It is a well-known fact that of Tipu Sultan’s many children, the one he loves best is Muiz-ud-din.

Muiz is five years old. His skin is as fair as his father’s, his eyes as wide and limpid, possessing the spirit and authority of a born monarch.

His older brother Abdul Khaliq is considered a bit less impressive. Not just because of his dark skin or his full lips or even his flattish nose; no, the problem has something to do with his doleful countenance, as if he’s always on the verge of apologising.

A prince should not make apologies, Tipu believes. Nor should a king. So Tipu did not apologise to his boys when surrendering them to Lord Cornwallis two years before, after the humiliating defeat at Bangalore. Cornwallis had demanded the boys as collateral, in case Tipu failed to hold to the terms of the peace treaty.

No Western artist was present at the moment when Tipu bade his sons goodbye, yet the scene was rendered a dozen times over by Western artists, in immense and inaccurate detail, reproduced in prints and engravings. Here was beautiful Muiz, stepping away from the gaggle of distraught brown men toward the orderly ranks of white men, Muiz’s own hand growing whiter in Cornwallis’s palm.

Where Abdul was included, he, too, received a whitening treatment, and so stepped the nation out of barbary, at least temporarily.

Now it is 1794, and the boys have been returned to Mysore, due to Tipu’s good behaviour and his timely payment of one crore and sixty lakhs, a sum extracted as tribute from the people of Mysore, many of whom, unable to submit to this “mandatory gift,” have fled to neighbouring districts.

What the boys saw and did in Madras, under Cornwallis’s care, they have not said. Not that Tipu is asking. Expressing curiosity in this matter is out of the question, as is saying thank you. Did Tipu’s own father offer thanks after Tipu, age sixteen, led Haidar Ali’s forces into the Carnatic and besieged Ambur? No, he did not. It’s not for the father to say thank you to the son; it is for the son to say: Anything else I can do, Father?

Still, Tipu is not his father. He would like to express his appreciation with a gift the likes of which his sons have never seen. (Unlike the unimaginative palanquin that Cornwallis sent back with them, which Tipu stored, still wrapped, in the deepest reaches of his vault.) The tiger automaton will be a gift of such grandeur and ferocity that it will silence all memory of the boys’ exile.

And what does Abbas know of all this, of what is riding on the success of the automaton? Very little, which is perhaps as it should be. Let him sleep in the soft splendour of the palace; let him dream of flautists climbing out the mouths of live tigers. He has much to learn. For now, let him be.

Abbas wakes in a panic: he has no idea where he is. After the answer dawns on him – the Frenchman’s suite in the Summer Palace – another panic: he has no idea where to urinate.

A quick investigation leads him to a lidded pot beneath the bed. He has heard that the wealthy relieve themselves in dishware. Until now, he has never believed it.

He sets down the pot in the centre of the room. It is smooth and white, ceramic. He removes the lid to find inside the cartoon portrait of an English soldier, palms raised on either side of his frantic, pig-nosed, about-to-be-peed-upon face. On the inner wall of the bowl is a small sculpted frog, a baffling ornament until Abbas realises this is where he’s meant to aim.

After drowning the piggy Englishman (which, truth be told, does prove pleasing), Abbas closes the lid and wonders where to deposit the contents. The bowl has a handle. Presumably, someone else will be grasping that handle – a mortifying thought. He slides the covered pot under his bed.

Once dressed and groomed, he stands in the middle of the room, not sure which way is the Qibla. He looks around for any sign. Junaid would say the direction in which one prays doesn’t matter so long as the intention is genuine and one’s mind isn’t wandering. But Abbas’s mind has a tendency to flit, and this is just one of his problems – so says Junaid – this is why Abbas lacks true piety.

Abbas unfurls his mat and faces the jaali-carved window. It fills with pink light, accompanied by the purest adhan he has ever heard, recited by a muezzin who must have the direct ear of Allah. And yet he misses being shoulder to shoulder with his brothers, the crack of Junaid’s knees, their father’s perpetual throat clearings, and there his mind goes again, flitting.

After prayer, there is a stirring outside his door. He cracks it open and peers into the sitting room.

The Frenchman’s door is closed. An embroidered white cloth has been spread over the carpet, set with an array of bronze bowls, one filled with fresh water. Abbas lowers himself onto a cushion embellished with the golden figures of two dancing girls. He drinks from the rim of the water bowl and waits for Du Leze to emerge so they can eat together. Or should he eat in his own room, apart from the Frenchman? The rice is steaming hot, laden with ghee. In a fit of hunger, he swipes two handfuls of rice and rearranges the heap to appear untouched. “Know your place,” his mother warned him before he left. “Don’t go getting a swelled turban.”

At last Du Leze opens his door and halts on the threshold. He is wearing a different set of silk pyjamas, the jama buttoned beneath his left arm in the Muslim style. Neat from the neck down, everything above has a crushed appearance: chaotic white hair, gloomy bags beneath the eyes.

“The boy from yesterday, is it?” says Du Leze, squinting.


“Abbas.” Du Leze scratches his stubbled cheek. “You slept in that room?”

“You told me to, Sahab.”

“I remember,” says the Frenchman, a bit defensively. Slowly he lowers one knee down onto the sheet. “You have eaten, yes?”

Du Leze leans across the food to rinse his hands in the bowl of water, which apparently is not for drinking.

“Sahab is not eating breakfast?”

Du Leze produces a silver flask whose clear liquid he pours into a cup of lukewarm coffee. This he stirs with his pinky and downs in three gulps, then shudders. “Breakfast,” he says, then grabs the bowl of nuts. “Lunch.”

Abbas wonders whether he should mention that Tipu Sultan recently abolished the consumption of alcohol, along with other intoxicants like white poppy and hemp. Surely a man like Du Leze, so fluent in Kannada, would be fluent in the rules?

Before Abbas can decide whether to open his mouth, Du Leze hoists himself up. “Much to do, tak tak, let’s go.

Excerpted with permission from Loot, Tania James, Penguin India.