An excerpt from the book, Fear of Lions by Amita Kanekar.
It was difficult to shout while watching his step; the tangled roots and boulders surely shielded scores of serpents. Zeenat easily maintained her lead, leaping lightly from root to boulder, silver anklets tinkling, uncaring of the mud that attached itself to her embroidered slippers and the fine white gathered muslin of her paijamas. Splotches even appeared on the pale-pink embroidery of her tunic. Zeenat never wore an outfit more than once but this was surely the first time she had actually dirtied one before disposing of it. What she needed was a good whipping.
The aide meanwhile had reached the man, who was seated almost at the tower of heads. Wrapped in an old black cloak, his eyes closed, he ignored his panting visitor. The aide joined his palms and cleared his throat, staring at the deep, almost black patches below each closed eye, the bony but rather delicate hands. Black, he knew, was the colour of the gosains, but where was his trident? The face was gaunt and sunburnt, the limbs a medley of boniness entangled with sharply protruding veins, the skin stretched painfully tight over it all. There was a red scar on his bald pate.
The eyes opened slowly, confusedly, as if from sleep. Dark brown and soft, they reminded the aide of a dog he had known as a child. It used to frequent his father’s shop in the metal bazaar, though the usual haunts for strays were the fish and meat markets. He had fed it scraps and created a bond, so that it began to visit him first thing every morning, making a breakfast of his scraps before commencing on the day’s work of catching rats or anything else small and chasable. But neighbouring shopkeepers did not approve. The banias called it dirty, the ashrafs a devil. The aide ignored them until someone spoke of seeing it with the sweepers. Then he stopped feeding it, stopped looking for it, stopped objecting when others threw stones at it. The dog kept coming though, apparently just to wag its tail at the sight of him, till one morning when he found it lying outside the shop, its throat cut. It lay there the whole day, till the sweepers took it away.
‘Do you address me?’ The voice was low and gruff, but young and surprisingly urbane. The aide looked for the man’s feet, to touch and be blessed, but they were tucked away.
‘Salutations!’ Zeenat arrived, breathless, high-pitched. The aide bowed and retreated, immediately bumping into his furious and panting master.
‘Agha, he did not respond…’
‘Baba – aaah!’ began Zeenat simultaneously, as Shamsher grabbed her arm and jerked her around.
‘What are you doing, Zeenat! Are you insane? Or trying to drag us down with y –?’
‘We only want to ask him something… Let go – our arm is numb!’ Her dupattah had pulled away from her face by his jerk. The aide kept his gaze on the ground, but even so got the impression of tears, of a gold-and-pearl-filigree brow tika gone awry; of a heaving throat below a trembling chin. Tears, brow, chin, throat… all open to view by the world. Any brother with the mildest conception of family honour would have plunged his dagger into that throat.
But Shamsher let go. His own failure to do honour to the family name, according to the standards of their father, muted its importance in his scheme of things. Plus, she was their father’s pet. And betrothed to the palace. For now. He should have locked her palki, though. Or tied her legs.
The man watched them silently.
‘Is Pirsah’b of the Chishti silsila?’ At least her dupattah was back in place over head and face. It was the Padshah’s fault really, for allowing his own sister so much freedom. Hazrat Jahanara, the Padshah Begum, was a regular at Dilli’s Nizamuddin dargah, inspiring all women of the highest families to follow. This was what resulted.
‘Chishti? Surely the daughter of an Amir can recognize a Chishti?’
True, thought the aide, the Chishtis were always ashrafs. Zeenat was crazy.
And unbothered. ‘How does Baba know our father?’
The man smiled, without bothering to indicate the huge cavalcade waiting on the road. ‘We forget his name, though.’
‘Our father? Amir –’
The man looked startled. Probably fear, at the great name.
‘To which silsila does Baba belong?’
‘Where is Huzoor’s father stationed presently?’ His Urdu belonged to the capital, as fluent as the aide’s.
‘Shahjahanabad. But Huzoor is from?’
‘We follow Kabir.’
‘Huzoor does not know Kabir? A great sage. The greatest, perhaps.’
‘We know this name…’ Then she turned excitedly to Shamsher. ‘Oh yes! The one who turned himself into a lion?’
The aide suddenly noticed how the knotted clusters of the overhead roots of the fig trees all around seemed to be reaching out to him, almost hungrily. And that tower just behind…
Picture Credit: Hachette India/Amita Kanekar
Excerpted with permission from Fear of Lions by Amita Kanekar, Hachette India.
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