An excerpt from the book, The Hidden One by Ruchir Gupta.

Start Of War

Think not that with joy and with ease I pursue my desire;
With heart that is weary, with footsteps that lag and that tire.

29 October 1681

Zebunissa placed a warm wax seal on the scroll containing the lines she had composed for Azam.“Jani, this prayer is for your husband.”

Jani grinned. “You know my husband is not as pious as you and your sisters.”

“Sadly, you are right. But still my pious heart commands me to reach out to all my brothers in the language of the Holy Book.” Zebunissa knew Azam would mock the prayer she had sent but it helped to keep the myth of her society being a prayer group alive. Zebunissa had been declared Empress and Padishah Begum by her father, taking the exalted place of her deceased aunt, Jahanara. She was now the first woman at court, superceding even the Emperor’s living wives. Eyes followed her everywhere.

“Prince Azam is tense following the Emperor’s rebuke for taking so long to arrive from Bengal,” Jani said softly, hanging her head, expecting a comforting response from the Empress.

“The Emperor is upset with everyone,” responded Zebunissa curtly. She placed a hand under Jani’s chin and lifted her face, forcing her to raise her eyes. “Travel from Bengal, in the east, to Rajasthan in the west, is a gruelling journey. I am glad Azam and you have chosen to rest for a night in Delhi before moving towards Rajasthan.”

Jani smiled as she grabbed Zebunissa’s hand, gently lowering it. “I feel the Emperor’s anger is not so much at us but at Prince Akbar failing to invade Udaipur, as the Emperor commanded.”

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The calculated remark stung Zebunissa. Any negative mention of her son was always ill received. She knew Jani’s words were not completely unjustified. Having procured his return from the Rajputs, Aurengzeb had high hopes that his soldier son would lead his armies to a triumphant victory over the Rajputs by wrestling the strategic city of Udaipur from them. Instead, Akbar seemed to be stalling and seeking excuses to justify his slow march. Zebunissa also knew that rumours were rife that Akbar had forged a secret pact with the Rajputs, a seditious act; an allegation Aurengzeb seemed to disbelieve for now.

“Akbar is waiting for the most opportune time to attack. The Emperor must be patient.” Zebunissa’s tone was harsh, warning Jani about forming hasty conclusions.

“Zebunissa, you know the Emperor has no patience,” Jani remarked, walking over to Zebunissa’s desk and glancing over the scattered papers there. “Who wrote all these poems?” she asked, surprised. “They look like they have travelled a long distance. Do they not know that poetry has been banned in the kingdom? And why is Akbar’s name on some of them?”

Zebunissa hurried past Jani and grabbed the papers. “They are old poems. The Emperor knows I possess them.” She went to a small cupboard and, taking a key from the bunch that hung at her waist, opened it and thrust some of the papers in, quickly locking it again.

“May I not see the compositions?” Jani asked, wondering what Zebunissa was trying to hide.

Zebunissa knew she had raised suspicions. Turning, she chuckled apologetically. “I promised the Emperor I would not circulate them.”

Jani frowned. “I feel you are hiding something from me. Those papers are not poems from the past are they? And why is Akbar’s name on them?”

Zebunissa was startled but tried to hide her emotions using a commanding tone. “Watch your tongue! Remember you speak to the Empress! I can have you imprisoned for false accusations.”

“Do not threaten me,” retorted Jani. “Imprisonment will lead to a trial, especially if the prisoner is the daughter-in-law of the Emperor. At the trial these papers will be presented. Then what will you do?”

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Jani noticed some papers remained on the desk that Zebunissa seemed to be trying to block from her vision. Jani reached around Zebunissa and grabbed a hold of the papers with her right hand. Zebunissa grabbed her wrist and tried to wrestle the papers from her. Jani pushed Zebunissa with her hips, but she was no match for Zebunissa’s strength; pushing Zebunissa was like trying to hit a stone wall, and Jani bounced back. Zebunissa moved herself in front of Jani and lunged her elbow into Jani’s abdomen, causing her to bend forward in excruciating pain. Zebunissa then grabbed the papers out of Jani’s hand and pushed her away towards the entrance. Jani coughed, gasping for air. Zebunissa, out of breath herself, yelled, “Do not interfere in my personal matters ever again or else I will have you executed before the Emperor even learns of my decree!”

Jani trembled with rage. She scanned the room for a weapon, anything to strike Zebunissa with. “How dare she touch me?” She noticed a silver hookah near Zebunissa’s feet. Should she try to grab it and swirl it at Zebunissa? What if she missed? Zebunissa looked murderous, ready to spill blood. Jani decided not to fight, for now. She stared back at Zebunissa with scorn and contempt. “This is not over yet. You will regret ever crossing me!”

From that moment on Jani would detest Zebunissa to her dying day; there would be no forgiveness. Groom a man to be Emperor, her aunt Jahanara had said. Zebunissa had clearly been posturing for Akbar, Jani concluded. Well, she would in turn prop up Azam, much as she despised her incompetent husband. The stakes were too high. If Zebunissa won, Jani knew she would end up like her father, Dara. Zebunissa would parade her in dirty rags on a filthy elephant in Chandni Chowk, making her beg for mercy before denying it. Then she would sever Jani’s head and place it on a platter. “No…never!” Jani thought. “I will be Empress and Azam, Emperor.” Zebunissa would not win.

Holding her abdomen, Jani limped out of the room without making further commotion. Today was not the day to hit back. The war of succession had begun, not between the sons of Aurengzeb, but two of the royal women of the Mughal court.

Image Credit: Leadstart Publishing/ Ruchir Gupta

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Excerpted with permission from The Hidden One by Ruchir Gupta, Leadstart Publishing.

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