An excerpt from the book, The Curse of Nader Shah by Sutapa Basu.
Firuzeh’s blood froze. ‘Do you have any rooms under the ground?’ She asked frantically. She knew exactly what was going to happen.
‘Yes. . .yes,’ said the women, not comprehending her sudden panic. ‘Let us go there. Now!’ Gul led the way down the stairs followed by the chattering women. ‘Call everyone who is in the house into the rooms,’ added Firuzeh.
All the women crowded into the room under the courtyard. It was part of a pair of storerooms. There was a large room with a trapdoor leading into a smaller one under it. The trapdoor was in the floor now hidden under sacks of wheat. Once there, the matriarch of the family asked, ‘Beti, why are you afraid? The rioters cannot come inside. Our doors and shutters are of strong teak.’
‘It is not the rioters, Khale,’ explained Firuzeh. ‘It is the Shah’s soldiers I am afraid of. They will set everything. . . houses, shops, storehouses on fire. How will the teak doors save us?’
The women stared at Firuzeh with stunned faces. ‘You are the Shahbanu,’ said the old lady, ‘Can you not command the soldiers to not harm us?’ ‘Khale, I am a royal lady and my place is in the zenana. When I am in public, I am veiled. Hardly any man has seen my face. The common soldiers, even their officers don’t know me. Why will they believe me if I tell them, I am their Shah’s begum? Besides, they obey the Shah. They will all obey the Shah’s orders to slay the people of Delhi.’
As the chilling words permeated into the appalled women’s consciousness, Gul screamed, ‘My husband and my son! I sent my boy to the shop with the noonday meal for the men.’ Firuzeh put an arm around her friend. Right then a loud scream was heard from outdoors. The storeroom had barred ventilators near the roof that opened on to the street outside at the ground level. Hoofbeats, shouts, cries resounded through them. It seemed as if a battle was being fought just beyond the haveli. Cutting through all the clamour came a shrill, fearful cry of a child, ‘Ammmmi. . . ,’ along with a frenzied banging on the barred front doors. ‘My son. . . ,’ screamed Gul. Wrenching herself from Firuzeh’s arms, she ran up the stairs. ‘Gul. . .Gul, don’t go,’ shouted Firuzeh but in vain. They heard Gul unbar the heavy doors all the while consoling her son that she was coming. Once the doors opened, the rampage entered the haveli. Faces upraised, now masks of terror, the women below heard the frightening shrieks of Gul and her son that ended in horrible gurgling sounds as their throats were slashed. Their stilled voices were replaced by the heavy tramp of boots and guttural male shouts. Soldiers were searching the haveli for its inmates and its wealth. Firuzeh began to pull at the heavy sacks covering the trapdoor. By the time, she and a young girl had found it and lifted the heavy wooden door, boots sounded on the stairs leading down to the storeroom. Only the girl and Firuzeh could drop into the cellar below, before the trapdoor fell from their hands and shut the way for the rest. The soldiers burst into the room. The two women held each other in the semi-darkness below listening to the agonised wails and screams of the women as they were killed or dragged away for worse torment. They waited for the trapdoor to be opened but for some reason, the soldiers missed it.
For a while, they cowered in the dusty room while sounds of carnage broke above their heads. They could hear furniture splintering; boxes being dragged away amidst the crazy laughter of the marauders. They waited, chilled with fear, teeth chattering, wondering when they would be hauled out. Their ears pricked up as there came a lull as if the intruders had left. Soon frightful hissing, crackling sounds came through the trap door. Wisps of smoke began to float in through the chinks in the wooden roof. The haveli had been fired.
When they turned the corner, she saw that the open drain from the street above had dived under the haveli and passed through this underground room. Dry from the summer heat, it was halffilled with slow-moving brackish water.
The women stared at each other in horror. Tears ran down their faces at the thought that they would be burnt alive. Or else the smoke would suffocate them to death. The girl began to whimper. Firuzeh looked around the cellar distractedly looking for water or some way to escape the terrible fate awaiting them. She noticed that the floor of the room inclined upwards and the cellar itself turned a corner. Grasping the girl’s hand who was already coughing, the older woman tugged her towards the other end of the room. When they turned the corner, she saw that the open drain from the street above had dived under the haveli and passed through this underground room. Dry from the summer heat, it was halffilled with slow-moving brackish water. Meanwhile, turning right angles, this underground room had been extended under the street and beyond the upper floor of the haveli. Firuzeh quickly jumped into the knee-deep filthy-gray water pulling in the girl. She sloshed her way to the other side hoping the water body would halt the flames once they came down into the underground cellar. Surprisingly, she observed that the smoke flowing in through the roof boards became lighter and then stopped altogether. But they could hear tremendous crashes overhead as the heavy doorposts, higher floors, the solid furniture used by generations of Gul’s family crumbled in the flames. The girl, though safe, wept bitterly. No doubt she was recalling how her mother, sisters and other relatives had been dragged away and were probably dead by now. Firuzeh wondered what was happening in the rest of the city. She looked up at the only source of daylight filtering through a tiny grating near the roof. Asking the girl to help her, she pulled a few heavy wheat sacks under the opening. Standing on a couple of sacks piled one on top of other, Firuzeh’s eyes came up to the level of the grating.
As she pressed her face to the bars and looked out, she was stupefied into silence. Her view was of the main avenue from which several lanes meandered. The road outside was scattered with bodies of men, women and children. Hacked off heads, limbs, torsos were lying around separately. The ground was soaked, dark and damp. Killings had been brutal and torturous. More limbless, bloody bodies were heaped at the mouth of lanes as if groups had fought to defend their neighbourhoods. The blood-stained, tattered, loose tunics, pants, torn-off veils or turbans twisted in the dust like many-hued snakes revealed that their wearers had been the people of Hind; mostly residents of Paharganj. . .of Chandni Chowk. . .of Delhi. These harmless and unarmed people had been yanked out of homes, shops and streets and chopped down. . .slaughtered in cold blood. Above them, flames engulfed their homes. . .some already burnt to cinders. . .some collapsing in sudden explosions of ash and dust.It seemed the houses inhabited by families for years and years had become their funeral pyres today. As Firuzeh narrowed her eyes in the stinging haze of smoke that sent acrid swirls up her nose, she became aware that the fearful tumult and commotion of the previous hours had receded.
Some stray cracks sounding like musket shots could be heard but they were far away. Apparently, the Shah’s castigation of Delhi’s rebellious citizens had ended with hardly anyone alive to tell the tale. All she could hear were the buzzing, blue bottle flies hovering over bloody remains, the squawking vultures and snapping dogs quarrelling over pieces of human flesh and an eerie silence of a town inhabited by the dead.
Image Credit: Readomania/Sutapa Basu
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Excerpted with permission from The Curse of Nader Shah by Sutapa Basu, Readomania.