The stables of Khoordah were at the rear end of the compound, along with the prison workshops and the infirmary. Far away from the eyes of the patrolling guards, it was the perfect place to have the meeting. The ground floor of the stable, with its row upon row of mud cubicles housing the horses, stank of urine and horse dung, so Liaquat directed the convicts to park their wheelbarrows and take the wooden ladder to the loft above.
They sat together in the shadow of Govind’s gas lamp, an uneasy quiet enveloping them. Liaquat was the first to break the silence.
“Go and keep watch at the entrance, Govind. If you see a guard coming, knock twice on the door.”
Govind stiffened visibly. He had been excited at the prospect of being part of the discussion that was to follow. The last thing he had expected was to be banished to a corner of the stable on sentry duty.
“But, Liaquat …”
“I will fill you in later. For now, do as I say,” the old guard ordered him.
Reluctantly, Govind picked up his rifle and walked away. As his footsteps faded, Ajmera went straight to the heart of the matter.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said in the yard, Liaquat. This train you speak of, I don’t believe you when you say there is gold on it. The British transport gold and valuables through the country all the time, but they don’t put high-ranking officers like Ramsay in charge of these consignments. What’s more, why would your revolutionary friends help convicts like us escape from a high-security prison just to rob it? They could do the job themselves. Or better still, hire mercenaries to do it. If both sides are going through so much trouble, there must be a very good reason. So once again, Liaquat, what is on that train that is so important?”
Liaquat Ali nodded. “You’re right. The train I’m talking about isn’t just carrying gold. It’s carrying the most famous diamond in the world, the Kohinoor itself.”
The loft went very still. When Ajmera spoke again, his voice had lost a little of its belligerence. Instead, curiosity had crept in.
“How much is it worth?”
“A king’s ransom. And then some.”
Kana Arjun let out a low whistle. “That’s a lot of money.”
“And Tara’s locket,” Ajmera asked. “How did you get your hands on it?”
“We have people sympathetic to the cause everywhere, Ajmera. Even within Ramsay’s house.”
Ajmera nodded. “Tell us more,” he said.
Liaquat nodded and then, for the better half of the next hour, repeated what Hardev Singh had told him.
“According to Hardev Singh, the Kohinoor was first heard of five thousand years ago, but by another name: the Syamantaka diamond. It belonged first to Surya, the sun god, and then passed on to Sri Krishna himself. On the night before his kingdom Dwarka was hit by an earthquake and sank into the sea, it was stolen by his most trusted slave while the Lord was asleep. Over the next five thousand years, the diamond fell into the hands of many Mughal emperors, often driving them to madness or death. Terrible battles were fought over it and thousands perished in its name. But despite all this, it never left the shores of Hind. Now the British are threatening to take it away. They are planning to transport the Lord’s stone to England, where it will rest in Queen Victoria’s crown. If this happens, it will be a dark day for us all. Which is why Hardev Singh and the revolutionaries want to take the Kohinoor back, before it leaves our country for good.”
Liaquat paused, the lines on his face deepening. “A week from now, the Kohinoor will be travelling from Lahore to Bombay on one of the first trains. When it reaches its destination, it will be placed on a ship called the HMS Medea, which will set sail for Britain. Ramsay has been entrusted with the safety of the stone, and he is taking Tara along with him.”
“I don’t understand,” Ajmera said. “Why Tara?”
“The Kohinoor is a cursed stone, bringing ill luck, even death, to all its male owners. It can only be worn by a female. Being Ramsay’s mistress, Tara is the perfect good luck charm to offset the curse.”
“So Tara is Ramsay’s mistress, and he’s using her to ward off the curse?” Ajmera said slowly.
“I did not take him to be a superstitious man.”
“It’s not Ramsay’s but Dalhousie’s superstition that is fuelling this mission,” the old guard said. “It’s clear he isn’t taking any chances.”
“How long has Tara been with the bastard?”
“Four years is what I hear.”
Later, he would wonder if it was a trick of the light, but for the briefest of moments, Liaquat thought he saw hurt flicker in Ajmera’s eyes.
“I am sorry, bandit,” Liaquat Ali said solemnly. “Hardev Singh told me she was once your woman.”
“That was a long time ago,” Ajmera said dismissively. “Tell me more about this train.”
“Like I said, it will stop here at Khoordah to pick up the soldiers suffering from the disease. They are to be taken to Bombay for urgent medical attention. Bolt has asked me to supervise their transfer out of the Black House Barracks and into the last bogey of the train. It is my job, however, to make sure you switch places with these soldiers and get on that train. You will pay for your freedom by killing Ramsay and his men and stealing the Kohinoor. Once we have the Kohinoor in our possession, we must get off the train and make for the ruined fort that lies in the forests of Varaha. Hardev Singh tells me you are familiar with these forests?”
“I grew up there,” Ajmera said.
“Now hold on just a second,” Kana Arjun interrupted.
“You’re saying these friends of yours expect us to go through all the hard work, risk our very lives to get this Kohinoor, and then just hand it over to them on a platter?”
Kana Arjun and Birju burst out laughing.
“Why the hell would we do that, old man? Do we look like idiots?” Birju asked.
“Haven’t you heard anything I said?” Liaquat said, shaking his head. “The Kohinoor is a cursed stone. As long as men fight for it, there will only be death and destruction. It belongs to a God and should go back to him.”
“We’d rather sell it and live like gods,” Kana Arjun said with a grin.
“I second that,” Birju agreed.
Pushkar looked at them, disgusted. “Have you no shame, no love for your motherland?”
Kana Arjun put on an exaggeratedly thoughtful expression.
Then he turned to the revolutionary and said: “Actually, no.”
This brought on a fresh wave of laughter from Birju and Kana Arjun and they doubled up, slapping hands.
Satyadeb’s eyes were filled with loathing. “It sickens me to even breathe the same air as men like you.”
“Well, if you don’t watch that mouth of yours, Satyadeb, you won’t be breathing at all,” Birju promised.
“Enough!” Ajmera said, silencing them all. “You can continue this childish prattle later. Right now, I think we should understand more about this train. Have you ever been on one, Liaquat?”
“No, but I have heard it runs on steam and can cut a two month journey on horseback down to a few days,” the old guard said.
He reached into his pocket and brought out a piece of paper. The convicts leaned closer to get a better look.
“Hardev Singh made a drawing to help us all understand it better,” Liaquat said. “As you can see, it has seven carriages – bogeys, they call them – and a room from where it is driven. In all, there will be twenty armed soldiers on the train, not counting Ramsay. The first bogey after the engine driver’s cabin is the pantry. It will contain the food for the journey. The second will function as the living quarters of Ramsay, Tara and a jeweller called Percy Mistry. Needless to say, this is where we will find the Kohinoor. The three bogeys following Ramsay’s quarters will house the soldiers. These will be followed by a carriage for the horses. And the seventh and final bogey is where the sick British soldiers will be put. As you can see, they are being kept a good distance away from Ramsay’s men, for obvious reasons.”
“Twenty armed soldiers is a lot of soldiers, Liaquat,” Ajmera said gravely.
“This is looking more and more like a suicide mission,” Kana Arjun smirked. “Maybe we should stick to getting hung.”
“He’s right,” Pushkar agreed. “Even if you got us out of here and on this train, it would be impossible to overpower twenty highly armed British soldiers and reach this diamond alive.”
“I agree, this is a difficult task. But it’s also your one chance at freedom. If anyone can do it, the lot of you can. However, there is one thing.” Liaquat Ali looked at the faces around him now before finally letting his gaze settle on Ajmera. “If you do agree to go through with this, bandit, I’ll need your word that you will hand over the diamond to me when the time comes.”
Ajmera’s lips twisted into a sneer.
“You place great importance on the word of a bandit.”
“They say that when Ajmera gives his word, he never goes back on it.”
“Don’t believe everything they say about me, old man.”
“Is it true?” Liaquat searched Ajmera’s face.
Ajmera was silent in his admission.
Just then they heard the tolling of the prison bells, signalling the end of the night shift and the changing of the guards. This was followed by two raps on the wooden door and footsteps rushing towards them.
It was Govind. “We need to get them back,” he said.
The old guard nodded.
“Tomorrow,” Liaquat said, turning to the convicts. “Tomorrow we meet and plan your escape.”
Excerpted with permission from Kohinoor Express, Rensil D’Silva, Tranquebar.