A Trooper in Ahmedabad, 1583

When Gujrat was finally conquered, M Khan Khanan gave his whole property to his soldiers...

– Ain-i-Akbari, vol 1, tr. Blochmann

Outnumbered four to one,
advised to hold back
till reinforcements arrived,
he rushed into battle
at Sarkhej,
surprising the enemy.
Afterwards, surprising us

by giving away
every scrap he owned.
I was the last to show up,
come for my share
when he had nothing left
to give. Of what use
an inkstand to a trooper?

Mulla Muhammad Amin Khurasani, Burhanpur, 1615

I do not
understand what is written in these pages
or the script
in which they’re written.

I bind
as the calligrapher copies.
He reads the words,
I the paper, the size, the inks.

An expert in the art of paper marbling and a renowned bookbinder and illuminator, Khurasani was employed in Abd al-Rahim’s Burhanpur library, one of the great private libraries of the Mughal period. It had books in diverse languages.

Who Were These People, Burhanpur, 1615

Who were these people,
where have they gone,
the calligraphers,

and illuminators,

the gilders and architects
who made this the Iran
of the Deccan?

Where are the shops
they bought the colours from,
the nibs and brushes?

Where are the workshops,
the floor desks,
the mats they sat on?

Where are their shoes
outside the door?
Where’s the door?

Passing through
the Ruby Garden,
they’d have stopped

by the lotus pond,
square as a chess board,
surrounded with trees,

and looked at themselves
in the rippled mirror.
Where have they all gone?

No likenesses survive,
and what if they had?
They looked like you and me.

They were you and me.

Abd al-Rahim’s Burhanpur library is said to have had a staff of ninety-five working in different capacities and about a hundred daily visitors.

Schoolboy’s Rahim

He outlived his four sons. One died of drink.
One’s head was cut off and delivered,
wrapped in cloth, as a gift. One died young.
When his favourite son died none dared tell him.

No mausoleum covers their graves.
The tomb with blue tiles on the dome
was built for Miyan Fahim, his faithful servant
born of a slave girl.

Keep grief
to yourself, Rahim says.
Sharing doesn’t help.

It only leaves
chinks in your armour
that others exploit.

We read him in school. The alphabet was familiar,
but you scrunched up the eyes to read the page.
The meaning had to be cribbed. Hindi was grief,
and grief the sports field if you missed a sitter.

Excerpted with permission from Book of Rahim & Other Poems, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, published under Westland – Literary Activism, a new publishing imprint of Westland and the Centre for the Creative and the Critical at Ashoka University. Book of Rahim is the first book under the imprint.