From that day, the minar became my own personal victory tower, and the Dilli I saw from its height became my dream. I had wanted to visit the minar ever since, but it was under construction for many years and was closed off to visitors, by order of the building superintendent, signed by the Sultan. I had ridden by its fenced enclosure numerous times on my way to the masjid and had often thought of invoking royal privilege from the lanced guards who protected the site.

However, I resisted the impulse, because I knew my visit would go on record and I would have to justify myself to Baba, and I had no real explanation. So, all I did was watch it from afar, from the fourth-floor veranda of Kushk-e-Ferozi, seeing its stories slowly rise, slab by slab, each storey emerging from the midst of the one below – a promise unfolding.

That day, perhaps elated by my victories, or in a burst of bravado inspired by Yakut, I was ready to risk Baba’s ire. To ride on the same path again, circling the citadel to arrive at the minar, with Yakut by my side – it felt just right – like it was meant to be.

When I stepped out of the gates of the Blue Palace, I saw Yakut standing to one side, his horse beside him; it was a brown slender-bodied Turkoman with a long neck, sloping shoulders, muscular legs and earnest eyes. The way the animal leaned his muzzle slightly towards him, even though Yakut wasn’t touching him, I could feel the bond between them, as though the air they breathed, only they shared.

As soon as Yakut saw me, he straightened his back and bowed his head slightly. I nodded at him with deliberate nonchalance and swung myself onto Nudrat, a sedate white Arabian that Saras amca was holding for me. Next, he too mounted, but Yakut just stood there.

I waited a moment and then said imperiously, “We will ride to the minar, Jamal-ud-din Yakut. Did you not get the message?”

I wasn’t quite sure how to behave with him: treat him like a lowly slave or talk to him like an equal? Command him to do what I wanted, or ask his opinion? Expect him to treat me like a shehzadi or like a friend? None of these questions would have mattered with any other slave, but this was Yakut – a boy I had trusted with my fears six years ago, although he hardly seemed to be the same boy whom I had got to know in those six nights. This Yakut made me nervous and a little shy.

So, I hid behind the familiarity of the royal mantle. He looked at me for a moment and then bowed his head again, but in that moment, I saw the concern on his face, and it took me back six years. His face still had the same transparency. Perhaps, he was indeed the boy I used to know; just older.

“My apologies, but it’s not safe to go to the minar, Shehzadi,” he said. “It is still being constructed.”

“That’s why we’re going at this hour. The sun is descending, and the workers have left for the day. We won’t be in anyone’s way.”

He suddenly smiled, and my belly fluttered.

“You haven’t changed, Shehzadi,” he said.

I was quite surprised at the familiarity he assumed, but it didn’t irk me; instead, I began to feel comfortable. How easily he had set the tone of our communication.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You’re still breaking rules.”

“Rules are for other people,” I said haughtily. “I am Shehzadi Razziat.”

He nodded and turned to his horse. The quick flash of white I saw on his face filled me with the warmth of memories. Drawing in a breath, I raised my chin and turned Nudrat towards the path leading to the north wall.

He rode a little ahead of me, and Hindu Saras followed a few feet behind. We didn’t talk at all; watching his straight, long back and noticing how the last rays of the sun sparkled like diamond shavings in the tight curls on his head, I suddenly wished I had words that were not just redolent with childhood memories.

Going through the masjid entrance of Chaumukha Gate, we dismounted and handed our horses over to stable boys. From there, we headed to the minar enclosure where Saras amca spoke to the guards on duty, and they stepped aside to let us enter.

Up close, the minar was a thing of awe. Three stories of it were already complete, and the fourth was being constructed. Walking towards it, I kept looking at it, tilting my head back more and more to see along the alternate angular and circular flutings of the stories, all the way up to the vaulting of each balcony that looked like a massive sandy-red honeycomb. I couldn’t look away.

“Watch out. Be careful,” Yakut kept warning me, and I would glance down momentarily. On the ground were stacks of sandstone and quartzite slabs and large trays of slaked limestone mortar mixed with rice water and chir pine sap.

When we climbed the stairs, Hindu Saras took the lead to light the way with a lamp. It was chilly inside and moist, smelling of crisp, fresh limestone. We emerged on the landing of the third floor; its centre was just a scaffolding of wooden poles and knotted ropes, with suspended plumb bobs to ensure that the vertical line remained true.

Picking my way through hammers and chisels that lay strewn about, I went to stand against the balustrade. Up there on the third storey, although breathless and shaky from its height, I couldn’t help but gaze at Dilli. I could hardly recognise it. Ten years ago, it existed only in Rai Pithora’s citadel and in its immediate surroundings.

Now, Dilli shahr extended thousands of guz, precisely sectioned into seven bazars and carefully planned housing localities, each within a framework of flowered pathways. From up there, Dilli seemed like a giant spider’s web – buildings and parks and maidans all caught in the gossamer of its flowery radial threads.

I was so enchanted by Dilli’s transformation that I almost forgot Yakut’s presence. When I finally turned to look at him, I caught him staring. He had been looking at me all this time.

A Dust Storm in Delhi

Excerpted with permission from A Dust Storm in Delhi, Meena Arora Nayak, Tranquebar.