed the chair and dragged it off the carpet to a few feet away. He surveyed the space in front of him as he began to shed his burden, first the bag, then the lute. He placed them gently behind him, near the tent wall.

He looked at me. “I need some nourishment, Amir Singh. Get me something, please.“

His Lordship nodded at me.

As I turned to leave, I saw the hajji begin to lower himself, as if his entire frame was folding, contracting. I could’ve walked straight into the tent wall, so taken was I by this strange sight -- I had never seen anyone do this in the Lord’s study. I saw him flop onto the floor, cross his legs and settle down as if he was shopping for carpets in the Anarkali Bazaar.

When I returned with a tray of victuals, I found them in silence. I placed the tray on the floor in front of our unkempt visitor. He was not shy, nor did he wait for permission. He dove into the food and drink, uncaring about the noises emanating from himself.

I waited within sight, just in case he needed anything else.

“I have tidings … “ said the Hajji. He continued to chew his mouthful, a morsel poised in his hand.

He was concentrating on the food, it was clear. He was about to take another bite when I heard his Lordship huff in disgust … loudly, this time.   

“Come on, man, on with it. What’s the latest? Without the theatrics!”

The Hajji didn’t seem to have heard him. He stuffed the morsel into his mouth and slowly chewed on it until it was gone.

“I bring sad tidings …“

He had stopped eating. He pushed back the tray, but did not look up. He reached out and grabbed his lute. He placed it on his lap, and held on to it, as if for support.

“The Lion of Punjab is no more.”

I felt my knees buckle. I flailed, my hand finding a dangling rope on the nick of time, and grabbing it. I managed to stay upright. I slid over to a pole and leaned against it. Mercifully, my two masters were too busy to look my way.    

“Last night, as the sun sank, in the third hour past the third watch …  the Sarkar  …. breathed his last.”

*   *   *   *   *

He had known that his time had come.

A week ago, early on Friday morning, he had sent out word that all the platoons in and around the city were to assemble in the Fort. Including the Artillery units.

They gathered on the sprawling grounds outside the Diwan-e-Aam, the Court of the People.

The Sarkar was, for once, too weak to go out on horseback. It brought tears to the eyes of all who saw him being carried out in an open sedan chair, by four attendants.

He had addressed the troops. Said in an unwavering voice, though feeble, that his end was nigh. Fierce warrior-like faces broke down as he told them that Kharak Singh would be their new Emperor, Dhyan Singh his chief minister. He asked them to give  them the same loyalty they had shown him. And thanked them for their love and service … to Nanak and Gobind Singh. “Deg-o-Tegh-o-Fateh!” he had cried out -- “Victory to those who Protect the Weak and the Hungry!” -- and the multitude had echoed his words with thunderous applause.

He spent the next few days in and out of bed, in and out coma. When up, he kept busy dictating missives to distant outposts … instructions to his son Sher Singh to keep alert, to his grandson Naunihal Singh on his mission to the North-West. He declared large grants to those who had been loyal to him in the field of battle. He gave away millions in charity.

He asked to be taken to the zenana, where his queens resided. Amidst much weeping and wailing, he bade them goodbye. Assured them that he had spoken to the Crown Prince and that they would all be taken care of for the rest of their lives.

Two days ago, on Wednesday morning, he asked that the Sikh scripture be brought down from the little gurdwara he had had built atop the palace apartments, where he would routinely retreat to each morning in the pre-dawn hours, whenever he would be in town, to hear verses from the Guru Granth.

The three Bhai Sahibs -- Bhai Ram Singh, Bhai Gobind Ram and Bhai Gurmukh Singh, the Sikh Elders who presided over the religious affairs of the Court -- were present. The Maharaja stood up for the ardaas, the congregational prayer, and then slowly -- he insisted on not being assisted -- he paid obeisance to the Scripture. He prostrated himself before it, the “Living Word”, and remained so in deep reverence. They had to help him back to his feet.

He unbuckled the weapons he still wore around his waist, and handed them to the Fakir, his friend and confidant. He heard crying and weeping in the next room, and chided them loudly.

He said he was ready.

He lay down on his cot and then began to dictate more offerings to charities, naming temples and mosques and gurdwaras evenly, as was his custom.

He remembered his horses. His love for them was stuff of legend. He asked that they be given to the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
 
He had allowed priests of different faiths to offer prayers on his behalf. So Hindu pundits and Muslim mullahs too performed their rituals in the rooms next door.

He continued to slip in and out of consciousness. For at hours at a time, he was oblivious that the mighty and the powerful of the land were there, through night and day, waiting for him to open his eyes. They said they were hopeful but, in their hearts, they knew. And waited.
 
Early on Thursday, he was up again. Bhai Gobind Ram helped him bathe. Sang a few shabads - hymns from the Sikh scriptures - at his behest, accompanied by raagi musicians for whom he asked specifically.

The Sarkar then got out of bed and asked that the cot be removed. He lay down on the floor.

Every now and then he would open his eyes. He would answer questions with a blink or a nod or a shake of his head.

Late in the evening, Bhai Gobind Ram bent over and whispered in his ears: “Ram, Ram, Ram.“ One of the many names in the Sikh scripture for God, the Lord of all creation.

The Sarkar repeated after him. Once, then again … and then, fell silent. For eternity. 

*   *   *   *   *

“The stone,” said his Lordship, having grilled the Hajji for an hour and more. “The stone! What happened to the stone?”

“The stone?“ asked the Hajji.

“The stone … you know, the Mountain of Light!”

“Ah-h, you want to know about the Koh-i-Noor. The stone? It’s the most precious, the most sought after jewel in the world. They say it is worth millions and millions in pounds sterling. Sure, you want to know who has it, don’t you?”

“Did he give it away? To a temple? To a favourite?”

“He tried to. On his last day, during one of the periods when he was lucid, he mused that not one of the previous kings who had owned the jewel were able to take it with them when they had died. He called for his Prime Minister. When the Fakir drew close, he asked that the Koh-i-Noor be brought to him.”

“Yes, of course, Sarkar,” the Fakir had said. “What do you want done with it.”

“Give it away, today, to a temple. Let them use it to feed the poor. I have no further need for it,“ whispered the dying man.

The Keeper of the Treasury was summoned. Beli Ram. When he arrived, there was quite an animated exchange of whispers in the verandah outside.

The Fakir ordered him to fetch the jewel.

Beli Ram hurried away. But did not return.

The Sarkar asked if the jewel had been brought. Again and again.

The Fakir ordered that Beli Ram be found and brought to the palace forthwith.

He turned up, finally. The Koh-I-Noor? Oh, we don‘t have it, he said. It was sent to the Gobindgarh Treasury in Amritsar, I think. For safekeeping. It’ll take a while to have it brought over.

It never was. The Maharaja died without his last wish fulfilled. Sad, because it was over one of his fondest of possessions.

The Hajji shook his head. “That doesn’t bode well. Not for anyone who covets the jewel. You can’t usurp a dying man’s wish and …”

His Lordship and the Colonel were staring long and hard at each other, not paying much attention to the Hajji’s meanderings. Did I imagine it, or did I see the two nodding at each other, over and over again.                 

There were many more questions.

I reminded his Lordship of the time. It was but an hour away from daybreak.

He got up. Paced back and forth a bit, examining the pattern of the carpet.

“Colonel, will you please wait here. My friend and I will go for a walk and catch some fresh air.“

He waited patiently as the Hajji gathered himself and ambled towards the entrance. The two disappeared into the night. They were gone for a while.

*   *   *   *   *

His Lordship returned, in about half-an-hour. Alone.

“I’ve sent the man home. He’s got work to do. And he needs to catch the boat back before sunrise.”

He sat down at the desk, playing around with the little sand bags for a few moments.

“Colonel Wade. I want to you to arrange a meeting as soon as possible. In Firozepur. No later than four weeks. I want George Clerk to be there. Macnaghten. Colvin. You … everyone.

“I want reports from you, twice every week, from now on, no matter where I am. And I want to meet with you tomorrow in Firozepur, sharp at noon. We have a lot to cover.”

He got up and turned to leave, but then stopped.

“And yes, I want you to understand: for all intents and purposes, we are to be, from this moment on, on a war-footing. Let there be no doubt about it.”

To Be Continued ...

 

COPYRIGHT: sikhchic.com

November 30, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, USA), November 30, 2012, 3:47 PM.

Is this going to be a published book? [EDITOR: Inshallah!]

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Duleep Singh & The Company
Chapter III"









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