Persian kittens were everywhere. Long-bodied and slender, their white silky fur trailing like royal robes, their unwinking eyes appraising and appealing, sapphire, emerald, agate. Looking across the room at an old mirror framed in topaz quartz studded with gems, I watched Chapla laughing in its milky depths. Sitting on the dark red carpet, she smiled down at the kitten walking slowly up her arm and batting at her long plait. Conscious of my eyes and perhaps of Plowden Sahiba’s, she flushed slightly. She was fair enough for the blood to become visible, wine rising in a glass.
We had been asked to a ladies’ get-together at Martin Sahib’s house and here we were; Chapla had run into Plowden Sahiba at Polier Sahib’s house, and then Plowden Sahiba – “Lizbeth” Chapla called her – invited her over to her own house to teach her some songs. Chapla didn’t take me along there, I noticed.
The kitten’s tail twitched; two pairs of golden eyes met like patches of sunlight in a glade touching and expanding. Did the kitten sense a being exquisite as itself? I fondled Lizbeth’s little boy, who was at the doll-like age, his hair feathery vermicelli, his skin thick cream. Kishen looked like him, but honey-hued.
“Won’t you sing?” Lizbeth asked, tinkling on the harpsichord. She was collecting songs, and had already written down one of the Nawab’s. Much later, I heard that she had them inscribed into a book, with paintings of singers, dancers, musicians. Did we two appear there, as we were that day, one in orange, the other in green?
We sat on the carpet and sang Abru Sahib’s ghazal, which I had marked in the book I had given to Chapla that first morning:
Mil ga’in aapas mein do nazrein ek aalam ho gaya
Jo ki hona tha so kuchh aankhon mein baaham ho gaya
Jis tawajjoh par nazar kar jaan deta tha jahaan
So tawajjoh haa’i in aankhon se’in kyun kam ho gaya
Saath mere tere jo dukh tha so pyare aish tha
Jab se’in tu bichhra hai tab se’in aish sab ghum ho gaya
Raag ki khoobsoorati ke kooch ka dankaa bajaa
Jab gala [gila] mutarib ka yaaron seer se’in bam ho gaya
Two glances met and mingled, a world of loveliness was born
What was to happen happened between those meeting eyes
The world was charmed by the way those eyes met
Alas, why has that regard diminished in these eyes?
When we were together, dear boy, sorrow was pleasure
Since we parted, all my pleasures have vanished
Applaud the beauty of the melody’s departure
When the singer’s lament, friends, moves from treble to bass
Lizbeth clapped her hands in delight, and called her munshi to write down the words. I wondered where Sharad was right now, and Ratan. Had what was to happen happened?
Lizbeth and Chapla went on to the verandah to discuss the English king’s fiftieth birthday celebration, at which Chapla was to dance. I sat with Jugnu and Zeenat, Polier Sahib’s two wives whom he had left behind when he returned to Switzerland, and whom Martin Sahib had kindly taken in. They seemed cheerful rather than bereft, eager to chat and giggle as they made paan.
Chapla and Lizbeth came back, we sang a few more songs, then she and I slipped out into the garden. Which is more pleasurable – being alone together or being with others, knowing that the one they all desire will soon be alone with you?
They call the house Farhat Baksh now, after the Nawab bought it, but to me it will always be Lakh Pera. They certainly felt like a hundred thousand, those trees, whispering round us. We walked, entwined, down a narrow path, to the river slipping by. On the opposite bank, a few jogins were exercising. Oiled muscles, tightly knotted hair, saffron dhotis. A particularly sturdy one threw a discus. Abruptly, she turned to me, her arms tightened. Our toes pressed into the swimming earth. My eyes opened briefly, hers were dark points. Our only kiss in the open air.
For weeks, for months, I may not remember, and then all at once, all together, the scenes rise up, like paintings taken out after being hidden away, bright as if painted last evening, bright enough to hurt the eyes.
We walked back to the house, opened a side door and wandered through the rooms that housed Martin Sahib’s collections. It was as if the contents of a dozen Chowks had been collected together in a shop redolent with cedar, bay leaves and cloves. Shimmering gauzes, velvets, muslins, silks – I could have clothed our whole establishment for decades of performances – coins, medals, jewels, paintings, mirrors, puppets, syringes, fishing rods, books, endless books in many languages, and machines I couldn’t name, though I guessed some were musical instruments.
Stuffed peacocks, parrots, monkeys frightening one as they loomed out of dark corners. In that whole fantastical collection, she was the most exotic, the one who held my eyes as she bent over glass cases, from which Burmese rubies and Rajputana emeralds cast unearthly gleams on her face.
“All their houses are like this, full of curious things,” she said. “Martin, Plowden, Polier, Palmer, de Boigne.” She placed a large straw hat aslant on her head and struck various poses, mimicking each one’s odd accent as she pronounced his name.
I stifled my laughter in my veil. “Like the Nawab Sahib’s museum.”
“Yes. Almost. He has the largest collection, I think.”
Gori Bibi, Martin Sahib’s chief wife, called us out to the verandah to feed us. Two pomegranates on a silver dish – she picked out the ruby-red seeds and put them in small bowls for us. I was surprised when they melted in my mouth. She laughed.
“It’s not a pomegranate, it’s a sweet that looks like one. Our cook learnt the trick from Nawab Sahib’s cook.”
“I’ve heard he can cook yams in a dozen ways?” asked Chapla.
“Oh, more, he can cook them differently every day for a month, and you wouldn’t even know they’re yams.” She poured out tiny cups of wine, scented with special roses from Martin Sahib’s gardens at Najafgarh. She treated us like children and how old she seemed to me then, when everyone over twenty-five was in a category beyond counting. She’s living with Martin Sahib’s other women in Constantia now, where he lies entombed.
Gori Bibi took us up to the roof to see the hot-air balloon. It had carried a man into the sky. Risen above trees and hills as everyone does in dreams. A fortress the building was, with its moat, its drawbridge, its heavy iron doors, and here on the roof its turrets with slits for guards to shoot through.
If all else failed, one could escape in the balloon. A tunnel through the sky. The barber who had nicked Nawab Sahib by mistake while cutting his hair, and whom Mordaunt had saved from execution, had been sent up in a balloon instead for punishment, and had descended safely about five miles away.
Then she took us all the way down to see the basement rooms that were partly submerged now. When the river receded during the hot months, they would drain and become cool spaces for Martin Sahib to live in. When we finally got into our boat, the house seemed to shimmer and drift, its top reaching up to the skies, its hidden depths below the river.
The sun had not yet set but a full moon was rising amid a few scattered clouds. She sighed and lay down, her head on my lap, then pulled my orhni down so that it shielded both our faces from the sun’s last flare. The boatman was facing the other way.
I was bending over her when someone hailed us, I started back, and there was Rangin Sahib, laughing and bowing. Mir Insha was gazing at the sky, his head on Rangin Sahib’s lap as their boat drifted slowly past. He turned his head without raising it, and smiled at us knowingly.
“They’ve exchanged turbans, you know,” I said. “They’re brothers now. We should exchange orhnis.”
“Or bodices. But not transparent ones like yours,” she laughed, her fingertips, tender as lentil buds, travelling over my silk bodice and pressing the pearl buttons.
Excerpted with permission from Memory Of Light, Ruth Vanita, Penguin Books.