The air in the café is buzzing with the murmurs of the crowd; it is filled with whooshing sounds of the percolator, ripping with the aromas of many coffees. The door swivels and they swagger in. Today too he looks fresh.
“Long day,” he pipes. It’s noon.
“But productive.” The man behind him loosens his tie a bit.
They make way, let a girl pass. They are tired, but exuberant. Today they have cut the deal. The patent is sold, their worth has multiplied. Soon they would be rich.
“Please, one espresso macchiato!” His eyes smile at the girl at the cash-register.
“You saw how they looked?” He turns to his friend.
“You saw how she looked?” He means the rambunctious chairwoman of the Company.
“Aw, that means nothing.” He says dismissively. “It’s just me.” He polishes his nails ever so slightly on his shirt and blows on them.
Coffee in hand, they head back. There is one last meeting to attend.
He has just spun around and hello, what’s this? A face, a neoclassical makeover really, a woman with sharp features, attractive, naturally, why else would she catch his attention, hair neatly gelled close to her head, tied in a bun at the back. Like him, she hails from the land of Hind. She is seated near the door, the gilded windowpane surrounds her like a picture-frame but that is not the only reason she looks like a portrait. Graceful folds of glazed pink silk brocade wrap her shapely shoulders. The lady, clad in a sari, looks like a model embedded between the covers of Vanity Fair. Around her neck is a richly chased gold necklace studded with gems. But the eye-popper is her ring. A hooded cobra’s head sculpted out of yellow gold loops wickedly around her finger. Even from that distance he feels its forked tongue flicking, its pigeon-blood eyes – rubies - bulging and oval, conveying something evil. He, a software designer by profession, has a passion for precious stones. He assesses the pair of rubies to be at least six carats each. His eyes are dazzled by this neo-princess and as he approaches her, he realizes that he has spent a good many seconds dwelling upon her. He reminds himself that one of the biggest offenses an NRI guy can cause to an NRI dame is to ignore her completely when passing her by in a Starbucks. So he flashes a quick grin. Not enough, he feels. He must complement it with something said. So, “Hi Ruby!” he mutters and with a smile, he is gone.
Back in the café, the young woman jumps in her chair. She pulls out her cell-phone and speaks excitedly into it, “Hear this! He said Hi to me.”
At home, in the evening as he goes out for a run he is indulging in thoughts of a Ferrari. How nice that would be, he is thinking as he reaches the incline that falls on his right. He tries to keep his climb steady and as the incline eases and he reaches the top, the headlights of a cab parked outside a house dazzle him somewhat. The passenger door being open as he smoothly jogs by; he peers in and is startled. Why, it is the portrait-princess of this morning! Same hair, necklace, rubies, all still there, only the silken wrap that drapes her shoulders is of turquoise color. In his life he detests drastic changes so this is pleasing. He stops and cannot help asking, “Didn’t I see you this morning? At Starbucks.”
She looks up at him and the movement of her head seems contrived. This too is an art, he makes a note. She has handed the bills to the driver and has stepped out. There is a look of recognition and maybe even a hint of a smile. He pushes the scene forward: What a coincidence! I am Sultan. By what name may I address you, Princess? Milady?
But she does not giggle, instead blurts out, “Is it possible that you have forgotten already?”
He is puzzled by this response and even as he thinks, he marvels at the way she has raised just one of her brows.
He narrows his eyes, locks his gaze with the evil eyes twirled round her finger and tries, “Ruby?”
“Oh!” Confusion, now she understands. Her smile is like a flash of lustrous pearls. She pushes her hand forwards, “My name is Roopee. But I am meeting some friends tonight.” She indicates the house.
“Of course.” He shuffles his feet, preparing to leave. “Shall we meet sometime – again?”
They decide to meet the next day.
Next day, he learns all about her. An up-and-comer, based ‘here’, fashion’s her passion, been working on developing a signature style. Her voice sounds so like the rustle of the fall leaves as one walks in the woods, he is thinking.
The end of the week; he test drives the Ferrari and she is by his side.
By next month they go on a trip. They’ve made half a dozen long drives together and each time they drive with the cover down. Strands of hair, kept tame under the tight wrap of the loose end of her teal sari, misbehave and fly around her face in big circles, wildly and repeatedly. She is seated by his side and is laughing and he turns to look what the matter is. He feels he could easily lose himself in the pools of those bewildering eyes.
“Uh-oh! This has to be love,” she whispers into the cell-phone as he walks inside the gas-station kiosk to make a payment. They are spending the weekend at the Big Bear Resort.
He is with his two loves, the enigmatic lady and his red Ferrari. He drives up in high gear and turns his head to catch a quick glimpse of her. Roopee’s profile in the frameless sky, the panoramic view illuminated by the sun that is about to sink into the placid lake on his left forming the backdrop, rivets him. He brings her hand to his lips, caresses it and returns his gaze to the road.
“This ring? You never told me, is it a special memento, an old gift. It is quite remarkable and expensive.” He asks her, breaking the long silence.
“The ring?” She sets her hand in front of her face as if it’s a map she is studying with great attention. She looks at the ring lovingly. “It is quite old. An heirloom of sorts!” She bursts into an incongruous laughter, startling him. Then her laughter dissolves into a thoughtful silence. He waits for her to continue and finally she does.
“My family, you see, is a family of bhaley log – decent people.” That was a strange thing to say. He feels her gaze resting on him.
“The ancestor who brought this ring into our family, I am afraid, was not. Umm, do you want to hear more? You might develop a dislike for me, knowing the dark hidden past of my family?”
“Hell yes! All families of note hide some wickedness. So,” he swerves the Ferrari sharply around a wild curve, “Out with it.”
“Firangia was the name of this ancestor. To the world he was a respectable landowner but he had a hidden vocation - that was his real calling. Sultan, my ancestor was a Thug.”
Once again he swerves the car, this time around the shoulder and stops there. It happens to be one of those scenic stations. He gapes into the air for a while. Then he speaks in an incredulous voice: “A Thug, as in the Thugs of Narmada, the servants of Kali, who by Her orders, killed travelers without shedding a drop of their blood by strangling them?”
He had read about them in his idle days of College, he tells her.
“Why, Roopee? Firangia was the prince of Thugs! And you hide him in the closet?”
She steps out of the car and gazes at the scenic view for a long time. When they return, they exchange no more words and drive to their rented lakefront lodge.
Next morning she is positioned in the front as they kayak. A cheerful yellow sun is brightening the air around them. He would be content paddling and humming, he thinks, if the sunbeams did not keep catching into the blood-red eyes of her snake-ring. Clearing his throat, he ventures, “We stopped at your ancestor yesterday but we never could get to the story of the ring itself.”
He waits a while and when she remains quiet he figures she probably has not heard him. But he does not repeat his question and keeps paddling, absorbing the beauty around him at the same time so that when she starts to speak, he is quite surprised.
“You want to hear it, so I will tell you. This Firangia, who lived around the turn of the nineteenth century, suffered from an irrepressible itch to roam distant provinces of the country. Every year he would tear himself away from the sweet domestic life just so his blood could stir up a bit after months of staidness. One year he set out in the company of more than a hundred men. He learnt of a Mughal noble mounted on a fine horse and attended by numerous servants traveling their same way. The news clapped a stop on all thoughts of his daughter’s small hands, the sweet scent emanating from the cow’s shed and the tight clasp of his wife’s strong arms. What was the softness of the chapattis from his mother’s kitchen but a leash to keep him tied to the post of decent life?
“His scouts informed him that the Mughal was well armed, majestic and known to be courageous. ‘A bow and a quiver filled with arrows over his shoulders, waistband braced with loaded pistols and a handsome sword by his side!’
““Handsome, eh? I want that sword,” he declared.”
Roopee, he notices, has lost her languid tone and changed also is her countenance. Both her hands have come to life and she is making lavish flourishes with them as she tells the story, neglecting the paddling altogether, not that it matters.
“A small detachment of Thugs, clothed only in loincloths, unarmed, met the handsome, kohl-eyed Mughal and his party of servants adorned with gaily-colored turbans. Three beasts of burden carrying their chattels, one pony even balanced a boy of thirteen or fourteen on top of the entire load, moved laboriously amongst the Thugs.
“The Thugs tried respectfully to strike a conversation with the noble traveler. The road is dangerous, sahib! They informed him. Pointing at his men and his arms, Khan sahib scoffed at them.
“They stressed the necessity for travelers to keep together for mutual security. “My party feels secure with me,” the haughty man claimed as he overtook those modest itinerant land-tillers.
“The Thugs expressed their longing to take advantage of the protection of such a well-armed group to which the Mughal retorted that he did not care for any unfamiliar additions to his party.
“And finally, to make his point he turned his horse around and unsheathing his sword, roared, “Leave!””
Roopee is telling her story to the lake, to the faint mountains in the distance, to the clear air that is flushing the nostrils and refreshing the lungs when inhaled. Her hands are dancing like two snakes to some music that haunts and dictates. A finger wags in the air, a hand flashes there, a fist opens in rejection, and when the Thugs have been sent off the fingers of her hand caress the water in a resigned fashion and she is quiet for a while.
“But these Thugs,” she continues, “they were not ones to dishearten easily. In the evening, a second group arrived to lodge in the same sarai as the Mughal. They made their acquaintance with the man’s retinue of servants and by nightfall, his butler sat huddled between two of the senior Thugs, murmuring to them the details of the problems awaiting him back home in the village. One Thug would nod, the other give counsel. The cook, fat and contented, reclined nearby, scraping his teeth with his fingers and listening, and when a while later he changed position and sighed, the boy, who had been pressing his uncle’s feet in massage, moved over to him and said, “Turn around, Daddu! I’ll fix that back,” and started to walk all over it. On the other side of the room, with his head turned away from the group, the sickly hookah-preparer coughed and told two others from the party of the various remedies he had come up with. The two Thugs had been discussing their ambitions and fears and privations with him and he, at the first opportunity, started revealing to them his secret recipes. Khan sahib’s groom sat in between the two groups, listening to both conversations, adding his bits to one or the other. The night spent in whispers led to the formation of new friendships which the advent of dawn brought to an abrupt end when the party of Thugs departed the sarai earlier than the Mughal’s retinue. However, when later in the day Khan sahib’s party, being all horsemen, met the Thugs again, the servants slowed down to greet their friends of the night before. This time when Khan sahib ordered the men to leave, his servants vouched for their friends’ respectabilities. Of course the Mughal was having none of all that and the Thugs had to admit defeat a second time.”
Roopee picks up the paddle and changes the course. The lake is vast, sea-like. Till now Sultan has been keeping close enough to the bank. But she is now paddling vigorously away from land. Sultan shrugs his shoulders and paddles on.
“In the middle of a vast and uninhabited plain, the next day, the Mughal’s party came upon a party of a dozen or so Muslim soldiers, ragged and poor, sitting by the side of a dead companion. They were Firangia and his men, disguised, and the dead man, a lone traveler they had killed hours before. Victims for them, Sultan, were like roasted groundnuts one cracks to break the boredom of a long trip. Between sobs they unveiled their story to Khan sahib: Sepoys in John Company’s army, they were going to Lucknow, ‘on our way to report for duty, sahib. Barely had we put half the way behind us and this unfortunate man could not take the exhaustion any more. Drops dead, like this!’ He let the cane he was holding drop on the ground. ‘And so young, just look. Now who will believe us back home?’ He threw away his sepoy’s cap in frustration, it was too hot to be wearing the red jacket of the uniform. They were, in fact, attired – one and all - in loincloths and under-vests and just one of them, Firangia, bothered with the cap. ‘He leaves behind a young wife and an old father in the village. Someone will have to tell them. I can’t do that, Ballu. Are you listening?’ He turned to Ballu. The others shook their heads dolefully. And Ballu took over the talking, ‘Such are the ways of the grand choreographer who sits up there, sahib. It is all His show. All we can do is keep playing our parts. Now, as you see we have prepared a grave for our friend right here,’ this pointing to a hole they had dug nearby. ‘But we are poor unlettered men, sahib, not learned in the sooras and the kulmas as dictated in the holy Koran. We cry because we cannot perform the last rites for our friend.’ With bathed eyes they looked up at the Mughal and asked him if he could perhaps perform their friend’s last office for them. Thinking that it would be shameful to refuse such an appeal, the young Mughal dismounted his horse and had a carpet spread and the body placed in the proper position – head pointing towards Mecca. Removing his weapons he called for water and washed his hands, feet and face. This done, he knelt and began to repeat the funeral service in a clear loud voice. A Thug stood on each side of him, and the others a few paces behind with the servants. And when all was ready my ancestor who you find so heroic gave the signal, scarves were thrown around the necks of the victims and a few moments later Khan sahib and his servants were dead and lying in the prepared grave.”
The story has reached its end and Roopee is steering the kayak around. They are returning.
At lunch, Roopee has been working on the soup for some time. Sultan does not care for soups and waits for his main order with patience. Since the storytelling, she is quieter, he senses. So thinking this might lift her mood, he draws a conclusion, “Well, you know what they say about the one who has the most hunger getting the dough.” Roopee spoons up some soup and when his order arrives, they eat quietly for a while. He takes a final sip of the Pinot Grigio, a creation of the local winery, and tries to feel how it continues to intrigue. This wine is destined to charm, he tells himself. He calls the waiter and asks for a refill.
“So this ring was part of the loot.” He tries a slightly different thread. But it does not seem to him that she is listening.
“What an intriguing story, Roops!” he goes on.
She sounds disconnected when she mumbles, “For mere money, Sultan? For mere money?”
He savors the wine before speaking. “Let’s not pretend to be shocked. Gold was as much the driving force back then as now. But I like to also believe that it was the devotion to the Goddess that really motivated your great-great grandfather.”
“Who he worshipped matters not to me! He performed odious acts using treacherous methods and I spit on that.” Her eyes flash in anger.
Now Sultan too happens to believe that it is the choreographer up there who runs the show, not people. He’s no analyst, does not judge the characters. He’s a spectator, just show him a good play.
Trapped in his thoughts, he runs a finger on the back of her hand lying idly on the table next to her half-nibbled dessert. When it stops at the head of the cobra, his voice is tired and he says, “How is it possible, Roopee, that you condemn the man, yet accept his legacy?”
They dance on the dance floor at dinner and then walk under the moonlit sky. The stars watch them with unblinking love. Now in bed Roopee, tired and content with the day, breathes gently whereas a sea change is taking place inside him. He holds between his fingers her cobra ring lying in its box on the side table. Thoughts that send shudders down his back start striking roots in his unsettled mind.
He thinks about the things that he had heard during the day. Roopee’s attitude irks him, for one thing he resents is when ancestors are maligned. He thinks about his own ancestors. One ancestor, in particular, Nawab Shaukat Ali Khan, separated from him by five generations, had always intrigued him as a child. “Oh, that heartbreaker, a cold, cruel man,” his grandmother would start with an invariable lament each time he posed a question about him. He was no lover of women. There were other things he loved more - horses, kite-flying and gold to name a few. Besides, he had his pick of women, for what Nawab did not have concubines? However it was the Nawab’s shoddy treatment of the most beautiful woman of his times that Sultan’s grandmother found unpardonable. The story went that the Nawab’s best friend was in love with the princess, the young woman who later became the Nawab’s wife. The princess too was not indifferent to him. But his friend was just a common man and she being the daughter of a nobleman, the match was out of question for her family to consider. Wanting to make the point to his friend that the fire of love counts for nothing in this world, especially when placed against wealth, the Nawab asked for the princess’s hand for himself. He was the son of the ruler of Hamlapur, the heir-apparent, so of course, they agreed. It is said that the Nawab turned his marriage into a good deal for himself by negotiating as part of the dowry the acquisition of some of the finest rubies that could be found in Hindustan and that were in the ownership of his would-be father-in-law. The noble had the rubies set on a gold ring of a special design and with great pomp it was presented to the Nawab at the wedding. It is further said that on the eve of his wedding his best friend killed himself, and that the Nawab spent most of the short life with his wife largely ignoring her. The year their first and only child was to be born, he left with his servants on a pleasure trip, never to return again. Armies of men were sent out, searches were made, but the Nawab had simply vanished. The son that was born grew up knowing nothing about his father, nor did the Nawab have any knowledge of the existence of a son. Still, in the summers that as a boy Sultan spent in his family’s palace in Hamlapur, he often paused in front of his ancestor’s portrait in the long hallway, studying his features, trying to imagine the man who if he were to be alive now, would be two hundred and five years old.
He is lying on his side, knees pulled to his chest like the boy of those summers, twisting the ring that he holds between his fingers. “Why didn’t I see it? How could I miss it?” He curses himself, calls himself stupid. This is the ring that adorns the Nawab’s finger in the portrait and only now he makes the connection. For some time he listens to the quiet breathing of the beautiful woman sleeping by his side. Then he places the ring back in its box.
Issue 94 (Nov-Dec 2020)