From the internationally bestselling author of The Twentieth Wife, a novel based on the tumultuous history of a legendary 186-carat diamond—originating in India—and the men and women who possessed it.
As empires rose and fell and mighty kings jostled for power, its glittering radiance never dimmed. It is the “Mountain of Light”—the Kohinoor diamond—and its facets reflect a sweeping story of love, adventure, conquest, and betrayal. Its origins are the stuff of myth, but for centuries this spectacular gem changes hands from one ruler to another in India, Persia, and Afghanistan. In 1850, the ancient stone is sent halfway around the world where it will play a pivotal role in the intertwined destinies of a boy-king of India and a young queen of England—a queen who claims the Mountain of Light and India itself for her own burgeoning empire, the most brilliant jewels in her imperial crown.
The Mountain of Light is a magnificent story of loss and recovery, sweeping change and enduring truth, wrapped around the glowing heart of one of the world’s most famous diamonds.
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Indu Sundaresan was born in India and came to the US for graduate school at the University of Delaware. She is the author of The Twentieth Wife, The Feast of Roses, Splendor of Silence, In the Convent of Little Flowers, Shadow Princess, and The Mountain of Light.
Read an Excerpt
The Mountain of Light
The midday sun leaned over to place its fiery kiss upon the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, four and a half miles east of the fort and walled city. The blazing light wavered into a haze around the almond, guava, and mango trees, and except under the trees where it could not penetrate, all shadows leached into the blistering ground.
The Shalimar Gardens—the Abode of Pleasure—was a name taken by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan from the gardens his father had built in the valley of Kashmir. In the late 1630s, the Ravi River in Lahore flooded its banks. Angry waters swamped and carved out new geographical features, shifting vast quantities of mud from one place to another, leaving acclivities and declivities where none had existed before. One such slope in the land was born after this flood. So it was here Emperor Shah Jahan ordered the garden to be built in three terraces that descended from the south to the north.
At high noon on this day of June 1817, two young men tarried in the central platform of the pool in the middle terrace.
They were both bareheaded, their chests bare also. Each wore only a kispet—long, tight shorts of buffalo hide leather, which covered them from their waists down, the ends rucked up over their knees to facilitate ease of movement. The upper halves of their bodies, and their legs and feet, glistened with sesame oil, pungent and aromatic in the sear of the sun. Earlier in the morning—according to the rules of the game—they had smoothed the oil on each other. It was the first and last gesture of amity and goodwill.
For their referee, they had corralled an old gardener lounging in the deep shade of the nearby tamarind tree, a hand-rolled beedi wrapped in his fist, smoke coiling out from between his fingers.
“Him?” Ibrahim Khan had asked, thick eyebrows elevated in disbelief.
His sovereign had shrugged, lifting massive, muscled shoulders. “As good as anyone else, Ibrahim. We know the rules ourselves. The only other man around is Zaman, and he’s useless, as you know. Should I have to call upon one of the flowers in my zenana instead?”
Ibrahim grinned. “With respect, your Majesty, the women of your harem will only support you. And they’re likely to squeal or curse in horror when I defeat you. Calling on them is not conducive to an even playing field.”
A small smile flitted across Shah Shuja’s face. And when it did, it lightened his features, brought a sparkle to his gray eyes, erased the embedded lines of worry on his forehead. Made him, so Ibrahim thought, more like the deeply powerful man he had known all of his life.
A tiny spear of ache stabbed Ibrahim’s heart. They were far removed from what they had once been. Shuja had been born of a king—Shah Timur Durrani—whose father had established the Afghan Empire in the name of the Durrani dynasty. Timur had had many sons, of many wives, as was the established custom of the time. There was no law of primogeniture—the eldest son did not automatically inherit the throne. Nor was he gifted with quiescent brothers willing to live out their lives as governors of districts or provinces. At Timur’s death, the throne had changed hands four times, one son or the other claiming it for his own for a brief while, driven from it when another had amassed enough of a threatening army. And so Shuja had lost his kingdom to his half brother Shah Mahmud.
Shah Shuja put a hand on Ibrahim’s shoulder. “First, you will not defeat me. How is that even possible?” When the younger man opened his mouth to protest, he stilled the words with a wave. “It’s true. I might be a little older, Ibrahim, and that only means I’ve been wrestling longer than you have. And second, my wives dote upon you. Although”—and he grinned again, a wicked gleam in his eye—“you will not win, they will minister to your injuries with enough of a fuss to make you happy.”
Ibrahim bowed his head. “We’ll see, your Majesty.”
Every now and then, Shuja and Ibrahim indulged themselves in the games and play of their childhood. There was so little else for them to do at Lahore in the Shalimar Gardens, a place where they had spent the last three years as “guests” of the wily Maharajah Ranjit Singh. This wrestling match was one such, conjured up late the night before, when the last cup of wine had been drunk, when the moon had skated downward into the dark sky, when the nautch girls had slunk away, and they had both been lying on their divans, twitchy with pent-up energy. What to do on the morrow? How to spend their time? Each day was like the others, the same views, the same fountains, the same watch upon the sun and the moon—to mark interminable time—gliding over that limited arc of sky above the gardens.
The gardener had still been there last night, ensconced in a hollow in the trunk of the tamarind when they had both sprung up, vigorous, shouting for him to come to them.
He was a small, old man, his face carved in deep wrinkles that spanned out around his inscrutable eyes and curved in two semicircles from his nose to his mouth. His skin was a deep, clayey brown. His lower lip was crushed inward—he had no bottom teeth—and when he spoke, it was with slow, measured words that echoed out of the cavern of that mouth. Shuja had tried Persian first. “Do you know the rules of wrestling, my friend?”
He had stared at them, his chin swaying loosely in the lower half of his face. So Ibrahim had spoken to him in Urdu. Again, nothing. “Try Pashto,” Shuja had said in an undertone in that language. No luck there either. Why would he know an Afghani tongue, similar as it was to Persian, which he was more likely to understand? “Where does he come from?” Shah Shuja had said, exasperated. Ibrahim Khan had tried Hindustani last, having exhausted the little bit of Arabic he knew. And then, the old man’s mobile mouth had deepened into his face. “Ji, Sahib,” he’d said. And so, pulling words out of their hybrid vocabulary, they had explained that they needed him at the Shalimar Gardens at noon, to referee their wrestling match. They had taught him how to start the match, how to stop it at an illegal hold, how to impose a penalty, how to restart it.
And now they stood at either end of the marble platform in the center of the pool in the middle terrace of the gardens, arms hanging loosely by their thighs. Aware, out of the corners of their eyes, of the old man under the tamarind.
Shuja saw his hand move, and shifted quickly upon his toes. The old man put his fingers into his mouth and let out a tart, prolonged whistle. Shuja veered in surprise—this was not how he was supposed to start the match. In that brief moment of distraction, he heard Ibrahim’s feet smack on the heated marble floor before he flung himself on his king. Shuja fell backward, rocked off his balance. He felt his feet slipping, strained against Ibrahim, until they were locked in an embrace.
Their breaths escaped in harsh puffs. Ibrahim was smaller than Shah Shuja, shorter by a head’s length, and he used that advantage to tuck his forehead under Shuja’s arm and crush his ribs. They spun around the marble platform, holding desperately on to each other.
All of a sudden, Ibrahim’s clutch slackened, and his arm snaked from Shuja’s back to around his right thigh. He heaved. Shuja came crashing down upon his back. As Ibrahim straightened to straddle him, Shuja kicked out with his leg. Ibrahim flew into the air, briefly, before smashing to the floor himself.
When Shuja sprang upon him, Ibrahim rolled away and bounded up. They were already sweating when they started the match, but now moisture poured down from the thick hair on their heads and their beards. Shuja grappled with the slick skin on Ibrahim’s legs—he had shaved his chest and legs that morning, so that Shuja would have no hair to hold on to—and finally wedged his fingers into the waistband of Ibrahim’s kispet. Yanked him down.
Ibrahim yelled, “That’s an illegal hold, referee!”
The old man, massaging his face in bemusement, whistled again. In the thick silence of the courtyard, the sound boomed. A flock of parrots in the tamarind rose in a protesting flurry of green feathers and red beaks and disappeared into the pale sky.
Shuja and Ibrahim hurled out of the hold and went to opposite ends of the platform. Their chests heaved; their stomachs caved inward and out as they drew breath into their tired lungs, outlining their ribs and their hip bones. Agony flared in Shuja’s lower back. There was a shock of burning along his right forearm, which he had put out to take the brunt of the fall. Ibrahim stood at his corner, wiping the sweat from his eyes, smiling.
Smiling? Maybe there was some truth to the fact that he was younger and so stronger, Shuja thought. Although neither was really that old; Shah Shuja was thirty-two, Ibrahim twenty-nine.
They had not talked since the first whistle; no gibes, no trash, no filling the opponent’s ear—and so his brain—with debilitating words. This was one of the rules of the game. It had to be played, and fought, in complete silence, with only muscle and brawn determining the winner. But the rules said nothing about facial expressions. An intimidating glare, a supercilious grin—like the one Ibrahim wore on his face—these were unaccountable quantities. Shah Shuja’s breathing quieted, he felt his body come to rest again. He flexed the muscles in his arms. A sliver of iron lodged itself in his spine.
When the two minutes had passed, the old man, keeping count of the seconds by beating his crooked foot upon the ground and raising puffs of red mud, whistled again.
Shuja hurtled across and barreled into Ibrahim’s chest. The force of the movement carried them over the knee-high marble lattice railing of the platform and out into the shallow pool. It was only luck that allowed them both to land upon the flat of the pool’s surface and not on one of the lotus-bud-shaped fountains that speared upward.
The pool was littered with these fountains—a hundred and fifty-two in all—each spewing droplets of water that created a thousand rainbows in the sun. Here, the light was fractured, dazzle-bright. Shah Shuja shut his eyes and grappled, following only the sound of Ibrahim’s breath and his groans. At one point, Ibrahim held his king’s head under the water, only six inches deep at any place, but enough to suffocate. Shuja reached out blindly with a long arm to seize his throat, squeezed his fingers tight, until Ibrahim let go and he could heave up to gulp in some air.
Almost desultorily, the old man whistled again. He was learning, Shuja thought, as he climbed wearily back onto the platform and shuffled to his corner. The pool had a pebbled base, strewn with chunks of semiprecious stones—jasper, agate, carnelian—which created a glitter of colors under the water, and which had left deep gouges on their backs and chests and arms, streaked now with blood.
Two minutes was all they got again until the old man whistled and they met at the center of the platform. The sun had burned off the water and some of the oil; their holds were more secure. As his body spiraled into a bottomless exhaustion, Shah Shuja’s brain snapped alive.
The hours passed. The sun slipped westward. On the pavilion of the upper terrace—the Aiwan—a lone woman came to stand under the arches and looked down upon the two men struggling on the platform, arms fastened around each other, eyes shut against the sweat that streamed down their faces.
Wafa Begam had been married to Shah Shuja for seventeen years. The first of his wives, she was the person he knew best. His mother had been in a harem, and as a boy, he was taken from it early, put into the men’s quarters. There had been no actual friendship with other members of his family. Always lurking behind his half brothers was the silhouette of their father’s crown, impossible to ignore. Shuja loved Ibrahim, but it was a friendship in the outside world.
When he was fifteen, his marriage was arranged with Wafa, also fifteen that year. And all of a sudden, he had found the comfort of home in the arms of this thin girl. Here, within the walls of his harem apartments, the young Shuja had confided in her his fears, his determination, his ambitions—and she had never laughed at them, never considered them impractical. Shuja’s brother Shah Zaman ascended the throne of Afghanistan first, and then Shah Mahmud tore it away from him, throwing Zaman into prison, blinding him in both eyes with a piece of hot wire. And so Shuja built up his own army to overthrow Mahmud, ruled for nine years himself . . . and in 1809, when he moved his court from Kabul to Peshawar, Mahmud sneaked up and grabbed Kabul and then marched on to Peshawar.
Wafa moved her slender hands restlessly in front of her, entangling her fingers in a veil which came over her head to her waist. To stay on in Peshawar, with Mahmud’s army battering at the door, would have been death for all of them. The only option was to flee, to retreat, to find shelter elsewhere, to regroup and come back for Afghanistan. Shuja had woken her in the middle of the night and hurried her, along with the other women of his harem, to waiting horses and palanquins. “Go safely, my dear,” he had said. At that last moment, when her hand reached out to him, when she swung her head through the gap in the curtains for one more look at her husband—not knowing if she would ever see him alive again—he pressed a packet into her hand and closed her fingers over it. “This will buy my life someday. Or”—his steady gaze met hers—“if I die, it will make you rich.”
When Wafa unwrapped the satin cloth four days into their journey to the lands of the Punjab and Maharajah Ranjit Singh, she saw the armlet of heavy gold Shuja wore upon his person every day. The central diamond was mammoth, built with fire and light, flanked by two smaller diamonds. Shah Shuja had given her—the wife of his heart, the only woman he trusted—the Kohinoor diamond.
Wafa watched awhile, as one man and then the other pushed and jostled, as they fell with loud thuds upon the floor, as they broke the rules by snatching at beards or hair, as Shuja cried out when one of his fingers was caught in the railing of the platform and snapped with an audible crack. She flinched at that sound, but didn’t move as they dragged themselves apart to rest. Her nose quivered and then wrinkled at the old man and his whistling. Wafa’s veil, of a pure silk the color of newly opened pink roses at dawn scattered with dew, lay around her lean shoulders. Underneath she wore a short choli, a bodice that covered her breasts and was held together on her back with two strings; her waist was bare, and she had on pink silk trousers, tight on her hips, billowing around her thighs, caught up around the ankles. This was Wafa Begam’s concession to living in India, adopting a part of the dress that kept her cool in the Lahore summers, and keeping the trousers that she wore normally in Afghanistan.
She shifted against one of the pillars of the Aiwan, resting her shoulder on it, her arms clasped around her waist. Her gaze drifted over the middle terrace to the old man at one side of the pool. He was squatting in the manner of a peasant, and a minute breeze brought the acrid tang of smoke from the smoldering beedi held in his hand. He turned, suddenly, to look at her. She stayed where she was. Not caring that her face was uncovered, not bothering to pull the veil over her eyes. What did it matter? The old gardener had never ascended to the upper terrace and the Aiwan, where she stood, because it was the most private part of the Shalimar Gardens, one marked out for the use of Shah Shuja’s zenana. Such an old man could hardly have his blood boil at the sight of a woman from another man’s harem . . . or be capable of doing anything about it. He was nothing. Just another servant from Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s court, sent here to serve them.
She lifted her chin, looked pointedly away toward her husband and Ibrahim. There was dried, caked blood on their arms and chests. They moved slower and slower, doggedly, like two animals engaged in a mortal combat.
“Your Majesty, you must eat,” a slave said behind her.
Wafa sighed. There was no point waiting for the men. There were rules in the wrestling match for penalties and illegalities, and even when and how the match started, but no rules for the ending. A few years ago, while Shah Shuja had still been the ruler of Afghanistan, he had wrestled with another man for eight hours—some matches had gone on for two days, or three, until one of the opponents had dropped dead in the dirt.
She put her fingertips to her mouth, kissed them, and then upended her palm and blew the kiss across the scorching air to her husband. Shuja reared his head, as though he had felt the touch of her lips upon him, and charged into Ibrahim with renewed vigor. Please Allah, she thought, as she walked away to the shamiana set at one end of the upper terrace where the slaves had laid out the food, let them not kill each other. Perhaps they wouldn’t kill each other in any case; Shuja loved Ibrahim with the devotion of a brother, and Ibrahim could not live with himself if he caused any harm to Shuja. For a deposed king, there was no better friend than such a one as Ibrahim. She was worried, but only mildly, because she knew that the past three years of confinement—the past three years as Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s “guest”—had fretted Shuja beyond measure. He needed to do something. Anything. He needed to return to Afghanistan as a king. But Maharajah Ranjit Singh would not let them go until they gave him the Kohinoor diamond.
Wafa Begam ate her food, bending over her plate, licking her fingers clean delicately, listening to the snorts and rumbles that floated upward to the zenana terrace, her demeanor cool. She could have been feasting at a festival while still Queen of Afghanistan, so calm was she. But then, she was also the woman who had kept the Kohinoor safe from the greedy Ranjit Singh and not let him have it for all the long years he had held her—and her husband—in captivity.
• • •
In the end, the match lasted only until the sun set, at six o’clock. And then, only because the heated sun fell gratefully into the arms of the cool earth, and darkness pounced upon Lahore. There was no twilight to speak of, no smudging of the sun’s golden rays into pale blues and blacks, this close to the center of the earth. Shuja’s whole arm was aflame; in one rest period he had ripped a strip of cloth from the knee of his kispet and wrapped it around the broken index finger of his left hand, binding only two fingers together so that he could have the rest to hold on to Ibrahim. But it hadn’t helped. The hurt had crept up his arm and sent tentacles of torture over his shoulder and neck.
Ibrahim hadn’t fared any better. He had cuts and gashes all over his back and his chest, blood encrusted in some spots, fresh in others, where Shuja’s nails had ripped through the wounds. He was also limping from having twisted his ankle sometime during that afternoon.
An hour before sunset, the slaves would normally light all the oil lamps, the diyas made of terra-cotta, the size of small and shallow cups. Some were in niches under the waterfalls that brought water down from one terrace to the other along the central pool, some along the pathways on either side of the pool, some under the trees, some in them, hung in little woven baskets of jute and silk thread. When darkness came, the whole of the gardens would live again in pinpoints of light picked out here and there like a glittering sprinkle of diamonds, mirroring the stars in the night sky above.
Shuja shouted out, “Light the lamps!” He was still shoving against Ibrahim, using force from the right side of his body—his left arm lay almost useless. Ibrahim’s hair, rank with sweat, was rammed into his chest, just under his nose. But Shuja did not smell him, because he stank as much as Ibrahim did, and in any case, it was difficult to distinguish what he was smelling—blood, sweat, heated oil, the spray of water. His eyes burned and had turned red. His sight was blurred. It was time to stop the match—they were both out of shape after years of sloth and imprisonment. But Shah Shuja, the erstwhile ruler of Afghanistan, was a stubborn, tenacious man, or he would not have held that title of king, nor—as he was determined—would he become king again by giving up anything so easily.
Ibrahim, on the other hand, was simply obstinate. He was more exhausted than he cared to acknowledge. They had missed their afternoon meal and their cup of chai in the evening, and he craved both. His body seemed beaten into hollowness.
“Light the lamps now!” Shuja roared. Ibrahim cringed as his master’s voice exploded over his eardrums, but he did not let go. His head, slick with perspiration, moved here and there on Shuja’s chest, seeking a hold, so that the grip of his fingers could be more secure. The cuts and bruises on his skin stung as sweat rolled over and into them.
In the echoing silence after Shuja’s last demand, a voice, tranquil and musical, called out from above their heads. “Enough, my lord.”
Shuja raised his head in the gloom, his eyes seeking the direction of his wife’s voice. Ibrahim Khan shifted, and Shuja’s attention, honed to a fine edge, came crashing back on his opponent. He sensed, even in that brief moment, that Ibrahim’s concentration had wavered, that the younger man had lost some of his grit, that Wafa’s voice had recalled to him the pleasure of a silken divan with overstuffed cushions, of a woman’s soft touch, of comfort and ease. That he had been distracted and that his will to kill, to win, to defeat, had been shaken.
In that second of slackness, Shah Shuja propelled Ibrahim to the very edge of the platform and slammed him against the railing. When Ibrahim fell onto the floor, Shuja scrambled in the dark and heaved himself over him, forcing his back flat on the marble slabs. He straddled Ibrahim and said, triumphant and shaking from the effort, “Enough, Ibrahim?”
“I give up, your Majesty.” Ibrahim’s voice was trembling and thin.
In the Aiwan pavilion above, Wafa Begam reached behind her and uncovered an oil lantern. She held it high up above her head, and the honeyed light spilled over her arms and her face, and below, over the waters of the pool with its now silent fountains, and the two men on the platform in the middle of the pool, their heads drooping with fatigue, their chins collapsed into their chests.
“Come to the zenana, your Majesty,” she called out. “Ibrahim, you come also,” and when he wearily shook his head, she said, “Don’t be silly, you need care also. And, this won’t be the first time you’ve come into the harem quarters.”
To Shuja, Ibrahim Khan was more kin than his actual half brothers. They did not have the same father, but they had the same mother, or rather they had both drunk the milk of the same mother. And that tied them together in a bond that nothing else could. As with all royal families, Shuja’s first taste of nourishment had come from a wet nurse’s plump breast, not that of the woman who had given birth to him. Three years later, the wet nurse had given birth to another boy—Ibrahim. It would have been natural for Shuja to have chosen the child his foster mother had had just before he was born as his playmate. Instead, at three, still being fed by his foster mother, he had stood at her knee as the newborn baby wrapped his tiny palm around Shuja’s little finger and held on with a might that had surprised him. Ibrahim had then trailed Shuja through his own apartments and gifted to him the devotion none of his own half brothers had.
When Shuja had crushed Mahmud to become king, it was Ibrahim who had led his armies and who had kept the crown safe for Shuja. When Mahmud had yet again come roaring back to take Afghan lands, Shuja had sent his harem to the Punjab under Ibrahim’s care . . . because there was no other man he could trust with his most precious possession, more precious to him than the kingdom, the wealth of that kingdom, or even the Kohinoor diamond. Ibrahim had had entry into Shah Shuja’s zenana from the time Wafa Begam stepped into it. He was to the women as much their brother as he was their husband’s.
And so Wafa had them both brought by the stairs that led up on either side of the Aiwan into the upper terrace, and there, under the cloak of the starlit sky, she bathed their wounds, applied poultices, watched over them as they slept, mumbling, restless, and in pain, twisting the silk sheets around their limbs. As the night wore on, she plied the peacock feather fan herself, laid a cool hand on their fiery brows, sang little songs in the dark to soothe their fevered dreams.
• • •
They had all forgotten about the old man. When the night came to claim the skies, and Wafa Begam led her husband and his foster brother away, he backed down the long central pathway that flanked the pool to the lower terrace. There, he slid down the ramp, cut across the quadrangle of skillfully trimmed lawns, and let himself out of the West Gate. The guards inside, five of them, standing shoulder to shoulder across the archway, stiffened to attention when they saw his slow, shambling figure approach.
One raised his spear and pointed the end at the old man’s concave stomach, its honed tip drawing a thin splinter of blood on the skin.
The man’s head snapped up. His back straightened, the muscles in his back and his legs seemed to take on new life, became plump and rigid. His eyes, which had been wandering and watery, glittered in the light of the lamps in the archway’s niches.
When he spoke, his voice was sturdy, nothing like the rambling drawl he had affected in the middle terrace while in Shuja’s and Ibrahim’s presence. “You dare to draw my blood?”
The guard’s hand shook. The old man wrapped a finger around the base of the spear’s blade and nudged it away.
The outer door opened, and a captain in Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s army poked his head in. “Retreat, you fools!” he said quietly. When the guards fell out of formation, he came in through the gap, his hands folded across his waist. “I beg pardon, huzoor. They are new, know nothing about who you are.”
The old man bent his head and contemplated the line of blood on his stomach. It was nothing, a mere scratch. He mopped it away and then wiped his hand on the folds of his dirty dhoti. “I appreciate,” he said, “the enthusiasm of these young men. It is vital that they question every person who enters and leaves the Shalimar. No harm done.”
The captain bowed, the guards bowed, and the old man slipped out of the West Gate. Neither of them knew who he was, or why he had access to the Shalimar Gardens, where the Maharajah held Shah Shuja captive, only that he was someone of importance, a man it would be wise not to cross. The captain very much wanted to ask if the man would forget this little incident and not mention it to his king . . . but he did not know how to do this.
The old man strode across the expanse of beaten mud outside the West Gate to the group of horsemen waiting at the far end. One of them brought a frolicking black horse to him, and running, he put one foot in a stirrup and heaved himself over its back. Even before he had settled in the saddle, he kicked his heels into its flanks. The entire party vanished in a froth of dust west toward the fort at Lahore, the lights from their torches smearing through the darkness and then fading away.
As he rode, Fakir Azizuddin felt around the waistline of his dhoti and undid a small bundle. The set of lower teeth, of the purest ivory, fashioned by the Maharajah’s personal physician, Martin Honigberger, he popped into his mouth and maneuvered his tongue around until they lodged into place. As he did so, his lower lip filled out, the slope of his mouth became less awkward, his jawline firmed, and the years tumbled from his face. Azizuddin, foreign minister in Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s court, was as old as his king that year—thirty-seven.
He had lost his teeth when a gang of the Akalis had swooped upon him in the middle of the night in Lahore, as he was returning home from an audience with his sovereign. This was before Ranjit Singh had subdued these most unlawful and marauding of warriors and made the Akalis part of his entourage and members of his personal bodyguards.
Azizuddin’s massacre of the four men who had jumped upon him in an unlit alleyway had been instrumental in bringing about this submission. The first fist into his face had knocked out his teeth. With a hanging chin, blood streaming down his neck and drenching his clothes, Azizuddin had spun around in the darkness, his quick eye noting the positions of his assailants, his ears attuned to their breathing. A quoit, the Akali’s most powerful weapon, a slender circle of sharpened steel, had come whizzing through the air. Azizuddin had ducked and sent his dagger flying in the direction of the thrower. He had had only a sword left, and with it, deliberately, he’d slashed through each of the three men and left them cut up on the ground. The next morning, with a white, blood-mottled bandage securing his jaw to the upper half of his face, Azizuddin had listened as the Akali leader came to ask for a pardon. “Granted,” Azizuddin had said simply, “if you lay your arms down to my sovereign.”
Every now and then, minor rebellions among the Akalis flared up, were quickly squashed, the rebels killed on the spot with no trial, no thought—this was justice they understood and bowed to.
Indeed, Azizuddin thought, leaning forward in his saddle, the rush of the wind in his ears, his skin cooling after the day spent in the heated embrace of the sun, it was the Akalis who formed, now, part of his bodyguard also. As the men created a tight circle around him, matching the pace of his horse, the light from the torches glanced off their quoits, which they insisted on wearing around their necks. The inner ring of the quoit was all dulled steel, easy to grasp, and if this touched their necks it was no danger at all. When an enemy threatened, the Akali pulled it over his head without mussing his turban or his hair and flung it in one movement—in less than two seconds.
Azizuddin had no personal vanity at all, so the loss of his teeth didn’t bother him. Only women ought to think of how they looked, how they smelled, whether their conversation was pleasing and pleasant. For many years, Azizuddin had served his master with a shattered jaw until he quite got used to speaking out of the side of his mouth. And then, a physician from Transylvania, Honigberger, had come to the Maharajah’s court at Lahore. He was one of the many foreigners who had honed in on Ranjit Singh, having heard of his generous pay and his openness to odd men who could not make their way elsewhere. Honigberger had cured the king’s headaches with a pink powder, something none of the other hakims at court had been able to do, and so he’d toppled them to take their position. One day he’d said, in his diffident, half-finished Persian, to Azizuddin that he could make him new teeth that would fit as well as his old. Out of a pale wood? No, ivory—it would never break and he could chew on the toughest meats in the kingdom and make a mince of them in no time. And so, Azizuddin had gotten his teeth. They had wiped years off his face, and he took the teeth out when he wanted to opt for a disguise.
The streets of Lahore were clotted with the bluish gray smoke of cooking fires, making it hard to see, but a sure sense of direction led the horsemen through one alley and then another. Dogs barked at their passing, children squealed; at one point an urchin skipped across their path, his hair flying, just missing being clipped by Azizuddin’s horse’s hooves. The city fell away behind them as they approached the Masti Darwaza, the easternmost entry into Lahore Fort.
Here, the reception was kinder to Fakir Azizuddin. His Akalis drew in their horses as the giant, metal-studded doors swung open, and he raced through the gateway. Before he could look back, the doors had swung shut. Azizuddin slowed his horse to a canter, rode across the courtyard of the Diwan-i-am, the Hall of Public Audience, and to the westernmost end. Here, he jumped down from the saddle and lobbed the reins to the waiting syces. He then turned right and north and went along a corridor to the northwesternmost corner of the fort, which housed the Shah Burj and the Naulakha buildings, both of which opened out into a square, red-sandstone-paved courtyard.
Just like the Shalimar Gardens, this fort had been built, some two hundred years ago, by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Now, the Mughal Empire had fallen to pieces, shrunken its boundaries to just the city of Delhi. And all the splendor of Lahore—the fort, the city, the gardens—belonged to Azizuddin’s king, Ranjit Singh, who was ruler of the Punjab Empire.
Fakir Azizuddin padded on light feet through the courtyard, past the fountain, and up the steps into the Sheesh Mahal, the northernmost part of the Shah Burj. Here, lamps were lit in every niche, and true to its name, the Sheesh Mahal—the Palace of Mirrors—glittered and hurled light back into every corner from its mirrored walls. Azizuddin passed into the riverside apartments and looked down and out toward the Ravi River. The Maharajah was a lone figure on a horse in the maidan, the expanse of mud that crept from the walls of the fort to the banks of the river. Azizuddin stood watching until Ranjit Singh glanced up at him and raised his hand.
In the quiet of the night, the Maharajah’s voice came clear and strong. “Come down, Azizuddin, you have news?”
“Yes, your Majesty,” Azizuddin shouted. Then, he turned and ran back out to the Hall of Public Audience and, from there, through the western gate and around the walls of the fort, through the scrub to where his king waited for him.
• • •
The Shalimar Gardens were laid out in an elongated rectangle, south to north. There were three terraces—the highest one on the southern end, ten feet above the middle terrace, which was also ten feet above the lower terrace. This demarcation in height created the public and private spaces in the gardens. The upper terrace, which housed the pavilion of the Aiwan on its southernmost end, was for the women of the harem. The middle terrace, in the center of whose pool Shuja and Ibrahim had wrestled, was the semiprivate courtyard—here, again, while in residence, the Mughal emperors had met with the grandees of the Empire, or held amusements in the form of musical nights under the stars, and the orchestra would sit on the platform in the center of the pool, the Emperor himself on a marble throne which jutted out into the pool. The lower terrace was essentially the Hall of Public Audience. It had gateways leading into it from the northern, eastern, and western walls—the last of which Fakir Azizuddin had left through to go to Lahore Fort.
A long channel cut through the gardens in the middle from the south to the north, and thus had Emperor Shah Jahan brought his water feature into every terrace. Where the water descended from one terrace to the next, there were miniature cascades over marble walls littered with niches in which to light lamps on dark nights, and the water then flowed into the central pool in each terrace, and on its way down through the channel.
Wafa Begam had taken her husband and Ibrahim into the upper terrace to sleep. Their beds were made under the stars, close to the pool in the center. A few coal braziers were set around the quadrangle formed by the water channels. Dried neem leaves curled and charred in the fire of the braziers, sending pungent clouds of smoke into the air to keep away mosquitoes and insects.
A lamp, its flame shaded by glass and a wooden cap, squatted by her side. Wafa leaned against Shuja’s bed, seated on the marble floor, and ate her evening meal. Every now and then, she tilted the plate toward the light so as to better see what she was eating, but it all looked the same. A mass of curry, the naan soggy in the gravy, the vegetables wilted in the heat, the taste unmemorable. Still, she ate it, licked her fingers, and wiped her plate clean. Then, she rose to wash her hands in the cool waters of the pool and came back to kneel by her sleeping husband’s bed. She rested her elbows on the edge of the cot, her hands clasped under her chin, and watched the rise and fall of breath in his chest.
When he stirred, uneasy, she laid her face against his arm and waited for his breathing to even again. She stayed like that for a long while. Across the courtyard was Ibrahim’s bed, which he had insisted on dragging to the far end. He lay on his side, faced away, trying to put as much physical distance as he could between them and him, still fretting about being in the courtyard of Shah Shuja’s zenana.
Wafa placed a gentle kiss on Shuja’s forehead and then took the lantern with her to the water channel and sat down on the sun-warmed stone. She undid the long row of diamond buttons that held her pajamas around her ankles, folded up the cloth around her shins, and put her feet in the tepid, swirling water. The servants had all retired for the night—or rather, she had sent them away, but she still looked long and hard around the courtyard, stopping at the shadows on the walls to see if they moved, listening above the noise of the water for sounds that were unnatural, man-made. Nothing. She reached into the bodice of her blouse and took out a sweat-smeared, crumpled piece of paper, which she held up to the lamplight.
It was another letter from Maharajah Ranjit Singh. It had pretty beginnings, a flowery middle, a complimentary end, but in essence it was—as so many others had been—a demand for the Kohinoor diamond.
She had promised it to the Maharajah herself, with her own mouth, so the letter said. And it was true, Wafa thought, chewing on her lower lip. Shuja had asked her to buy his freedom with the Kohinoor, and when Wafa first came to the Punjab, five years ago, she had figuratively dangled the diamond in front of Ranjit Singh. And he, ravenous, had wanted it. But, she had said, drawing it away from his avaricious grasp, she would be honored to gift the Kohinoor to the Maharajah, if only . . . she were happy enough to do so. With her husband languishing in jail in Kashmir, such joy was beyond her now.
When Wafa came to the Punjab, Shuja himself had fled east from Peshawar to Kashmir, which was also, then, part of Afghanistan. Here, he had hoped to gather an army and push back at his brother Mahmud, west into Peshawar again and then into Kabul. Instead, the wily governor of Kashmir—who had long chafed against Afghan rule—had thrown Shuja into prison and declared himself independent of Afghanistan.
Where is the Kohinoor diamond? Ranjit Singh had asked. Wafa, who had the diamond tucked into the sleeve of her blouse, had said that it was with her husband, in his prison cell, and only freeing him would free the diamond.
So Maharajah Ranjit Singh had sent an army thundering into Kashmir, annexed it to his Punjab Empire, and brought Shah Shuja to Lahore to reunite him with his wife. Shuja and his belongings were extensively searched during that journey to Lahore, and no Kohinoor came to light. This was when the Maharajah had realized the trick that had been played on him—but, no matter, a grateful Wafa, content in her husband’s arms, would soon give him the diamond.
For good measure, while his armies were up north, Ranjit Singh had conquered and annexed Peshawar also and sent Shah Mahmud back to a whittled Afghanistan that contained now only the lands around Kabul.
The light from the lantern dimmed, the glass encrusted with a swarm of moths that lit upon it and dashed away. The cicadas, which had begun their sharp chirping when the sun set, had increased their sounds. It was to this lullaby that Wafa slept, if she slept at all. She put down the letter and flicked a finger against the lantern, dislodging the moths for a few, brief seconds.
For all the loveliness, quiet, and repose in the Shalimar, this was merely a luxurious prison. Guards were stationed outside its perimeter. Nothing was allowed in without being inspected. Every servant was in the employ of the Maharajah.
The night air cooled suddenly, and Wafa, born and brought up among the snow-clad mountains of Afghanistan, shivered in this little bit of chill. She lay back on the pathway and looked up at the skies. Ranjit Singh had been very patient with them for five years—two when she had been here in Lahore, and these past three more since Shuja had been rescued from Kashmir and brought to her. Wafa spread her fingers out over the stone. The Maharajah could have killed them at any time and no one would have said nay. It was . . . almost his right, as their jailer, to do so. She had no illusions about Ranjit’s generosity—the Kohinoor stayed his hand. If they died without telling him where it was, chances were that he would never find it, or that some minion would, and he would never possess it. So they kept their lives, because their hearts were tethered by a thin line of light to the diamond. A tiny fragment of light.
In the meantime, when the Maharajah was out of sorts, edgy, stopped their supplies of food or water, or sent them testy messages, Wafa had persuaded Shah Shuja to give up their other treasures. And so, they had sent him smaller gemstones—diamonds, rubies, topazes; a gold- and jewel-encrusted hukkah; and finally, the entire state pavilion, a tent of the finest wool, embroidery in gold and silver thread on every inch of the fabric, a silver chair upon which Shuja had held court.
Wafa Begam rose from the pathway and walked up and down, leaving wet footprints on the sandstone that seemed to dry almost as soon as she made them. She glanced at her husband, and then at Ibrahim. As much as Ranjit Singh kept them alive for the sake of the Kohinoor, once he had it, their lives would be worth less than nothing. Something had to be done. What? Who would help them now? Whom could they turn to?
Her head jerked up when a thin whistle fractured the cacophony of the cicadas. The tune was familiar, one she had heard many years ago. A horse snorted outside the garden’s walls. Wafa ran to the sound. The thick brick walls rose above her, faced with two rows of blind arches, rosebud merlons on the top. It was hard to see anything. And then, she heard a whoosh through the air, and a rock came tumbling over the edge of the wall, fell onto the grass with a small thud.
Wafa waited, her heart pounding in her chest. What was this? An attack? She nudged the rock with her foot. A brown paper was tied around it with a string. She ran back to the lamp with the rock, undid the knot, and spread out the paper on the pathway. The letter that had thus crudely come into the garden was in a rough Persian.
When she looked up again, her eyes were shining and all worry had fled. Wafa went to Shuja’s bed and woke him with a kiss upon his forehead.
“Is it morning yet?” he asked.
“It might well be for us, my lord,” she said, holding out the letter to him.
• • •
Fakir Azizuddin pounded across the dry dirt of the maidan and came to a halt a few feet away from his king. The fort’s walls loomed behind them, and golden light spilled out in a shifting pattern from the Shah Burj, from where Azizuddin had been commanded down.
Ranjit Singh’s horse, Leili, snickered and bent her lovely head to nuzzle against Azizuddin’s shoulder. He felt the touch of her wet, warm muzzle on his neck and patted Leili absently. She sniffed and drew back, shaking her head this way and that as the Maharajah let go of his reins and said with a laugh, “You haven’t paid her enough attention, Azizuddin. She’s upset with you. I suppose you have nothing to give her in that getup of yours?” When the minister shook his head, Ranjit slid his hand into the pouch hanging from his cummerbund and threw chunks of brown sugar—jaggery—to him.
Azizuddin caught each piece deftly, his fingers nipping at the air, and held out an open palm to the horse. Leili’s rough tongue scraped the jaggery off his skin, and then she touched his head with hers.
The Maharajah of the Punjab rubbed Leili’s arched neck with his thick hands, gentle as though he held a child. He bent to whisper in her ear, to pat her flanks, and Azizuddin felt a flood of adoration choke his chest. It was like this no matter how many times he was in his sovereign’s presence, and as Ranjit Singh’s foreign minister, one of the few men he trusted implicitly, Azizuddin met with and saw him almost every day. Unless he was away from Lahore on the Maharajah’s business.
Azizuddin had known Ranjit since 1799, the year the nineteen-year-old boy had conquered Lahore. Azizuddin’s father had been a scholar in the city—their family had long ties to its history, and had served every ruler. For the first few days of his rule, Ranjit had kept the father by his side, and one day had been asked for and granted permission to bring the sons to the king. Azizuddin could still remember that first meeting, clear as though it had been carved into his brain.
Ranjit Singh had not been—and still wasn’t—a handsome man. Almost unprepossessing in fact. Short of stature, compact with thick-muscled legs and shoulders, a solid head crowned by a turban, his clothing so nondescript that he could have been a man on the street. No jewelry, no embroidery. Just a chunky dagger slipped into his cummerbund, its hilt caked with diamonds.
This was their new king, Azizuddin had thought with wonder. This child—no, that he had amended in his head, because both Aziz and Ranjit were nineteen years old—this youth with a scraggly beard had managed to subjugate the greatest city on earth? His father, sage and old, had spoken eloquently at home of their sovereign, of his intelligence, of his very presence. Azizuddin had looked down at the floor, shifted uncomfortably on his feet, felt a frisson of unease that his father had been so taken in by this . . . impostor. And then Ranjit Singh had laughed, at something another courtier said. And the sound, pure and hearty, had wrapped itself around Azizuddin’s heart. Even that laugh had the confidence and the power of a king.
They had talked then. Ranjit had asked Azizuddin what he had studied; he had listened to the answers and, with a charming, self-deprecating shrug, had declared that he himself was illiterate, and so in awe of anyone with a little learning. Would Azizuddin teach him? Yes, your Majesty, anytime. Come every day then. The questions had come pounding out of the Maharajah with a force and alacrity that had surprised even the young Azizuddin. There was nothing Ranjit Singh was not curious about. The sun, the moon, the stars, the country of America, the British in Europe, the philosophies in Sanskrit, in Persian, in Arabic, in Pashto. What and why and how and when—everything began here and ended here. Azizuddin read out loud to Ranjit every night, and every morning, and while he struggled himself to remember the masses of information, it seemed to have soaked into his master’s skin.
Devotion had come to rest in Fakir Azizuddin then, along with a fierce loyalty to this man who was, truly, meant to be king.
“What news?” Ranjit Singh asked now. His whisperings had brought peace to Leili, and she stood quiet, picking her feet off the ground in a gentle, rhythmic trot. On his horse, any horse, the Maharajah loomed larger than his normal self. It was as though he was one with the animal. He could persuade Leili to do almost anything; why, he had fought a war with an Afghani governor to win her, more than he had done for any of his wives. Leili was an Arabian of the purest stock, midnight black, with a white star upon her right flank and a blending of white on her high tail. When she had been brought into the Maharajah’s stables, she had been finicky, demanding, snipping at her keepers with her strong, white teeth. Only Ranjit Singh had calmed her; one touch from him, one word, and her ears had quivered, her amber eyes had swung toward him, and from that day onward she would not allow anyone else to ride her.
“They wrestled, your Majesty,” Azizuddin said with a smile, thinking that he was himself much like the horse. They both had the same affection for this man.
Ranjit sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Again? And where is the Kohinoor?”
Azizuddin bit his lip. “I don’t know, your Majesty. I’ve tried to find out. Two months”—he spread out his hands—“and I still don’t know. I think the wife has it hidden somewhere. Perhaps Shah Shuja himself is unaware of where.”
The Maharajah ran his fingers through his beard, which was disheveled and to his waist, picked out now with strands of white hair. He was dressed as humbly as the first time Azizuddin had met him, in a long saffron-hued tunic, white pajamas, his turban white, the same dagger in his cummerbund. There was a single ring of silver upon the middle finger of his right hand with an enormous pearl set in it, and no other jewelry. At one point, a few years ago, he had said to Aziz that he would wear the Kohinoor when he got it. When, not if, Azizuddin had noted, because, as in all else, Ranjit Singh had no doubts that the diamond belonged to him. After all these years of waiting, it was rightfully his.
So, hesitantly, Azizuddin said, “Your Majesty, you have been generous, almost too generous with Shah Shuja. Why not just . . . um . . . end his life? And take the Kohinoor? It has to be somewhere in the Shalimar Gardens; we would find it, upturn every slab of stone in the gardens if need be.”
Leili stepped sideways, carrying her rider out of pale light that flowed from the apartments above, and Azizuddin could no longer see his king. His voice, though, came in a slow and thoughtful rumble. “Aziz, there’s no use in taking life needlessly. I’ve never done so before; I don’t intend to do so now.”
No, Aziz thought, he never had. In all the wars, the conquests, the battles, the life of every loser had been spared. Other kings in similar situations would not have been—and had not been—this kind. And, after all, Shah Shuja and his family had come to the Punjab in search of refuge, and though they had been granted it, they hadn’t fulfilled the exact terms of their promise. The trophies they had sent were now stuffed into the Maharajah’s overflowing Toshakhana, the treasury house. So why this hankering for the Kohinoor? He asked Ranjit Singh.
“Because it belongs here, Aziz. With me, in India. The Kohinoor is India—take it away from the country and the light departs along with it. You know that it was mined here, that even Hindu mythology puts it in the hands of the mortals as a gift from the gods?”
Azizuddin nodded. “But,” he said, a twinkle in his eye.
Ranjit Singh laughed into the dark night, that same rich sound that had thrilled the young Aziz. “But, I want it. I want to own it. I want to be the man who had the Kohinoor in his possession. I want to be the one who breaks the curse upon it—that only a woman could own it and keep her life. Hmmm”—now he turned reflective—“maybe that is why Wafa Begam has been able to keep it from me for so long. What is she like?”
The question took Azizuddin by surprise. “Why,” he said, and then stumbled over his words, “she has beauty, a strong voice—I’ve heard it more than once; her husband relies upon her. She halted the wrestling match today. They might have killed each other by the end of it, if she hadn’t stopped it. She’s a woman, your Majesty. What other terms could I possibly describe her by?”
“Shabbily done, Azizuddin. I wish I could see her myself.”
“Would you want to, your Majesty?”
“No . . . perhaps. For the last five years she has sent me sweet letters with honeyed words, knowing full well that I want the Kohinoor, and yet she’s managed to keep it away from me. She has the saccharine tongue of a diplomat, Azizuddin. You’d do well to learn from this.”
Azizuddin nodded somberly. If it hadn’t been for his disguise as the old gardener, he himself would never have seen Shuja’s wife. For someone who had been brought up cloistered, who spent her whole life within the harem’s walls, she had a knife-edge brain.
His attention was distracted when a torch flared to life on the outer edge of the maidan. The sudden flame stabbed the dark night sky before it settled into a more steady blaze. The man holding it walked toward them and then bent to the ground and set his torch upon a wooden peg, which caught fire. He kept on, heading in their direction, until a line of gold, from pegs hammered into the ground, created a blazing stroke upon the dry earth.
“You’ll see,” the Maharajah said. “Now!” he shouted.
At his voice, a man emerged from the darkness, astride a horse, riding hard toward the pegs. He had a spear in his outflung right hand, holding it well away from his body. As his horse charged, kicking up a blur of dust, he bent from his waist, his head level with the horse’s head, and aimed the shining tip of his spear at the first peg. The tip went through the peg, and he lifted it into the air as he rode away and disappeared beyond the perimeter of light. Before a bemused Azizuddin could see a soldier on the side pull the flaming peg off the spear, the sound of horses’ hooves thundered over the maidan and another man came into view.
In all, there were three men, and one by one, they sliced the pegs cleanly from the mud, not lessening the speed of their gallop, and riding away to divest their spears of the pegs before returning again. At the end of the demonstration, as each speared peg was extinguished, darkness pounced back over them. There was only the reek of spent fire, a bluish gray haze of smoke, and the tired canter of horses being led away.
It had been impeccably done. Tent pegging was not a sport for the faint of heart; it required tremendous concentration, a gimlet eye, an unshakable seat. Tumbling from the horse at that speed, spear in hand, or mistakenly plunging the spear into the earth and ricocheting from the saddle—either of these could mean death or a grievous maiming.
“Did they pass the test, your Majesty?” Azizuddin asked with a grin. He had identified the third man—Paolo Avitabile; difficult not to do so, Aziz thought, he was some seven feet tall, thickset, broad-shouldered, and when he rode his horse—although he rode it well—it looked like a dog between his legs.
“Will you hire them?”
Ranjit Singh tapped his right thumb into the palm of his left hand, as he always did, unconsciously, when he was deep in thought, and Azizuddin heard this—the dull thwack of skin against skin.
As the Maharajah’s foreign minister, Fakir Azizuddin had a motley bunch of spies embedded in all parts of the Punjab Empire. And it was his job, and so consequently the job of his spies, to ferret out all foreigners on Ranjit Singh’s land and send notice of them to the court. One such message had come a few months ago from Peshawar. That there were firangis looking for employ. And so Azizuddin had gone to Peshawar and found three tough, rough men. Paolo Avitabile, he of the huge height, was Italian. So also was Jean-Baptiste Ventura; and their friend, Jean-François Allard, was French. All the three men had been soldiers, adventurers, in Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies and had set out east in the early days when Napoleon had cast his gaze toward an Indian empire.
They had halted at Persia and found positions in the Shah’s army. As a consequence, they all spoke fluent Persian but also—and this came as a surprise to Azizuddin—more than a smattering of Hindustani. Why they had left the Shah of Persia’s services, Azizuddin did not inquire. He did not care, and neither did Maharajah Ranjit Singh.
Aziz had escorted the men to Lahore, introduced them to Ranjit Singh, watched and listened to all of their conversations with his sovereign. The men were not mere soldiers—they were leaders, and they came in search of generalships in the Punjab army; nothing else would do for them.
“I’m going to send Avitabile to Peshawar, Aziz,” the Maharajah said. “It’s a city filled with dissidents, maybe he can cut them down to shape, create some order in that wild land.”
“A good idea, your Majesty. Perhaps his very size will intimidate most of Peshawar. And the others?”
Ranjit Singh clicked his tongue. “They will be useful also. Here, training the armies. Send an imperial order to them, will you? Avitabile goes to Peshawar; make him a governor, some title of authority, so he can actually be useful there. He should have control over the revenues also. And choose a regiment for Allard and Ventura—they begin tomorrow, at dawn. I want to see maneuvers from their men in ten days.”
“Yes, your Majesty.” Azizuddin brushed his nape, easing the ache there. His shoulders hurt also from all the hunching, and being in the guise of the old man all day long. He twisted his head this way and that, wishing he weren’t so exhausted. Because there was something he wanted to say to Ranjit; it was important, or could be. But what? He sifted, in his weary head, through all the communications that had come to his desk that morning, before he left for the Shalimar Gardens. Something to do with . . . someone in Lahore. An errant handful of breeze waved the smoke of the tent peg fires under the minister’s nose. He inhaled, was reminded of the firangis who had sped down the maidan . . . and thought then of another firangi.
The Maharajah had swung off his horse meanwhile and come up to him. He put his hand on Aziz’s shoulder. Standing thus, they were the same height. His voice was gentle. “Go home, my friend. I will see you tomorrow.”
“Your Majesty!” Azizuddin clutched at his sovereign’s hand. “The Englishman, Elphinstone, is here in Lahore. He arrived two days ago.”
The Maharajah of the Punjab was blind in one eye—his left one, from a childhood bout of smallpox, which had also pitted the skin on his face. When Aziz looked at his king, he saw a handsome, sharply cut face, the bottom half enveloped in an unkempt beard, the eyebrows thick but cleanly arched, the expanse of forehead smooth, as though nary a thought had ruffled it. Even the blind eye was not evident really. Both of the Maharajah’s eyes were a very pale shade of gray, the irises ringed in black, brilliant like polished silver. The blind eye was fixed in one direction, which gave Ranjit a mild squint, but this Aziz always forgot, because when his good eye gazed upon him, blazed upon him, he was drawn into the man who possessed it.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Ranjit Singh’s voice was biting. His eye still flared at his minister, who now had his head bent miserably, the deep hues of a blush darkening his already brown skin.
There were many reasons why, of course. He had known only this morning, and he had been at the Shalimar all day, and for a brief moment there, Azizuddin had not remembered who Elphinstone was. Not until now. He said, “I have no excuse, your Majesty.”
Ranjit Singh began to pace the maidan, hands clasped behind his back. He kicked at pebbles and sent them skittering through the dust. He slapped his hands against his thighs. He tapped his thumb into the palm of his other hand. Azizuddin watched him, his own brain flocking with thoughts.
“Aziz,” the Maharajah called.
He went sprinting over the field.
“Tell me again about this Elphinstone. He took an embassy from the English East India Company to Shah Shuja’s court?”
Azizuddin nodded. This was something he knew, also something the Maharajah knew—because his recall was prodigious—but it was always useful to refresh both of their memories. Quickly, and succinctly, Fakir Azizuddin spoke into Ranjit’s ear while the king stood courteously by, motionless and listening.
Some eight years ago, in 1809, Mountstuart Elphinstone had traveled through the Punjab Empire on his way to Afghanistan. Peshawar was still part of Afghan lands, and Shah Shuja had come to that city to meet Elphinstone from Kabul—a monstrous mistake, because it was then Shuja’s half brother Mahmud had occupied Kabul and taken the throne from Shuja. The British had been worried about Napoleon’s possible invasion of—and so their holdings in—India, and the embassy had been to seek Shuja’s assurance that he would repel Bonaparte. That treaty was never signed; before it could be, Shuja himself had been deposed, and the British had retreated back to India. Both of the comings and goings through the Punjab, Maharajah Ranjit Singh had allowed, seemingly distant, but in truth, very much interested. He had been content to watch and wait.
An ousted Shuja was of no importance to the British, they had let him be for the last eight years, and yet . . . here was this Elphinstone back in the Punjab.
By an 1806 Treaty of Lahore, Ranjit Singh had agreed with the English East India Company that the lands north of the Sutlej River belonged to him, and those south of the river to the British in India. However, the Maharajah not only gave them free rein to travel through his Empire but also made sure that his bazaars and merchants provided them with the means to do so at low prices and with immaculate hospitality.
Why? Azizuddin had asked him once, and the Maharajah had replied that it was always a good policy to keep enemies well fed, contented, and close to the heart.
So, Elphinstone’s presence at Lahore was not a surprise. What was unusual was that he had sneaked into the city. And that he had been the man who met Shuja in Afghanistan.
The Maharajah spoke first. “Napoleon Bonaparte has been defeated? And so, our tent-pegging firangis came here for a job?”
Azizuddin bobbed his head. “At Waterloo. He will not escape again; they’ve taken him to some island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The British will not make the Elba mistake again.”
“The Russians, your Majesty,” Azizuddin said slowly. “Rumor is that the Russian envoy in Kabul is very friendly with Shah Mahmud. Yes”—he nodded more furiously, sure now of himself—“the British fear a Russian invasion of India.”
An almost full moon had risen over the cusp of the horizon, and sent its hoary light across the maidan. In the plummy dark, Azizuddin had not been able to see the Akali guards on the periphery of the field, although he had known they were there. Ranjit Singh had not been king of the Punjab Empire for so long, and with so much success, by wandering alone even in his own lands. Now, the silver glow glittered over the rings of the quoits, marking each Akali as an obvious target for anyone who would care to raise a musket in their direction—although few would and live to tell of it.
The Maharajah put back his well-shaped head and laughed up at the moon. The sound reverberated around the maidan, echoed off the walls of the fort. “Our British friends are very nervous people. They worried about Bonaparte invading India, but to do so, he would have had to defeat me. Now they worry about the Russians? I’m still the Maharajah of the Punjab.”
Azizuddin smiled. It was true. Ranjit Singh was only thirty-seven years old. Allah willing, he would live for many more years, and he, who had halted the rapacious East India Company south of the Sutlej, would not give up his empire for another foreign invader, whether he was French, or Russian, or anybody else.
“Elphinstone, your Majesty,” he said.
The Maharajah sobered, combing through the hair of his beard with long fingers. “Ah, yes, the problem of Elphinstone. Double the guard around the Shalimar Gardens. If the British want to steal Shuja from me and put him on the Afghan throne instead of Mahmud, they will have to ask me first. That’s why they want him, don’t they, Aziz?”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
“Double the guard now. Before first light.”
Azizuddin bowed, his hand touching his forehead in a taslim. He turned to leave, and Ranjit Singh’s voice, lazy, casual, came to him. “Besides, Shuja still has to give me the Kohinoor. He’s not going anywhere until he does so.”
• • •
There was only one gateway, one entrance from the outside into the upper terrace of the Shalimar Gardens, set in the middle of the southern wall. The south entrance was also surrounded by the soldiers of the Maharajah. Though the guard was to protect every inch of the exterior walls of the Shalimar, after three years, the rotation had slackened.
And so, every night around the first hour of the next day, the guard outside the Khwabagh, Wafa Begam’s sleeping quarters on the western side of the upper terrace, took a long hike through the scrub toward the fire that burned in the distance.
An old woman, toothless and haggard, had set up her chai shop here for the soldiers—this far, because she wasn’t allowed to come any closer. Her “shop” consisted merely of two stones dragged together to hold a fire, a terra-cotta vessel atop, in which the water boiled, tea leaves she threw into the simmer, a brass pot of day-old milk, a mound of sugar tied into a knot at the end of her sari’s pallu. For one cup of chai, she charged the men one anna. When they had drunk their chai, she wiped the cups out with a dirty rag and set them to dry in the heated dark. If she had been closer to the river, she would have washed out the cups. All night long, she stirred the chai and doled out cups, and when morning came, she packed up her things and went home to sleep. She had a young and comely daughter, who took over the chai duty during the day in the bazaar on the outskirts of Lahore, but she would not send that child to the deserted land around the Shalimar Gardens, to be at the mercy of these foulmouthed soldiers. She came herself.
The guard, a thin, swarthy man, came to squat by the woman and grunted. He held a shining anna piece in his grubby hand, but he was one of those who liked to toy with her, not paying for his cup of tea until he had drunk at least three. He sat facing her, with his back to the Shalimar. She ladled out the muddy liquid, put the cup on the ground, and prodded it toward him with her knuckles.
He picked it up with both his hands and drank noisily. “It’s awful today, Maji.” He called her Mother, as did the other soldiers, because she was old, not out of respect.
She shrugged. Awful today, awful yesterday, it was all the same to her. This was the only chai shop for miles, and in the middle of the night, they would take what they got. At least, the chai was hot.
Her attention was caught by a movement on the Shalimar’s walls, near the upper terrace. The moon had risen, and the walls stood starkly black. Something snaked up into the lighter sky beyond the walls, once, twice, a third time, until a figure showed, its arm raised to catch the rope. Then, the figure disappeared for a while, as the old woman watched intently. It came back, hesitated for a moment, and then a man swung over the edge of the wall and began to let himself down with the rope.
The old woman grinned, showing a gaping mouth; she had only two teeth left in her upper and lower jaws.
The guard eyed her suspiciously. “What’s so funny? What did you put in the chai?”
“Drink it,” she snapped. “And give me my money.”
He leaned over and knocked her on the side of her head. As she lay in the dirt, arms around her breasts, crooning in pain, he helped himself to another cup of chai. He took a sip and spat it out. Then another, which he also spat out, as if to show her how easily he wasted the chai. The third he drank. The woman sat up, massaging her head, and watched as another man stood briefly in the light of the moon above the garden’s walls and then began climbing down. His kurta was a patch of white against the murky walls, moving surely and speedily.
The guard deliberately drank his chai, and then he stood up, lodged his toe under the lip of the vessel on the fire, and upended it. The old woman sat there, rocking and moaning, her eyes flashing with hatred. A smile gathered around her mouth. She let him go, with the anna coin folded into the cloth of his turban, and saw him pick his way through the land, gaze downward, stepping carefully to avoid snakes and scorpions.
By the time the guard had kicked at the chai urn, the second man had descended to the ground.
• • •
Shah Shuja jumped the last three yards, landing on the balls of his feet, the shock sending a jar of pain through his sore legs. He flitted closer to the wall. “Where is she?” he hissed into the gloom.
Ibrahim Khan limped up, trailing a foot; he had crushed an ankle during his fall from the rope and eaten up the yelp that had come bursting from him. His face was wan in the moonlight, his hair shining in a cloud of curls. “It’s a bad night to escape, your Majesty. Too much light. Are these people to be trusted?”
They turned to the two men standing against the wall, their clothing blurred and indistinct in the shadows, the cloths of their turbans wrapped around the lower halves of their faces. One of them had pitched the rope to Shuja, and he had heard quiet grunts as he heaved upward. Since, neither of the men had spoken, or helped them descend.
The letter tied around the rock that Wafa Begam had read and shown to her husband had come from Elphinstone. In it, he had offered to rescue them from the Shalimar Gardens, but it had to be tonight, in a few hours. Elphinstone had already spent too much time in Lahore, any longer and the Maharajah would begin to get inquisitive. Would his Majesty, Shah Shuja, trust that the British had his best interests at heart?
For once, Wafa, more suspicious about almost anything than her husband, had not advised caution. “We must go tonight,” she said. Shuja, awakened from a dreamy sleep, the muscles of his arms, legs, and shoulders fiery raw from the wrestling, had shaken his head to clear the fog. All those years of plotting, scheming, wondering who would help them, how that help would appear . . . had come to this. An imperative in the middle of the night. Leave now. How? he had asked. But the letter only said in two hours, not how.
They had woken Ibrahim, drawn him from his cot, doused his head in the waters of the central pool in the upper terrace, and whispered the news in his ear. Shuja and he had padded all around the upper and middle terraces in search of an escape route, or some indication that, suddenly, there was one. They did not descend into the lower terrace, where the Maharajah’s guards kept watch, and all their movements were stealthy, quiet, so that no noise filtered downward.
Then that whistle had come again from beyond the walls, sweet and lucid, like the song of a bird. A violinist had accompanied Elphinstone’s embassy to Peshawar, and one spring evening, Shuja had invited this man’s music into his palace. The music had a strange yet beguiling sound for all of them—a violin concerto by a composer named Bach—and he had asked for it to be played often, and tried to get his own court musicians to imitate that sound.
“Here,” Wafa had said, pulling them up the stairs to the top of the wall. They couldn’t see anything of the men below, but they heard them throwing the rope and saw it a moment later, twisting temptingly just beyond reach. Both Shuja and Ibrahim had held back, too exhausted to make real sense of what was happening, and it was Wafa who had leaned over the parapet and caught the rope. She who had yanked it to one of the pillars and wrapped it around. But she could not tie the knot and sat there, trembling, her face drenched with tears. “Come, my lord. Are we going to stay here forever? Do you want to lose the Kohinoor to Ranjit Singh?”
At that word, Shuja ran to her, knotted the rope, and tugged at it to check that it was secure.
“Where is the diamond?” he asked.
In response, she bent to kiss his hand, used his fingers to wipe away her tears. “Go, Ibrahim and you must go first. Even if they catch us doing this, I will be safe; they will not dare touch me. Go!”
As she pushed him away, Shuja resisted. Go without her? What was she saying?
She sensed his hesitation. “I will follow right after. After I get the Kohinoor, that is. Go now!” And with that she fled out of the pavilion. He heard her running down the stone pathway alongside the long water channel, and then heard the soft, successive thuds of her feet as she descended the stairs to the middle terrace.
Shuja had never given a thought to where his wife had hidden the diamond; better not to know until he actually wanted it. If he had considered it at all, if he had been asked where, he would have thought it was somewhere in her harem quarters. But, to conceal it in the middle terrace, with the gardeners working there, the guards roaming around every now and then, in so public a place . . . why, it was brilliant. Galvanized into action, he shoved Ibrahim over the edge of the wall and listened as he made his way down. Just for a moment, before he went over himself, he tarried again. Where was Wafa? Why was she taking so long? Then, he swung over, wrapped his hands around the rope, and slid down the wall, his toes grabbing onto footholds in the dark, the rope ending far too soon, leaving him swaying above nothing.
“Where is she?” he whispered now, glancing up with a growing worry. He said to one of the two men, “Whistle that song again.”
The man shook his head, didn’t seem inclined to speak at first, and then he said, in a hoarse voice, “Too dangerous, your Majesty.”
Just then, Shah Shuja saw his wife dangle a leg over the parapet. She hung over the edge on her stomach for a sickening moment, and Shuja urged her in a whisper, “Grab on to the rope, Wafa.”
She reached for the rope and let her weight down. It took her a long time to descend, almost five minutes; at times she hung in the moonlight, at times her body banged into the wall, but slowly she came down to the end of the rope and swung there in a circle. “What do I do now?” she asked, terrified.
“Let go,” Shuja said firmly. Ibrahim and he linked their arms under Wafa, and when Shuja waved to the two men to help them, one shook his head. Wafa Begam undid her tight grasp around the rope and fell into the net formed by her husband and Ibrahim. She was shaking, teary-eyed, and trembling. But she still smiled. Her thin chiffon veil was pulled tight around her face and tied at her nape, enclosing her head in a pale blue.
“Do you have it?” Shuja said in her ear, holding his wife tight by his side.
And then, one of the men said in a deep, cultured voice, “Perhaps then you will allow me to take it from you, your Majesty, and give it to my Maharajah.”
• • •
As dawn cleaved a line of lilac on the horizon, slitting open another day, a row of slaves toted loads of firewood upon their backs toward the Shalimar Gardens. The slaves were bent under the weight of the sticks, which were swaddled in cloth, strung with ropes around the tops of their heads like headbands.
They flung each stack near the door at the southeastern corner of the middle terrace, by the side of a huge brick stove. The firewood was shoved into the stove’s black and yawning mouth, burning balls of newspapers were thrown in, each setting fire to one part until the whole roared to life.
Water from the Hasli Canal, which fed the fountains and pools in the gardens, was diverted in a little stream to the top of the stove and into a permanently built brick-dome-covered stone cauldron. Pipes ran from this dome into the Shalimar, releasing clouds of steam into a series of closed pavilions on the southeastern corner of the middle terrace. This was the bathhouse, the hammam that Emperor Shah Jahan had built for the pleasure of both the ladies of his harem and himself. The only entrance into the hammam was from inside the gardens, in a series of three pointed archways that were tucked into the corner.
Shah Shuja lay on the wet floor near the pool in the center of the hammam, stripped down to a small pair of shorts and nothing else. His face rested against the stone, his left arm hung into the pale and green waters of the pool. Wafa Begam sat astride his back, clad in very little herself, merely a small cloth covering her breasts and another piece of cloth fashioned into underwear.
She dug the heels of her palms into Shuja’s back and ran them over the length of it, from his waist to his hairline. She made fists and pummeled the spent muscles. She kneaded his arms, pulled the strain out of every finger, bent to kiss his sweaty cheek, the hair on his beard scratching her face.
Smudged light streamed around them in sharp bars from each of the skylights above. One lit the center of the pool, and the water glowed like a gathering of emeralds. Others cast their radiance around, lighting up the steam as it swirled through, taking on ghostly shapes at one moment, dispersing into flatness the next.
Shuja and Wafa lay in the path of one such shaft of light, which glanced off her slender shoulders, dabbed at Shuja’s hair, turning it into glittering ebony, painted its way over his outflung arm, and dripped into the pool.
He made a movement, and Wafa rose on her knees and allowed him to flip onto his back before settling down over him again. They gazed at each other for a long while, not speaking, not knowing, perhaps, what to say. They had tried to escape in the middle of the previous night, had been captured and brought back into the Shalimar soon after—merely a few hours had passed before they ordered the hammam fires lit.
“What now?” Shuja said, cupping his palm over his wife’s cheek.
She leaned into his hand, her eyebrows meeting in distress. “Now,” she said slowly and clearly, “we wait and see what the Maharajah will do.”
Shuja felt an ache blossom inside his chest, and he rubbed at it unconsciously. Seeing that, Wafa caressed him, taking his hand away, replacing it with her own. He kissed her hand, felt the warm skin on his lips, felt a well of tears rise behind his eyes. Even Wafa had lost hope.
In these past five years, whether in the dungeons under the Hari Parbat Fort in Kashmir, or here in the golden cage of the Shalimar, it had always been Shuja who had been doubtful, or pessimistic. Wafa, with her laughter, her joy, her belief that everything would go her way or no way at all, had a spark of hope lighting her from within. Oh, she had cried before, in distress, or frustration, or hatred, but she had never swerved from their purpose—Shuja would be freed and one day he would return to Afghanistan to be king.
Shah Shuja swiped at the tears that ran in thin lines around the edges of his face and hoped that his wife wouldn’t notice them. “Sweat in my eyes,” he said hoarsely.
She nodded, wrapped her arms around his, brought his palm back to her face again, and buried her nose in it.
What had happened last night had devastated them. Only because it was so unexpected, something they were so little prepared for. The shock was not of the unanticipated but of the fact that they ought to have known better.
At first, when the voice had come out of the darkness, Shuja had propelled Wafa behind him, his eyes roving around, wondering where it had come from and who had spoken.
And then, one of the peasants hired by Elphinstone to help them escape had stepped forward and, with great deliberateness, stripped the turban cloth from the lower half of his face. In the distorted play of light—the silver from the moonlight, the dimness of the walls, the dull white glow of the turbans—for just a moment, Shuja had strained to see the man’s face and, for another moment, hadn’t recognized him.
He had whipped around to Ibrahim, who said quietly, “It’s the old gardener, your Majesty. We’ve been hoodwinked.”
Shuja had felt a strain around his chest then. All of this had been a trick? Nothing but a ruse to bring them out of the Shalimar Gardens with the Kohinoor? And, who was this man who had played at being a gardener in their midst?
He’d raised his chin with a pointed, silent question.
The man had bowed. “I am Fakir Azizuddin.”
Ah, Shuja had thought, the Maharajah’s foreign minister—this was no ordinary minion but one of his most powerful courtiers. At his side, he’d felt Wafa shaking and he’d put an arm around her, turned his back upon Azizuddin so that he could hug his wife. When he lifted her face to his, he had realized that she was laughing, not crying.
“What?” he had whispered.
“Let me handle this,” she’d said. “I’ll talk to the fakir.”
He had turned to face Fakir Azizuddin.
“Your Majesty,” the other man had said, “we could make this very easy, dignified for all of us, if you will only permit yourselves to be searched. After that, you are free to return to the Shalimar Gardens. With the Kohinoor in his possession, the Maharajah will be delighted to outline some very lavish terms for you; he has already spoken to me of an annuity, and a substantial lump sum.”
“What about me, Fakir Azizuddin?” Wafa Begam had said in a strong voice, stepping out from behind her husband. The light was faint, Wafa’s veil was swathed around her head; all Azizuddin could see was a shape, nose, the bones above the eyes, the jut of cheekbones—and he’d seen much more before of Shuja’s favorite wife in his guise as a gardener—yet etiquette demanded, so he’d bent his gaze to the ground.
“You too, your Majesty.” His voice had been deferential, but trailed into something very like indecision.
Wafa Begam had pounced on that uncertainty and cut Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s famous and powerful foreign minister into tiny pieces and strewed his carcass around. “You don’t have a woman on staff, do you? I refuse to be searched by a man—you wouldn’t dare do this to me.” She had straightened her back, become queenly, regal, her pale hands fluttering in the semidarkness. “In fact, I refuse to submit to a search by any woman.” Easy to say because there wasn’t any woman around, unless Azizuddin counted the chai lady, even now packing up her belongings and getting ready to close for the night, since her tea had been spilled by the guard.
With that, Wafa Begam had strolled past all of them—a line opened in the middle of the group of silent soldiers guarding the southern gateway into the upper terrace—and went back inside the Shalimar Gardens.
Shah Shuja had begun to laugh, mirth shaking his frame. He still hadn’t said a word to Azizuddin, and Ibrahim hadn’t spoken either.
The minister had bowed to the erstwhile ruler of Afghanistan, and gestured toward the entrance to the gardens. He didn’t want to search them at all, because he was sure that Wafa Begam had the Kohinoor.
While the night had eaten up the rest of the hours, there were two groups of people awake, one on either side of the Shalimar’s walls. Inside, Shuja and Wafa knew that this small victory meant nothing, that this was the beginning of the end for them.
And outside, Fakir Azizuddin pondered and paced. He had come back to the Shalimar with another set of guards, only to find the escape was already in progress. For a brief few seconds, a cold hand had wrapped around his heart. Mentioning Elphinstone to the Maharajah had been almost an afterthought; he hadn’t thought it important then. Even an hour ago, preparing the guard, during the trip through the scrub, a journey he had already made twice today, Aziz had doubted the wisdom of haste. But when Ranjit Singh gave an order, it was obeyed. As simple as that. And then, to see the two men in Elphinstone’s employ whistling a snatch of a violin concerto, the blows on their heads, bundling them out of the way before Ibrahim Khan came snaking down the rope . . . waiting for Wafa Begam to also descend . . . Azizuddin had thought himself brilliant in allowing it to happen so that he could corner them and snatch the Kohinoor and end all these years of futile waiting.
But then Wafa had walked away with the diamond, and Azizuddin knew that it was she who was brilliant. He was just a fool who had thought only to the edge of the pit, not beyond it, and so had fallen in.
The wily Wafa would have hidden the Kohinoor again by now. They had searched the gardens many times in the past few years, and it had never been discovered. He knew how much his king wanted the diamond. And Azizuddin wanted to be the man who brought it to him. He had thought for a while longer, and then walked around the perimeter of the Shalimar Gardens, looking up at the walls as the light rose, giving a new set of orders to the guards.
• • •
“I’m hungry,” Wafa Begam said. All of their worries seemed to have leached away with the steam; the tiredness had left their bodies, and they both lay back on the edge of the pool, their feet in the water, looking up at the skylights.
Shuja ordered the steam to be stopped, and the hiss died down into a quiet nothingness. The light from the sun seemed to burn away the mist and created dark shadows in the shade, a golden transparency where it touched.
Perhaps things were not so bad after all, Shuja thought, his fingers entwined with his wife’s. He had one more thing left to give Ranjit Singh if he became too demanding. He didn’t know anymore if Elphinstone was truly in Lahore, if his offer to help was genuine, if the night’s adventures had been an elaborate ruse.
“Let’s go have breakfast,” he said, rising from the floor and helping Wafa up.
They went out into the middle terrace, paused for a moment at the pool. The fountains were silent now, and water lay without a ripple, placid, the tinted stones underneath the surface throwing rainbows of glittering color upon the face of the water.
When they ascended to the upper terrace, all was quiet. No smoke from the kitchen fires, no aroma of cooked chicken and lamb, no fragrance of freshly baked naans. Every morning, through the south entrance of the upper terrace, Maharajah Ranjit Singh sent in a mass of supplies—clucking hens driven in a cluster, fresh vegetables, spices in covered jars, butter and ghee in urns. But today, the gates had been firmly shut. The Maharajah of the Punjab intended to starve them until Shah Shuja gave him the Kohinoor diamond.
• • •
For the next two days, Shuja, Ibrahim, and Wafa ate the ripening guavas in the trees, and then the unripe ones, their stomachs protesting. When the guavas were gone, they washed the green mangoes, cut them into slices, sprinkled on salt and chilli powder, ate them until their tongues became sour.
Desperate, Shuja sent the Maharajah his last jewel, a stone as big as his fist, hued in pale yellow, and said that it was the Kohinoor. A long eight hours passed on that third day as they waited. Ranjit Singh had never seen the Kohinoor; he did not know what it looked like, or how big it actually was, or anything about it at all.
A letter came from the king to Shah Shuja in which he thanked him for the pukraj, the wonderful topaz, he had sent him, but it wasn’t the Kohinoor, was it?
On the fourth day, a slew of gardeners came into the Shalimar and cut down every tree. They drained the pools, shut off the water source from the Hasli Canal, and the stones in the central pool of the middle terrace lay twinkling reproachfully at them in the harsh sun.
A few hours later, Wafa Begam picked her way over the stones in the pool, went to the fountain spout that was the third one from the northwest corner, toward the wrestling platform, bent down, and picked up the armlet hidden there.
She was weak, rabidly hungry, shaking from a want of water and food. Shuja took the armlet himself to Fakir Azizuddin, who waited at the northernmost end of the middle terrace, his face turned away from Wafa Begam. Shuja’s steps were halting, dragged on the ground.
Azizuddin examined the armlet and the enormous stone in the center, which caught fire in the light from the sun and shed its lovely glow over his dark face.
“Thank you, your Majesty,” he said.
Within the hour, servants had brought in covered dishes wrapped in red satin cloth and laid them out on a carpet in the Aiwan pavilion. Shuja, Wafa, and Ibrahim ate everything in sight, drank cups of wine, and fell onto the carpets sated and full.
The next day, they found all the entrances to the Shalimar thrown wide open, no guards around, the heated air from the plains rolling in. Freedom, Shah Shuja thought, as he watched the Englishman, Mountstuart Elphinstone, ride his horse into the lower terrace and bow his head. More horses were brought in; they jumped into the saddles and rode away south toward the Sutlej River. When they had crossed the river and entered the lands of British India, they were guided to a splendid haveli in Ludhiana.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Mountain of Light includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Spanning over forty years, The Mountain of Light follows the story of the coveted Kohinoor, an extraordinary diamond that kingdoms and countries fought to possess. Beginning in 1817, the novel tracks the Kohinoor from Shah Shuja to Maharajah Ranjit Singh to Queen Victoria and chronicles the adventures of the men and women who are touched by its existence. The diamond is embedded in political turmoil that is only perpetuated when it slips from Indian royalty to the English monarchy, and while the Indian Maharajah Dalip Singh attempts to reclaim the Kohinoor from English control, it becomes clear that the fate of the diamond—and India—is already set in stone.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Mountain of Light features a long list of colorful char- acters. Who is your favorite character in the novel? Who is your least favorite?
2. After visiting Maharani Jindan Kaur, sisters Emily and Fanny Eden debate whether their brother’s desire to invade Afghanistan and their presence in India are appropriate. Emily argues that the East India Company, and England, has a right to be in India. Do you agree with Emily? Explain why or why not.
3. Cultural differences between English and Indian cultures are prevalent throughout the book, from differences in marriage practices to the difference in attire between the Indian and English women. What cultural difference did you find the most interesting? What difference is the most significant? Explain.
4. During a discussion with Henry Lawrence, Misr Makraj, treasurer to Maharajah Ranjit Singh, tells Henry that Shah Shuja was a “pawn in your Afghan war” (p. 153). Do you agree with Misr’s assessment? Who is the biggest pawn in the novel?
5. Were you surprised to learn about Shah Shuja’s ultimate fate? Why or why not?
6. Princess Roshni gives Henry Lawrence the Kohinoor because she believes he’s a good man. Why do you think she believes this? Is she right?
7. Colonel Mackeson is led on a whodunit search when someone steals the Kohinoor from him. He ultimately discovers that the thief is Misr Makraj’s son, Multan Raj. Were you surprised by this discovery? Who did you think took the diamond?
8. From Shah Shuja to Ranjit Singh to the Queen of England, the Kohinoor is coveted—and possessed—by an array of rulers. Who do you think most deserves the diamond?
9. In the opening pages of the novel’s last section, Sophia, Maharajah Dalip Singh’s daughter, is described as knowing “how young sixteen can be” (p. 263). Based on Dalip’s experiences as a teenager, and his observation that “I am now, at sixteen, a grown man,” (p. 269) how subjective are youth and age in The Mountain of Light? Was Dalip an “older” sixteen than most teenagers? Explain your answer.
10. The Mountain of Light spans from 1817 until the late 1800s. What period was your favorite to read about and why?
11. Most relationships in The Mountain of Light are enmeshed in politics and custom. Even some of the most deeply personal relationships, such as the bond between Henry Lawrence and Maharajah Dalip, were also influenced by politics between England and India. What relationship was the most authentic in the novel? What relationship was the least authentic?
12. The story of the Kohinoor is told in third person until the last section, which features first-person narration from Maharajah Dalip Singh. Why do you think the author chose to switch to first person? Was it an effective literary device? Explain your reasoning.
13. Maharajah Dalip Singh describes Lord and Lady Log- in’s dedication to watching after him as waning, observing that “here in England, some . . . thread is broken” between him and his English companions (p. 280). What do you think caused this change in behavior? Does it fore- shadow other treatment Dalip receives from the English?
14. Dalip is left brokenhearted by an unrequited love, Cecilia Bowles. What is the most tragic love story in the novel? What is the most successful?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Learn more about author Indu Sundaresan by visiting her website: http://www.indusundaresan.com/ and following her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/ Indu-Sundaresan/331750008182.
2. Loved The Mountain of Light? Have an Indu Sundaresan reading challenge! Read the Taj Mahal trilogy and have a bonus discussion about the series.
3. Learn the history behind the fiction. Find out one interesting fact about the characters and the Kohinoor to share with your book club.
4. Have an Indian-themed discussion of The Mountain of Light. Bring traditional Indian food, music, and other cultural items to share with your book club.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
While it dragged a bit at times this was an interesting history of colonial life and the life of a diamond. I've enjoyed all of Sundaresan's books and recommend this as an easy read.
This lush novel by author Indu Sundaresan tracks the history of the history of the famous Kohinoor diamond from 1526 during the Mughal empire to Victorian England where it still resides today. Nicknamed the Mountain of Light, it was once the largest diamond in the world. The novel begins with the ousted emperor of Afghanistan, Shah Shuja, and his wife, Wafa Begam, who are being held as prisoners by the Punjab Maharajah, Ranjit Singh. If they give him the Kohinoor diamond, the Maharajah will aid the emperor in seizing back his throne. The story is a complex one, weaving the history of the diamond with the volatile country of India in the 19th century, its people, politics, and how it was so strongly entwined with the East India Company. The prose is rich and elegant, evoking sights and smells of the land and era while bringing to life many of the famous personages of the times. The author provided a brief history of the diamond at the start and helped clarify what was fact and what was fiction at the end. For those who love stories about the exotic, this tale is sure to please. Very highly recommended.