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Thomas Hoover.

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single oarsmen plied the muddy face of the Jamuna. Along the banks were
toiling washermen, Untouchables, who wore nothing save a brown
loincloth and a kerchief over their heads. They stood in a long row,
knee-deep at the water's edge, mechanically slapping folded lengths of
cloth against stacks of flat stones. They seemed unconcerned by the
nearness of the funeral ghats, stone platforms at the river's edge that
were built out above the steps leading down into the water. As he
silently surveyed the crowd around him, from somewhere on the street
above a voice chanted a funeral litany: Ram Nam Sach Hai, the Name of
Ram Is Truth Itself.

It had taken four days for Kamala to die. The morning after she had
danced, she had begun to show unmistakable symptoms of the plague. She
had called for Brahmin priests and, seating herself on a wooden plank
in their presence, had removed her _todus_, the ear pendants that were
the mark of her _devadasi _caste, and placed them together with twelve
gold coins on the plank before her. It was her deconsecration. Then
with a look of infinite peace, she had announced she was ready to die.

Next she informed the priests that since she had no sons in Agra, no
family at all, she wanted Brian Hawksworth to officiate at her funeral.
He had not understood what she wanted until the servants whispered it
to him. The Brahmins had been scandalized and at first had refused to
agree, insisting he had no caste and consequently was a despicable
Untouchable. Finally, after more payments, they had reluctantly
consented. Then she had turned to him and explained what she had done.

When he tried to argue, she had appealed to him in the name of Shiva.

"I only ask you do this one last thing for me," she had said, going on
to insist his responsibilities would not be difficult. "There are Hindu
servants in the palace. Though they are low caste, they know enough
Turki to guide you."

After the Brahmins had departed, she called the servants and, as
Hawksworth watched, ordered them to remove all her jewels from the
rosewood box where she kept them. Then she asked him to accompany them
as they took the jewels through the Hindu section of Agra, to a temple
of the goddess Mari, who presides over epidemics. They were to donate
all her jewels to the goddess. Smiling at Hawksworth's astonishment,
she had explained that Hindus believe a person's reincarnation is
directly influenced by the amount of alms given in his or her previous
life. This last act of charity might even bring her back as a Brahmin.

Two days later she lapsed into a delirium of fever. As death drew near,
the Hindu servants again summoned the priests to visit the palace. The
plague was spreading now, and with it fear, and at first none had been
willing to comply. Only after it was agreed that they would be paid
three times the usual price for the ceremonies did the Brahmins come.
They had laid Kamala's body on a bed of _kusa _grass in the open air,
sprinkled her head with water brought from the sacred Ganges River, and
smeared her brow with Ganges clay. She had seemed only vaguely
conscious of what they were doing.

When at last she died, her body was immediately washed, perfumed, and
bedecked with flowers. Then she was wrapped in linen, lifted onto a
bamboo bier, and carried toward the river ghats by the Hindu servants,
winding through the streets with her body held above their heads,
intoning a funeral dirge. Hawksworth had led the procession, carrying a
firepot with sacred fire provided by Nadir Sharifs Hindu servants.

The riverside was already crowded with mourners, for there had been
many deaths, and the air was acrid from the smoke of cremation pyres.
On the steps above the ghats was a row of thatch umbrellas, and sitting
on a reed mat beneath each was a Brahmin priest. All were shirtless,
potbellied, and wore three stripes of white clay down their forehead in
honor of Vishnu's trident. The servants approached one of the priests
and began to bargain with him. After a time the man rose and signified
agreement. The servants whispered to Hawksworth that he was there to
provide funeral rites for hire, adding with some satisfaction that
Brahmins who served at the ghats were despised as mercenaries by the
rest of their caste.

After the bargain had been struck, the priest retired beneath his
umbrella to watch while they purchased logs from vendors and began
construction of a pyre. When finished, it was small, no more than three
feet high, and irregular; but no one seemed to care. Satisfied, they
proceeded to douse it with oil.

Then the Brahmin priest was summoned from his umbrella and he rose and
came down the steps, bowing to a stone Shiva lingam as he passed. After
he had performed a short ceremony, chanting from the Vedas, the winding
sheet was cut away and Kamala's body was lifted atop the stack of wood.

A mortal sadness had swept through Hawksworth as he stood holding the
torch, listening to the Brahmin chant and studying the flow of the
river. He thought again of Kamala, of the times he had secretly admired
her erotic bearing, the times she had sat patiently explaining how best
to draw the long sensuous notes from his new sitar, the times he had
held her in his arms. And he thought again of their last evening, when
she had danced with the power of a god.

When at last he moved toward the bier, the servants had touched his arm
and pointed him toward her feet, explaining that only if the deceased
were a man could the pyre be lighted at the head.

The oil-soaked logs had kindled quickly, sending out the sweet smoke of
_neem_. Soon the pyre was nothing but yellow tongues of fire, and for a
moment he thought he glimpsed her once more, in among the flames,
dancing as the goddess Parvati, the beloved consort of Shiva.

When he turned to walk away, the servants had caught his sleeve and
indicated he must remain. As her "son" it was his duty to ensure that
the heat burst her skull, releasing her soul. Otherwise he would have
to do it himself.

He waited, the smoke drifting over him, astonished that a religion
capable of the beauty of her dance could treat death with such
barbarity. At last, to his infinite relief, the servants indicated they
could leave. They gathered up the pot of sacred fire and took his arm
to lead him away. It was then he had pulled away, wanting to be alone
with her one last time. Finally, no longer able to check his tears, he
had turned and started blindly up the steps, alone.

Now he stared numbly back, as though awakened from a nightmare. Almost
without thinking, he searched the pocket of his jerkin until his
fingers closed around a flask of brandy. He drew deeply on it twice
before turning to make his way on through the streets of Agra.

*



"You took an astonishing risk merely to honor the whims of your Hindu
dancer, Ambassador." Nadir Sharif had summoned Hawksworth to his
reception room at sunset. "Few men here would have done it."

"I've lived through plagues twice before. In 1592 over ten thousand in
London died of the plague, and in 1603, in the summer after King
James's coronation, over thirty thousand died, one person out of every
five. If I were going to die, I would have by now." Hawksworth listened
to his own bravado and wondered if it sounded as hollow as it was. He
remembered his own haunting fear during the height of the last plague,
when rowdy, swearing Bearers, rogues some declared more ill-bred than
hangmen, plied the city with rented barrows, their cries of "Cast out
your dead" ringing through the deserted streets. They charged sixpence
a corpse, and for their fee they carted the bodies to open pits at the
city's edge for unconsecrated, anonymous burial, the cutpurse and the
alderman piled side by side. As he remembered London again, suddenly
the Hindu rites seemed considerably less barbaric.

"You're a brave man, nonetheless, or a foolish one." Nadir Sharif
gestured him toward a bolster. "Tell me, have your English physicians
determined the cause of the infection?"

"There are many theories. The Puritans say it's God's vengeance; and
astrologers point out that there was a conjunction of the planets
Jupiter and Saturn when the last plague struck. But our physicians seem
to have two main theories. Some hold it's caused by an excess of
corrupt humors in the body, whereas others claim it's spread by
poisonous air, which has taken up vapors contrary to nature."

Nadir Sharif sat pensive and silent for a moment, as though pondering
the explanations. Then he turned to Hawksworth.

"What you seem to have told me is that your physicians have absolutely
no idea what causes the plague. So they have very ingeniously invented
names for the main points of their ignorance." He smiled. "Indian
physicians have been known to do the same. Tell me then, what do you
think causes it?"

"I don't know either. It seems to worsen in the years after crops have
been bad, when there are hungry dogs and rats scavenging in the
streets. During the last plague all the dogs in London were killed or
sent out of the city, but it didn't seem to help."

"And what about the rats?"

"There've always been men in England who make a living as rat-catchers,
but with the dogs gone during the plague, the rats naturally started to
multiply."

Nadir smiled thoughtfully. "You know, the Hindus have a book, the
Bhagavata Parana, that warns men to quit their house if they see a
sickly rat near it. Indians have long assumed vermin bring disease.
Have you considered the possibility that the source of the plague might
be the rats, rather than the dogs? Perhaps by removing the dogs, you
eliminated the best deterrent to the bearer of the plague, the rats?"

"No one has thought of that."

"Well, the European plague has finally reached India, whatever its
cause." Nadir Sharif looked away gloomily. "Almost a hundred people
died in Agra this past week. Our physicians are still searching for a
cure. What remedies do you use in England? I think His Majesty would be
most interested to know."

"I suppose the measures are more general than specific. Englishmen try
to ward it off by purging the pestilent air around them. They burn
rosemary and juniper and bay leaves in their homes. During the last
plague the price of rosemary went up from twelve pence an armful to six
shillings a handful. But the only people helped seemed to be herb wives
and gardeners. One physician claimed the plague could be avoided by
wearing a bag of arsenic next to the skin. There's also a belief that
if you bury half a dozen peeled onions near your home, they'll gather
all the infection in the neighborhood. And some people fumigate the
contagious vapors from their rooms by dropping a red-hot brick into a
basin of vinegar."

"Do these curious nostrums work?" Nadir Sharif tried to mask his
skepticism.

"I suppose it's possible. Who can say for sure? But the plague always
diminishes after a time, usually with the onset of winter."

"Doesn't your king do anything?"

"He usually leaves London if an infection starts to spread. In 1603,
the year of his coronation, he first went to Richmond, then to
Southampton, then to Wilton. He traveled all summer and only returned
in the autumn."

"Is that all he did? Travel?"

"There were Plague Orders in all the infected towns. And any house
where someone was infected had to have a red cross painted on the door
and a Plague Bill attached. No one inside could leave. Anyone caught
outside was whipped and set in the stocks."

"And did these measures help?"

"Englishmen resent being told they can't leave home. So people would
tear the Plague Bills off their doors and go about their business. Some
towns hired warders at sixpence a day to watch the houses and make sure
no one left. But when so many are infected, it's impossible to watch
everyone. So there were also orders forbidding assemblies. King James
banned the holding of fairs within fifty miles of London. And all
gatherings in London were prohibited by a city order - playhouses, gaming
houses, cockpits, bear-baiting, bowling, football. Even ballad singers
were told to stay off the streets."

"His Majesty may find that interesting." Nadir Sharif turned and
signaled for _sharbat _from the servants. "Perhaps he should issue laws
forbidding assembly before he leaves Agra."

"Is he leaving?" Hawksworth felt his heart stop.

"Day after tomorrow." Nadir Sharif watched as the tray of _sharbat
_cups arrived and immediately directed it toward Hawksworth.

"I have to see him one last time before he leaves. Before I leave."

"I really think that's impossible now. He's canceled the daily
_durbar_. No one can see him. Even I have difficulty meeting with him."
Nadir Sharif accepted a cup from the tray and examined Hawksworth
sorrowfully as he sipped it. "In any case, I fear a meeting would do
you little good, Ambassador. He's busy arranging the departure for all
the court, including the _zenana_. There are thousands of people to
move, and on very short notice. In fact, I've been trying to see Her
Majesty for several days, but she has received no one." He smiled
evenly. "Not even her own brother."

"Where's His Majesty planning to go?"

"Not so very far, actually. Ordinarily he probably would

travel north, toward Kashmir. But since winter is approaching, he's
decided to go west, to Fatehpur Sekri. The area around the old palace
has remained free of the infection."

"But I have to see him." Hawksworth hesitated. "Do you know what's
happened to Shirin?"

"Nothing, so far as I hear. I believe she's still being held in the
fort." Nadir Sharif studied Hawksworth. "But I would advise you in the
strongest possible terms to avoid meddling in the business of that
Persian adventuress and her departed Sufi heretic."

"What I do is my affair." Hawksworth set down his cup harder than
necessary. "I insist on seeing His Majesty. I want you to arrange it."

"But a formal meeting is really quite impossible, Ambassador. Haven't I
made that clear?" Nadir Sharif paused to collect his poise. "But
perhaps if you appeared when his entourage is departing Agra, you might
be able to speak with him. I have to insist, however, that a meeting
now would be pointless and possibly even dangerous, considering His
Majesty's disposition at the moment."

"I'll see him before he leaves, somehow. I'll find a way."

"Then I wish you Godspeed, Ambassador." Nadir Sharif put down his
_sharbat _glass. "Incidentally, there's a large caravan leaving for
Surat day after tomorrow. Should I make arrangements for you to join
it?"

"I'm not going anywhere until I see the Moghul."

"You're a headstrong man, Ambassador. Please believe I wish you well.
Notwithstanding His Majesty's current views, I've always regarded you
highly." He signaled for a tray of betel leaves and rose, flashing one
of his official smiles. "Who knows? Perhaps your luck is due for a
change."



Queen Janahara read the dispatch twice, the lines of her mouth growing
tighter each time, before passing it back to Arangbar. He studied it
again, holding it with a trembling hand, seeming not to fully
comprehend its meaning, then extended it to Nadir Sharif. The courtyard
off Arangbar's private library was deadly silent, all servants and
eunuchs banished. The tapestries shading the inner compartment had been
drawn back, permitting the hard light of morning to illuminate the
flowered murals on the library's red sandstone walls. Arangbar sipped
wine from a gilded cup and studied Nadir Sharifs face while the prime
minister read, as though hoping somehow to decipher the document's
significance from his expression.

"He has plainly refused. Majesty." Nadir Sharifs voice was strangely
calm. "When did this arrive?"

"This morning. It's his reply to the pigeon I sent to Burhanpur the day
after the wedding, ordering him to return the command in the south to
Ghulam Adl and march to the northwest, to relieve the fortress at
Qandahar." Arangbar's eyes were bloodshot and grim. "At least we know
now where he is."

"We know nothing." Janahara reached for the document and scrutinized
it. "This dispatch was sent four days ago. He could be as far north as
Mandu by now, or well on his way to Agra."

"I doubt very much he will march anywhere." Nadir Sharif cut her off
without seeming to do so. "Until he receives a response to the terms he
has demanded."

"Repeat them to me." Arangbar was having difficulty focusing on the
wine cup and he shifted his gaze into the courtyard.

"They are very explicit. Majesty." Nadir Sharif rolled the document and
replaced it in the bamboo sleeve. "Jadar has refused to march to defend
Qandahar unless his horse rank is raised to thirty thousand, and unless
the _jagirs _in Dholpur, those that were granted to Prince Allaudin,
are returned. What will you do?"

"There can be no bargaining with an Imperial order," Queen Janahara
interjected. "How many times will you be intimidated? Remember he
refused to undertake this campaign - which, I should add, he has
apparently bungled - until his _suwar _rank was elevated, and his elder
brother Khusrav was sent out of Agra. When will his demands end?" Her
voice rose. "Even now we do not know what has happened. All we know for
sure is that two months ago he marched south from Burhanpur. And four
days ago he was there again. Was he driven back when he tried to
recapture Ahmadnagar from Malik Ambar? Does the Deccan still belong to
the Abyssinian? Prince Jadar has much to answer."

"But the dispatch was sent from Burhanpur. At least he hasn't abandoned
the city entirely, as some of the rumors said," Nadir Sharif continued
evenly. "And I don't believe he has abandoned the south, either. He
would not permit it to remain in rebel hands. Whatever else he is, he's
a soldier first."

"For all we know he is now isolated at the fortress in Burhanpur."
Janahara studied the empty courtyard. "If he has not already lost the
city."

"So what do you propose be done?" Arangbar's voice was slurred as he
sipped from his cup.

"There's only one choice remaining, if you ever hope to control Jadar."
She spoke directly to Arangbar. "Order Inayat Latif to mobilize the
Imperial army and march south, now. We have to know what's happening
there. Inayat Latif is a far abler general than Jadar. He, at least,
can ensure the Deccan is secure. Then we can handle the matter of
Jadar's demands."

"But that could also give the appearance the Imperial army is marching
against Jadar." Nadir Sharif shifted uncomfortably. "He will see it as
an ultimatum. Do you really think he will respond to threats? You must
know him better than that."

"I know him all too well." Janahara's voice was hard.

"Your Majesty" - Nadir Sharif turned directly to the queen - "perhaps if he
is given more time, he will come to better . . . appreciate his
position. I suggest the first thing we do is request a clarification of
the military situation throughout the Deccan. Then we can send the
Imperial army, as reinforcements, if it still seems advisable."

"I'm growing weary of constantly trying to outguess Jadar." Arangbar
examined his cup and noted gloomily that it was dry. "First the plague,
and now the preparations for the move. I'm exhausted. When do we
depart?"

"I'm told the last of the elephants will be ready within one

_pahar_, Majesty." Nadir Sharif studied the queen casually, wondering
how far she would push her influence with Arangbar. "I agree with you
it would be wisest to wait."

"If you insist on doing nothing, at least the Imperial army should be
mobilized and made ready." Janahara's dulcet voice was betrayed by the
quick flash in her eyes. "Then Jadar will understand we are prepared to
act quickly if he remains defiant."

"How many men and horse does Inayat Latif have under his command now?"
Arangbar searched the darkened recesses behind them for a servant to
summon with more wine.

"There are over a hundred thousand men here. Majesty, and probably
fifty thousand cavalry. Over three times the force Jadar took with him
to the south." Nadir Sharif paused. "They could always move out within,
say, two to three weeks."

"I insist the forces here at least be mobilized, and moved to Fatehpur
with the court . . . lest the army itself become contaminated by the
plague." Janahara hesitated for a moment and then continued evenly.
"I'm prepared to order it in your name today. It would protect the army
from infection; you would have them with you if you needed them; and it
would also put Jadar on notice."

"Then prepare the orders for my seal, if it pleases you." Arangbar
sighed and reached for his turban. "You're usually right."

"You know I'm right." She smiled warmly. "And, regardless, no harm will
be done."

"Then it's settled." Arangbar tried unsuccessfully to rise, and Nadir
Sharif stepped forward, assisting him to his feet. "I have to hold
_durbar _one last time today, quickly before we leave. The Persian
Safavid ambassador notified the _wazir _he has gifts and a petition
that must be brought to me before the court leaves Agra." He grinned.
"The Safavis are so worried I will form an alliance with the
northwestern Uzbeks that their Emperor Shah Abbas sends gifts every
month."

"You've decided to hold _durbar _today, after all?" Nadir Sharifs eyes
quickened. "If so, there's a Portuguese official from Surat who also
wishes to present some gifts from the Viceroy and speak with you on a
matter he said was delicate."

"What 'delicate' matter does His Excellency have?" Janahara stopped
sharply on her way toward the corridor and turned back. "I've heard
nothing about it."

"I suppose we'll all discover that in _durbar_, Majesty." Nadir Sharif
bowed and was gone.



Brian Hawksworth waited in the crowded square of the _Diwan-i-Am_,
holding a large package and hoping the rumored appearance of Arangbar
was true. For the past four days the Moghul had not held _durbar_, had
remained in complete isolation. But only an hour before, talk had
circulated in the square that Arangbar would hold a brief reception
before departing, probably in a tent pavilion that had been erected in
the center of the square. As though to verify the speculation, slaves
had unrolled several thick carpets beneath the tent, installed a dais,
and were now positioning his throne onto the platform.

Hawksworth stared about the square and felt his palms sweat.

Is this the last time I ever see the Moghul of India? And Shirin never
again? Is this how it ends?

He had spent the last several days in a private hell, thinking of
Shirin and waiting for the first fever, the first nodules that would
signal the plague. So far there had been no signs of the disease. And
he had heard that the consensus in the bazaar was the infection would
subside within the month. Clearly it would be nothing like London in
1603.

Palace rumors said that Shirin was still alive. All executions had
ceased after the appearance of the plague. And stories were that the
Moghul was rarely seen sober. Perhaps, Hawksworth told himself,
Arangbar has stayed so drunk he has forgotten her.

He had finally conceived one last plan to try to save her. Then he had
packed his chest, settled his accounts, and dismissed his servants. If
nothing came of the meeting today . . . if there was a meeting . . . he
would have to leave in any case.

He moved closer to the royal pavilion, pushing his way through the
melee of shirtless servants. The elephants for the _zenana _had been
moved into the square and were now being readied. There were, by
Hawksworth's rough count, approximately a hundred elephants to carry
Arangbar's women. The _howdahs _for the main wives were fashioned from
gold, with gratings of gold wire around the sides to provide a view and
an umbrella canopy of silver cloth for shade. A special elephant was
waiting for Queen Janahara and Princess Layla, decorated with a canvas
of gold brocade and bearing a jewel-studded _howdah_.

As Hawksworth watched, another elephant, shining with black paint and
the largest he had ever seen, lumbered regally into the square, ridden
by a mahout with a gold-braided turban. Its covering was even more
lavish than that of the queen's mount, and its _howdah _was emblazoned
with the Imperial standard of Arangbar, a long-tailed lion crouching
menacingly in front of a golden sun face. Beneath the verandas rows of
saddled horses waited for the lesser members of the court, each with a
slave stationed alongside bearing an umbrella of gold cloth, and in
front of the horses were rows of crimson-colored palanquins, their



Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 42 of 52)