“The zenana durbar hall,” Aditya announced, gesturing to a wide arch leading into a gigantic, high-ceilinged room. Perveen stepped into it, her eyes drawn to the tall marble walls and columns inlaid with precious stones set in mosaic designs and illuminated by candles glowing in sconces. There was a long mahogany table with perhaps thirty chairs around it and five place settings at one end. Despite the room’s grandeur, there was an unpleasant smell of dampness and decay that made her want to hold her nose.
“I’m too early.” Perveen’s watch read five minutes after eight o’clock: one and a half hours earlier than typical dinner time in Bombay.
He dropped his voice. “Don’t you see? Rajmata is already here.”
Perveen followed his gaze and saw a tiny woman nestled into a mahogany chair far too tall for her. The maharani’s chair had a cushioned back embroidered with the same crest she’d seen on the Satapur coat of arms: two tigers standing on their hind legs facing each other, encircled by sheaves of millet grain. The emblem was several feet over the woman’s grey head. Yet, despite Maharani Putlabai’s short stature, her face and body were very round, reminding Perveen of a laddu.
“Come!” The elderly woman’s voice was not at all sweet. “I have been here a long time. In the old days, people waited for the royal family. Today, the royal family must wait.”
“I am very sorry, Rajmata!” Aditya’s voice had risen with anxiety. “The rain spirits held fast to our feet.”
Perveen eyed the dowager maharani, who was dressed for mourning in a white raw-silk sari. She knew from the documents she’d read at the circuit house that the dowager maharani was sixty, which meant she potentially had many more years of life. She had a single gold bangle on each wrist. They glowed in the light of a dozen candelabras spaced along the table.
The rajmata was looking closely at her. Perveen wasn’t sure how grand her show of obeisance should be, but remembering the preparation for Kensington Palace, she bent her head and curtsied.
“Rajmata, my name is Perveen Mistry. I am the lawyer the government has asked to respond to your letter of concern. Thank you very much for admitting me.”
Maharani Putlabai continued to peer at her. “Are you a Muslim?”
Perveen sensed the apprehension in the queen’s question. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Maratha warlords had fought long and hard against the Mughal invaders who’d taken over most of the subcontinent. Could the dowager maharani, who had been born generations later, still harbour a grudge? Uneasily, Perveen said, “No, I am a Parsi. Because my family’s ancient history is in Persia, my first name is also common for Muslim girls.”
“A Parsi! That is why your sari is so gaudy. Sit down.” The lady stretched her finger towards a chair to her right.
Gaudy! The colourful Shanghai-embroidered birds and vines on the lustrous sari were considered tasteful in Perveen’s community. Nervously, she proceeded forward, almost tripping on her way to the oversized mahogany chair.
Aditya also took a chair along the opposite side of the table but several spaces away from the gold-edged Limoges china place settings. As he did, the monkey ran down his arm, stopping on the table to survey the scene.
Maharani Putlabai angrily clapped her hands at the monkey, and he leapt down to the floor. Perveen was glad the monkey was off the table, but she was surprised that the buffoon was allowed to sit with them. The court jester seemed to be more of a courtier than a servant.
“Our esteemed guest is a solicitor from Bombay,” Aditya told the dowager maharani in an unctuous tone.
“And how does a solicitor from Bombay come to me with my moonstone pendant?”
Perveen looked more closely at the maharani and saw that she wore a thin gold chain ornamented with the moonstone pendant. Perveen had missed seeing it straightaway because the milky-coloured jewel rested against the white silk of the maharani’s sari.
“That suits you very well! I’m so glad you like it.” She would give plentiful thanks to Vandana when they met again.
“How did you get my pendant?” the rajmata asked again, refusing to be deterred.
“It is from France,” Perveen added. She hoped she wouldn’t be forced to admit another person had purchased it and passed it on to her because she hadn’t thought ahead about gifts.
“From France?” she said, raising eyebrows that were thick and surprisingly brown given her white hair. “My son always said it was the country he most wished to visit. But this is no French stone. It’s my very own Indian moonstone, given to me by my favourite aunt as one of my wedding presents.”
Perveen was confused. “Are you saying that you already have a moonstone like the one I gifted you with?”
“You are an idiot!” Straightening up in her seat, the tiny lady glared at Perveen. “I know this is my pendant, the very one that’s been lost for at least sixteen years. Indian gold is 18- or 22-carat purity, and European is just 14. This is 22 carats, and for that reason, it’s clear this is an Indian pendant.”
Perveen’s thoughts were in a jumble, and she felt herself begin to sweat. Had Vandana recalled that the dowager had lost her beloved pendant? She might have thought a replacement would be welcome, but the old lady’s aged brain was too confused. If only Vandana had told Perveen the history! The situation was awkward, because the maharani probably assumed Perveen had bought the pendant from a crook dealing in stolen goods. For a lawyer, this did not look good. And it was a huge distraction from the issue of the maharaja’s education.
Taking a deep breath, Perveen acknowledged, “I don’t know much about gems, but it might be a moonstone that came from India. And many Indian royals have their gems put into fancy settings at French jewellers.”
“You are a gem of a lawyer to have brought this!” the buffoon cut in with exaggerated courtesy. “Now it is our responsibility to gift you.”
“Don’t speak for me!” thundered the dowager. “Why should I bestow gifts on a woman who lives in a thief’s pocket?”
Perveen’s face flushed. “I don’t want anything. I cannot accept gifts as a government employee.”
“Oh? That’s not what the last political agent said!”
Perveen was confused for a moment before remembering Colin’s predecessor. “Do you speak of Mr McLaughlin?”
“Yes. He always chose a very fine gift from the palace treasury during each visit. He would have taken the maharaja’s crown if he could.”
“Oh.” Perveen did not say it sounded like corruption, but she would take the matter up with Colin later.
The dowager maharani rearranged the pendant above her sari so it was placed dead centre. “Now tell me about how a woman gets to be a solicitor.”
As she moved her thoughts away from the botched gift-giving, Perveen’s shoulders relaxed. There would be no surprises when she told her own story. “I studied law at the University of Oxford in England. I met the qualifications for becoming a solicitor, so I returned home and took up work in my father’s practice.”
“England.” The dowager sounded pensive. “I don’t believe its schools are any better than ours in India. What do you think?”
“I believe it depends on the institution,” Perveen answered. “There are excellent ones in both countries, and for certain subjects, it is better to study here. Do you wish to discuss your thoughts about your grandson’s education?”
A servant dressed all in white, holding a silver tureen, stepped into the room, but the old lady flicked a hand at him and he hastily reversed. Turning her attention back to Perveen, she said, “It is not a matter of sentiment but truth. My grandson should not go far away when his dharma is to rule here.”
Her words were true to the letter Perveen had seen. But she needed more from the maharani than a polemic. “I read this opinion in your letter. Would you be kind enough to tell me about the intellectual requirements for a maharaja?”
The dowager maharani cocked her head to one side, as if considering the question. In a strong voice, she said, “Knowledge of crops and of counting, and the ability to write a good proclamation and to hold one’s strength in public. The boy can learn all this from his tutor. Basu Sahib was excellent enough to teach my own husband and sons, so why not my grandson?”
Perhaps the maharani wasn’t as confused in her mind as Perveen had believed when they were talking about the moonstone. “And how old is Mr Basu?”
“Almost eighty years. He has a lifetime of wisdom.”
This made her uneasy. Mr Basu would probably be good with Indian history, including the Maratha Wars. But what about current thinking in science and the humanities? “He sounds very experienced. But how is he keeping up with the modern knowledge that is imparted to young men today?”
Maharani Putlabai looked sternly at her. “It is not only information that makes a good tutor. It is love of family. Do you know about the death of my son two years ago and my older grandson last year?”
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“Yes. I was very sad to hear about the tragedies, Rajmata.” Perveen felt she should say more but didn’t know what wouldn’t be twisted by the wily dowager. “May I know how long it has been since your own husband died?”
“Ten years,” she said. “That is a portrait of him taken five years before he passed.”
Perveen looked at the wall and saw a hand-painted photograph in a heavily gilded frame. He was a white-haired gentleman with a curling moustache, a different maharaja from the one in the guest- room portrait. At the maharaja’s feet was a slain tiger. The so-called curse caused royal men to die early, but it appeared that this one had lived a long life.
Pointing a small, arthritis-gnarled finger at Perveen, the dowager maharani said, “Today, his two grandchildren are all Satapur has left. And they come to me every day looking for the love and companionship their mother denies them.”
Perveen remained silent, not wishing to sound as if she were taking sides.
Even though Perveen hadn’t contradicted her, Maharani Putlabai continued. “There was no need for you to come. Everything could have been settled if my letter had been read by that new gora in the circuit house.”
“Mr Colin Sandringham,” Perveen said, disliking the maharani’s use of the derogatory word for foreigner. “He read the letter after it was finally delivered, but he cannot respond without confirming everyone’s feelings on the matter. As you know, without a ruling maharaja on the throne, this entire family are wards of the government. The Kolhapur Agency has requested I carry out this protection.”
“So you, a lady, are appointed to protect us?” Maharani Putlabai sounded shocked.
Trying not to appear argumentative, Perveen told her, “They sent me because I am an Indian who speaks Marathi, because I have experience practising law and because I will not violate your purdah custom. I will listen closely to you and to the choti-rani because we can sit at the same table.”
The white-dressed servant had come back into the room. With head bowed, he whispered, “Rajmata, they are here.”
“Very well.” Maharani Putlabai nodded at him, then said to Perveen in a contemptuous tone, “Tomorrow you will meet Basu Sahib. Then you will understand the children are learning all that is necessary from him.”
Excerpted with permission from The Satapur Moonstone, Sujata Massey, Penguin India.