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The Feast of Roses
by Indu Sundaresant
Atria Books, 2003

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Chapter One

Nature had endowed her with a quick understanding, a piercing intellect, a versatile temper, sound common sense.  Education had developed the gifts of nature in no common degree.  She was versed in Persian literature and composed verses, limpid and flowing, which assisted her in capturing the heart of her husband.

-- Beni Prasad, History of Jahangir

The months of June and July passed. The monsoons were tardy this year -- the nights hinted rain constantly with an aroma in the air, a cooling on the skin, soundless lightning across skies. But when morning came, the sun rose strong again, mocking Agra and its inhabitants. And the days crawled by, brazenly hot, when every breath was an effort, every movement a struggle, every night sweat-stewed. In temples, incantations were offered, the muezzins called the faithful to prayers, their voices melodious and pleading, and the bells of the Jesuit churches chimed. But the Gods seemed indifferent. The rice paddies lay plowed after the pre-monsoon rains, awaiting the seedlings; too long a wait and the ground would grow hard again.

A few people moved torpidly in the streets of Agra; only the direst of emergencies had called them from their cool, stone-flagged homes. Even the normally frantic pariah dogs lay panting on doorsteps, too exhausted to yelp when a passing urchin pelted them with stones.

The bazaars were barren too, shopfronts pulled down, shopkeepers too tired to haggle with buyers. Custom could wait for cooler times. The whole city seemed to have slowed to a halt.

The imperial palaces and courtyards were hushed in the night, the corridors empty of footsteps. Slaves and eunuchs plied iridescent peacock feather fans, wiping their perspiring faces with one hand. The ladies of the harem slept under the intermittent breeze of the fans, goblets of cold sherbets flavored with khus and ginger resting by their side. Every now and then, a slave would refresh the goblet, bringing in another one filled with new shards of ice. When her mistress awoke, and wake she would many times during the night, her drink would be ready. The ice, carved in huge chunks from the Himalayan mountains, covered with gunnysacks and brought down to the plains in bullock carts, was a blessing for everyone, nobles and commoners alike. But in this heat, ice melted all too soon, disappearing into a puddle of warm water under sawdust and jute.

In Emperor Jahangir's apartments, music floated through the courtyard, stopping and tripping in the still night air as the musicians' slick fingers slipped on the strings of the sitar.

The courtyard was square, built with Mughal and Persian precision in sharp-cut lines. An arched, cusped verandah filled one side, along the others were trees and bushes, smudged and indistinct in the darkness. In the center was a square pool, its waters silent and calm. The sandstone steps of the verandah led down to a marble platform that thrust into the pool like a missing tooth in a gaping smile. Two figures lay here in sleep under the benign gaze of the night sky. The music drifted down from the screened balcony over the verandah's arches.

When Mehrunnisa opened her eyes, she first saw the sky above her, packed with stars. Every inch of her vision was filled with them, a ceiling of diamonds on black velvet. Emperor Jahangir slept by her side, his forehead resting on her shoulder. His breath, warm on her skin, was steady. Mehrunnisa could not see her husband's face, just the top of his head. His hair lay flattened against his skull with a ring around where the imperial turban sat during the day. She touched his face lightly, her fingers rested against his cheekbones, swirled down his chin where a stubble scratched at the pads of her fingers. She did this without waking him, feeling his face, searching through familiarity, although her memory was flooded with every contour and line.

When Mehrunnisa had gone to sleep, she had been alone. She had waited for Jahangir, reading by the light of an oil lamp, but soon, exhausted by the heat, the words blurring before her eyes, she slept, the book by her side. He must have come to her later, taken the book away, covered her with a weightless cotton sheet. Her fingers stilled on the Emperor's face and moved to lie on his chest.

For the first time in many many years, Mehrunnisa woke to an absence of feeling. There was no fear, no apprehension, no sense that something was amiss in her life. For the first time too, she had not put out a hand blindly, half-asleep for Ladli. She knew that Ladli was safe, in a nearby apartment. She knew, without thinking about it, that before he slept, the Emperor would have glanced in at Ladli, so he could tell her when she woke that her daughter was fine.

She rested her face on his head, the dull essence of sandalwood filling her nostrils. It was a scent she associated with Jahangir, with comfort, with love. Love. Yes, this was love. A different kind, one she had not known existed, did not think she could have. For many years she had wanted a child, then she had Ladli. For all those years she had wanted Jahangir too, not really knowing why. Because he made her smile inside, because he lightened her life, gave it meaning, a fullness, a purpose. It surprised her, this force of feeling. It frightened her -- this possibility that her self would be so engrossed by him once they were married, that she could have no control over the life she had so carefully built.

And now it was two months after the wedding, two languorous months when time seemed to pass in a slow circle around them. Even the empire and its concerns stepped away, hovering somewhere in the periphery. But last night, for the first time, Jahangir had been called away as they went to bed. The empire would wait no longer.

She moved Jahangir's head gently onto a silk-covered pillow, shifted his arm from where it lay on her stomach and sat up. To her left, along the arches of the verandah, the eunuchs on guard stiffened. She sat there looking at them, these half-men who had care of the Emperor's person. There were fifteen eunuchs, one in each sandstone arch. They stood with their feet apart, hands behind their backs, gazes fixed past the pool into the deep shadows of the garden. The guard around Jahangir changed every twelve hours, and in different combinations so no two men would have the opportunity to concoct a conspiracy.

As she sat there, looking at them, being pointedly ignored by them, sweat began to pool damply under the weight of her hair, on her neck, soaking through the thin cotton of the kurta she wore. She rubbed her back and unwound her hair from its plait until it lay about her shoulders in a dense blanket. Stepping past the sleeping Emperor, Mehrunnisa went to the edge of the platform and sat down, letting her legs dangle in the water. A breeze swept through the courtyard, and she raised her face to it, lifting her arms so it could ruffle the long sleeves of her tunic. It brought the scent of smoldering neem leaves from braziers in the verandah, unpleasant enough to keep away the mosquitoes.

The water around her was afloat with banyan leaf lanterns, stitched together with little sticks to form cups that held sesame oil with a cotton thread wick. At one end of the pool, in full night bloom, a parijat tree swooned over, slowly drifting its tiny white flowers into the water. The stars were captured on the pool's surface too, intermittently, where the light of the lanterns did not reach. Pushing herself off the edge of the marble platform, Mehrunnisa melted into the pool.

The water was warm as honey and heavy around her, but cooler than the air. Mehrunnisa dipped her head in, letting her hair swirl wet about her face. She said her new name out loud. "Nur Jahan." Her voice fractured in the denseness of the water, little air bubbles blossomed and escaped to the top, tickling around her cheeks.

She was Nur Jahan. "Light of the World." In her reposed the brilliance of the heavens. Or so Jahangir had said when he gave her the title the day they were married. From today my beloved empress will be called Nur Jahan. No longer just Mehrunnisa, the name her father gave her at birth. Nur Jahan was a name for the world, for other people to call her. It was a name that commanded, that inspired respect and demanded attention. All useful qualities for a name to have. The Emperor was telling the court, the empire, and the other women of the imperial harem that Mehrunnisa was no trifling love.

She kicked away from the platform, and swam. When she had reached under the parijat, she rested against the wall, watching the white flowers coast down like flakes of snow. She did not turn to her left to look at the hazy figures in the verandah, and if they were watching her, they did not betray it by any movement. Yet, had she stayed too long with her head under the water, some hand would have come to lift her out of it. For to them, she was Jahangir's most prized possession now. Mehrunnisa pedaled her feet in the water, restless, longing for some movement, something the eunuchs could not see, something that the whole imperial zenana would not know by tomorrow.

This watching bothered her, tired her out, always wondering if she were doing the right thing. Jahangir never worried about the people around him -- he had grown up with them, understood they were necessary. He thought so little of them, that in his mind they were as divans or the cushions or the goblets of wine.

She turned away and cleared the parijat flowers from the stone edge of the pool with a wet hand. Then, picking up the flowers one by one, she laid them in a row. Then another row, petals turned inward toward her. This was the courtyard of the Diwan-i-am, the Hall of Public Audience. Here were the war elephants at the back, the commoners ahead of them, the merchants, the nobles, and in the very front, the throne where Jahangir sat. To the side, she put two more flowers, behind and to the right of the Emperor. Pulling off the petals of the parijat flowers, she laid the orange stems, edge to edge, around the last two flowers. This was the harem balcony at court, the stems were the marble lattice-worked screen which hid the imperial zenana. Unseen by the men below. Unheard by them.

Jahangir had just begun his daily routine of darbars, public audiences, meetings with courtiers. Mehrunnisa sat behind him in the zenana balcony, watching as the Emperor dealt with the day's business. Sometimes, she almost spoke out loud, when a thought occurred to her, when an idea came, then stopped, knowing that the screen put her in a different place. That it made her a woman. One without a voice, void of opinion.

But what if . . . she picked up one of the harem flowers and laid it in center court, in front of the throne. For many years, when she was married to Ali Quli, when Jahangir had been just a distant dream, Mehrunnisa had chafed against the restrictions on her life. She had wanted to be in the imperial balcony, not merely an onlooker, but a member of the imperial harem -- not just a lady-in-waiting, but an empress. She moved the flower back within the orange-stem confines of the balcony screen. It was not enough. Could she ask for more? But how much more, and how to ask for it? Would Jahangir give to her what she asked? Would he defy these unsaid rules that bounded her life as his empress, as his wife, as a woman?

Her hand trembling, she picked up the flower again and put it next to Jahangir. There they sat, two parijat flowers, fragrant with bloom, side by side on the imperial throne. Mehrunnisa laid her chin on the edge of the stone and closed her eyes. All her life she had wanted the life of a man, with the freedom to go where he wished, to do what he wanted, to say what came to his mind without worry for consequences. She had been a watcher in her own life, unable to change the direction it took. Until now . . .

With a gentle finger, she moved her flower back a little, just behind Jahangir, but still in open view of the court.

In an inner street, the night chowkidar called out the hour as he went by, his stick tapping on the ground, "Two o'clock and all is well." Mehrunnisa heard a muffled cough and saw a eunuch's hand move to cover his mouth. A small frown gathered on her forehead. In time, only she would be exempt from the prying eyes of the zenana servants and spies -- when she was the Padshah Begam, the chief lady of the realm. Empress Jagat Gosini held that title now.

She swam back to the platform through the warm water, and when she reached it, put her elbows on the marble and rested her head in her hands, looking at Jahangir. She traced a finger over his brow, then put it in her mouth, tasting his skin. He stirred.

"Can't you sleep?"

He woke like this always, not needing to shake off dreams. Once she had asked him why. And he replied that when she wanted him, he would give up sleep.

"It is too warm, your Majesty."

Jahangir smoothed her wet hair from her forehead, his hand lingering on the curve of her cheek. "Sometimes I cannot believe you are here with me." He looked intently at her face, then reached into the water for a leaf lamp. Holding it close to her, he said, "What is it?"

"Nothing. The heat. Nothing."

The Emperor laid the lamp back in the water, and pushed it on its way. Clasping her hand, he pulled her out of the pool. A eunuch slid into view, holding out silk towels. Mehrunnisa knelt at the edge of the platform, lifted her arms and allowed the Emperor to peel off the kurta she was wearing. He wiped the water from her body slowly, bending to inhale the musk scent of her skin. Then he dried her hair, rubbing the strands with a towel until it lay damp around her shoulders. He did all this with great deliberation. She waited obediently until he was finished, the warm night air on her shoulders, her waist, her legs.

"Come here." Jahangir pulled her onto his lap and she wrapped her legs around him. He framed her face with his hands, and pulled it close to his own. "It is never nothing with you, Mehrunnisa. What do you want? A necklace? A jagir?"

"I want them out of here."

"They are gone," he replied, knowing what she meant. Jahangir did not look back as one of his hands left her face to signal the eunuchs in dismissal, but Mehrunnisa clasped it and pulled it back.

"I want to do this, your Majesty."

"You have as much right as I do, my dear."

Still looking into his shadowed face, she raised her hand. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the eunuchs tense, hold still, then glance at each other. They had strict orders not to leave the Emperor's presence unless commanded by him . . . and only by him. No wife, no concubine, no mother had that power. But this wife, she was different. So they waited for a sign from Jahangir. But he did not move, did not nod his head in assent. A minute passed thus, then one of the eunuchs stepped out of line, bowed to the royal couple and shuffled out of the verandah. The others followed, hearts suddenly wild with fear -- afraid of obeying, yet more afraid of disobeying.

Mehrunnisa dropped her hand.

"They have gone, your Majesty," she said, wonder in her voice.

"When you command, Mehrunnisa," Jahangir said, "do so with authority. Never think you will be ignored, and you will not be ignored."

"Thank you."

The Emperor's teeth flashed. "If I were to thank you for all you have brought to me, I would be doing so for the rest of my life." His voice echoed near her ear. "What is it you want? Tell me or you will fret for it."

She was silent, not knowing how to ask, not really knowing what to ask for. She wanted to be more of a presence in his life, and not just here, within the walls of the zenana.

"I wish to . . " she said slowly, "I wish to come with you to the jharoka tomorrow."

Early on in his reign, Jahangir had instituted twelve rules of conduct for the empire. Among those rules were many he did not obey himself -- prohibiting consumption of alcohol was one. But these, he thought, would provide a framework for the empire, not for himself. He was above those rules. Wanting to be fair and equitable to his subjects, he imposed the ritual of the jharoka, something his father, Emperor Akbar had not done, something that was exclusively Jahangir's.

He called it thus -- a jharoka -- a glimpse, for it was to be, for the first time since the Mughal conquest of India around a hundred years ago, a personal viewing of the Emperor by any subject in the empire.

The jharoka was a special balcony, built into the outer bulwark of the Agra fort, where Jahangir gave audience to the people three times a day. In the early morning, with the rising of the sun, he presented himself at the balcony on the eastern side of the fort, at noon on the south side, and at five o'clock in the evening as the sun descended into the west sky, on the western side. Jahangir considered this his most important responsibility. It was here the commoners came to petition him, here he listened to their appeals, important or not. And in the balcony he stood alone, his ministers and the commoners below him. It cut away the pomp surrounding his crown, made him less of a figurehead on a faraway throne.

"But you do come to the jharoka with me, Mehrunnisa," Jahangir said. Something more was coming. He was wary, watchful now. For the past few weeks, Mehrunnisa stood behind the balcony arch, along with the eunuchs who guarded his back, listening, talking with him later about the petitions.

"I want to be with you in the balcony, standing in front of the nobles and commoners." She said this softly, but without hesitation. Ask with authority and she would not be ignored, he had said.

Clouds began to move across the skies, blanketing the stars. Lightening flashed behind them, branches of silver light blotted by gray. She sat in his arms, unclothed, covered only by her now-dry hair that tumbled over her shoulders down to her hips.

"It has never been done before," Jahangir said finally. And it had not. The women of his zenana, whatever their relationship to him, had always stayed behind the brick walls of the harem. They were heard outside, in the orders they gave through stewards and slaves and eunuchs, heard also when he did something they wanted. "Why do you want this?"

She asked a question in response. "Why not?"

The Emperor smiled. "I can see that you are going to cause trouble for me, Mehrunnisa. Look," he raised his eyes to the sky and she followed his gaze, "do you think rain will come?"

"If it does . . ." she paused. "If it does, can I come to the jharoka tomorrow?"

The clouds had now covered the skies above their heads. They looked like the others had, fat and thick with rain, sometimes pelting drops of water on the city of Agra. And then, some errant wind would come to carry them away, clearing the skies for the Sun God to ride his chariot again. Mehrunnisa was commanding the monsoon rains. She smiled to herself. And why not? First the eunuchs, now the night sky.

He said, "Close your eyes."

She did. With his eyes shut too, with her aroma to lead him, Jahangir bent to the curve of her neck. She wrapped her hair around them. She did not open her eyes, just felt the warmth of his breath, sensed him tasting a line of sweat that escaped from her hairline down her face to lodge itself against her shoulderblade, shivered as the rough of his fingertips scraped against the sides of her breasts. They did not speak again.

And afterwards, they slept.

Excerpted from The Feast of Roses by Indu Sundaresant. Copyright © 2003 by Indu Sundaresant. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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