It was the time when Badshah Salamat was returning after signing a treaty with Hussain shah, the ruler of Bengal. A lot of chaos and blood was averted as both the kings had sealed a political friendship. The ruler of Bengal presented the Sultan of Delhi, Sikander lodhi, a tohfa (gift) as a departing felicitation.
I was the 15 year old tohfa and the youngest addition to the King’s Harem, a priest’s daughter. I had forgotten my voice after they abducted me from the ghats of Jamna, where I witnessed my father’s martyrdom.
Upon arrival, I was examined to make sure I didn’t have any physical defects or any diseases. I was taken to the Hamam (bath house) and taught how to clean according to the traditions.
My education began with religious training about Islam, etiquette at the royal court and skill training in embroidery. Most time was spent caged in the four walls of this glamorous inferno where they taught us the palace attitude, how to greet people, and walk backwards to leave the Sultan’s room. The other concubines told me, Sultan liked his women obedient, silent and who had firm flesh. Apart from the fear, terror and suffocation there was a relief of security and a foolish hope of becoming the Sultan’s confidant.
Most girls were awestruck with him. Sikander was endowed with an extraordinary physical charm, had a rare quality of eloquence and was fond of literature and poetry. After knowing his inclination towards poetry, I felt my first connection with Sultan, a week before I was scheduled to serve him.
The harem was comfy prison which housed beautiful foreign girls. The prison wardens were eunuchs who kept a close watch on us. Sometimes they brought news and gossip. One of them told me, Badshah salamat was born as the third son of his father Bahlol from the abduction and rape of Ziba, the daughter of a Hindu goldsmith of Sirhind.
Sikander was a devout Muslim and was intolerant towards non believers. From the Jharokha, I watched him practice his Morning Prayer and recitation of the Quran before he began his administrative duties. May be he noticed me too, but that was only my imagination.
The night of my first encounter with Sultan arrived. I took timid steps towards his bed where he lay. My gaze never moved from the floor, carpeted with white feathers. Sultan approached, gently lifted my face and asked, ‘What’s your name, delicate one?’
‘R... Ruk... Rukhsar,’ I answered faintly, ending a year long silence and beginning a barren relationship. A night after another and in a few weeks, I became his preferred.
Sultan was kind to me. Sometimes he would spend the entire night talking gallantly about his conquests and even reading his poetry. He composed poems more often than before, called me his missing inspiration. At times, I could find myself in his compositions, which described the way he saw me;
Her sapphire eyes and chestnut hair,
Masha-allah is there a maiden so fair?
Tender like a bird, yet fierce like a sword,
Her touch is gold, her absence despair.
On a moon lit night he called me his Gulrukh (Rose face) and soberly told that he had to leave the city for his next conquest. He gave me his Persian katar (dagger) as a safety measure. With a promise to write letters, the next morning he left for his expedition against Gwalior.
At the court, the other concubines had already grown hostile due to his fondness towards me. They all saw me as a thorn in their way. With the Sultan gone and after a week of alienation, I was thrown in the dungeons.
I cried for days, begged for weeks to let me out and speak to Sultan, but no one returned a word. I never received a letter from him. I was hurt beyond repair and felt deceived. After two months, the misery came to an end when a guard on official orders grouted me with a bow string.
It was a fleeting vision, oblique like the rays of sun. My cheek rested on a dusty floor, followed by a fainting sight of footsteps leaving the cellar. A familiar white feather swirled with my last gasp.
A constant screeching on the stone walls broke my spiritual sleep. A hand with a pointy stone drew something on my face. Baffled, I aviated out of the wall surface and saw some designs. The jharoka has been my home for some 500 years. These walls had several clustered letters drawn on them. Apart from hearts, arrows, petals and leaves I never understood what they meant.
A young boy and a girl were talking some sweet nothings and it seemed acceptable. Strangers visit this place, ignorant of the dead. Insufficiently dressed people pose openly in the gardens just to be seen by another man through small black bricks.
I moved away to the corridors of the mosque which once shimmered in all its beauty. The tiles had lost their blues, but I hadn’t. Sikander’s faux promise still aches like a violent cut refusing to turn into a scar. I spent countless days and nights revolving around his tomb with the katar. Maybe someday he will rise and I will confront him.
Sometimes I hesitantly stare at his grave, and he appears to be smirking at me for my ignorance. And I laugh, at how foreign people use his burial site for reading, exercising, and feeding birds, completely disregarding his once royal being. These realizations are only a failed attempt to feel better. So, I looked at the sky and hatefully cursed him.
A sudden thunderstorm struck and a flock of pigeons near his grave, dispersed in fright.
One of them shed a feather. It glided down gently and perched on Sikander’s grave. As it did, the grave started sinking in the ground. The tomb pillars and walls started falling apart. The earth swallowed everything that surrounded it. In that bewildered minute, the spot turned into a vast green field with only an old banyan tree under which I stood. I saw a vague shadow of a horse coming in my direction. As the vision got better, I couldn’t trust my eyes.
It was Sultan! He stooped on the horse’s back, bloody and wounded, like escaped from a battle. My eyes pooled.
He fell from the horse and I rushed to help him. His hand hung around my shoulder as he struggled to sit, and uttered with pain, ‘Rukhsar, my love. Forgive me. I failed to keep my promise. I am a gunehgaar.’
‘Rukhsar has always loved you Jehanpanah,’ I choked and tears escaped.
‘Ya Allah,’ he ached ‘only your love can save me my Gulrukhsar,’ he pleaded.
‘My father taught me, God is one and can’t be split into Ram and Rahim. Like my love, once ignorant of names and beliefs,’ I reminisced.
‘What do you mean Rukhsar?’ he was puzzled.
‘The priest you burnt alive, was my father. And I am Rukhmani, not Rukhsar.’
I silenced him with a jab of katar in his chest. A few minutes later I started flying on my own, amazed at my new white feathers.