Rao sahib felt nauseous. He always did, in this cradle of claustrophobia. Solid rocks, gouged out from the aged Aravallis, encaged Udaipur in a shaharpana. The high wall was surrounded by a moat filled with water from the lakes of the fortified city. On the turrets stood soldiers, shelled in their armours.

Waiting eagerly for trouble. Watching the movement of humans trapped in the walled city. The streets had the fishy stench of a woman’s vulva. The pigeons, the insolence of naked babies. The vendors, the shrillness of bats. Baniya to Kshatriya to Muslims to Bhangi-Chamar...one and all incubating, shagging, eating, scheming, screaming, masturbating, menstruating, dying, huffing, coughing in the same enclosed space.

Rao sahib’s fingers twitched for his whip again. A stream of humans had moved too close for his comfort, in an ant line. He was outside the Surajpole Gate from where he had to enter the city with his two aides and his Bhil Doonga. The winter morning had turned clammy, a far cry from the loam fresh with forest dew. If the forest had a thousand eyes, the city had a thousand mouths. With pouting, adulterous lips. A Marwadi seth wearing a gold-rimmed orange pagadi had got down from his tonga and was trailed by servants. A seth of Shekhawati, Marwar, was a proud creature. To get the title of “seth” he was supposed to have a minimum number of people working for him, sponsor a temple, run a dharmsala, and a gaushala. What was the point of a title, Rao sahib wondered, that was not through bloodline? Vulgar vainglory.

The seth had made a beeline past a couple of bullock carts rolling in the direction of the Surajpol Gate, towards the Bhils. They were sitting outside the moat of the shaharpana, under shady trees, waving off flies from their baskets full of kotbadi, belpatra, amla and other forest produce. He was greeted with a loud khamma ghani, Seth ji as his servants got busy buying from the depredation of tribals.

An enigmatic smile played on the merchant’s lips as he rubbed his ego, going up to the Kalbeliya gipsy selling the oil “sande-ka-tel” believed to have mystic properties. The nomadic tribe of Kalbeliya, known for its snake handling, folk dances and herbal remedies, could be trusted to give you the most kosher treatments. A large monitor lizard lay curled up in a deep plate full of oil. Inert. Framed in death. Releasing its healing powers in the oil. A rugged brown cloth on the side groaned under the weight of semi-precious stones. The seller, dressed in a red pagadi, white dhoti-kurta and silver jewellery produced phials with a sweep of his hand from below a sack and dipped them in the oil with a flourish. He pushed the dead lizard tenderly while doing so, trying not to disturb its eternal slumber – a stirring performance. The seth bought no less than 11 bottles of the healing oil, undoubtedly for his disease-ridden family, sending the seller in raptures.

Rao Sahib had entered the city with a sour mouth. The seth had sensed his displeasure, just as Doonga could sense the presence of a leopard in a thicket. The impudent merchant had smirked at him. Given him a smile that was teasing. Hostile. Challenging. The notional nation of India would not take anything away from these remarkable men who didn’t live on their ancestral lands but on the blood of the society. Businessmen. Moneylenders. Cheats.

With his sour mouth turning acidic, Rao Sahib sent his aides Sujan Singh and Amar Singh to make preparations for his stay at the Maharana’s City Palace. Or so he told them. He wanted to be alone for what he had set out to do today. There was this one place he had to go to before visiting Dada Bhai and then the Maharana’s durbar. He could only trust Doonga to be with him, for what was he but a shadow?

“The Union of India is giving voting powers to each and every man. And woman.” Rao sahib’s horse tok-tok-toked on the maze of kutcha lanes. “It would make thugs in-charge of running a country that is a hundred times bigger than the state of Mewar. Not just that, it is giving the right to anyone...anyone to fight an election and become a leader. Even a hijra. Tell me Doonga, how would you like serving a eunuch?’

Doonga walked by the side of the horse, holding the rein of the class through the milling masses. Rao Sahib didn’t expect a reply from him. It would be like expecting a response from his horse Lankeshwar. And yet, there seemed to be an invisible ghost that capered about Doonga that day, just as the jeevti dakkan flitted in the peepul tree outside Dada Bhai’s house. In frightening quietness.

“And do you think India would become as great as Britain? Mark my words, Doonga...it never can. You have to loot other nations to become great. These thugs, our ‘leaders’, will be looting their own people.”

Two men in tight loincloths with gunnysacks on their slender backs, went in tow of a hollow-cheeked man pulling a loaded handcart. They left a pungent smell of turmeric in their wake. Their hair was bleached brown in the sun. The activity was much less today near the Dhan Mandi, the grain market, as almost everyone was preparing for a day in the company of kites.

Most of the shops were closed. A small corner boutique, with a smattering of colourful kites, had attracted a pack of little rascals pooling their coins to buy one. Rao sahib passed a dharmashala near a Jain Mandir. Doonga’s knowledge of the city lanes was thorough. Just a twitch of Rao sahib’s lips and he knew where to take him.

“You know which are my pet places in this city? The lakes, Doonga, the lakes. Chocked with crocodiles, skimming with migratory birds, churning with fish. That is the last wild bastion left in Udaipur. How long will these beasts survive our ‘independence’? There are already rumours of the authorities wanting to give contracts for crocodile hide...they plan to mass murder these ferocious reptiles to make shoes and purses –”

Excerpted with permission from The Witch in the Peepul Tree, Arefa Tehsin, HarperCollins India.