The bazaar hummed in the low, lazy way that characterised the afternoon. The buyers had gone home to their lunches. The shopkeepers were resting, even if that involved nothing more than sitting back against a bolster and staring, glassy-eyed, onto the lane while chewing paan. The Qutb Minar, silhouetted against the cloudless blue of an autumn sky, stood half a kos away, a black kite circling lazily around it.

Daanish had had a busy morning. As he had feared, there were customers who had gone to Junaid as soon as they had discovered Daanish’s absence. But there were others who had waited for him. Once he had taken his seat, work had gone on nonstop for the next few hours. When the ink had dried on the last page and it had been handed over to its owner, Daanish stood up and stretched, trying to work the tension out of his muscles. His headache, numbed briefly by breakfast and then half-forgotten by work, howled back into existence. He squeezed his eyes shut.

“Are you the son of Nasiruddin?” asked a voice.

It was a man, a man whose clothing did not fit his features. That dark complexion, those black eyes and that neatly oiled moustache belonged with a cotton dhoti, not the pajamas and tunic he wore.

“Yes,” Daanish said. “My father has been dead three years now,” he added.

The man had come closer. There were threads of grey in his moustache and crow’s feet at the corners of the eyes. There was something about his skin a weathered look, a cobweb of fine lines and spots and blemishes that lent him a timeless look. He could have been thirty years old and prematurely grey; he could have been sixty.

“My name is Devraj,” he said. “I knew your father in Samarqand.”

“Samarqand?’ Daanish frowned. “But Abba had not been to Samarqand for many years.” And what were you doing in Samarqand, he thought of asking. Because from the looks of you, you belong in Dilli, not in Samarqand.

But your clothes fit with Samarqand, perhaps. Or what would pass muster if Samarqand got as hot as Dilli. Did it? Daanish did not know; he had never happened to ask his father that question. “Well, perhaps that was not accurate,” Devraj conceded. “It might be more correct to say that I met him on the way to Samarqand. We left Dilli together.”

That explanation too had given the wrong impression; it had implied that they had been friends, fellow travellers. Fellow travellers, yes; but one of them had been unwilling.

Even as Taimur had plundered Dilli of her honour and her wealth, he had taken note of her beauty, the majesty of her mosques and the elegance of her palaces. When he was done, he had taken prisoner those he thought primarily responsible for the beauty of Dilli, and had carted them off to his own city back in his native land, to make Samarqand as beautiful as Dilli. There had been stone masons among them, carvers, metal workers, architects. Men skilled in stucco and in the hundred other ways in which Indians decorated their buildings.

Devraj, a stone carver, had been one of those thousands of artisans and craftsmen carried off to Samarqand.

“It is not another Dilli,” Devraj said, shaking his head. “It is a different city, nothing like Dilli at all. All he wanted was our skill, to use as he pleased.”

On the long trek from Dilli to Samarqand, Nasiruddin had been assigned to guard Devraj and a dozen others. “It took me a few days to realise he was not like the other guards,” Devraj murmured, his eyes softening as they gazed at the past. “They were under orders to not ill-treat us; after all, we were being taken back to work it would do no good to have us wounded or crippled. But few of the soldiers heeded that order. We were not marked, but we got kicked and slapped, cursed and spat upon. We were given half the rations allowed, and that too grudgingly.”

“Nasiruddin was not like that,” Devraj added. “He was a good man; he rarely even raised his voice. His comrades mocked him for it. Some went further. There were arguments, blows exchanged. But Nasiruddin did not change.”

Daanish could not afford to leave his place under the banyan tree just yet; there were still several hours of daylight left, the chance of more customers. “I will sit with you if I may,” Devraj had said, and from that had proceeded the story of Nasiruddin and how Devraj had come to know him.

They had reached Samarqand after a long and arduous journey of several months, with many soldiers and artisans succumbing to disease, fatigue and wounds along the way. In Samarqand, Devraj was in Nasiruddin’s charge one moment, sent off to a work site another. Devraj was lucky that a few of the other stone carvers who had been with him through the journey were also fellow workers at the same site. They were to build a mosque, and while the architects worked with the masons to erect the structure, the stone carvers, tile-makers and stucco workers sat in vast workshops and did their work.

“I did not see Nasiruddin for many months; I had even forgotten him. Then one day, I was in the bazaar, and there he was, buying dates.”

Suddenly, they found themselves friends. No longer captor and captive, not even just acquaintances, because once you have sheltered under the same makeshift tent with a man, once you have dribbled water into his mouth during a raging fever and he has helped dig an arrow out of your back, you can no longer be mere acquaintances. They had become friends, even though neither of them had noticed that fact when they had parted ways earlier. Now they renewed that acquaintance, and acknowledged it for the friendship it was.

Nasiruddin had told Devraj about the woman he had met in Dilli, about the love he had left behind in the city. He had spoken long and with an aching heart of Shagufta, though not in the way most men spoke of women. Not of her beauty or her virtues, but of other things: her wisdom and strength, her patience. It was as if Shagufta had become, for him, all soul, all heart and all mind. Her body was immaterial.

“And that is true love, isn’t it,” Devraj said. Then, looking embarrassed he was, after all, talking to a fifteen-year-old who was the son of the man and woman he was discussing he changed the topic somewhat. “I think the love he bore your mother, and the love she had for Dilli, endeared the city to him, too. That was why he was different from the others. That was why he felt for us.”

Excerpted with permission from An Unholy Drought: A Novel, Madhulika Liddle, Speaking Tiger Books.