To insulate their seeds from the conflagration that raged in the air, Jankoji and Dattaji had decided to send Kashibai, Bhagirathi and their domestic entourage to Jaat territory. Bhagirathi was housed in the large mansion of the landlord, Bhagatram. When the clatter of horses” hooves reached her ears through the darkness of the night, a wave of energy surged through her tired limbs.

She heaved herself out of bed and made for the mansion gate. In the dim light of the torches lighting the portico, she set eyes on her husband’s face after a gap of seven days. The dusky Dattaji looked darker. Despite the fatigue written all over, his eyes were as bright as the torches around them. As he entered, Bhagirathi said, “Finish with your bath.”

“At this hour?”

“Lordship seems to have forgotten that it’s Sankrant eve today.”

“Oh, yes, true.”

“It’s so long since I’ve poured water over you, and one doesn’t know when I’ll have the next chance.”

“You talk of giving me a ceremonial bath, Bhagirathi,” said Dattaji, laughing softly, “and that Abdalya and Najibya there are looking to set the Peshwa empire on fire. The main Peshwa army has gone to serve the Nizam in Ahmadnagar. No sign of Malharjibaba. The Peshwa has sent him repeated orders to come and help us. Will come in four days, he’s replied, but as of now, we have no one. Things look difficult, but the Peshwas expect us to pull through. The crocodile’s embrace, however, is heavy this time. Let’s see what the gods have in store for us.”

A maid brought a tray full of dishes. Bhagirathi took the tray over from her and examined the dishes. She had got the khichadi, kheer and ghee prepared with special attention, and fixed the twelve-vegetable course required as ritual food for the occasion. But Dattaji’s mind was not on the food. He called over his manager Ramji Dabholkar and asked, “All ready to shift to Revadi this evening?”

“Yes. Just waiting for the chieftains to finish, and we’ll be off.”

Dattaji hadn’t a moment to spare. He washed his hands, and was ready to go.

Bhagirathi lowered her head to his feet and said, “Lord, please don’t rush in on Abdali or Najeeb. They are snakes. Let Malharji arrive, then do as you please.”

“But, Abdali’s advance has to be blocked, my dear. Delhi has to be protected, even at the cost of our lives. Else, the long years of our efforts at winning and retaining will have come to naught.”

Then, with a signal, he asked the maid to leave the chamber, reassured himself that no one was around, and glided his palm over Bhagirathi’s bulging stomach. A shiver of joy ran through her body. Dattaji placed his right ear over her stomach and said in mock surprise, “Hey, does this slave of yours ever go to sleep? I can hear some rumpus inside. Could he be playing around?”

Warm teardrops landed on Dattaji’s cheek. He wiped the tears from Bhagirathi’s eyes and said, “Take care of this fellow.”

Bhagirathi nodded.

“In case… something…untoward happens, don’t throw yourself at my funeral pyre. It’s a terrible sin for a widow to burn herself if she’s carrying,” Dattaji shot it out in a single breath.

Bhagirathi grasped Dattaji tight and broke into a wail. Dattaji’s dam burst too, and he wept without restraint. He passed his hands over her and brought his sobs under control.

“Forgive me, love, for speaking so candidly, but if my lineage is secured, I’ll be happy in heaven. Will peer down proudly at my son as he dams the currents of the Ganga and the Yamuna. Take care of my little one. Raise him well. Whether I survive or not.”

Kashibai and the other women came in to bid goodbye. Dattaji looked into Kashibai’s eyes that were silently asking, “Why hasn’t he come?”

“I’ll tell Jankoji,” responded Dattaji’s eyes. With a heart heavy as lead, Dattaji bid farewell.

When Dattaji reached the camp, Jankoji and the other nobles were waiting for him. In a little while, a message arrived. The enemy soldiers had begun to gather since dusk in Luni. Najeeb, Qutb Shah, Shah Wali, Jahaan Khan, and Abdullah Durrani himself – they had all reached. Right behind them were the armies of Shuja-ud-dowlah, Dundey Khan and Hafiz Rahmat Khan.

Jankoji instantly ordered the army to get into full alert. No blowing of trumpets or beating of drums; the enemy was about eighteen miles away, Dattaji let everybody know. Night patrolling was increased. Up early tomorrow morning, and any time from there, they could head towards the battlefield, and that would keep them on their feet all day. The soldiers began retiring to bed early.

A conference was in progress in the large Durrani tent. Ahmad Shah Durrani sat leaning against a bolster stuffed with soft downs. His calm but sharp face would readily convince any observer that despite being just thirty-seven, this man had encountered a wide variety of men, manners and lands. But a look at his clean, white Afghan robe, trousers and simple turban didn’t quite proclaim him as the emperor of Afghanistan. On either side in front of him sat Afghan and Indian nobles leaning on their bolsters, looking towards him unblinkingly.

As they sat in their resplendent brocades and jewellery, the king, by comparison, seemed no more than a butcher’s boy.

To his left sat Najeeb, and to his right was his chancellor, Shah Wali Khan Bamezai. In front, to the right, was Commander-in-chief Jahaan Khan, his deputy Shah Pasand Khan, as also other chieftains like Barkhurdar Khan, Noor-ud-din and Abdullah Khan. To the left in front sat the Indian nobles: Shuja-ud-dowlah, the Nawab of Avadh, Najeeb’s father-in-law Dundey Khan, brother-in-law Saadullah Khan, son Zabeyta Khan and Hafiz Rahmat Khan. With the exception of Jahaan Khan, the Afghan nobles were not one whit interested in Najeeb’s litany of grievances.

Najeeb was entreating Abdali with all the passion he could muster: “These Marathas get into our land and throw grit into our grain. But there has to be a limit even to harassment and persecution. Zille-Subhani, Shadow of God, we were willing to enter into a truce with that Datta Patil but he abandoned the siege of Shukratal halfway and came up here to confront you. What does it mean? It means that once he has seen you cross the borders of Hindustan over to the other side, we here are sunk. These Marghattas are sure to feed our bones to the wolves …

“Your Majesty, you came to Hindustan as the savior of Islam, and the subjects here will never forget this favour. They’ll carve their heart out to support the army. That’s why, huzoor, we must immediately launch an offensive, and cleanse Delhi of these sinful Marghattas. There are so many differences among them, huzoor, so many factions and collusions, that they will slaughter each other for a patch of farmland. Once they infiltrate somewhere, they don’t readily come out. If they capture Delhi, they’ll certainly send all of Hindustan into turmoil. Tie them to a tree, and they run away with it; such is the viciousness of their race. They are best kept out of Delhi.”

“Let’s mount an offensive on Delhi in a couple of days,” suggested Shah Wali Khan.

“Tauba, tauba!” cried out Najeeb, “but this delay won’t do. My spies have brought news that Datta Shinde Patil is alone now, and he should be decimated before Malhar can join him. Whoever holds Delhi holds the key to Hindustan.”

“He’s quite right, Your Majesty,” chipped in Commander-in-chief Jahaan Khan. “This is our moment to attack the Marghattas and dispatch them to hell.”

Not many days had passed since Dattaji Shinde’s army had killed Jahaan Khan’s son in the Punjab. The wound was still fresh, and Jahaan Khan was raring to get his teeth into the Marghatta throat. The conference had now reached a high pitch, and Badshah Durrani intervened, “The people of Hindustan are bitter fighters. Our surveillance has to be put on high alert. During my previous two invasions, they made me eat dirt – that Meer Manu and then Safdarjung from Ayodhya.”

The badshah laughed as he looked at Shuja as he pronounced Safdarjung’s name. Shuja felt mortified at the thought of his valiant father. How his father had stood against the foreign invader and what he was doing now embarrassed him for a moment. Najeeb cast a sharp glance at him, which read that the past was past, and the Nawab should put it all behind him. The conference got over, and as the badshah moved towards his private apartment, he ordered, “The first contingent shall cross the Yamuna at daybreak under Najeeb and Qutb Shah.”

Excerpted with permission from Panipat, Vishwas Patil, translated from the Marathi