Read The Mountain of Light Online

Authors: Indu Sundaresan

The Mountain of Light (3 page)

Two minutes was all they got again until the old man whistled and they met at the center of the platform. The sun had burned off the water and some of the oil; their holds were more secure. As his body spiraled into a bottomless exhaustion, Shah Shuja's brain snapped alive.

The hours passed. The sun slipped westward. On the pavilion of the upper terrace—the Aiwan—a lone woman came to stand under the arches and looked down upon the two men struggling on the platform, arms fastened around each other, eyes shut against the sweat that streamed down their faces.

Wafa Begam had been married to Shah Shuja for seventeen years. The first of his wives, she was the person he knew best. His mother had been in a harem, and as a boy, he was taken from it early, put into the men's quarters. There had been no actual friendship with other members of his family. Always lurking behind his half brothers was the silhouette of their father's crown, impossible to ignore. Shuja loved Ibrahim, but it was a friendship in the outside world.

When he was fifteen, his marriage was arranged with Wafa, also fifteen that year. And all of a sudden, he had found the comfort of home in the arms of this thin girl. Here, within the walls of his harem apartments, the young Shuja had confided in her his fears, his determination, his ambitions—and she had never laughed at them, never considered them impractical. Shuja's brother Shah Zaman ascended the throne of Afghanistan first, and then Shah Mahmud tore it away from him, throwing Zaman into prison, blinding him in both eyes with a piece of hot wire. And so Shuja built up his own army to overthrow Mahmud, ruled for nine years himself . . . and in 1809, when he moved his court from Kabul to
Peshawar, Mahmud sneaked up and grabbed Kabul and then marched on to Peshawar.

Wafa moved her slender hands restlessly in front of her, entangling her fingers in a veil which came over her head to her waist. To stay on in Peshawar, with Mahmud's army battering at the door, would have been death for all of them. The only option was to flee, to retreat, to find shelter elsewhere, to regroup and come back for Afghanistan. Shuja had woken her in the middle of the night and hurried her, along with the other women of his harem, to waiting horses and palanquins. “Go safely, my dear,” he had said. At that last moment, when her hand reached out to him, when she swung her head through the gap in the curtains for one more look at her husband—not knowing if she would ever see him alive again—he pressed a packet into her hand and closed her fingers over it. “This will buy my life someday. Or”—his steady gaze met hers—“if I die, it will make you rich.”

When Wafa unwrapped the satin cloth four days into their journey to the lands of the Punjab and Maharajah Ranjit Singh, she saw the armlet of heavy gold Shuja wore upon his person every day. The central diamond was mammoth, built with fire and light, flanked by two smaller diamonds. Shah Shuja had given her—the wife of his heart, the only woman he trusted—the Kohinoor diamond.

Wafa watched awhile, as one man and then the other pushed and jostled, as they fell with loud thuds upon the floor, as they broke the rules by snatching at beards or hair, as Shuja cried out when one of his fingers was caught in the railing of the platform and snapped with an audible crack. She flinched at that sound, but didn't move as they dragged themselves apart to rest. Her nose quivered and then wrinkled at the old man and his whistling. Wafa's veil, of a pure silk the color of newly opened pink roses at dawn scattered with dew, lay around her lean shoulders. Underneath she wore a short
a bodice that covered her breasts and was held together
on her back with two strings; her waist was bare, and she had on pink silk trousers, tight on her hips, billowing around her thighs, caught up around the ankles. This was Wafa Begam's concession to living in India, adopting a part of the dress that kept her cool in the Lahore summers, and keeping the trousers that she wore normally in Afghanistan.

She shifted against one of the pillars of the Aiwan, resting her shoulder on it, her arms clasped around her waist. Her gaze drifted over the middle terrace to the old man at one side of the pool. He was squatting in the manner of a peasant, and a minute breeze brought the acrid tang of smoke from the smoldering
held in his hand. He turned, suddenly, to look at her. She stayed where she was. Not caring that her face was uncovered, not bothering to pull the veil over her eyes. What did it matter? The old gardener had never ascended to the upper terrace and the Aiwan, where she stood, because it was the most private part of the Shalimar Gardens, one marked out for the use of Shah Shuja's
. Such an old man could hardly have his blood boil at the sight of a woman from another man's harem . . . or be capable of doing anything about it. He was nothing. Just another servant from Maharajah Ranjit Singh's court, sent here to serve them.

She lifted her chin, looked pointedly away toward her husband and Ibrahim. There was dried, caked blood on their arms and chests. They moved slower and slower, doggedly, like two animals engaged in a mortal combat.

“Your Majesty, you must eat,” a slave said behind her.

Wafa sighed. There was no point waiting for the men. There were rules in the wrestling match for penalties and illegalities, and even when and how the match started, but no rules for the ending. A few years ago, while Shah Shuja had still been the ruler of Afghanistan, he had wrestled with another man for eight hours—some matches had gone on for two days, or three, until one of the opponents had dropped dead in the dirt.

She put her fingertips to her mouth, kissed them, and then upended her palm and blew the kiss across the scorching air to her husband. Shuja reared his head, as though he had felt the touch of her lips upon him, and charged into Ibrahim with renewed vigor. Please Allah, she thought, as she walked away to the
set at one end of the upper terrace where the slaves had laid out the food, let them not kill each other. Perhaps they wouldn't kill each other in any case; Shuja loved Ibrahim with the devotion of a brother, and Ibrahim could not live with himself if he caused any harm to Shuja. For a deposed king, there was no better friend than such a one as Ibrahim. She was worried, but only mildly, because she knew that the past three years of confinement—the past three years as Maharajah Ranjit Singh's “guest”—had fretted Shuja beyond measure. He needed to do something. Anything. He needed to return to Afghanistan as a king. But Maharajah Ranjit Singh would not let them go until they gave him the Kohinoor diamond.

Wafa Begam ate her food, bending over her plate, licking her fingers clean delicately, listening to the snorts and rumbles that floated upward to the
terrace, her demeanor cool. She could have been feasting at a festival while still Queen of Afghanistan, so calm was she. But then, she was also the woman who had kept the Kohinoor safe from the greedy Ranjit Singh and not let him have it for all the long years he had held her—and her husband—in captivity.

•  •  •

In the end, the match lasted only until the sun set, at six o'clock. And then, only because the heated sun fell gratefully into the arms of the cool earth, and darkness pounced upon Lahore. There was no twilight to speak of, no smudging of the sun's golden rays into pale blues and blacks, this close to the center of the earth. Shuja's whole arm was aflame; in one rest period he had ripped a strip of cloth from the knee of his
and wrapped it around the broken index finger of his left hand, binding only two fingers together so that he could have the rest to hold on to Ibrahim. But it hadn't helped. The hurt had crept up his arm and sent tentacles of torture over his shoulder and neck.

Ibrahim hadn't fared any better. He had cuts and gashes all over his back and his chest, blood encrusted in some spots, fresh in others, where Shuja's nails had ripped through the wounds. He was also limping from having twisted his ankle sometime during that afternoon.

An hour before sunset, the slaves would normally light all the oil lamps, the
made of terra-cotta, the size of small and shallow cups. Some were in niches under the waterfalls that brought water down from one terrace to the other along the central pool, some along the pathways on either side of the pool, some under the trees, some in them, hung in little woven baskets of jute and silk thread. When darkness came, the whole of the gardens would live again in pinpoints of light picked out here and there like a glittering sprinkle of diamonds, mirroring the stars in the night sky above.

Shuja shouted out, “Light the lamps!” He was still shoving against Ibrahim, using force from the right side of his body—his left arm lay almost useless. Ibrahim's hair, rank with sweat, was rammed into his chest, just under his nose. But Shuja did not smell him, because he stank as much as Ibrahim did, and in any case, it was difficult to distinguish what he was smelling—blood, sweat, heated oil, the spray of water. His eyes burned and had turned red. His sight was blurred. It was time to stop the match—they were both out of shape after years of sloth and imprisonment. But Shah Shuja, the erstwhile ruler of Afghanistan, was a stubborn, tenacious man, or he would not have held that title of king, nor—as he was determined—would he become king again by giving up anything so easily.

Ibrahim, on the other hand, was simply obstinate. He was
more exhausted than he cared to acknowledge. They had missed their afternoon meal and their cup of
in the evening, and he craved both. His body seemed beaten into hollowness.

“Light the lamps now!” Shuja roared. Ibrahim cringed as his master's voice exploded over his eardrums, but he did not let go. His head, slick with perspiration, moved here and there on Shuja's chest, seeking a hold, so that the grip of his fingers could be more secure. The cuts and bruises on his skin stung as sweat rolled over and into them.

In the echoing silence after Shuja's last demand, a voice, tranquil and musical, called out from above their heads. “Enough, my lord.”

Shuja raised his head in the gloom, his eyes seeking the direction of his wife's voice. Ibrahim Khan shifted, and Shuja's attention, honed to a fine edge, came crashing back on his opponent. He sensed, even in that brief moment, that Ibrahim's concentration had wavered, that the younger man had lost some of his grit, that Wafa's voice had recalled to him the pleasure of a silken divan with overstuffed cushions, of a woman's soft touch, of comfort and ease. That he had been distracted and that his will to kill, to win, to defeat, had been shaken.

In that second of slackness, Shah Shuja propelled Ibrahim to the very edge of the platform and slammed him against the railing. When Ibrahim fell onto the floor, Shuja scrambled in the dark and heaved himself over him, forcing his back flat on the marble slabs. He straddled Ibrahim and said, triumphant and shaking from the effort, “Enough, Ibrahim?”

“I give up, your Majesty.” Ibrahim's voice was trembling and thin.

In the Aiwan pavilion above, Wafa Begam reached behind her and uncovered an oil lantern. She held it high up above her head, and the honeyed light spilled over her arms and her face, and below, over the waters of the pool with its now silent fountains, and the two men on the platform in the
middle of the pool, their heads drooping with fatigue, their chins collapsed into their chests.

“Come to the
your Majesty,” she called out. “Ibrahim, you come also,” and when he wearily shook his head, she said, “Don't be silly, you need care also. And, this won't be the first time you've come into the harem quarters.”

It wasn't.

To Shuja, Ibrahim Khan was more kin than his actual half brothers. They did not have the same father, but they had the same mother, or rather they had both drunk the milk of the same mother. And that tied them together in a bond that nothing else could. As with all royal families, Shuja's first taste of nourishment had come from a wet nurse's plump breast, not that of the woman who had given birth to him. Three years later, the wet nurse had given birth to another boy—Ibrahim. It would have been natural for Shuja to have chosen the child his foster mother had had just before he was born as his playmate. Instead, at three, still being fed by his foster mother, he had stood at her knee as the newborn baby wrapped his tiny palm around Shuja's little finger and held on with a might that had surprised him. Ibrahim had then trailed Shuja through his own apartments and gifted to him the devotion none of his own half brothers had.

When Shuja had crushed Mahmud to become king, it was Ibrahim who had led his armies and who had kept the crown safe for Shuja. When Mahmud had yet again come roaring back to take Afghan lands, Shuja had sent his harem to the Punjab under Ibrahim's care . . . because there was no other man he could trust with his most precious possession, more precious to him than the kingdom, the wealth of that kingdom, or even the Kohinoor diamond. Ibrahim had had entry into Shah Shuja's
from the time Wafa Begam stepped into it. He was to the women as much their brother as he was their husband's.

And so Wafa had them both brought by the stairs that
led up on either side of the Aiwan into the upper terrace, and there, under the cloak of the starlit sky, she bathed their wounds, applied poultices, watched over them as they slept, mumbling, restless, and in pain, twisting the silk sheets around their limbs. As the night wore on, she plied the peacock feather fan herself, laid a cool hand on their fiery brows, sang little songs in the dark to soothe their fevered dreams.

•  •  •

They had all forgotten about the old man. When the night came to claim the skies, and Wafa Begam led her husband and his foster brother away, he backed down the long central pathway that flanked the pool to the lower terrace. There, he slid down the ramp, cut across the quadrangle of skillfully trimmed lawns, and let himself out of the West Gate. The guards inside, five of them, standing shoulder to shoulder across the archway, stiffened to attention when they saw his slow, shambling figure approach.

Other books

The Only One by Samanthya Wyatt
Naked Truth by Delphine Dryden
The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning
Devotion by Dani Shapiro
A Deadly Vineyard Holiday by Philip R. Craig
Point Me to Tomorrow by Veronica Chambers
The Surgeon's Mate by Patrick O'Brian
Samantha's Talent by Darrell Bain, Robyn Pass
Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler