Memories, for Jamal, can be a bane. It takes little to spark them. Reaching for the bolt of cloth, he remembers a different time he’d had to rip muslin. A coarser weave, and with his teeth, not scissors, to nick the selvedge. He has no memory of the pain but of everything else.

There had been 60 of them – Oromo boys from Harar aged seven to eleven, taken in caravan to Zeila and thence a dhow to Aden in the Yemen, and again by sea to Goa where a dozen of the best were put in a state to be castrated. After it was done, they were given new names and taught the way to change their bandages. One of them had bled to his death. The body was interred in the cloth that remained between them; they were given a new bolt in its place. Seven weeks later, they were sold and had gone their separate ways.

In Bijapur, Jamal (formerly Eba) had been put to work for an Abyssinian minister with three wives, nine girl-children, and interests in aloes and ambergris. After two years of all there was to be learnt of the husbandry of cloistered women, Jamal was advanced to serve at the royal palace. In 1618, aged 13, he’d become part of the Sultan Adil Shah’s tribute to the Mughal prince. The following year, he was moved from Burhanpur to Lahore and, in the winter of 1620, entered the imperial Women’s Quarter there.

He could have done worse. His one regret is his inability to read or write; but had he been imparted those skills as well, his physical worth would have doubtless diminished. All things considered, better this. His sinewy frame and natural grace, even temper and smile, had earned him the coveted status of a ladies’ page: an incorruptible, near-invisible presence, flitting silently between the Women’s Quarter and the confined world outside. He was as yet low in rank to be admitted into Her Majesty the Empress’s presence.

For that, you must prove yourself worthy, Firuz Khan the Keeper of the Quarter had said, with no indication of how Jamal might go about it.

His orders for Agra had come in the winter of 1624, soon after Their Majesties had returned to Lahore from their season in Kashmir. The deputation, Firuz Khan had said, issuing Jamal a new muniments case and katara dagger to wear at his waist, was a small but significant advancement.

And do nothing, the Firuz had added, to incur the displeasure of my counterpart there.

Jamal had arrived in Agra in the January of 1625. Directly upon his reporting to them, the ladies Sahifeh and Nadireh had armed him with a gossamer net on a looped stick and a set of cylindrical red lacquered boxes with holes in their lids. All they had required of him was to weekly take a barge across the Jumna to the Light Scattering Garden on the east bank and catch butterflies. But they had neither filled their chambers with his finds, nor flown them on silk threads from their terrace. They’d chided him for presuming to ask what they’d done with them. It hadn’t stopped him from wondering.

In the month of May that year, a runner from Lahore had come with a delivery for the ladies. It had been the first of several deliveries the runner had made, and the start of Jamal’s deliveries from the ladies to Mansur at the atelier. As for the latter’s work, all Jamal has seen of it is a drab bird with stumps for wings.

Because it is the last, the painter had said, and for respite from other things.

The things I bring to you every now and then? Jamal had asked him.

It is not for you to ask me anything, the Mansur had replied.

More fool you – Jamal had wordlessly conveyed – if you take me for a complete innocent.

He works quickly now – measuring the cloth against the boxes; adding a hand-span before doublefolding; creasing, unfolding, snipping; and then cleanly ripping along the weft. Gathering up the skirts of his robe, he sinks down to the carpet in a billow of white pleats.

The smallest box has another nested inside – itself divided into lidded compartments. In these are lengths of feather shafts stripped of their vanes; bamboo dipreeds; iron styluses with needle-fine points; wooden brush stems; copper ferrules for securing brush hairs; an ivory folding scale; a pair of silver scissors less than a forefinger’s length; a bunch of ivory spoons of diminishing size with traces of colour on them; a soft leather pad of gold foil. In one compartment are paper packets of squirrel-tail brush hairs – each little bunch tied with red silk at the root ends. The nested box has notches in the sides. Jamal lifts it off the flanges on which it sits.

The bag in the lower section is cluttered with mussel shells. Jamal empties them with a clatter to the carpet. The daubs of pigment in their hollows are caked, crackled and some still damp. He sorts them into piles, and then in arcs of colour – the way the Hashim had arranged his colours when he’d painted Jamal and told him their names.

There is raw blue from Sar-e-Sang; blues from morning sky to indigo-midnight. Cow’s urine yellow paling into the chalkiness of babies’ excrement. Beetle-blood red and iron-stone red. Reds worked with white into pinks; with yellow to oranges; and with blues to shades of mulberry, jamun and grape. The hues of emerald and jade; the nameless tones of mud and sand. Burnt-ivory black lightening to shell-white. One shell of gold pigment. A handful of empty shells. Scooping them all back into the bag and returning it to the box, Jamal repositions the nested tray, gives the whole box a shake to settle the contents and shuts it.

The tray in the second box is arranged with pouches of pigment – some of them crystalline to the touch, others firmly powdery. A muslin pouncing bag, itself wrapped in a blackened rag, leaves a dusting of charcoal to Jamal’s hands. He wipes his fingers on the carpet and removes the tray. Stuffed in the lower compartment are two pestles and mortars small enough for a cupped hand, drawstring pouches of glue resins, a set of copper water cups and – in a square of black silk – a black onyx burnishing stone the size and shape of a duck’s egg. Engraved in a circle at its broad end is a line of nastaliq. Jamal holds the cold smooth stone to his cheek for a moment.

His eyes fall on a roll of frayed cotton between the things. The brushes and reeds in it will be less prone to damage with the pouches of pigments. Jamal transfers the roll to the upper tray, returns it to the box and closes it.

The remaining two boxes are identical rectangles with sliding lids. Beneath the drawing tablets fitted under the lids are wads of papers of two types. The fine white sheets in one are as yet untouched by brush and pigments. Not so the heavier stock in the second. Sheet upon sheet is worked with the outlines of flowers and butterflies, swatches of colour, and partly painted-in petals and wings. Between the used papers and the rest is a vellum package, its surface mottled by a musty taint.

It is almost weightless and crackles slightly. Jamal knows better than to look inside. Sickened, he throws it back in the box and slides shut the lid. Wiping his hands on his skirts, he reaches for the cut sections of muslin.

Excerpted with permission from Mansur, Vikramjit Ram, Pan MacMillan India.