Not even an ember was wasted to absorb heat the campfire offered. Bright yellow splinters rose, gave a final orange glow and eventually disappeared into the cold darkness. Their white burnt husks slowly floated downwards and laid on the ground, forming an ashen graveyard around the campsite. The fire had been burning since the noon and now the flames seemed to give in to the cold breeze. Huddled figures sat around the fire, stretching their hands towards it. Every measure was being taken to defeat this inception of cold. Hands were being rubbed together, fists were being clenched and unclenched, long deep breaths were being drawn in and out. Yet no one expressed any desire to go back to their dwellings. Being the first to be excused meant a weakness of will and a suspicion in character. This was the unspoken code between them. One could only leave when Azam desired. Not before.
“Cold night, isn’t it?” groaned Yadev, venturing to break the silence that had accrued in the gathering. He was the clever one. His words cut through the silence, and their eyes redirected towards him. It was time for the meeting to commence.
“Let us start then. As our dear Yadev cannot stand the cold much longer”, scoffed Azam sensing the restlessness of the gathering. The cold did not bother Azam. His resentment was enough to warm his insides. Everyone else wanted to leave and enjoy the comfort of their homes. Their houses were far from the pinnacle of luxuriousness but enough to shelter them from the cold and the unknown.
Azam gently touched his ring, tracing its golden engravings with his index finger. It helped him formulate his thoughts and prioritise his anger towards the important issues. He finally began.
“I have called this gathering for one simple purpose. But first, anything we should talk about beforehand?”, he asked. He eyed everyone else, half expecting someone to speak up. Mir looked up. Something was on his mind.
“Azam..”, his voice carried a hint of hesitation yet he continued, “I’ve been trying to get to you since last week.”
Azam knew what he was talking about but tried to show as little interest as possible. Mir had been testing his boundaries for a long time. For Azam, the matters of peasants were trivial at best.
“Yes?”, he said.
A jackal howled in the distance, breaking the flow of conversation.
“Our cotton crops were destroyed because of the cold snap”, he explained. Azam knew all too well what was bound to happen next. Poor Mir was about to ask for money. For all he knew, that was Mir’s sole source of income. Begging for money. He would get none.
“Talk to me in person later. No use boring all the others. Anyone else?”, he blatantly cut off Mir and Mir kept his mouth shut. This was one boundary he was not brave enough to cross. Everyone else was quiet. They sensed that Azam asking around for their problems was nothing short of a formality now. The fire was coughing and the firewood had almost turned into ash. The cold dusk had evolved into an even colder night. Overhead a constellation of stars grew brighter. The moon partially illuminated the scene. Around them, the crops swayed in a light breeze.
Their secret bethak (meeting point) was a place reserved for private discussions, hushed planning and village gossip. It was a mere clearing in between the crops. They sat on rough straw mats which became more uncomfortable the longer they sat on them. Everyone met once a week and any absences were noted and inquired upon. This was the little power that Azam exercised and he did so with the air of pride and authority.
“My older brother..”, Azam said. He did little to hide his resentment and disdain towards his family. “Ali is coming back to Shahpur this week. Shah Sahab wants me to organize a “welcome” for him. A festival of sorts. You all are to help me in this small venture, as much as I hate it. Yadev, you will get all the dancers and the musicians from neighboring villages. Let them know that the Shah Sahab wants their services and will pay the top price for them. Jugnu, you are to get the food and drinks. I want the choicest portions of meat, and all manners of fruits present. Mir and I will tomorrow travel to the neighboring villages to invite the landlords. Our beloved Ali will get his precious welcome”. Azam grunted out the last sentence. He had to be loyal to his family. They were the source of his prestige in the village.
Everyone understood and complied with the barrage of orders. As much as they were friends to Azam, they were also his subjects. Azam, being the youngest son of Shahpur’s landlord, their allegiance to him was vital. His displeasure would incur difficulties and promise a life of isolation, misery and antagonism. His pleasure would mean the ever-present chance of favors, blessings and involvement in the village affairs. Shahpur had always been run like that.
Azam gave a short nod. He cared about them like a famer cared about his sheep. He would nurture them and earn their trust. Then he would use them for his gains. Even if he had to skin them for his profit, he would. He knew they tolerated him because they wanted his favors. “Everyone is excused”, he concluded.
In synchrony, everyone stood up and gathered their respective straw mats. Some muttered a half-hearted goodbye, while others hurried off. Azam couldn’t care less. He kept sitting for a longer while. His eyes were fixated on the dwindling flame. The fire struggled to remain burning. Searching twig to twig, it could not find any fuel to continue burning on. In the fields, a jackal howled again, this time much closer. Azam understood the plight of the jackal more than any other animal. Like him, It was the overlooked member of a great symbolic family. One would find stories of deadly wolves and brave dogs, but the jackal was the dunce destined for carrion. Belonging to the royal family of wolves, it enjoyed none of the status or praise. The tale of a jackal was unheard of and uncared for. His mind snapped back to reality, he finally got up, stomped out the feeble fire, and returned back to the village.
“Today? Must it be like that?”, exclaimed Jonathan. His face showed mild annoyance, as if another servant had taken off with a shipment of arrack in the night. He fixed the long cushion which had lost its shape due to being leaned on for a long period of time. Feeling the heat of the afternoon, he motioned the phunkawala to fan faster. The resulting gush of cool air brought an ease to his facial expressions, life seemed much easier now. He motioned another servant to provide him with a handkerchief, which he used to wipe sweat from his forehead.
“I am afraid so, Jon. My business here is at an end, and you know, I can’t fathom being in one place for too long.”, replied Ali. He calmly took a sip of the arrack. It had a stronger punch than Ali liked, yet he maintained his calm demeanor. Jonathan’s servants could do little but envy the privilege Ali enjoyed. This stranger had the audacity to refer Jonathan Sahib as “Jon” and enjoyed the same cool air their master did. He was one of them yet he was being given the special treatment.
“You know, I’ve never met anyone half as interesting as you”, declared Jonathan. He was a burly, middle-aged man who had done more to reap the profits rather than doing his job to make them. He was living off of the Company’s wealth, just like many of the officials who were his neighbors and partners in crime.
“Well’, Ali smiled, “tricks of the trade”.
The sun hung high in the sky, and its sunlight did a nominal job of penetrating the makeshift tent which they sat in. Just outside, there was an abundant amount of fruit trees planted in straight lines leading to the entrance of the bungalow. The paved path in the middle was lined with a continuous hedge on both sides, neatly trimmed and symmetrically shaped. Not even a leaf seemed to be protruding out. That was how Jonathan Sahib liked them. An army of dutiful servants was busy carrying out their daily tasks. A small team of maalis (gardeners) operated on a tree, picking out ripe plums and throwing them down on a laid out cloth. Their harmonious precision made it apparent that they had been picking plums for a few days at least. Once or twice, a servant would taste the fruit, nodding his head as a testament to its ripeness. Ali focused on them while his ears attended the ravings of Jonathan.
“India sure has her charms, my friend. I could never fathom having a butler back in London. Here? Here I have more than fifty servants. Some even have servants of their own. They don’t complain, they don’t ask for a raise every fortnight. You show them a little respect and they are loyal to you for all time to come. What more could a man want?”, he boasted. “But, Ali. When a man lives a life of idleness, he must have his amusements.”
This remark registered differently in Ali’s mind. Perhaps, he was Jonathan’s newest amusement. One that didn’t plan to stay long. Upon his arrival to Calcutta a month ago, Ali had been actively looking for employment. Given his education which had cultured him along western lines, he expected a clerical position in the Company. Indians were hardly chosen simply because they lacked the education to even encompass the operations of the company. No one but an Englishman could be trusted with such tasks. Ali was the element that shook such expectations and brought them down head first. With a sharp wit, a distinguished command over English and the charm of an elegant salesman, he had won over the attention of Jonathan and his colleagues. Perhaps a native could be good enough after all. Since then, Jonathan had been regularly inviting Ali to stay for an afternoon every other day of the week. Stories would be told over lunch and business prospects would be discussed. In Ali, Jonathan had found a friend and a confidant.
“Lord Jonathan Westbridge, senior treasurer of the East India Company, an idle man? I beg to differ.”, Ali proclaimed.
Jonathan’s ego got the fuel that it needed. Now it could burn more wildly. He was an easy man to flatter.
“Whatever the case may be. I do not share this bungalow with anyone but myself, Ali. You are going back to your-“, for a brief moment he stopped. He could not recall where Ali was from. “-home. I will have lost a friend. Yet, as it happens, you are leaving at the right time!” he concluded.
“What do you mean?”
“Ali, the Company has been generous enough to send us, the hard working officials, young Englishwomen as marriage prospects. I will not be lonely anymore!”, he exclaimed. In that moment, Ali saw the excitement of a young boy setting his eyes on the next glimmering toy he came across. Ofcourse, Jonathan could not marry an Indian. Unless he wanted to be demoted or called out for giving in to the charms of India. Such actions brought displeasure to the Company.
“I am happy for you”, replied Ali. Perhaps this was for the best.
“And you, my friend, will help me choose my spouse! You have quite the eye for a jewel, do you not?”, he said.
This would surely prolong his stay in Calcutta for a night. However, he could not refuse Jonathan. An Englishman’s good graces could do a lot to further his interests. “Yes, Jon. You can count on me.”, lied Ali. Women were not his forte.
Mir felt he would drown in the cacophonic hoots and cackles of the little ones who dominated the yard. The charpai on which he sat, almost touched the ground due to his weight. Being a rather undernourished man, this amazed him. Mir concluded that the ropes were simply loose and needed to be tended. Opposite him sat the village elder, Shaukat Sahib and his two sons. Their faces were adorned with bushy mustaches that stretched from cheek to cheek. Shaukat’s sons wore striking white shalwar kameez andnot even an atom’s worth of stain was to be seen on their clothes. When he gazed on their attire, his eyes hurt due to the brightness and therefore he focused his gaze on their faces. Shaukat Sahib himself wore a long angerkho and dhoti.
After taking a long puff from his hookah, he said in a thunderous voice, “Where is Azam?!”
Azam had left Mir in the grand house of the village elder and excused himself for some undisclosed business. Noon had passed away and now the sun was slowly setting. There was no sign of Azam. Mir, on behalf of Azam, had already invited Shaukat Sahib and his family to the welcome ceremony of Ali. However, to his annoyance, Shaukat repeatedly insisted on meeting Azam.
“I believe he will arrive in a short while”, replied Mir in a feeble voice. His tone cracked and showed signs of intimidation. For a peasant, sitting beside a landlord was one of the most difficult tasks. The back had to be straight, any passive aggressive remark was to be taken lightly or not at all, and the vocal tone had to be of utter respect and obedience. Any deviation would be answered by malicious scorn and antagonism.
To Mir’s surprise, he had been treated as a guest and had been offered halwa and tea. Now the fake persona of his host was slowly wearing off and Mir knew that they had grown weary of him.
The Sahib opened his mouth to say something, however he was cut off by a servant approaching him.
“Sahib Ji! Azam is here”, he announced.
Behind the servant, Azam entered the yard. Beaming with fake charm, he walked with a prideful gait as if everyone would stand up in his honor. Azam was a cleanly shaven young man, with neatly combed jet black hair. His light brown eyes carried a phony glimmer as if he had fashioned them for this meeting only. He could be a responsible and mature adult when the occasion demanded it. Mir had seen his many faces and this was one of them. One that of the “charming gentleman”.
Upon looking at Azam, the Sahib’s bellowing anger cooled down.
“Salam Sahib!”, he greeted.
“Salam, Azam”, the Sahib replied, tempering his anger to a manageable level.
His sons, who had been as active as decorative ornaments, greeted Azam and resumed their positions. Azam sat beside Mir. The charpai was now liberally touching the ground. Ignoring this awkward disturbance, Azam started speaking.
“I hope Mir has conveyed the message of my father to you”, said Azam.
“Yes, yes. Shahpur is welcoming it’s heir”, replied the Sahib.
The last word was meant to sting Azam and that it did. He recognized it as an insidious attempt to make him uncomfortable. Mir knew how antagonistic an annoyed landlord could be and it was doubly entertaining to watch Azam’s ego-fortress get bombarded.
“Indeed”, replied Azam. He was accustomed to such attacks. For him, this was barely harmful.
“Would you like to eat anything?”, asked the Sahib’s son. Perhaps, he had sensed the tension which was building up and this was his attempt to diffuse it.
Water was brought to Azam and he slowly drank it.
“Can we count on your presence, Sahib?”, he said.
“Yes. My sons and I will grace your father with our presence. Perhaps, it’s time for you to leave.”, the Sahib said. “Your friend Mir has already enjoyed your share of the hospitality.”
Without any further words, Azam stood up and stormed out. Mir followed him closely.
“This cursed old man!”, he bellowed. “How dare he?”
He made sure to swear in an audible range. After all, these words were meant for him and not hearing them would be of no purpose.
“Mir, prepare the horses. We will leave tonight.”, he ordered.
“Might I ask, where were you all this time?”, Mir almost coughed out the question. He felt extremely nervous.
“Mir, listen closely. Where I was, where I intend to go and what I intend to do, should be of little concern to you. You are to remain quiet and tell nothing to no one. If someone asks, tell them that we were graciously received by that wretched old man, spent the day touring the rice fields and met gaily with rosy cheeked children. Hell even say, I got your marriage arranged with a natch girl from this village! Other than that, you will not breathe a single word. Understand?”, Azam said. His eyes were locked with Mir’s. In that moment, any answer with the exception of “yes” would have had terrible consequences.
“I understand”, answered Mir. This was another boundary he had tested, and perhaps the last one. Azam simply could not be reasoned with.
Upon reaching the outskirts of the village, Azam entered the small mud hut. Dried cow dung was plastered all over its walls in round shapes. The villager who resided here had rented this place to Azam and Mir for a night, while retiring himself to a relative’s. Their horses were tied at the back. They had been tended to by the villager as a courtesy.
“Make sure to feed the horses, Mir”, Azam said.
Mir nodded in acknowledgement and went to the small backyard where the horses were resting. He had been herding sheep and cattle since childhood, tending to a horse was an easy task. They were gentle creatures and required mutual respect. Horses were easy to understand, it was the people that Mir could not get along with. No matter how diligent, dutiful and noble Mir wanted to act, his birth as a peasant would be the unchangeable label that was attached to him.
He preferred the company of these horses rather than the entitled child he travelled with. He laid down a straw mat, and sat beside them. Gradually, he fell asleep.
Inside the hut, Azam sat with his back against the wall. Eventhough, the villager had been gracious enough to leave a charpai for him to sleep on, he preferred to sit down on the ground and gather his thoughts. His mind drifted to the meeting with the Sahib, but most importantly, it drifted to another meeting he had today. Vows had been made, alliances had been forged and futures had been promised. The Sahib’s venomous words had done little to ruin his day. He kept smiling for reasons unknown. His malicious smirk did not leave his face till the moment he slept.
“You cannot enter. This place is only for the Sahib log.”, commanded the gatekeeper. He was flamboyantly dressed with a red turban. His dressing suggested he was the servant of a very well-off official. Jonathan had almost entered the building when he heard the gatekeeper denying entry to Ali. Before Ali could explain anything, Jonathan roared, “Let him enter you fool! You embarrass us!”
The gatekeeper jolted with a sudden panic and quickly moved back to where he was posted. Ali advanced. Night had fallen in Calcutta and kerosene lamps seemed to fight the darkness with their illumination. Round blankets of two distinct lights could be seen emanating from the porches of multiple houses in the street. These houses belonged to the Sahibs. The street was well paved, not a pebble seemed irregular in shape and unpleasant to walk on. Jonathan and Ali were entering the largest estate in the street, one that belonged to a wealthy merchant.
“Henry will hear of this and when he does, this gatekeeper will scrub the floors”, promised Jonathan furiously.
Ali knew that the gatekeeper was commanded to stop any native from entering the building. He was only doing his job. If Ali flinched from speaking up, the poor man would lose his job.
“Perhaps, we can let this mishap be forgotten”, he said calmly.
Jonathan’s fit of rage had lost hold of him. He nodded in affirmation.
As both of them entered the building, Ali was amazed to see a brilliantly lit room. Kerosene lamps were installed a few feet apart from each other high up on the walls of the hall. The wooden interior was beautifully furnished with tapestries of British royalty hanging on the walls. Long tables were at the center of the room, covered with white table cloths. On these tables were tea and biscuits: the sacred food of the British.
At least a hundred people filled the room. Most were company officials split in groups of three or four. The discussions that raged on were loud, blunt and hinted of too much liquor. Within an earshot, Ali could hear an official bragging about the nimble-handedness of his hookahburdar, a merchant inviting his friends to gamble with him, and another official who reminisced about his youthful days in Birmingham. A team of servants were lined up against the walls, watching the affair vigilantly. It would only take a call for a servant to step in to clean a spill, refill the arrack jug or bring a new whiskey bottle.
Jonathan patted Ali on the back and whispered, “The young ladies will arrive in a while, let’s acquaint ourselves to the gentlemen till then.”
In front of them, a group of three officials welcomed them.
“Good evening Jonathan!”, one of them exclaimed. He was a short heighted man, whose rude frankness made up for the missing inches.
“And you are?”, he gazed at Ali. Ali’s elegant dressing suggested that he was not a servant, yet an introduction was still needed to make them sure.
“I am Ali Shah from Shahpur”, he said in crisp British English. His accent was unmistakably polished much to the amazement of the group who were accustomed to broken English and illegible accents from the natives.
“Good evening to you as well…. Ali”, grinned another official. His tone seemed adamant to place Ali in with the servants.
“Ed, Harry, and David, this gentleman is a guest of mine. Treat him as you would a guest”, said Jonathan. He had definitely noticed the condescendence that seemed to radiate from them. All of them nodded, albeit reluctantly.
“Didcha hear ‘bout the Sikhs?”, Ed said. His accent seemed to be far from cultured.
“What about them?”, Jonathan replied.
“Want a greater share ov profits! Company says, they mus be taught a lesson!”, he whispered aggressively.
“What else?”, asked Jonathan.
“Company’s made a call for mercenaries, and increased recruitment”, said Harry. “They intend on going up north to put them back in line.”
“Rightfully so!”, Ed chimed in.
“Ed, you sure meddle too much in these affairs. You know what they say about rumors?”, Jonathan said.
“A bad rumor is worth a thousand lies and a good one, well, can make all the difference.” He said.
The doors to the hall opened. Fine British women made their way in to the hall. They wore elegant corsets which forced them to keep their backs straight as if they were tightly bound to steel poles. Their hair were gorgeously done, and faces were powdered white. However there was hint of haggardness hiding in their expressions suggesting that the journey had been arduous and long. The officials smartened themselves up. They vastly outnumbered the ladies. Some would have to leave empty-handed.
“Ali, my experiences with the fairer gender have been limited. To a lady, I can saw a few words in succession before gulping down the rest of the sentence. In the presence of one, my heart thumps against my chest. My face becomes flushed. My hands tremble violently. You are the captain now and I hope your quick-wittedness will secure me a wife tonight.”, said Jonathan.
For Ali, this was also a new experience. He had only courted one or two girls in the village. Both of these attempts had been thwarted by his travels to Calcutta or the fury of his father.
A young girl approached them. She seemed to be in her late teens. Although girls of her age were expected to be shy coming to an alien land, she walked with her chin held high. She looked decent with distinguished facial features. Ali fixed his gaze on her for a while and then abruptly looked down out of shame.
“No charge for looking at me, Sir”, she said bluntly. Her remark caught both of them off-guard. The depth of her voice suggested she was in her twenties at least.
“I….um… am Jonathan Westbridge”, said Jonathan. It seemed as if he had forgotten his own name. I spoke in a hurried tone. Every word seemed laborious to utter and he seemed to be consistently out of breath.
“I am Ali Shah of Shahpur. A Businessman, traveler, and a companion to Mr. Westbridge”, said Ali. He used the tone he had reserved for business affairs. He spoke more confidently and was able to greatly reduce the awkwardness that had accrued in the meeting.
Her eyes seemed to shift from back and forth between Ali and Jonathan.
“I am Lisa from London. I am here to seek a legible suitor”, she fixed her eyes on Jonathan, “And you, Sir, will be my husband.”
Her words struck out of the blue. Jonathan’s face grew pale and a hue of red. His breathing seemed to grow deeper and harder. The poor man already had heart problems and this young lady seemed to exacerbate his condition.
“Ex….excuse me”, he whispered breathlessly. Clutching his hat in his hands, he backed off and almost jogged away to the lavatory.
“I must apologize on behalf of Jonathan. He is clearly feeling unwell.”, clarified Ali. This was his attempt to salvage something from this catastrophe.
“It took me months to come here, Sir. I saw girls, my age, throw themselves overboard out of sea-sickness, I saw storms which made me regret my decision and I saved myself from a drunk captain who grew too frank with me, and he is the one who feels unwell?”, complained Lisa. This courtship was now clearly a wrecked-ship. Her eyes watered up, despite her confident demeanor and bold words, she could not bottle up her emotions. Ali, almost instinctively, offered his handkerchief.
She took it and dabbed her eyes gently.
“My mother assured me that I would be treated like royalty here. It was to be a new life for me. A life of luxury, utility and ease. Tell me, Sir, how is Mr. Westbridge?”, she asked. In that moment, she looked vulnerable. The act that she had propped herself up in, seemed to have almost disappeared. She seemed to show her true self to Ali.
“Mr. Westbridge is a kind man. He is generous with his wealth and cares for his servants. He is an amiable man with a joyful heart. You will find what you seek in him, and more.”, assured Ali.
The reply seemed to have done a good job in convincing Lisa. Every word seemed to have made her glad and happy.
“Yet he is not confident as an official should be”, she said inquisitively.
“Yes, that may be one of his weak areas. However, forgive me for saying this, your first impression was rather bold. Too much for my associate.”, said Ali defensively.
“My mother instructed me to choose the first oldest man I came across as my suitor. Old men seek true companionship in their old age. They are wise and experienced. A young adventurer often moves on to the next adventure he finds. Better an old man, than an adventurer. Is it not?”
Ali had found few who could outsmart him in an argument. This Lisa from London definitely was one of them.
“Are you an adventurer, Sir?” she asked.
“Well, I am not old man”, Ali smiled.
“Tell him, that I am interested to meet him this week. Provided that he can get better in that duration. He failed the first test”, she said and walked off. If they were lucky, she would find a better suitor.
Jonathan did not return that evening. Later Ali found out that he had been escorted back to his bungalow. He had deemed the affair to be unpleasant and claimed that he was too unwell to remain at the venue. Ed and Harry’s disappointed faces that evening had hinted at their failed attempts at courtship. Ali wondered if they were also seen as young adventurers by the women. He hoped these terms were exclusive to Lisa only and the rest had come in here to find a blissful marriage and a privileged life, not a means for an end.
Ali had no time for further farewells as his family was expecting him back in Shahpur. He was already a day late and could not waste any more time. He made for his rented room in Calcutta. One more night and he would join a caravan back to his village.
“Greetings, Chandra Sahib! How was the journey?”, asked Azam with a wry smile. He was least interested in knowing how his day went, however he was obliged to ask such questions out of formality.
“Pleasant, safe and uneventful; save for the slight rain the other night.”, replied Chandra Sahib. He was Shah Sahib’s oldest friend and therefore commanded a great deal of respect from their household. Like many others, he wore striking white clothes and a turban; a sign of nobility among the landlords.
It was well known in the village that if it were not for Chandra Lal’s deft actions fifteen years ago, Shah Sahib would have been mauled to death by a fierce wolf. It was an autumn day and their hunting trip had seemed very tame in the beginning. They had wandered the wilderness in search of game. Their necks turned deftly towards any stimulus, which was just a series of false alarms and ambient sounds. When the sun had begun to set, and the sky had an orange tint to it, a wolf had howled some distance away from them. The scrawny village boys who made the bulk of the hunting party, scurried away like rats. When the horrific beast emerged from the woods, the two Sahibs had started contemplating an early and painful death. Shah Sahib, whose reflexes had slowed down due to an uneventful day, had been unable to load his rifle in time. Without wasting a moment, the wolf had leapt on top of him. Chandra Sahib had acted quickly and used his hunting knife to attack the wolf; promptly killing it with one decisive blow. The day had ended on a good note with Chandra Sahib taking the head of the wolf as a reminder of this heroic act. Hailed as the “Wolf-Killer”, he had always been given priority as an honored guest, a respected friend and a confidant of Shah Sahib.
The courtyard of the Shah household was nothing short of a spectacle. The entrance was teeming with guests coming inside, village children peeking through the opening, and a hectic routine of greetings. Inside the courtyard, guests had seated themselves on charpais with wonderfully embroidered coverings. Many marveled at the expert craftsmanship that had been employed to come up with such intricate floral designs. The air vibrated with a rhythm which carried the sound of drums, flutes and sitars. Thanks to the amateur musicians Yadev had hired, some guests treated this rhythm as a budding form of music, while others shunned it as mere noise pollution. Young children dominated another part of the yard. All of them bore some relation to each other, whether distant or close. First cousins wrestled with the second cousins, while the third cousins wondered joining which side would be more strategic. The children of the guests from far away villages stood on the sidelines, and if the opportunity presented itself, they joined in. Children behaved like children; it did not matter if they were from a noble household or a peasant one. They laughed, played and fell down together.
Mir stood near the edge of the courtyard and gently watered the plants. His mind drifted back to their visit to the neighboring village. Questions clouded his mind. Where had Azam gone for the whole day? What was he really up to?
Azam had always behaved strangely. Many said he had taken after his grandfather who had been a cruel man. Mir, who had always hung around Azam since childhood, knew the story was different. Being the youngest, Azam had not been entitled to many of the luxuries his elder siblings had enjoyed. Iram, his elder sister, had her hand in marriage given to a rich merchant from Calcutta. Ali, the eldest, had received the best education affordable. Shah Sahib had looked for excellent teachers from all around the country, and made sure that Ali was better, if not equal, to the British. He had always shown an intellect beyond anything the old man had seen. Azam was the odd one out. He had shunned proper education, he spent more time alone than with family, and was a source of headaches and embarrassment. It was said that their mother had died of because she could no longer cope with the disgrace brought on by Azam. The event that made her ill was only discussed in closed circles, even then it was considered a taboo topic. The Sahib, on the other-hand, had been sure to capitalize on Ali’s wit and made him the intelligent businessman he was today. His dealings were simple. Selling crops to merchants in Calcutta, and making sure that these transactions brought fruition to the hard work of the farmers. Ofcourse, the reward went to the Sahibs. Mir and his family took a small cut which was enough for them to get by. Now even that was jeopardized. Their crops were destroyed, and Mir would have to beg for money, sooner or later.
Shah Sahib sat near the entrance to the house; he was the center of attention. Around him, his ‘subjects’ attended him. They were busy keeping him amused with the discussion of village affairs, crude jokes and what the British had been up to. The Sahibs sat in audible range, picking up on the conversations and pitching their opinions in. Everyone was waiting fervently for the golden son to show up, bearing news of another successful business venture.
“Shah Sahib, your boy is of age”, beamed Chandra Sahib. Only he could have the audacity to suggest marriage.
Shah Sahib was quick to catch on this nuanced declaration. This would not be the first time someone had suggested the prospect of marriage for his son.
“Ali comes back to the village at the start of our crop cycles, he leaves at the end. He goes off to multiple cities, bargaining, selling, and haggling for our crops. He is quick on the tongue, sharp in the mind and a failed romantic. Chando, my boy may be of age, but he is not ready!”, replied Shah Sahib. His words which were uttered with consideration carried weight.
“Well said, Sahib!”, chimed in a villager. Maybe he would get a pat on the back.
Shah Sahib ignored the villager, and looked in the sky.
“In time, he will live his life. He may find a protégé, someone who is as good as him. For now, he is irreplaceable”, he said.
Azam grimaced at the sight of Shaukat Sahib and his sons entering the courtyard. Upon entering, he glanced at Azam and smirked. Azam broke off eye contact; the disgraceful reception had barely left his mind.
“Good day, Shah Sahib!”, he exclaimed. Relations between the household had been worse in the past but, now, the Sahibs embraced like long lost relatives.
“I hope Azam was on his best behavior”, said Shah Sahib. Shaukat Sahib shot a glance at Azam. His eyes searched for Azam’s but Azam made sure he wouldn’t get the satisfaction.
“Definitely an improvement since the goat-herding days”, laughed the Sahib.
The gathering erupted in laughter. Azam stood still as a beam, embarrassed and flushed. He would have stormed out, but his father’s presence would not allow such abrupt behavior.
He put his hands behind his back and clenched his fists tightly. He pressed his teeth against each other and tried his best to not display his fractured ego.
Suddenly the courtyard grew quiet. The joy and liveliness, that dominated everyone’s guise, was drowned by a wave of pale horror. Cacophonic laughter, that had irritated Azam’s hearing, died down; allowing him to hear the heavy steps being taken into the courtyard. He look up and saw three figures make their way to his father. They were dressed as black as crows and moved just as swiftly. Their face reminded Azam of the djinns he used to hear about when he was younger. Thick and bushy moustaches and beards made it hard to recognize their other facial features, save for the eyes. Their eyes, strikingly black, spoke of a cruel past and an unrelenting desire to carry through with that cruelty in the future.
Everyone knew who they were. They’d heard stories from relatives and travelers. None of them good.
“Shah Sahib! What an occasion!”, exclaimed one of them, he stood in the middle and advanced to Shah Sahib’s charpai.
Shah Sahib stood up as if thunder had struck him. His face was red with rage, locking his eyes with the stranger.
“Leave! This will not end well for you!”, he bellowed in a fit of maddening rage. The stranger did not budge, or flinch. He was taller than Shah Sahib and much more heavily built, yet Shah Sahib’s bravery was nothing short of admirable.
“I am Ameer! A messenger from the Cult”, said the dark stranger.
“Speak then and be gone.”, said Shah Sahib, trying to match the brute tone of Ameer.
“I am a guest in your house, Shah Sahib. Do you treat your guests in such a manner?”, Ameer toyed with him, sensing his desperation. Sooner or later, the Shah’s resolve would break.
“You are not welcome here, nor is anyone else from the Cult.”, said Shah Sahib.
“But we are business partners now, and I am here for a deal!”, exclaimed Ameer, his face contorted into what could be interpreted as a smile, but it was devoid from any happiness. It was as if Satan himself had trained this man.
“Speak! You are testing my patience”, said Shah Sahib. He was growing restless. All the guests around him had sat frozen in their places. The Cult and it’s stories had given them enough reason not to interfere. The magnanimous and flamboyant Sahib’s were now the peasants, clutching their loved ones and scoffing at their misfortune.
“Fine, I will state my business. I am tired seeing and ruining of these toxic occasions anyways. The Cult possesses your most valuable asset, Shah Sahib.”, he said. His smile grew wider.
Shah Sahib knew what his most valuable asset was: Ali. Yet his state of shock prevented him from uttering a single word.
“Your son, Ali! The witty and charming son. The one who speaks angraizi in a funny accent. That Ali!” Ameer said with a newfound excitement. He had been waiting to say this for a time. He observed Shah Sahib’s reaction.
Shah Sahib had feared the worst and it had come true. A sudden state of shock overtook him. Ameer finally saw his resolve shatter into pieces. He sat down; making the guests to gasp as a result. He looked towards the floor, with his eyes staring absently towards the ground. If his mind had been an ocean of concentrated thoughts and schemes before, now it was a raging torrent of emotions, trauma and disbelief.
He looked back towards Ameer. Ameer seized to look like the stranger he saw him as, now it was something more vile and formidable. The wolf had come back from the dead. It had come back as a thug from the Cult. It had taken its fifteen sweet years, but now it was back for its vengeance. It was back to complete the kill, and no one would be able to save Shah Sahib anymore. The hunter was finally being hunted.
His world was bleak, dark and terrifying. Despite having multiple blindfolds on, he could make out whether it was day or night. When the ambush had taken place it was early morning, and the light that penetrated his blindfolds was bearable. The sunlight had grown brighter as the day progressed. His captors had made a stop, and that was where the darkness had started taking over. He could feel the cold breeze of dusk brush against his body, the looming hunger pangs in his stomach and the radiating pain of the bruises on his torso.
His captors spoke in an alien tongue. They made guttural colloquial sounds and their voices were ghastly. They knew he could not understand them, yet they spoke in a hushed tone. From his observations which focused on the uniqueness of each voice, he determined that his captors were less than ten in number.
In the morning of that day, he had woken up to two men tying his hands together. Their combined brute strength had been more than enough to restrain him. Shortly afterwards, he was blindfolded and gagged. He could not determine if the travelers, Sarmad and Ahsen who had accompanied him, were dead or alive. If they were alive, they could have been gagged and blindfolded just like him and he would not have known at all.
His captors were moving quickly, as if they were being chased by another party. Rest periods were few and far in between. Ali’s legs were aching but any sign of him slowing down would result in a strong nudge from the back and a burst of crude remarks that sounded akin to swearing. In these rest periods, his captors would remove the gag and give him a drink of water.
On one such moment, he refused to drink and instead cried out, “Where are you taking me?!”
What ensued was a strong slap on his face. He heard a bone cracking tick from his jaw, and fell down on the ground. His captors shoved him off the ground, and continued their journey.
Light had started penetrating his blindfold once again, and that marked the end of his first day as a captive.
“I am hungry”, said Ali out of desperation. Only muffled words could be heard due to the gag.
No response came from his captors. He could not keep up the pace.
“I need food”, he said louder. Even to his own ears, the words were illegible. He decided to protest for his life. He threw himself on the ground. His head hit the ground hard; he had misjudged the distance because of the blindfold. Writhing and resisting against his restraints, he shook like a fish trying to fight for its freedom. His captors tried to get a hold of him, but due to his outstanding resistance, they were unable to get him on his feet.
Like a dying man fighting for a last breath of air, Ali did not give up his struggle. He screamed and shook his body. He would not give up at all costs.
“Stop”, said one of them. His voice carried graveness, yet it did not deter Ali for even a moment.
He kept struggling against his captors and refused to cooperate.
Then the person gave a command in the alien language. Everyone stepped back. There was a stillness in the air. One of them stepped towards Ali. Ali could hear this person laying down a bundle of cloth in the ground right next to him. Next, he heard a metallic clink as the person procured something from the bundle. Ali halted his movement.
In a swift moment, his world was reduced to darkness once more.
“Wealth is what you take for yourself. Not what you earn.”, said a voice.
As a stream of thoughts came rushing back to Ali, he opened his eyes slowly. This was the first time in a while he had heard a statement in a familiar language.
The ground on which he laid upon was cold and rough. His fingers traced small crevices within the ground. The floor was paved. The figure right in front of him wore a dark hood. His voice was heavy and accent foreign. He moved towards Ali, and slowly hunched down. He was carrying a round metallic tray and a cup. After laying them down right beside him, the figure removed the gag from Ali’s mouth. The gag had been tied around his mouth for so long that his mind had become accustomed to it, as if it was a part of his body all along.
“Traveler! My brothers tell me that you are as slick tongued as the merchants from that vile Company. You walk with similar pride. You are not a servant yet still serve the merchants. You are the son of the great Shah of Shahpur.”, said the hooded figure.
Ali realized that he had not been ambushed randomly on the road by some thugs, but he had been a planned target all along. How did they know so much about him?
For the first time in his life, he stuttered as he replied.
“I….I am a son of the Shah.”, he replied. Words barely left his throat.
“You must realize now what is happening.”, the hooded figure said.
Ali did not have the slightest idea as to what was going to happen. He had a thumping headache due to not eating anything for a long time, and he had no energy to make educated guesses.
“Any sudden movements, and your story ends here.”, said the figure as he united his hands.
Ali used his newfound freedom to slowly inch towards the cup and drink water. He felt around his wrists. They were red, bruised and under searing pain. He did not make any effort to fight his captor. He knew it would be in vain.
“Who are you?”, he said, looking down at the cup. It was too dark to make out the face of the hooded figure.
“A means to an end.”, he said.
“Why?”, asked Ali. His voice cracked resulting him to pity his own feebleness.
“The Great One commands, and we obey. We take what is ours as bounty, as do all who have might.”, said the figure with zeal.
Ali knew there was no point in reasoning with the Cult. It had to be the Cult. Only they were fanatical enough to speak in puzzles and capture innocent, unaware travelers.
He closed his eyes. No questions remained in his mind. Sooner or later, he was bound to perish. The hooded figure exited the cell. Before disappearing out of the sight, he uttered one last thing.
“Fret not, you will be joined with the rest of your family before long.”
For the first time in two decades, Ali wept.