Habīb-un Nisa

Illustration: Smruthi Gargi Eshwar

WAZIR ARRIVED at the guest house in splendid style: two torchbearers with handheld torches to her right and left; a little in front of them was a staff bearer. Similarly, there was another staff bearer behind her, a little to the left. All the servants made their salaams and left when they reached the door.

Though called a guest house, it was actually like a proper haveli, the only difference being that it was not enclosed within a boundary wall and there was no internal garden in front of it. There was just a fountain, well lit and around it there were flower beds in star shapes, separated from each other with red sandstone borders. All the beds were in full colours with flowers of the season, and some perennials.

Light could be seen filtering out from inside, but the door of the guest house was closed. As soon as Wazir’s procession arrived, the door opened soundlessly, spilling out a good quantity of light onto the doorstep and beyond. Wazir found a woman standing just within the door. Since the light was behind the woman, Wazir could not determine her facial features, but she was dressed in the style of genteel Muslim women. Age-wise, she looked somewhere between late youth and middle age. The woman took a step forward, bent before Wazir and making three salaams, said: “Khanam sahib, you are most welcome, ahlan wa sahlan.” She used the formal Arabic phrase, popular all over the Muslim world even now; its literal sense is: You are like family to us; so feel easy and comfortable. She went on, “Please do bring in your noble presence. This slave woman is here to serve you.”

Wazir could not figure out what service could be needed or offered at such a late hour. She soon realised that it was an example of the Navab’s fine understanding and management skill: he deputed a reliable, homey type of intelligent woman as her companion, so that Wazir may not feel bored or anxious in the new environment, and if she had any routines before retiring for the night, or if she needed something unexpectedly, she could frankly tell the woman about them.

She accepted the salaams of the woman with a smile and followed her into the guest house. She now saw that the woman was of the type of a general purpose senior ladies’ maid or attendant called a mughlāni. The bedroom was well lit but not ostentatiously so. The mughlāni wore narrow trousers of flowered silk, called gulbadan, and her tunic was long and simple, made of sangi, the fabric used by Pundit Naval Kishor for his trousers. Her dupatta was of light green cotton, she wore a gold chain around her neck, devoid of gemstone or pendant, gold circlets in her ears, relentlessly plain yet again. The palms of her hand and the soles of her shoeless feet were decorated with delicate floral patterns of dark red henna. Two of her toes on each foot had silver rings whose ends were curled like the scorpion’s sting — hence the name bichhua, from bichhū, meaning ‘scorpion’ — the silver gave wondrous colourful effect against the dark red of the henna. Her lips had a similar dark red shellac colour because of her habit of chewing betel; her teeth were tinged with the dark powder known as misī.

ON THE whole, the mughlāni was quite a good-looking woman whose clothes suited her extremely well. Her face was gentle and sophisticated, suggesting good breeding. She must have been around 40, but the slim, 19- year old Wazir’s eyes saw her as quite ancient. “Your slave girl is called Habīb-un Nisa, but the begams call me Habība. Call me with my full name, or call me Habība, or give me some other nice name that you like. I am agreeable to everything.” Her voice was sophisticated, well modulated with a tinge of Mewār with traces of the sweetness of Braj.

“Habība is a nice name,” said Wazir. “I will call you Habība.”

Habība gestured towards a large armchair and said, “If you would care to sit here for a little time, I will remove your shoes and softly knead and pat the soles of your feet and the palms of your hands.”

Wazir felt uncertain for a moment. Patting and kneading someone’s body to sleep or induce the feeling of restfulness was practised in Jaipur too, but she did not employ a full-time servant for the job. And, of course, there was none there to match Habība’s considerateness and gentility. Wazir suddenly realised that she was quite exhausted and her body felt rather slack. She recalled that the evening with the Navab, however agreeable it had been, had also been much filled with inner tensions — at least for her — and the tensions were both physical and mental. Now that the evening was over, a great quantity of tiredness and sense of vapidity had overcome her like a falling wall.

Illustration: Smruthi Gargi Eshwar

She cast a glance at the room. It was a little above medium size. One end of it was taken up by a massive ebony bed whose thick legs were made of Indian rosewood, inlaid with light floral decorations in brass and silver. It had ebony poles at its four ends and strips of the same wood to be used for the testers in order to convert the bed into a bedstead. By the ebony strips hung green silk curtains. The bed was higher than usual, having been designed in the Rajputani style. For climbing onto the bed, there was a small but wide stool, padded, and covered with satin.

The phrase ‘place for putting one’s foot’ came to Wazir’s mind when she saw the stool. The original Hindi word qadam gāh was actually quite irrelevant here. By some obscure association of ideas, a line of Mīr’s where the word occurred came into her head: The garden is the place where someone [=the beloved] puts her foot. The stool was, in fact, known by two quite different names in Delhi and Rajputana.

In the centre of the room, but against a wall, was the big sedan-like chair where she had been invited to sit. It was designed in hybrid style, partly Indian and partly English. It had velvet cushions and its legs were heavy but plain. Its long arms were wide enough to accommodate a cup, or glass or plate. The sitter often used the arms for extending one or both legs on them. The room had wall-to-wall blue-green carpeting. There was a spittoon and a wash bowl on two low teapoys placed next to the chair.

The room was well lit with chandeliers and globes. The shades of all the lights were green; thus the light was cool, and comforting to the eyes. An extremely light scent of the attar of ambergris, which was used normally in the hot weather, was enhancing the soothing effect of cool and peacefulness. It was the beginning of September and the weather was cooling down a bit. Still, one needed the fan for additional comfort. Two velvet fans were, therefore, hung by the ceiling in the centre of the room through its width, supported by heavy wooden poles and very stout. The puller was aided by a wheel and pulley arrangement, which was set up outside the room.

On the other side of the bed was a long and low table. Some books, some cool drinks, a silver betel box and a silver candlestick sat on the table. The candles were unlit, but there was a box of matches with the candlestick. Between the sedan chair and the bed was another table, which had another betel box, a small gilded tray with gold leaf-covered betel cones readymade on it. A long tray was also there, laden with fruits of the season, prominent among them a grey Kabuli musk melon. Next to the tray were some small silver bowls and a fruit knife with an English style blade whose handle was decorated with gold inlay work. There was nothing more by way of furniture or furnishing except a couple of plain but good-looking chairs.

Wazir’s upper body touched the chair’s back the moment she sat in it. Quite without intending to, she flopped into the big chair and stretched her legs down its two wide arms. She looked like a life-sized doll in the huge sedan chair and her face had the same delicate softness. She now looked closely at Habība and felt that waves, somewhat warm and very pleasant, seemed to be emanating from her body. These waves contained a heady mixture of fragrances: respectful regards for Wazir, cordial welcome, rituals of honour, but also something like love and even ownership, as if in her eyes Wazir was not a stranger, a guest for the night or a few nights. Rather, she was Habīb-un Nisa’s own daughter, brought up most lovingly and with dedication, and her elevation to her present status was causing her extreme happiness. Habīb-un Nisa was looking at Wazir with eyes whose every atom seemed to be lit with the fireflies of love, pride and the sense of oneness with her.

Why is it so? Wazir asked herself. I saw Habība just today; I was not even aware of her existence before this evening. Maybe she heard about me vaguely in the haveli sometime. And if the Navab wants to establish a temporary, a week-or-two long arrangement with me, why did he depute a senior lady’s maid to attend to me, a woman who looks at me with such affection as though I am a near relation?

Illustration: Smruthi Gargi Eshwar

Wazir suddenly felt unfocussed, anxious. What is going on here? To what purpose have I persuaded myself to be here tonight?

Although the lines of worry and strain were very faint on Wazir’s forehead, yet Habība apparently read her like a book. She laughed a short, bashful laugh, went forward, and dried with her light upper wrap the beads of perspiration on Wazir’s face, ran her hands on both sides of her head, touched all her fingers to the sides of her own head and face, and said: “My life for you. What is it that makes my begam anxious? I would say, it is nothing; you are very tired, that is all. I should think that if you chewed a betel cone with essence of ambergris in it, your heart and mood would stabilise at once.”

Habība took out a betel cone from the box and put it in Wazir’s mouth, despite Wazir’s resistance. Immediately as she began to chew the cold cone, she felt the cool scent of ambergris run through her body. She smiled involuntarily. Habība came up and again did the old action of passing the hands on Wazir’s face and cried:

“You saw? A spring tide of smiles overran that prettiest of faces at once! Oh, what a lovely visage! The moon can have some alloy, this one has none!”

Wazir’s voice was naturally low and somewhat husky. She spoke shyly, almost in a whisper: “Off with you, madam Habība! You make fun of me, do you not? I, dark as the raven, have neither a comely nose nor long tresses. It is only the likes of you who could wax eloquent about me. As the saying goes: who admires a one-eyed woman? Her husband.”

Habība humbly folded her hands and said: “I swear by Allah, with the Thirty Discourses between us. Did I ever see such a seductive, ravishing face!” She went behind Wazir and began to run her fingers gently over her eyelids and forehead. The effect was of butterflies fluttering their mealy wings on them, or of the sunbird, moving her tiny wings incredibly fast, hovering to drink the nectar of flowers. Wazir had a feeling of extraordinary comfort and relief. Her eyes began to close by themselves. Soon, she felt the same fluttering on her neck and shoulders.

She fell into a light slumber and did not know when Habība’s fingers did the same things to her waist, her thighs, went down to the soles of her feet and came back up through to her arms and fingers. After a while, she heard soft clicking sounds, then there were the velvety jerks of her fingers being cracked, and she woke up.

NOW THE oppressive room seemed familiar as her own home, and Habība’s face was kind like a nurse and considerate and professional like a dexterous match-maker or expert bride-dresser. Her smile was so homey, so like that of a confidante, and so heart-pulling, that Wazir impulsively put out her hand to drag her to her side and seat her on the chair with her. But the moment Habība saw that Wazir had awakened, she disappeared somewhere behind a curtain. Wazir realised that attached to her chamber there must be a washroom and a toilet. Perhaps Habība was there.

When Habība returned after a few minutes, Wazir saw her surmise being confirmed: Habība was carrying two wet, steaming hand towels in her hand. With practised ease, she rubbed Wazir’s face, neck, shoulders and hands and feet with the lukewarm wet towels, taking away the lassitude of her muscles and removing any possible speck of dirt or mark of perspiration. Wazir sensed a faint whiff of attar of bdellium in the towels. It felt a little heavy at first, but soon became light and invigorating. Her body found a renewed freshness.

Illustration: Smruthi Gargi Eshwar

“Behind that door is the washroom,” Habība gestured. “And attached to it is… is… the… toilet. Should you desire to… to use it, I could come rub your back. Your back is so delicate!”

Her life with Marston Blake had taught, or made her appreciate, certain things. For instance, sometimes he would knock and come into the bathroom when Wazir was there, taking her bath. On occasion, he would rub her hands and feet or back as she bathed and during such sessions, would inordinately praise her overall beauty or particularly select some limb for special praise. She knew that firangee couples sometimes bathed together, but it was not generally an approved or desirable practice.

Indian women of the upper classes were assisted at their bath by their personal maid or bride-dresser. But Wazir did not adopt the manner of the begams in this regard. She bathed alone, and always wore some light garments, for instance a bodice of fine muslin on the upper body, and loose trousers or wide Rajputani skirt on the lower limbs. To have someone go and put the ablution pot in the water room, or even help wash her hands was anathema to her. And to have someone rub your back as you sat on the toilet… ugh!… My God! I never saw such practices even among the firangees. Indeed, these elites of the nobility have strange ways. In any case, Wazir did not need to go then or perhaps even later. Like all girls of good families in India, she had been rigorously trained to withhold such actions for long periods of time.

“No, no. Habība, I will myself wash my face. You do not need to worry at all.” Wazir’s refusal was firm, but delivered with that famous smile of hers which softened alike the hearts of Fanny Parkes, William Fraser and Mirza Ghālib. The smile was so enchanting that Habīb-un Nisa almost dropped dead.

“All right, then please trouble your feet to the washroom. I will hold the washing pot, you could then splash water on your face to your heart’s content with both hands.”

“Dear Madam Habīb-un Nisa, mind your words,” Wazir said with laughing eyes. “If you go too far, the pot might slip your hands and you may have to be chastised!”

“Bibi Sahib commands special skills in the use of language, it seems. And why not? She commands special skills in the use of her heart-winning powers, like a queen.”

“A queen is she who has a country to rule, one who has a king by her side. A few tattered outfits and a couple of dark and narrow hovels is all I command.”

“I take the name of God! May your currency be honoured in many, many countries. Your treasury of words seems endless!”

Laughing, Wazir rose and delivered a light slap to Habība’s face, as if patting it affectionately. Somehow, Habība did not look of any great age to her at this time. She rather seemed a girlfriend and playmate of Bari Begam’s. The affectionate light on her face was quite like that of a well-wishing senior friend. She drew Wazir’s hand to her breast and then exclaimed, “Oh Almighty! I and such temerity as to touch your hand to my breast! I beg to be forgiven.” As she said these words, she gently slapped her hands on her face.

“Well, if you go on gabbing and spinning out strings of words thus, Madam, you will be entitled to get more slaps! All right, I am off to clean my teeth and wash my face. I will be right back.” Cleaning her teeth before retiring for the night was a habit she had acquired under the tutelage of Marston Blake.

Wazir had barely turned towards the bathroom when someone softly tugged the edge of herdupatta. She looked back to find Habība’s beseeching eyes on her face.

“So, what is it now?” she spoke sharply. She suspected that Habība wished to accompany her into the washroom, and this was entirely unacceptable to Wazir.

“Khanam Sahib,” she said submissively. “Should I come help you change?”

Illustration: Smruthi Gargi Eshwar

Wazir was puzzled. “Help me change?” Living with Marston Blake had indeed taught her that among the firangees, women wore a separate garment to sleep in. She knew it was called a ‘nightgown’ (she pronounced it nat gaun). It was a long garment that often came down to the ankles and was made of wool or cotton, depending on the weather. It had, or sometimes did not have, buttons (she called them būtām, a word common in the Hindi of those days, though she did not know that it was from the French bouton).

Well, buttons or not, the nat gaun was open from the front. Sometimes it was wrapped and tightened with a belt of the same material. Nothing was worn under the nat gaun. Wazir regarded the practice as thoroughly shameless, but had made herself accept it at Marston Blake’s insistence.

For the night, men wore a sort of combination of very light shirt and trousers, as if a very loose tunic had been joined to a loose pair of light trousers. Marston Blake called it a nat shat (‘night shirt’) or a nat gaun.

In India, women of the upper classes wore the same garments through the day and night, except on special occasions, like marriages, when specially made expensive clothes were worn and often changed into ordinary clothes for sleeping in. Ordinary, everyday wear was used for two or three days, and then given over for washing, mostly at home. Among the elite nobility, women wore their expensive dress over day and night for four or five, or at most seven days. Every dress was worn new. Once discarded, it was given away to the servants. The begam then put on another set of new clothes until it became ‘worn’ and eligible to be given away. Their clothes were never given out to a washerman or washerwoman for cleaning or washing.

Giving in to Marston Blake’s repeated importunities, Wazir did indeed begin to wear a night dress, but it was not a night gown. She wore the usual Indianstyle long tunic and pants, but looser than usual, and agreeably with the weather, they could be light or heavy, but she dispensed with the upper wrap, or dupatta.

THE EXTREMELY expensive and complicated dress that Wazir wore for the evening could not at all be slept in. One or more of the garments would be torn while turning in sleep, making it impossible for her to return home with her clothes ripped in places. But there was also no question for her to bring with her ordinary clothes to change into before she slept. Apart from open shamelessness, this could also demean her in the eyes of the Navab, for it would mean that she had planned to stay the night.

Now that the decision was to sleep in the guest house and most probably share the bed with the Navab, her clothes were at every kind of risk. She had, therefore, reluctantly made up her mind to sleep in her underclothes. She was somewhat startled to hear Habīb-un Nisa talk about changing clothes. Was she going to give her own clothes for Wazir to wear, and did she know from before that Wazir was coming to stay the night? If she did not, it was certainly sagacious of her to have organised some sleeping garments for her.

“Is there… is there any arrangement for change of clothes, then?” She came out of her silence to ask.

“Yes, Madam. Should you care to trouble your feet to the bathroom, I will show you what choices of clothes are available.”

“Right, but I will change on my own.”

“Very well, just as you command,” Habība smiled briefly.

She knew that the kind of complicated garments Wazir wore could not be removed and folded away safely without the assistance of a personal maid. She thought it was better to keep her counsel to herself for the moment and quietly followed Wazir into the washroom.

The washroom was well lighted. On one side was a small, low, wooden platform for bathing on, and fresh earthen pitchers, full of water, on a wooden stand. On a lower stand glistened and glittered newly scrubbed and shined brass pitchers, the light reflecting from them warmly. There was a large dipper, made of metal alloy, and a smaller one, of chased and engraved silver.

Illustration: Smruthi Gargi Eshwar

Beside the wooden platform, on the floor, there was a large, somewhat shallow basin made of alloy metals, perhaps for hot water. There was a wide stool on which were placed a container of sandal powder, cakes made from powdered and roasted chick peas, different kinds of herbal powders or soaps and a couple of cakes of English soap. She also noticed a couple of boxes — blast them — of English powders. Small, flat-bottomed leather bottles contained scented oils and attars. There were also bouquets of flowers in some of the wall alcoves. Separate from this, was a small stone platform on which was a water pot, quite heavy, and a cake of soap made from powdered and roasted chick peas in a little soap box of its own. These were to be used for formal ablutions.

At the far end, behind a screen, was perhaps the urinal, though there was no trace of smell, alkaline or other. Instead, there was a faint fragrance — perhaps of the attar of aloe vera — resonating through the environment of the bathroom, which was large enough to contain another wooden stand to accommodate two clay pitchers for drinking water, a table where stood bottles of syrups from which cool drinks could be made, silver drinking cups, English-style glasses; there was a large wooden box, much like a foot locker, in another corner. It stood on a wooden platform of its own to protect it and its contents from the damp.

In front of the big box were two Rajputani-style narrow chairs, somewhat higher than usual, for convenience in removing and putting on garments. On the wall opposite the box and chairs was a tall mirror, full sized, with its somewhat wide margins decorated with paintings of flowers and birds and beautiful women and saki boys. The mirror was so large that it reflected a substantial portion of the room, and did not distort the viewer’s image even the least bit.

The clothes that Wazir was wearing were impossible to avoid getting wet at least somewhat, if she chose to wash her face with the dress on. The better choice was to remove all the upper garments and approach the water in just the undergarments. Habīb-un Nisa stepped up and opened the box. The first garment that she produced was a heavy dupatta of yellow-coloured silken muslin, its length going up to the whole extravagant six yards. The next thing that she brought out was a pair of pants, very loose, and light violet in colour, made of plain, Bhagalpuri silk. Wazir took the pants in her hands to find that they did not weigh more than the upper wrap described above. Last of all, she presented a long, loose tunic of phūlām, a flowered cotton fabric with a bit of silk mixed in it. The flowers, in light yellow green, were painted all over, though not densely, and the tunic had a high neck; it was open at the collar and had no buttons.

Wazir felt her mouth watering at the sight of the clothes. Who would not love to sleep in such an outfit! Over and over again, she would pick up one of the items, put it against her body to see how well it suited her.

“Should you like me to present the undergarments too?” Habība said.

On being told by Wazir that small clothes were not needed, Habība looked at Wazir with meaningful eyes, as if enquiring if she could assist her in undressing. Or, if she needed to go behind the curtain, she must remove her clothes.

Wazir’s hesitancy was quite clear, but she decided quickly. Sitting in the chair, she said: “So, where do we start?”

Illustration: Smruthi Gargi Eshwar

The decision was taken, but her face still revealed hints of her annoyance, not unmixed with a bit of a smile. It was clear that she did not approve of the idea of someone, even if it was Habība, assisting her in activities like removing clothes, washing, bathing, or sitting on the toilet.

With slow deliberation, Habība removed all her upper garments, some of which she could fold with some difficulty and put them in the foot locker. The rest could not be folded conveniently, perhaps they were not meant to be folded. These she handled with extreme care, and hung them on the brass pegs that were affixed to the walls. Then she washed Wazir’s face and hands and feet and dried them with a large, scented kerchief. Wazir’s narrow waist, heavy hips and prominent breasts had now become more prominent. It seems as if the weight of the hips was supporting the breasts upwards, Habība thought. Or this little darling would lose her balance when she walked. Somewhere deep in her psyche, Habība felt the reverberations of some obscure desire. She checked herself sternly and did not let her face or body language reveal anything at all. She also felt that she may incur Wazir’s displeasure if she stayed longer.

“I will wait outside. Your Honour can call me when you need me,” she said.

A little knot of displeasure showed itself for a moment on Wazir’s brow. She did not say anything, but said in her heart that there could be no further business for Habīb-un Nisa in the bathroom, so why was she hinting for her to be readmitted? Anyway, she was smarter even than Habīb-un Nisa in concealing her true feelings: if Habīb-un Nisa learnt this during her career as a maid, Wazir had suffered all emotional environments — love and passion, revulsion, refusal — and had taught herself well to show what needed to be shown and lock up the others inside.

She easily cast away her pique and responded briefly and matter-of-factly: “Very well,” and directed her attention to her clothes for the night and the furnishings in the water room.

THE MOMENT Habīb-un Nisa left, Wazir removed all her underclothes and was intending to visit behind the screen when her eye fell on her reflection in the lifesize mirror — exactly as she was, without the mediation of any kind of covering. She started, but then was arrested by her image. The mirror was showing everything — even the slight elevation of the Mount of Venus and the suggestion of a little patch of darker sward on it. She could see everything clear, as if rays of light were gently breaking forth from her body and the light were enhancing the bright reflectivity of the mirror.

There was no trace at all on her body of her having been a mother twice over. Her stomach did not show, as most women’s do, even those creases that are caused by the stretching and contraction of the skin and muscles during and after pregnancy. Her thighs, so well made and smooth as if a potter had just removed them from his wheel and had put them to dry in the sun; the pink of the heels and soles of the feet reinforcing the beauty of the dark purplish henna, tinged with rosy pink, on the toes and the feet. Her stomach was flat as a board, the graceful curve of the neck also suggested strength and pride. The glinting of the reflection from the mirror in her large, deep brown eyes were as if small goblets of clear glasses, full of deep red wine, were placed in front of the candles and their flames were being reflected through them.

Illustration: Smruthi Gargi Eshwar

Suddenly, her throat became choked with tears. None except Blāk sahib ever saw her unclothed, and even he did not perhaps look at her the way the mirror was seeing her now. And today… today someone shall see her. He may be her heart’s comfort in a thousand ways, but he was not the first. Her eyes brimmed over. She felt as if all the energy and sense of security that Habīb-un Nisa’s care and attention had generated in her had been hauled down into the depth of a well. She flopped into the chair, as if she had no strength left, and put one leg on the other, pushing inwards her already flat stomach, and the joining of the thighs creating a small, and not quite shallow triangle, with her pelvis forming the base of it.

She lowered her head. Now she was not looking into the mirror: she was looking at herself in her heart. She was looking at that inexperienced but headstrong girl, all the secrets of whose body — and some of her soul too — had been laid bare before her by someone who was an infidel, a Christian and a firangee. And he revealed those mysteries to her in such style as if they had been revealed to him through divine visitation, and then all her self had become for her the Truth of Seeing, like seeing is believing. She wept for Marston Blake, for today she knew with iron-hard certainty that no life lives forever, and dead people never return. Tears started to fall from her eyes. She kept on weeping, her head bent, and her tears slipping down the slopes of her breasts accumulated in that small cup that was formed between her closed thighs and her pelvis.

HABĪB-UN NISA stood rooted close to the washroom’s door, worrying about the non-appearance of Wazir, and also apprehensive that she might displease her if she called out to her, or went into the room. There was a door at the back of the urinal behind the screen. It opened on to the toilet (she called it sehhat khāna ‘house of recovery’ in her heart, according to the practice among the elites of Delhi). Maybe she is in the toilet. I do not know if there is a light there… No matter, she will herself light the candle. It is not proper to disturb her at present. How heart-tugging her person is! But she is very proud. If something annoys her, she will reprimand you promptly. No, she will probably not reprimand in words, but her brow will be clouded. That is enough to discourage the best of us.

With a little clack of bolts and chains, the washroom’s door opened and Wazir Khanam came out. She looked tired, and forlorn. Habīb-un Nisa sensed at once that something untoward had happened, but she could not make bold to ask. Wazir had put on the night clothes that Habīb-un Nisa had brought out of the box. In the greenish light of the bedchamber, the clothes looked stunning on her. It was just like an orange-yellow shade on a candle in a golden candlestick. Habībun Nisa had often heard about ‘sad beauties’ or ‘grieving damsels’ in the oral romances, but she could never imagine a sad beauty’s visage to be so attractive, so proud, with her dark colour suggesting the dark of rose leaves mixed and kneaded with large orange-yellow hibiscus flowers, and giving out, for all she could see, the dusky light of a sun setting behind the clouds.

Habīb-un Nisa came near her, softly touched her shoulder and said: “You must be tired. If you care to lie down, I will pat and lightly knead your body.”

A sense of gratefulness awoke in Wazir’s mind, but at the same time she felt a little vexed, if not nettled. Who is this woman, spreading herself like a mat before me at every possible occasion? She may be a senior ladies’ maid, or bride-dresser or whatever, but still she is a servant. Does she not have the sense to see that I feel out of sorts? No, I do not feel out of sorts, actually, but somehow this chamber no longer seems as pleasant as before.

She approached the bed with tired legs, and making a conscious effort to plant her feet firmly on the footstool, she rode up and sat listlessly on the bed. Habībun Nisa immediately removed Wazir’s shoes and gently, almost tenderly, she raised her legs onto the bed so that now Wazir was comfortably reclining in it.

“Please lie down, just for a few moments. I will put oil in your hair and comb it. The patting can follow.”

There were soft pillows and also, some small, round, velvety cushions to rest the face on. Everything smelled faintly of flowers and the attar of the small jasmine. Wazir pulled herself up against the bolster and closed her eyes.

“Which oil would you prefer? Flower-oil from Jaunpur, almond oil from Kabul, coconut oil from Bangalah, which also has a little element of camphor and ginger, or…”

“Enough, dear Madam, do you go round hauling an entire perfumer’s box? All right, let it be the flower oil from Jaunpur.” Wazir was not peremptory, but rather indulgent.

Habība hustled to the water room and came back in no time with a small leathern bottle of the oil. She poured a few drops on the palm of one hand, then rubbed the palms together and touched the fingers of the right hand to Wazir’s head with slow, even movements. Instead of spreading the oil over her tresses, or combing them, she began to run her fingers through her dense locks. Wazir felt a rush of comfort; her eyes began to close. Not even 10 minutes had elapsed when Wazir’s inner tension began to dissolve, like the unravelling of a skein of twisted silk threads. She sobbed a sigh of pleasure and comfort and stretched her whole body on the bed.

She was very close to dropping off, when she brought herself up with a little jolt… How is it that I am here? Is this not the haveli of the Navabs of Lohārū? It is not proper for me to fall asleep here in this fashion. She opened her sleepy eyes, looked at Habīb- un Nisa and wanted to ask her: For how long have you been in employment here? Where did you come from? Surely, you cannot be the ladies’ maid of one of the Navab’s begams. You were perhaps in the service of his mother, and are still here because the Navab must trust and like you, and that is also why he deputed you to my service.

No, it is not proper to ask such questions in the very first meeting. If the connection here turns out to be lasting, I will get to know these things in due course. And if the connection does not last, my knowing or not knowing will be one and the same.

Habīb-un Nisa noticed that Wazir’s face now showed signs of composure, or even of cheerfulness. She said:

“Should you now like to rest, then bismillah; I will beg your leave.” She paused for a brief moment, then continued, “At what time would it be convenient for you to receive Navab sahib? May I let him know?”

On hearing the question, a thrill, or rather a tingle rose in Wazir’s heart. It was a moment that she had been waiting for; she did not look forward to it, perhaps, but she expected it. Though she came to the Navab’s feast willingly, and she did entertain some hopes in regard to Shamsuddin Ahmad, and truth to tell, she knew that her own heart inclined towards him, yet tonight she had always evaded to look in the eye the possibility of the moment of the final choice.

Now all opportunities of evasion were over. She was silent for a few moments, then smiled, looked at Habība full in the eye, and said: “All times are convenient when he desires to visit. I am the guest here… and now my hand is caught under a heavy stone.”

THE POSSIBILITY of two meanings in Wazir’s words was not hidden from Habīb-un Nisa. She was unable to decide if Wazir was serious or if she was speaking in a lighter mode. She stopped a bit to consider what she should say and how to say it. Then she spoke clearly, taking full care to avoid all ambiguity: “You are no guest. I see your rule extending all over the place. And the Navab, it appears to me, is preparing to surrender to you the proud riches of his heart so that you may buy him for free.”

“Habīb-un Nisa, there you go again at your jokes and pleasantries!” Wazir said with sham annoyance.

“Granted, I may have bought him out like a slave. But here and now I feel as if I am bound in the firangee’s fetters.”

“Madam, Take the name of God!” Habība touched her ears to symbolise repentance. “This is not a country of the English! No, not by any means!”

“Well, it may not be, but Habība, nowadays my soul seems to be shaken and wan for no reason.”

She stopped. It seemed that she wanted to go on, but was restrained by her pride or sense of judicious conduct. Habība thought she understood Wazir’s mood, or perhaps she did not. Again, she answered en claire, taking care not to give any impression of tergiversation:

“God is the greater King, Khanam Sahib. Put your trust in him always.” She advanced, and running her hands lightly over Wazir’s face, then touching and cracking her fingers against her own, repeatedly performed the traditional act of taking upon oneself a loved one’s adversities. She went on: “This slave woman now craves permission to leave. I will inform Navab sahib. Goodbye.”

Habība dexterously ran her fingers through Wazir’s tresses. Her thick braid became free of its twists, her long hair spread free over her shoulders and back. A whiff of the flower oil touched Wazir’s nostrils and a sense of lightness touched her heart. Bending, Habība made two quick salaams and stepped backward.

Wazir wished in her heart to thank Habība, as the English did among themselves. She knew that they never thanked their servants, and especially the native servants barely existed for them as human beings. Among the Indians, the tradition was to honour and respect the older servants. Normally, such servants were addressed as ‘Grandfather’ or ‘Uncle’; similarly, it was common to address them in the second person plural — āp, rather than tum — but Wazir could neither place Habība among old servants, nor among relatives. She doubted if it was proper for her, at very first acquaintance, to thank Habība. Still, she ignored all rules and principles and spoke up impulsively: “Goodbye, Habība. I am truly grateful to you.”

Habība was walking up fast towards the water room; she stopped, as if in surprise. Her face betrayed disbelief. She turned and said: “You, and grateful to us! May God preserve you, please do not say such things. We are eaters of your salt, we could not pay back your kindness even if we laid down our lives for you.”

“Well, now that I have done the deed,” Wazir said, attempting to be facetious, though her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “You should not forget this. I will not, certainly.”

Saying this, Wazir tucked in her knees and legs under her thighs, so that the curves of her upper body became a little hidden behind her loose clothing. But when she put her back against the bolstered pillow, the rebellious lines of her neck and breasts became prominent again. A few of the smaller tresses adorning her forehead; the darkness of the bright curls of a braid falling down in gentle cascade from one shoulder; large deep brown eyes hidden behind long eyelashes, yet the light from the lamps filtering through them and playing hide and seek upon the surface of the eyes; one hand in her lap and the other, extending towards the book placed on the nightstand; the throat and the wrists still shorn of all ornamentation, except the ruby red of the ring on her right thumb and the emeralds, grassy-green, of the two rings on her right index finger glinting and glittering against the yellow of her upper wrap and the light yellow-green of her long tunic; the ceiling of the chamber would have rarely, if ever, seen such pleasing, languid, rainbow spray of colours; it was absolutely out of the reckoning of anything experienced by Habīb-un Nisa.

Stunned, Habīb-un Nisa watched her, unblinking, for a long moment, as if she could not believe that the girl who occupied the bed in front of her was made of flesh and blood. Wazir once again said “Goodbye” and devoted herself to the book. Habīb-un Nisa made a low salaam again and walking backwards a few steps, entered the washroom.

A DOOR at the far end of washroom opened on to a narrow corridor. Once you entered the corridor, you had, to your left, the back door of the toilet; to the right, the corridor ended at a veranda in front of which was a courtyard designed as a rather informal inner garden: it had the bigger trees like a couple of neems, a few date palms, an ancient flowering maulsari and sundry smaller flower plants and flowering shrubs. The servants’ quarters of the main haveli could be reached from the veranda as well.

Wazir was unaware of these particulars, nor did she need to know them. She knew that the Navab, when he entered, would use the front door and would be announced by a mace bearer. She was content, now that the night was more or less mapped out in her brain.

The book, which she had picked from the night stand, turned out to be the Dīvān of Hāfiz. Bound in leather, the book was quite antique; the gold margin on its front and spine had faded. It was, however, clear that the book had been much used and handled, many of the pages had their corners turned or were dog-eared. She imagined that the Navab had it placed there for her reading. She opened the volume quite casually and found that the very first verse on the right-hand page was:

How can this broken heart manage

To extricate itself ? Each curl in your tresses

Has no less than fifty snares.

‘How nice!’ she smiled to herself, though not without a sense of irony. Oh, well, perhaps that verse too concealed an augury, she thought, as she pushed back the curls that had strayed on to her forehead.

She was about to open another page when she heard the knock of a heavy mace on the stone floor outside. She put the Dīvān back and covered her head with her wrap.

The door opened soundlessly; the Navab entered, unaccompanied by a servant or maid. The mace bearer’s knocks on the hard ground were obviously intended to warn the occupants of the guest house of the Navab’s advent.

Wazir shrank her body a little more and kept her eyes on her knees. The Navab’s personality looked even more attractive in the informal ambience of the bedroom. He wore the dress that he usually had on indoors: loose tunic of ultra soft, white muslin, worked on the shoulders and neck with sky blue lace, worn above wide, Delhi-style trousers of the same fabric except that the muslin of the trousers had very light green, a fourth of an inch-wide stripes. He wore a green turban, somewhat in the Rajputani style but a little taller. On his feet, he had heavy brocade shoes decorated with green lace, somewhat wider than usual, and featuring the fruit and sprig of grapes. He wore nothing symbolising his status as an independent ruler except a five-stringed pearl necklace and a large ruby ring on his right index finger; the ruby was carved to be used as his seal.

He moved up, but not too far inside, cleared his throat, and said: “Good evening, Wazir Khanam.”

Now Wazir raised her eyes and looked at the Navab. She smiled her famous or notorious smile, which none had been able to resist loving. Shamsuddin Ahmad felt his knees weaken. In spite of Wazir having her breasts and her body below the pelvis well concealed, the Navab felt erotic invitations emanating from the entire person of the girl before him. He restrained himself when Wazir rose to salaam him and gently patting her face, he kissed her forehead, then her eyes and finally, her mouth.

Putting his arm around her waist, the Navab led her to the bed. Seating her there, he himself sat cross-legged before her on the bed. This time, she did not sit half reclining against the bolster; she sat on her haunches but did not put her head upon her knees: instead, she wrapped both arms around her knees and thighs. The posture indicated a somewhat informal intimacy, but much of her body was fully protected.

She looked at the Navab with smiling eyes. He put one hand on her knee and the other around a shoulder. During this movement, Wazir’s dupatta slipped from her head, revealing the gentle grace of her slim neck. The Navab ran the fingers of his right hand through her hair and was about to put his other hand under her trouser leg and, maybe, enjoy what was there even further up or down. Sprigs of desires began gently to sprout in Wazir’s heart, but she was not about to expose herself as easily taken. Just at the moment the Navab pushed his hand up her leg and kissed her on the knee, intending to go further, Wazir stretched out her legs, smoothed her trousers and said: “Indeed, one did hear of bold ones going on to the wrists from caressing the fingers, but it is a new one on me, your desire to travel down from the height of the knee cap to the depths beyond.” She laughed. “Your Honour, where did you learn the ways of the acrobats?”

LAUGH SHE did, but she did not also want the Navab to imagine that she was mocking him. She clasped his hand to her breast and said: “Just see now, what the state of my heart is, thanks to your depredations! It is beating so fast! I fear I will go down in a faint.”

Trying to take her whole body in his arms, the Navab said: “Well, here I am fainting already at your sight. If you faint, I will hold you up. After all, why did God create arms and hands?”

This time Wazir let herself come into the arms of the Navab and putting her head on his shoulder, she said, “You smell so sweet, drunk on your redolence, anyone could stumble and fall.” She quoted the 18th century Hindi poet Sauda: “Take the wine cup from my hands, for I am about to be gone!”

“You could never slip so that I would not be there to support you. Do lose your step a little. I am impatient to hold you!”

Saying this, he pulled aside Wazir’s wrap and betook his hand to her collar, in order to unbutton it and saw that she wore nothing under her tunic. Wazir sprang aside and said: “Please. What is this that you are doing? All the lights are burning!”

“Do not mind at all. If the candles are burning, why, let them burn.”

“No, no! I did not mean that! There is nothing common between me and the splendour of the lights. What I meant was that in the light…”

“Yes, surely. In the very brightness of the lamps. Faced with the light of your beauty, the lamps will themselves flicker and fade… Please. No more of your cruelty now. The night itself, drenched in my tears, is about to flicker and die.”

“Well, all right.” Wazir resumed her wrap covering her head and face as if she were veiling herself. “Please. Remain at some distance,” she said, gently pushing the Navab’s face away from her. “Please do not look. And if your eyes were closed, so much the better.”

Before Shamsuddin Ahmad could think of a suitable retort, Wazir threw both her garments off, and put the wrap around her whole self like a chador. “There. You can turn your face now. Now there is nothing to hide.”

Wazir’s body could be discerned vaguely through the dupatta, but she wore it chador style so artfully that she still did not seem without proper clothing. Yet her eyes, shy somewhat and brightly laughing some- what, seemed to be knocking at the door of love.

The Navab understood the message well, but he had not expected Wazir to herself remove her clothes. A small whirlwind of revulsion rose in his heart. The company of the English has taken away her sense of shame. He must have taught her to put off her clothes by herself… But the very next moment, he was ashamed at his foul imaginings, for he recalled a line from Mīr:

She removed her clothes and I pulled my head in the shroud.

So what was proper 200 years ago in Mīr sahib’s days must be also proper today. Gently, he drew aside her chador. She had gathered her body close, as before, but nakedness this time had defeated concealment on all fronts. He felt every nerve tingling and as the lights of desire woke up everywhere in his body through his eyes, he recalled with a strange sense of enlightenment the whole of the verse from Mīr:

I died a thousand deaths at the sight of her naked body:

She removed her clothes and I pulled my head in the shroud.

This is exactly my state at this moment, or maybe even worse. His body seemed to be breaking all bounds of decorum. Gritting his mental teeth, he taught all possible lessons of pride and restraint to his body and his soul in an instant.

In his brief but busy life, Shamsuddin Ahmad had seen countless female naked bodies: of those who were of the streets; or who carried on the business of clandestine loving from their homes; begams driven by the erotic impulse, or loving desire, or the sense of duty. Yet here it was a different world altogether.

Wazir was taller than average, and still she was able to conceal her body so well that even when fully clothed, she looked extremely delicate — like the husk of a grain of rice, or a betel leaf — and without anything on, she looked not only delicate and svelte, but also a storehouse of eroticism, even lust.

From the forehead to the eyes and the nose and the lips; from the chin to the neck; from the clavicle to the arms and forearms; from the palm of her hands to her fingers; from the shoulders to the breasts; from the belly to the navel; from below the navel to the hips; from the buttocks to the thighs and calves; from the ankles to the soles of the feet and the toes; from her tresses to the pubes and the soft, fragrant dark down on them; there was no part in her body that was not, according to its location, fully in proportion, or well shaped, or heavy, or slender, or narrow. And there was no fault or shortcoming in elegance either.

Shamsuddin Ahmad found that he was unable to breathe naturally. Or perhaps his world was in revolution, rotating and revolving so fast that every ligature in his body seemed about to be torn off. Wazir’s body was like that of a statue, made of dark crystal, finished and saved by a master sculptor in the hope that power of the Omnipotent Breath may breathe life into it. And that was what had perhaps happened. Shamsuddin Ahmad Khan was afraid to touch it, and was also dying to do so.

Wazir put out her hand, tried to unbutton the Navab’s tunic. But he took both her hands, small and hennaed in floral patterns, in one of his, and kissed each of the 10 fingers. Then he put his face on her thighs and lay down there, with his eyes closed.

(Excerpted from the English translation by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi of his Urdu novel Ka’i Chand The Sar-e-Aasman to be published in 2013 by Hamish Hamilton India)

SHAMSUR RAHMAN FARUQI is Urdu’s leading literary figure today. His Urdu novel Ka’i Chand The Sar-e-Aasman is to be shortly published in English as Wazir Khanam.


  1. #1 bestever book of urdu fiction
    this is the kind of book which take herculean effort on part of author to produce, and great shamshurrahman faruqi accomplished this. he has meticulously blended history of ending times of mughal empire into a great saga of love,grandeur,emotions & what not.
    I assure you when you read it, you’ll really get carried away in the flow of his narration & minute detailing and you’ll crave for that forgotten times to live again.

    had this book come in english first,it would have sweeped away many awards & became a bestseller overnight.
    I’ve also read aag ka dariya by qurratul-ain-haider, and found kai chaand….. better than aag ka dariya.
    waiting for english translation……


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.