Friday, 22 July 2011

Crown of Thorns

 Note: This is an Alternate History story where the Mughal Empire endured to the present time, and the British Raj never existed. I wrote it a couple of years ago and I'm posting it here at a friend's request. Here you go.


All that is easy to say.”

The Emperor Shah Alam III turned back to the window. Across the sea of trees and rooftops he could see the Jama Masjid, where he could no longer go because of the threat to his life. It had been many months since he had last ventured outside the sandstone walls of the Red Fort.

“It’s very easy to make such demands, Your Excellency,” he repeated. He kept his eyes on the three domes of the mosque. It seemed like a symbol of unattainable freedom, although he wasn’t religious and never offered prayer anyway except as a formality. “But it’s not possible for me to fulfil them.”

The American Ambassador coughed slightly, so that the Emperor of Hindustan had to turn around and look at him. “Your Majesty,” he said, “I understand your difficulties, but you must do something to open up your markets and stop these attacks on the assets of US owned companies.”

“There is nothing I can do,” said the Emperor. “I have no authority. I’m a prisoner of my nominal vassals – as you know perfectly well.”

The American Ambassador had a shiny red face that was sweating even under the whirling ceiling fan. He took out a large white handkerchief and energetically rubbed the sweat away. “Your Majesty,” he said, “you are still the Emperor of Hindustan.” Was there possibly just the slightest trace of emphasis on still? “When you say something, you have authority behind you. Anyone opposing you opposes the will of the Emperor of Hindustan.”

“Yes?” The Emperor turned back to the window. “Which Emperor? You know that my authority is only as a rubber stamp, and lately not even that.” He pointed. “Over there,” he said, “are the Sikhs, who are supposed to be my vassals and owe allegiance to me; yet they have a treaty with the Afghans that can only be against me; a treaty which gives away my territories to the King of Kabul. My son Farrukh-ud-din is in Lahore, sitting in the court of Maharaja Inderjeet Singh, and the Sikhs have already recognised him as the Emperor Akbar V.

“Over there,” he said, and pointed again, “just across the river, are the Marathas. The only reason I’m still on the throne is because I’m playing off the Peshwa of the Marathas against the Sikhs. They’re both supposed to be my vassals, yet I can guarantee you that at this moment there are artillery guns zoned on this fort from both sides. Also, to the east is the Sultan of Avadh, who no longer even bothers to pay the annual tribute due from him. And of course while the jihad warriors grow more vocal by the day, there is Suresh Chandra Bose’s nationalist rebellion in the countryside and the alleys of this very city.” He smiled ironically. “I don’t even know why I’m telling you all this. You probably know it better than I do.”

“If you would request military assistance,” said the Ambassador, “the US wouldn’t hesitate to send the Marine Corps to your aid.”

“And if it did,” said Shah Alam, looking back over his shoulder, “What sort of war would they start? How long would they stay? And what would it do to my authority, as you put it, to be seen as the puppet of a foreign occupier?”

“We could work that all out beforehand, Your Majesty. It wouldn’t be a permanent stay.” Behind his rimless spectacles the American Ambassador’s eyes were gleaming. “But if you choose to let things drift, you may no longer have a choice.”

Shah Alam stared at him for a long moment, and then nodded to himself. “All right,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do.” He walked over to the large white man and shook his hand. “So good of you to come,” he said. “I’ll keep what you said in mind.”

After the American had gone he walked across the room and out on the balcony. From here the Yamuna was a strip of dark blue across the city, and on the other side he could see the huge new construction projects. He had issued permits for none of them.

“What are you going to do?” the voice sounded at his shoulder, and he started. Usually he knew when she was around, but not this time; he was preoccupied and she moved very silently.

Jahan Ara Begum was one of those women who grow better looking with age. She knew it and never tried to hide the wrinkles and the sagging skin at her throat. Her greying hair was pulled back to the base of her skull and her head was held high.

“You heard him?”

“Of course I heard him. His threat was rather clear. What do you intend to do, issue an Imperial Proclamation?”

“They’ll laugh at it, of course.” Shah Alam glanced at his First Consort. “I’m sixty-seven years old,” he said. “I’ve been Emperor for two years. I became Emperor at an age when most people are retiring from their jobs. I’m too old for this.”

“There’s no such thing as too old,” said Jahan Ara Begum. “And you can’t duck the responsibility by saying you’re too old.”

 “What do you advise me to do?”

 “I think you should meet Bose,” she said. “I can arrange a meeting if you want.”

“Bose?” The Emperor of Hindustan wrinkled his nose delicately. “Bose is a terrorist. Bose wants the crown gone. How can I meet Bose?”

“Perhaps you don’t want to meet him. But if you want the Americans and the Chinese and the other foreigners to stay out, that’s what you will need to do.”

“I can’t be seen to be meeting him,” said the Emperor. “There are spies everywhere. I don’t know how to go about meeting him anyway. ”

“You won’t have to worry about that,” said his First Consort. “Leave it to me. I have my contacts. ”

I heard you had a visit from the American Ambassador,” said Bose.

He was sitting with the Emperor in a room far underground, a room accessed by a narrow twisting flight of steps from within the fort, and also through certain passageways leading from one of the old houses in the vicinity. There were several such rooms. Many of them had been long forgotten.

The two men were alone. That had been one of the conditions for the meeting, as well as the stipulation that neither man would carry either arms or any form of recording equipment. Jahan Ara Begum had herself arranged somewhat elaborate safeguards to ensure that.  

“News gets around, does it?” The Emperor Shah Alam looked curiously at the man across the table. He had never seen him in the flesh before, and found it difficult to believe that this round-faced bespectacled man, bald already at forty, could be considered a dangerous demagogue by anyone, let alone the insurgent leader he knew him to be. “What did you hear he talked about?”

“What do they all talk about? Opening up the economy so their companies can exploit it, isn’t that so?” Bose leaned forward across the desk, his eyes large and moist like glistening black stones. “Are you going to give in to their demands?”

“I can’t please them all,” said Shah Alam. “The Chinese and the Europeans and the Americans all want the best terms for their own companies and businesses, and I know they have the money to buy influence, even in this court.”

Especially in this court.”

The Emperor inclined his head slightly. “I won’t pretend you aren’t right about the court. It’s rotten to the core.”

“But the Americans are the richest and most persistent,” said Bose. “If you had to give in to any one of them, you’d give in to the Americans. Isn’t that so?”

“The religious brotherhood hates the Americans. If I gave too much away, I’d be faced with a jihad right in this city. And once that sort of thing gets started, it never ends.” Shah Alam smiled slightly. “It’s an awkward position,” he said. “I have no authority and yet everything is done in my name, or in the name of the crown. So I’m responsible for everything.”

 “So what are you going to do?” asked Bose.

“I don’t know. I don’t even have an army, not even a ceremonial one. Probably that’s just as well. If I had had one I’d probably be afraid of a coup d’etat.”

“In a way,” mused Bose, “the American was right. “You have the moral authority as the monarch of Hindustan. If you would issue a statement to the people – they might obey, or at least they wouldn’t actively oppose it too much.”

“I can’t issue anything without clearing it first with the vassals,” said Shah Alam. “Once my forefathers ruled all this land, and now I can’t even read a Proclamation without having it cleared by people of whom I am supposed to be the suzerain.” He hesitated. “I don’t suppose you’re advocating my giving in to the Americans, are you?”

“Of course not. We are as opposed to the Americans as the jihadis are, though we’re opposed to the jihadis as well. But if you don’t give the Americans all they want, Washington will have you overthrown. And if you give the Americans all they want at their expense, the Europeans will have you overthrown. Everyone wants control of the markets and the resources of Hindustan. And of course your ministers are in their pay.”

“Of course they are,” the Emperor agreed. “So, if I give in to one side, I’ll get it from the others? I actually thought of that. But then, what good will a proclamation by me do? None whatever.”

“You’re getting there. A proclamation would do no good. So you must do something more.”

“What else can I do? I’ve thought of abdicating, but they won’t let me do that either. I’m too useful as a puppet. Emperor of Hindustan!”

“There is something you can do,” said Bose, the insurgent leader. “And only you can decide if you want to do it.”

The Begum Jahan Ara, First Consort of the Emperor of Hindustan, Shah Alam III of the line of Timur-i-Leng, came out of her chambers and looked for her favourite lady-in-waiting. “Madhavi,” she called.

“Yes, lady.” Over the years the Hindu woman had become Jahan Ara’s closest friend and confidant, but nothing on earth would persuade her to call the older woman anything less formal than “lady”.

“Please inform the Emperor that I would like to meet him.” Normally, Jahan Ara dispensed with such formalities, but this was a special code; it implied that Shah Alam should make himself available where they could not be overheard. “And please tell him that his humble slave would be grateful if he could manage that expeditiously.” His humble slave was another piece of the code; it meant the business was urgent and could not wait.

“Yes, lady.” Throwing a puzzled glance at her mistress, Madhavi departed. Her mistress was showing signs of disquiet, something completely in contrast to her usual glacial calm. She herself felt uneasy at the thought that there was something that could discompose Jahan Ara.

Left to herself, Jahan Ara went back into her chambers. She lived away from the other wives, in chambers of her own, high up in the fort. As far as she could, she kept herself aloof from what would once have been called a harem. She had no children, and not for the first time in her life she was happy about that. Her childlessness meant she had no personal ambitions; if she gave him advice, the Emperor could trust her without worrying about whether she was advancing her son’s interests at the expense of his half-siblings. Childlessness also offered a measure of protection from the jealousy of the other consorts, and for that she was grateful. 

Jahan Ara stood in front of her ornate mirror and arranged her hair and clothing. Deftly, she daubed a tiny touch of rouge on her cheekbones, and stepped back for a final check.

She was sixty-two years old and had never looked better. As she aged, the flesh melted off her bones and revealed their fine structure, hinting at a devastating past beauty not quite faded, beauty she had in fact never possessed. While she had no compunction using her appearance to get her way, she was not particularly impressed by beauty. Brains had always ranked higher than beauty in her estimation, and brains she had, she knew, in abundance.

By the time the lady-in-waiting had returned with the Emperor’s reply to her message she had composed herself. Her usual glacial calm had asserted itself and she felt confident again, her thoughts running smoothly, trying to find a way out of the situation. She wondered how much the emperor knew. Not much, she was sure, if anything: those around him ensured real news was kept from his ears.

From the passage outside her room she could see down to the courtyard of the palace. A dark green military truck stood there, with uniformed Sikh soldiers descending from it. For a moment she felt sheer horror, thinking it had begun already and that she was too late. Then she realised that it was merely the changing of the honour guard, the Sikhs taking over from the Marathas, since the Emperor of Hindustan had not a single soldier of his own.

She found the Emperor standing at a corner of the courtyard, watching the tall Sikh soldiers with their smart camouflage fatigues and their automatic rifles as they deployed from their trucks. Some of the soldiers glanced his way, but none showed any move to salute. Their allegiance was to the Maharaja Inderjeet Singh, not to the Emperor of Hindustan.

Jahan Ara ignored the soldiers and waited for a moment, studying her husband. He had clearly aged in the last years, she saw; his eyes had sunken, his beard looked grey and sparse. Instead of the smart business suits his sons all wore, he still preferred the old-style robes, and they hung loosely from his gaunt body. She felt a sudden rush of affection for him, affection she had not felt for years. He was a weak man, she knew, but he was not a bad man. That counted for something.

The Emperor saw her and gave a tiny nod of his turbaned head. They walked casually together around the courtyard, in full view of the soldiers and courtiers and palace staff. It was the best form of secrecy; no one would imagine that such a public meeting could ever be anything but innocent.

“I have information.” Jahan Ara smiled at her husband, brightly. “You don’t need to know the source, just that he’s always been reliable. The Sikhs are planning to take over within the next couple of days.”

“They are?” Shah Alam seemed beyond surprise. “And they intend to put Farrukh-ud-din on the throne, of course?”

“Of course.” Aware that one of the Sikh soldiers was watching them keenly, and wary of lip-readers, Jahan Ara put her hand to her mouth as if to cover up a cough. “They have the charge of the guard, so they don’t even have to send in soldiers. They’ll arrest you, they’ll put him on the throne and declare him Emperor of Hindustan and present the Peshwa and Avadh with a fait accompli.”

“Sometimes,” said Shah Alam, “I feel I should abdicate in his favour. But even that would do no good.”

“No, it wouldn’t. He’ll be only a tool of Maharaja Inderjeet Singh and the Afghans, and he’s going to do their bidding, and then there will be civil war.” 

“Maybe – no, that wouldn’t be any good, would it? Asking for help from the Americans?”

“D’you really imagine,” the Emperor’s First Consort asked him, pointing up at the red sandstone battlements, “that the Americans don’t know about it already? Of course,” she added, “it might be the Europeans, or the Chinese; but it’s most likely the Americans who are behind it. Not that it makes all that much of a difference in the long run.”

“Suppose I were to send a message to the Peshwa warning him of what was going on?”

“Sadashiv Rao,” Jahan Ara said, “has no particular interest in seeing you on the throne. He’s more likely to attack the Sikhs and start a war to try and put one of your other sons, Muzaffar for instance, on the throne to be his puppet instead. Don’t pin any hopes on the Marathas.”

“Then,” said Shah Alam, “what choice do I have? There’s nothing I can do.”

“There is. Remember you are the Emperor of Hindustan, still the Emperor of Hindustan as the white man said. As long as you are free and able to act as the Emperor, nobody can call Farrukh or Muzaffar anything but a usurper. But you must be free.”

“You mean...leave the Fort?”

“Of course I do. You talked to Bose. Did you think of what he said?”

“He’s dangerous...a terrorist. He wants me to join him!”

“Well, what alternative do you have?” Jahan Ara suppressed an urge to shake her husband by the shoulder. “If you leave the Fort, you can issue declarations without being stopped; and to the world you’ll still be the legitimate Emperor. Bose sees that too. He sees that if you’re on his side he gains legitimacy and so do you, because whatever else he is, Bose is not a puppet for anyone.”
“And suppose I did this,” said Shah Alam, watching the tall Sikh soldiers at their positions, “supposing I went over to Bose, then just what happens here in the Fort? I can’t abandon you either, you know.”

“If you leave the Fort and join Bose,” Jahan Ara said, “then there won’t even be a point putting Farrukh-ud-din on the throne. Even Inderjeet Singh will see that would be a counterproductive act, and he’ll back off. So you don’t need to worry about me. And someone needs to run things here.” She snorted. “If you’ll pardon the pun, someone needs to hold the Fort.”

“Just look at them,” Shah Alam said, inclining his head at a group of Inderjeet Singh’s troops, who stood by the tailgate of a truck, talking animatedly. “They can’t even be bothered to acknowledge that I exist.”

“As far as they’re concerned,” she said, “you don’t. Not really.”

“Do you really think Bose can win? They will all be against him you know. The Peshwa, the Maharaja, even the Sultan of Avadh. They’ll bury their differences to make sure he won’t win.”

“Does it really matter,” said Jahan Ara Begum, speaking more to herself than to her husband, “whether he wins? What is a life without a purpose, when you come right down to it?  What purpose is a life where you have a crown you cannot wear, and have authority you can’t wield? At least you could be a real king outside. If only I had that chance!”     

“All right,” said Shah Alam, “I’ll do it. But how can I get out of here? I’m a prisoner, no matter what they call it.”

Jahan Ara gave a great sigh. “I’m glad you will,” she said simply. “As for how, leave it to me. I’ll arrange things, never fear.” She held his hand suddenly. “Can you come up to my rooms? I don’t know if we’ll ever meet again.”

He came.

In the earliest morning, in this season, the fog off the Yamuna lies heavy on the streets of Delhi, and sometimes it does not clear until eight or nine in the morning. On the banks of the river, just after dawn, the fog is especially heavy, and the wall of white is blinding.

In this fog, then, a watcher would have seen a small group of shadows waiting on the river bank near the vague outline of an inflatable rubber boat. They started at the sudden scuff of leather and stone, and there was a murmur of voices. A single silhouette emerged from the mist and approached the group, and everyone climbed into the boat, which thrust itself away from the shore and vanished with a small splash of oars.

The Emperor of Hindustan, Shah Alam III, descendant of Mughal Emperors past, had joined the insurgents in rebellion against his own titular crown.

For many people, kings and commoners, things would never be the same again.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2009

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