The next morning, Laale emerges from the zenana freshly dressed. She spots Begum Taj Mahal seated inside a coach. The Padishah’s trusted coachman, Sulaiman, stands by the horses’ flanks. He stands as tall as a pillar, cinnamon-coloured. His body is lean and strong, as if made of stone and then infused with the power of the human form. A pink turban rests on his head. He is a labourer, a coachman, a servant and a trusted aide, whose family has served the Mughal court for five generations. Sulaiman turns around to see the new Badakhshani slave girl about whom the Begum speaks with such interest.

Her face is scrubbed clean and a long, thick plait snakes down her back. She walks towards him, not demurely but facing forward with a deliberate gait.

He salaams her and she returns the greeting. He gestures to the coach, holding open the curtains. As she kneels near him to slide into the coach, she trips on the length of her dupatta and he steadies her with a hand upon her elbow. Once inside the carriage, she pulls away and then turns to face him muttering gratitude. He spends a moment looking at her. He notices the drooping corners of her eyes, her lips that could have been plush and inviting but are folded thin as if barred shut. Her hands do not rest anywhere but jerk about. Her legs wobble and shake as she sits uneasily. And yet, despite all of it, she is radiant. Sulaiman normally keeps away from the women of the zenana, but Laale intrigues him.

Laale sits nervous as a colt next to Taj Mahal in the royal horse-drawn carriage. Thrilled to be rid of the navel-grazing gharara and breast-length choli, Laale jumped at the bundle of clothes brought by Taj’s eunuch this morning. They are not new, but they cover her and are clean. The Begum is brimming with excitement at the prospect of grooming Laale into a royal courtesan so eloquent, so graceful, so erudite and lyrical that she will become the most desired woman at the Lal Qila! “We are going to pay a visit to the poet Ghalib at Ballimaran, the Delhi mahallah where the shayar has made his home. I have with me a basket of fruits that I picked myself from the Padishah’s New Garden. Ghalib loves mangoes but unfortunately they are not yet in season. I’m afraid times have changed and I have no royal favours to offer him.” Taj Mahal Begum wishes to ingratiate herself with the Ustad, so that he might be amenable to her proposal of taking on Laale as a pupil, although it is his arch-rival, Zauq, who is in fact the court poet.

The carriage turns a corner into the streets of Ballimaran and stops before a gate set into white-latticed walls. A chowkidar pulls open the gate, stopping at an angle that allows him to peer out with an inquisitive gaze. The Mirza is not expecting anyone. Glimpsing the royal chariot, he yells to the household to fetch their master and opens the gate wide. Ghalib fixes his beard with a few strokes of the comb before rushing out, wondering who has come from the Lal Qila. Certainly it will not be the Padishah, but perhaps one of the princes, his pupil Mirza Fakhru most likely. He is a little surprised to find Taj Mahal Begum escorting a young woman to his door. He greets Taj Mahal with an adab accompanied by the deepest of bows. The girl salaams him and he raises his fingers to his forehead to return the greeting.

The poet leads his guests into a formal receiving room, laid with the best carpets and most precious silverware inherited from his wife, the late Umrao Begum, niece to the Nawab Ahmad Baksh Khan, ruler of Ferozepur and Loharu. He waits for the Begum to take her seat first, sits down himself and then motions for the girl to follow suit.

“Welcome,” the poet begins. “To what do I owe the honour of your visit Begum Sahiba?”

Taj Mahal Begum opens the conversation with a long soliloquy to greet Ghalib, “My Mirza, Subhanallah for the blessings of this day, for bringing us into your esteemed presence, blessings upon you and your household.”

Ghalib clears his throat signalling for her to get on with the business at hand. “We have come to seek to benefit from the skills of poetry and mastery of language that the Divine Lord has blessed upon you, Ustad.”

“Well, praise for Divine blessings should be directed to the One who has bestowed them, not to his humble servant. All the same, Mirza Ghalib shall place his talents at the Begum’s service.”

Laale sits silent, with hands folded in her lap and eyes cast downwards. Her heart utters wildly. She fears that the Begum seated next to her might hear its thunderous beats. Calming her nerves, she tries to catch bits of conversation that might help her understand why she has been brought here. The Begum, now like a squirrel searching for a niche in the trunk of a tree, sees her opportunity and hurries to worm her way into it.

“My dear Mirzada, as you are well aware, my most esteemed husband, the Padishah, has for some years now fallen prey to the judgements and wiles of another Begum who taxes the entire palace with the whims and idiosyncrasies of her heavy, aristocratic blood. Her influence has risen so high that she is also able to affect Zafar’s good taste and aesthetic sensibilities. As a consequence, we find upon the seat of the court poet a man of unprivileged birth, Zauq, who has usurped the lofty position reserved for that most noble talent which Allah, in His glory, bequeaths only to the chosen ones. Nevertheless, we Taj Mahal Begum are here to seek the favour of your talent over that of our court poet for the instruction of this supple and much gifted young gazelle.”

Ghalib looks over at the young gazelle still peering at her hands.

“Is she a poetess?”

“Not yet. But you shall make her one. Her tongue is an elegant one, hailing from the Afghan province and she possesses a sharp wit and a willing mind.”

“Does she read and write?”

“Why, you may ask her yourself. She speaks an excellent Persian.”

Ghalib switches to an elaborate Farsi and asks: “My dear gazelle, can you write the Arabic alphabet?”

“Yes,” Laale replies, barely audible. Doubt dances in her heart. Here is the pleasant poet from last night, seated before her. Why has she been brought to his home? Will she now be forced to become his concubine? Is she being sold again? Gifted to the poet?

“And can you recite the letters, that is to say, can you read?”

“Yes. I can read the Arabic of Qur’an-e-Shar’if and the Persian of Hafiz.”

Ghalib goes out of the room, to reappear holding a large, ornamented book that could only be the Holy Qur’an. Both women raise their dupattas over their hair. Ghalib takes a seat opposite Laale, flipping through the sacred book. Finding his page, he places it before Laale. “Recite, Khanum, the page before you.”

Anxiety rises in Laale. Pools of sweat gather behind her knees and under her armpits despite the cool breeze whispering through the patterns of the latticework on the jali windows. She is afraid, but if one were to ask, she would not be able to name her fear. It is one of those undefined emotions that comes unbidden and takes over the climate of one’s constitution, handicapping, rendering impotent, so that rational behaviour becomes impossible. Laale takes a deep breath and recites, recognising at once the Surah al- Noor and thereby decreasing the work of her eyes and employing instead some of her memory.

Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim
The Verse of Light

In the name of god, merciful to all, compassionate to each.

God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
The story of this light is like that of a niche and within it a lamp.
The lamp enclosed by glass, the glass shining like an iridescent star,
illuminated by a blessed tree:
an olive neither of the east nor of the west –
whose oil glows luminous, although unlit by fire.
Light upon light.
And god guides towards this light those whom he pleases;
God teaches humankind by way of parables.
And god is cognisant of all things.

Laale reins in the cadence of her speech so that it does not gallop ahead like an unrestrained horse. She saunters over the undulating curves of rhyme and meter. Her confidence rises. The fear is still there, lurking in the shadows, but it no longer dominates her.

Bravado, born of inspiration and moved by courage, has replaced her timidity. She knows her light is shining; a fire whose flames had been extinguished by her recent turmoil has begun to smoulder again. Both Ghalib and Taj Mahal sit motionless while she recites God’s own poetry like a cry from her soul. She stops at the end of the verse, her eyes no longer downcast.

Ghalib is a pompous man. He is filled with the conceit and pride of his talent, his aristocratic lineage, his privilege as a learned man.

But it is true that he is also a nobleman; and that nobility endows him with a grace, a generosity that cannot refuse so desperate and yet so magical an appeal. He cups Laale’s chin in the palm of his hand and asks her a question.

“Do you know what the miracle of Islam is?”

Laale does not know. She shakes her head. Even Begum Taj Mahal does not know.

“It is the Word of God. Our Prophet, peace be upon him, was an illiterate man. He could not read and write like you can. Yet, he stood in the streets of Mecca and recited this poetry that far surpassed anything the Meccans had ever heard. He stopped them in their tracks – those wealthy merchants of Mecca, who had a great esteem in their culture for poetry, so much so that their rulers were poet-kings. That was how, by the sheer beauty of the language, the Meccans were able to recognise that what Muhammad recited was indeed the Word of God; for no mortal, let alone an illiterate one, could compose such a verse as the one you have just recited.

Certainly, Begum Sahiba, I shall accept this...what did you call her? Young gazelle! Yes, this young gazelle into my tutorship.”

Taj Mahal is jubilant. “Wonderful! Oh! how brilliant you are! Thank you. You shall not be disappointed. She will shine like a bright star.”

“I have no doubt she will, your highness. You must send her every single day excepting the Jumma of Friday, at one o’clock sharp.”

Excerpted with permission from The Mulberry Courtesan: A Novel, Sikeena Karmali, Aleph Book Company.