1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 06
Red Fort, The Gardens
The siblings had barely greeted one another when the honeybee flew between them to land on the orchid. It crawl into the purple folds of the flower, seeking the nectar within and drawing the prince and princess to watch in appreciative silence. Long moments passed, the heavy bloom trembling.Â Eventually the honeybee took flight from the flower, releasing the siblings from stillness much as it scattered the flower’s golden pollen.
As the interloping insect disappeared deeper into the gardens, wingbeats joining the hum of the others of its hive, Dara Shikoh and Jahanara leaned back and regarded one another, much as they had many times before and, God willing, would have opportunity to do for many years to come.
Putting away her desire to immediately transcribe the beauty of the bee’s flight into poetry, Jahanara waited for her brother to speak. She noted his smooth brow was furrowed under the gorgeous yellow turban. She had not seen him so troubled since Aurangzeb’s poem had embarrassed him before all the court. Jahanara suppresses a shudder, recalling the events immortalized therein: the great war elephant, mad with rage and entirely out of control, trampling slaves and scattering the Imperial household. Her younger brother Aurangzeb, still only fifteen years old, calmly sitting his horse while everyone fled. The way clear, Aurangzeb charged the great bull elephant and struck it between the eyes, stinging it so badly it ceased its rampage.
The later poem that shamed those that fled brought mother’s sage advice to mind: “Men, they will always feel the bite of words stronger than steel. Steel kills, but one must live on with the words of others. Remember this, and keep your words like sharp steel, with caution and care.”
Keeping that advice uppermost in her mind, Jahanara folded hands in her lap, waiting. It was not often that their father’s eldest son came to visit, but when he did, it was nearly always to ask the same questions.
“And what of Father, sister mine?”
She smiled inwardly, not wanting to show how easily she had read him and therefore hurt his feelings. “He still pines for our beloved mother, of course. The only thing he looks forward to is the daily meeting with his advisors regarding Mother’s tomb.”
“His remaining wives?” Dara asked.
She smiled openly. She had been composing a verse this morning, a playful little thing, and used part of it now: “The harem persists in its perennial practices: showing their love of Father and whining at his inattention.”
Dara nodded absently but didn’t return her smile.
It was rare that he missed an opportunity to show his appreciation for her work. Resisting the urge to show her displeasure, she asked, “What troubles you, brother?”
“I wonder what it will take to shake Father from his grief.”
She strangled a sigh. “Must he be shaken?”
“Our family does not sit idle while one man mourns, sister.”
“No, but neither are they gathering armies to usurp Father’s place.”
“Not that we know of, at least.”
“Our friend Mian Mir, in his wisdom, would have you set aside your fear, brother.”
Dara sniffed. “I know. I would argue: it is no sin to fear for one’s family.”
“If you only feared for your family, rather than fearing certain members of it.”
Another sniff, this one companion to a bitter twist of the lips. “It has always been thus for the sons of our house.”
Thinking on the unfairness of that remark, Jahanara refused to let him see how much his self-pity annoyed her. “But our father would have it otherwise, for you.”
Looking through the walls of the garden, Dara whispered, voice so low it nearly drowned in the buzz of industrious insects about them: “Some days, I fear he might have chosen the wrong sonâ€¦”
Red Fort, The Harem
Things were quite quiet in the harem, as they had been each evening since Mother had passedâ€¦ Father had eaten his fill, and was in that state between sleep and wakefulness that a full belly and few puffs of the pipe always brought him to.
Shah Jahan had released the outer circle of the harem to find their own entertainments. The only remaining residents were Namrah and Netri, Shah Jahan’s body-slaves, and they could be relied on to keep confidences.
The time appeared right, just as Ratna had predicted. The harem astrologer had made no less than six readings before recommending this night to Jahanara.
Realizing she was thinking of other things instead of facing her fear, Jahanara spoke. “Father?”
“I would ask a favor, Father.”
“Oh?” he asked.
Jahanara swallowed sudden fear and rushed on. “I would ask that you allow me to oversee the finances of the harem.”
Shah Jahan roused, propping himself up to look across at her in the lamplight. “Why?”
She looked down. “In all honesty, I find little to challenge me.”
The emperor smiled. “You have exhausted poetry, then?”
Uncomfortable, she shrugged. “I will not marry, so what use the endless talk of love the poets engage in?”
“Daughter, look at me,” he said.
She did as he bid.
He was smiling, dark eyes sad. “You are the jewel of the world, this court, and my heart. When you pine for marriage and love, remember that it was the perils of the birthing-bed that took your mother from us. I thank God that you shall not face such danger. I do not think I could bear to have you taken to Paradise before me.”
Jahanara felt tears rising even as she bowed.
“Still, you did not come to me asking after a marriage, but control of the harem funds. The eunuch appointed the position of Khan-i-Saman has served us for some time.”
She surreptitiously wiped away tears, nodded.
Father was looking at her again. “Why this sudden desire for control over your finances?”
“Not so sudden, really.” She left unsaid the reason why she had delayed in telling him — neither of them had any desire to speak more of Mother’s loss. “I suppose you can put it down to boredom alone, but I also believe I will do a better job of it than Diwan Garyan.”
“Has the Khan-i-Saman somehow failed in his duty?”
Jahanara paused a moment. She did not hesitate for the sake of Diwan Garyan, but for her own plans — much relied on her father reacting just calmly enough to her news. “I have read the reports myself, and it appears he has failed to protect mother’s investments.”
A gross understatement, but I don’t want father executing —
As if reading her fears, Shah Jahan said, “I shall have him executed.”
“Father, please do not. At least, not yet.”
“If you decide to leave these financial matters to me, I will need him as an example when I move to establish my authority over the harem.”
“If I say you have the authority, then you shall have it.”
She shook her head. “It is not the same thing, Father: if I am the one seen to discover his failures and find reason to ask you for permission to execute him, then those who serve in the harem will know who it is they must obey, and act promptly in response to my direction.”
Father was silent for some time. So long, in fact, that Jahanara worried he’d fallen asleep. When he spoke, his voice was so clotted with emotion she flinched. “I doubt you realize how much your counsel sounds like that of your mother.”
“You are too kind, Father.”
The Seizer of the World cleared his throat. “No, it is true. Your mother was always wise to the ways of the harem, and always gave good counsel regarding management of it. Tell me, who do you recommend as the face of the harem in its financial affairs?”
“I had thought to recognize Firoz Khan.”
“The eunuch you placed in charge of collecting the rents from the jagir you gave me last year, Father. It is due to his diligence that I discovered theâ€¦errors of Garyan.”
“And as one away from our court, he has less chance of being under the sway of some other woman of the harem, and certainly will not be Diwan Garyan’s creature.”