Mulgaon, Shashti Pranth, North Kokan, 1536

Light before daybreak, a yellow flicker on the edge of dreams, a roar in the doorway, ash, tears, screams. On land, a cindered village. From the retreating boat far out at sea, an island fringed with fire. When the smoke clears on the island, every man is a slave.

An hour before dawn Damu contemplates his place in this universe. Standing twenty feet above ground, balancing the fulcrum of the water pump, he treads its wide wooden arms. He watches the iron pitcher sink and rise out of a well as black as the night sky, and as invulnerable. It taps a secret artery of water deep beneath the rock. This inexhaustible pulse is now the village’s only certainty.

Mulgaon is patrolled by men with guns. The azaan has fallen silent. Temple bells are muffled, lest they offend. Women keep within doors. The Khan bleeds to death in a gutter, his sons are hanged.

In nearby Kondiviti, the market flourishes. Merchants speak in hushed tones of new taxes, new routes, more money. In Thana, silk looms clatter again.

Damu treads the fulcrum, worrying why.

His eyes chart the dark as if they can see beyond the fields, past the smoke of the coastline, far out to sea. His father says, “We are slaves so that there may be no more burnings, so that the looms may work again, so that the merchants may make more money, so that our land is saved. This is the price we pay.”

“Who decided that?” Damu asks the Maulvi.

The Maulvi has been in hiding for a week from the men with guns.

Damu’s family has sheltered him. If he is discovered, the Firangi will torch their hut.

The Maulvi says their fates have been altered by the drunken stroke of a pen. What does he mean by that?

“The Maulvi is a fool,” his father says. “Listen to the caravans, they bring all the good stories.”

Where do the caravans come from? Where do they go?

Lands are named by stuff the caravans bring, dream stuff, stuff for Rajas and Khans, too precious to be unpacked on the road, but wending its way somehow to the Shaniwar Bazaar. Here, rejects unacceptable at the depot because of their very pettiness, the smallness of their grandeur, are dusted off like a crush of mica. Silks fragmented as rainbows, ribbons and brocade sold as piece-goods, lusted after by women who never wear them but hoard them as dreams, and gift them as dower. Fistfuls of gemstones, cracked, tainted, clouded, but spitting fire just the same, or sulking with concealed colour, morose till the light provokes a gleam of purple, rose, green or gold. These are avidly bought by the poor as amulets for their children. Rich folk who can afford the Vasai jewellers disdain these treasures, but Damu still wears a small garnet strung around his waist.

If you don’t want the flash and flicker of jewels, you still go to the bazaar, just for the smell of it. You can fill your lungs with the scent of a Raja’s kitchen – pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves, cardamom, star anise – fragments and twigs that smell of heaven. You never exhale those smells, they keep looping through your brain, singing in your blood when you chew at your bhakri-chutney.

And the horses!

Cavalcades that get the villagers lining the roads swooning in wonder.

Black, silver, brown, no matter what their colour, the horses’ coats are like silk. They step like dancers, straining and rebelling at the strange air, wild with relief at pacing solid ground again after the terror days at sea.

Children run after them for gifts of coins or candy, for the riders are always generous.

The horses are for royalty, this Raja or that Sultân. They come from beyond the sea, from Makkah and the countries of sand, from Zanj, from places that have no name. They go to all the Sultâns and Rajas, but mainly to Mulgaon’s own Sultân in Gujarat who has the pick of the finest since the white men came.

Before that, the Raja of Vijayanagar had the best horses, and his men led them with such sweet music that the whole village, not just the children, ran after the cavalcade. Their masters may be at war, but the horse merchants are a noisy, back-slapping, friendly crew, always ready with a laugh. Rough fellows, but they warm Damu’s heart. They have stories too, but the best stories come at night when the bazaar has folded up, and the horses led away to the stables. Then the villagers bring out their welcome, food and fruit and sweetmeats, baskets of mango, sacks of rice. And the sweetest toddy in the world. These are gifts, thanksgiving, for the privilege of living on the caravan route. And such a short route it is too!

It can be walked in a day, from the Ulhas to Mahim, from Vasai to Bandra.

The merchants come from the mainland across the creek from Thana and Turbhe, or over the ghats from the Dakshin. From the Mahim river they sail to the harbour at Mumbai where the bigger boats lie moored. From there they sail to Chaul, or where they will! Some say beyond Zanj, south around the land, past the ocean demons into a bigger ocean so cold, so vast and so peaceful that the crew pass on into eternal sleep.

What good is a story without demons and magic? Like the Vasai Rakshasi, like Devis all around the island, like Mumba Rakshas who disappointingly turned out to be only Mubarak Khan.

Stories judge the truth, not the other way around.

The village gathers for the stories on the large maidan cleared of bales and carts for the occasion. When everybody has eaten, and the musicians have tired the listeners out, stories begin around the fire.

Nobody knew when a story ended or a new one began, they fit one within another, as all good stories should.

Sometimes, when he was a boy, Damu would fall asleep and wake to find a sky full of wheeling stars and the storyteller’s voice seemed to stream down from their immeasurable distance.

The stories come in many tongues, but the village has an interpreter who takes up when the visitor stops for breath – and let’s fly a tale so florid that Damu doubts if it is the same as the visitor’s. It must be, for the village knows the interpreter well enough by the light of day. He is a Brahman so stupid he couldn’t be trusted with the scriptures, and so was left to learn the many languages of trade, and learn them well he did. Perhaps he wasn’t so stupid after all. But he certainly is a dull fellow, and invention is beyond him.

Damu believes the stories. Treading the pump leaves his mind free to think about them. He wonders if the Maulvi knows that story, the last one he heard before he became a slave, and the Maulvi a fugitive.

Excerpted with permission from Bahadur Shah of Gujarat: A King in Search of a Kingdom, Kalpish Ratna, Simon & Schuster India.