The dusk was falling on the dusty Shergarh.
Raja Shoor Vir Singh has retired to the third floor bed room with his trusted friends. He had decided to marry his two daughters after careful deliberations and scrutiny of few legible prospective suiters.
All the arrangements have been made meticulously, details worked out and duties assigned to trusted close relatives and assistants. No one will be allowed to disturb him till the marriage was over and guests had departed.
Only very important guests will be allowed to see and enquire about his health. He has not been keeping well and was advised to refrain from the daily bottle of whiskey.
Rajaji was supposed to have alcohol instead of blood flowing in his royal veins. He was too proud of his blue-blooded ancestry and considered neighboring Rajas lower origins. The crumbling fort was hurriedly given a fresh coat of paint and some of its old glory was restored. But only on the imposing front portion visible from the main road. The marriage party would be immensely proud to enter its imposing gate adorned with a sparkling large family insignia. Its old brass glimmered as new after decades of dirt was washed off and diligently polished.
The distant drum beats and trumpets signaled imminent arrival of the Barat. A group of balladeers were singing to welcome the marriage procession.
They sang beautifully and all felt lost and immersed in poetry full of romance and longings. The folk songs hoped about how the groom will take care of the bride...how the coy girl will respond to her paramour and they will live happily afterwards.
Against doctor’s advice Rajaji has already consumed a full bottle of potent whiskey and lay slumped in his favorite high back throne like chair in the large hall. His child hood chums Meethu Ram and Banke Bihari were summoned to give him company on the important but a difficult day.
Only a few hours ago he had regally announced an important decision to amazed close relatives and friends. The decision was very important, involved his heart felt aversion to welcome the approaching marriage procession.
It was a well though out decision that would spare him the dishonor of bowing his head.
He loved to keep his head held high and has not bowed before any one except His High Highness the Maharaja. Few other exceptions were the respectable elders of the family.
The onerous duty has now befallen on his pliable younger brother the Chote Raja. He happily looked forward to welcome the marriage procession and did not mind bowing his head before the father of the groom and guests. It was one of the few important duties assigned to him in years. Chote Rajaji looked important and enjoyed his few hours of power and prestige.
All the important decisions were always made by Rajaji, his feared and arrogant elder brother, the patriarch.
The marriage party was believed to have few savage troublemakers and old family enemies. They would not spare any effort to make things difficult and uncomfortable for the family of girls. They would not get such a golden opportunity again to settle old scores and would behave as they pleased. It was a perfect opportunity to make fun of any real and imaginary shortcomings in the arrangements.
Rajaji was aware of such grave dangers and let his displeasure known to the father of grooms.
The strategic decision of farsighted Rajaji to marry off both the girls together was made to take care of such future troubles. To suffer ignobility once would be certainly far better than attending two horrendously drunken marriages parties and tolerate their unreasonable behavior.
Rajaji had carefully looked in to the future and applied his fertile mind to reduce the expected future burdens in many ways. The master stroke to marry off his two daughters to two brothers reduced to a minimum the number of haughty guests and their tantrums. The minimized future expenses of numerous gifts to be given and attending to guests from grooms' family would be far more manageable and economical than otherwise possible.
The dwindling incomes did force a few compulsions to economize.
Rajaji had lived a far more glamorous life and seen better days. He has married thrice to produce an elusive male heir to further his generations of legacy.
On the second floor his three Ranis were seized of few grave situations too. The crafty moneylender Seduram Lahoti has refused to part with the family heirloom held surety for regular loans. It was done to meet the ever mounting expenses of the large household and luxuries they could not live with out.
He has taken the money sent to get few important ornaments back but released nothing for the important occasion.
"He will meet a gory death soon. Dogs will eat his rotting corpse. It’s my curse...it never goes empty...you know."
The childless Bari Rani aged about forty five; spat venom as she relished another large gulp of whiskey, secretly enjoying the torment faced by her younger competitors.
“I will ask my brother to teach him a befitting lesson, if your highness permit's me". The Beechali Rani was more vehement and did not seem to really care for the permission of the old infertile cow
She was about forty, mother of elder girl being married and deeply aware of the older Rani’s malicious enjoyment at her plight.
She looked for support at the Choti Rani, mother of younger one being married.
“Don’t be silly...that will not be a right action...Rajaji would be very angry...I must warn you two."
The tall Bari Rani gracefully advised her younger rivals. She wanted to retire to her floor and laugh her heart out. These younger women had stolen her man and made her live like a nun through her youth. Rajaji had only married these low boned women to produce an heir and what they have gave him in return? Only two daughters to marry off and force Rajaji to bow his head before people of low ancestry!
She was from a highly illustrious family than of these younger women.
"Don’t you dare to warn us about the anger of Rajaji...he never visited you even once for last fifteen years... and hell with your witchcraft and curses...I know how happy you are...you always wanted our daughters to be unhappy...like you.... stop this ugly drama. You old bitch…don’t try to fool me...! Baanjh...just keep your dirty mouth shut..."
The youngest more vocal Choti Rani gave her piece of her mind. Being adored by Rajaji, she could afford to speak whatever she wanted. The Bari Rani closed her large almond shaped eyes and immensely relished the angry out burst of her young rival. The more venom spewed by her enemies meant how unsure and fragile they are.
“My dear sister I have heard these words before.... but I know one thing now.... for sure..."
"Forgive her please. She is out of her mind...only you know how to deal with this crisis!" The Beechli Rani pleaded with folded hands.
“Let me think my dear...sister why don't you fill my glass... now I can compete with Rajaji...one whole bottle...you know?"
She started to laugh loudly which slowly turned in to hiccups and muted weeping.
"I want to die...so much pain.... loneliness...loveless life...everyone hates me...makes fun of me...treats me like dirt...to hear what she just said to me right now.... what is there for me...haven't I suffered enough? I don’t want any more pain... my dear...mix poison in my drink...want to kill my self....but lack courage...I will write a suicide note to save you...please sister ..let me be free....help me please…I don’t want to live any more...and now I have a good reason to die...yes I have to...help me please.."
Her slurred voice betrayed her state of intoxication.
"Please hold your self.... and help us ...you have to." The Beechli Rani slumped to floor, held her to feet and pleaded.
“Yes I will help you.... if you promise to help me.... free me of my pain..." The older Rani was now incoherent with grief.
"We will be always very grateful.... sorry I am so foolish to say those horrible things to you...forgive me please...for the young girls." Choti Rani immediately come to her senses and pleaded touching the feet of the older Rani.
"Don’t waste time the Baraat is approaching fast ...send for that rascal moneylender now…he will obey me...he will have to..."
The Choti Rani rushed down stairs to send a servant to fetch the moneylender and the Bari Rani caressed her stomach and laughed again loudly.
"Everyone calls me a...baanjh....but I am not....you see...I must tell you a secret before my death...a life is growing in my womb...come feel it sister...but won't live and grow...will die with me...so unfortunate...but have to save a few honors...shouldn't I...?"
"Oh my god...what have you done...and who is it…?" The horrified Beechli Rani cried in utter disbelief.
“It doesn’t matter from whom I got pregnant...poor fallow...I gave him money and sent away…"
" Don’t you know why... it was easy for you to have a child...and I just had to always dream...wondered about it...how it felt to have a life growing inside.... for so long...now I feel it...and it feels so good...like a woman...a complete woman... was it my fault that Rajaji stopped coming to me…?"
“I told you in details how it was felt...till birth...yet you chose to…"
“I wanted to die in peace...not with a big hole in my soul...don’t care about others. I just don’t give a damn…you are like my younger sister…that’s why I am telling my secret…"
“You didn’t even care for the honor so dear to Rajaji and all of us...how could you be so mean and shameless?"
“Don’t worry sister, I will do all I have to, to hold the family honor high...just attend to the urgent business of marriage…there is so much that needs your attention... and don’t forget to send Phooli to me for company…she too is not allowed to witness the marriage... a banjh...we will just get lost in our woes...do not worry... honor of Rajaji and all of you is dear to me...please go now…leave me alone…"
As the marriage party neared the fort, Banke Bihari and Meethu Ram helped Rajaji to the large regal bed. The satin covered large pillows were carefully propped under his shoulders to keep his head raised. Numerous glass vials containing medicines were neatly arranged on a large side table. The whiskey bottle and goblets were immediately shifted to an anteroom.
Rajaji was immensely pleased and smiled at his child hood friends for their help. He asked for one more shot of whiskey before he would be ready to receive the guests.
“ I never wanted to see this wretched day…but it is here with us…see how I am dealing with it to save my honor…being terminally ill…” Rajaji smiled.
“ Annadata you are a genius…” Banke Bihari admired him.
The marriage party was given a rousing reception as expected. The hurriedly repaired ancient guns were fired. The thundering booms caused the old fort structure to shudder, showering the guests with fine lime and dust from the high ceiling of the huge gate. The beaming father of the grooms was elated but noticed and enquired about absence of Rajaji.
Chote Rajaji hurriedly informed him about the serious indisposition of Rajaji. Doctor Ganguli was signaled to brief him about the life threatening royal ailments of the patriarch with a befitting grave face. Raja Vijay Raj Singh of Rupangarh was concerned and wanted to see the ailing Rajaji right away, if that was in order.
Doctor Ganguli was thoughtful and indecisive as the guest waited patiently.
“I will enquire right now and see if it’s possible.” Doctor Ganguli said after careful deliberations and proceeded upstairs.
Rajaji fell silent and drank regally.
“I did not want the girls to live…but could not prevail upon the emotional Ranis…a man can’t live with out women and they twist and turn him to be a fool…so easily”
“Yes anndata…we are aware…” Meethu Ram said carefully.
“No… you are not…how could you be…?”
His friends fell silent respectfully.
“Can you think of Raja Shoor Vir Singh of Shergarh bowing his head before people of low ancestry?”
“No anndata that’s impossible for us to even imagine such a dishonor…” Banke Bihari said with folded hands.
“Are you sure those idiots of Lal Singh will be suitably dealt with?”
“Yes anndata… Shamshad Ali and his boys will take care of those fools.
“I don’t want any goof up today…there is too much at stake…my honor…how that fool could could even think of such a silly plan…?”
“He has turned mad…what else could explain his stupidity?”
“I am sure he will go insane today…those who underestimate me always pay heavily…”
“Please be assured, he will be a more troubled man than ever before…”
“Sounds good but make sure every thing happens the way I want…or you know there will be no mercy…”
“Today is very auspicious for you anndata. All the known and unknown enemies will be humbled…” Banke Bihari assured him.
“What about the unknown enemy…. who is it…?” Rajaji was curious.
“A woman, she will come to her senses and won’t be able to cause any
trouble…” Banke Bihari spoke with hesitation.
“Can you tell more about her…?” Raja Shoor Vir Singh now seemed impatient.
Banke Bihari turned serious and spoke carefully measuring each word.
“She’s married… it’s her first pregnancy…not from her husband… both she and her child could be a source of dishonor…”
A hushed dark silence descended in the large hall.
Banke Bihari felt sweat breaking loose and tracing his shaking spine. For the first time in his life he trembled in mortal fear.
“Anndata I will consult the astrologer again and will get more information tomorrow…”
“No, you fool. Call that astrologer right now; I want to talk to him immediately …” Rajaji suddenly sat up and shouted.
A shadow of fear appeared in his blood shot eyes.
Doctor Ganguli briskly entered with a grave face, looked around, carefully pushed Rajaji back on pillows and seemed satisfied with result. He produced a syringe and an injection bottle from a cupboard and sat down on edge of a chair near the bed.
“Anndata are you ready to receive the guests…?”
He asked with a faint smile.
Rajaji brooded for long time slowly emptied the glass, tossed away it and nodded.
Meethu Ram skillfully cached the delicate Belgian glass and put it in the cupboard.
“Yes, doctor I am ready…Banke get going fast now…you have only half an hour to produce that astrologer”.
Banke Bihari immediately proceeded downstairs.
Thakur Lal Singh vengefully surveyed the gaiety of the marriage celebrations. With a palpable seething anger he remembered the insults and agonies heaped on his late father right here in this wretched fort by the devious arrogant Rajaji.
Today he would take the much-awaited noble revenge and make the life of the despised host absolutely miserable. Being maternal uncle of the grooms his status was very special. He had patiently waited for such an opportunity for years and didn’t leave any thing to chances. It was he, who carefully played the behind the scene role of the matchmaker. Though the matches were good and in order indeed, he had his own personal objectives far beyond the mundane importance of the ongoing marriages.
He looked indulgently at his feared gang of mischief-makers led by legendry Bhand Chailiya. They had expertise to make fun of any one with a large unmatched repertory of jokes and antics; highly sought after during marriage season and were indeed expensive.
Chailiya had listened to his desires and demanded special place along with the grooms and assured him of devastating results.
He had personally briefed him about weak spots and floating rumors concerning the hosts, especially about the ladies. Being highly creative and innovative they were capable of causing acute harassments endlessly.
Thakur Lal Singh had shared his revenge plans with some of his relatives and close friends. As expected they wished him good luck and now waited for the show to begin.
They too looked forward to witness the arrogant Rajaji turning helpless and publicly apologize for his past sins. He would demand an open apology from arrogant Rajaji to cease the onslaught of his feared army.
He had been drinking heavily to ward off any attempts to influence him when his army got going. His trusted servant Sitaram hurriedly came and whispered the devastating news. The canny Raja Shoor Vir Singh had played a deft stroke and made his plans look utterly childish. His serpentine anger made him recoil with deep helplessness.
He gave Sitaram a resounding hard slap for giving him the bad news. His trusted servant bowed respectfully and stepped back with an expressionless face. Many chose not to notice the master punishing his trusted servant. Sitaram was privy to the grand revenge plans and understood and shared his master’s acute disappointment.
Raja Vijai Raj Singh along with the grooms, Thakur Sher Singh and other close relatives entered through the low door, bowing their heads. It was a small gate made to allow only one man at a time. Such gates with narrow winding alleys formed part of the royal security plans. In past heads of many enemies and trespassers were chopped off with one clean sweep of swords.
Raja Shoor Veer Singh smiled at the sight of the guests entering with bowed heads and felt a surge of pride seeping through his intoxicated brain. He lay still with half closed eyes, seeing all but pretending to be ill.
All were silent for a brief period.
Doctor Ganguli cleared his throat loudly and announced the arrival of the esteemed guests.
Rajaji opened his eyes and smiled at Raja Vijai Raj Singh.
The handsome grooms in royal finery bowed and stood respectfully.
Doctor Ganguli continued.
“Unfortunately Annadata has developed grave complications; cannot move his hands and I am afraid will not be able to speak at all…”
“I am so sorry to know that and wish for a fast recovery …” The guest looked suitably concerned.
“We have called a few doctors from Bombay too.” Doctor Ganguli said with a grave face.
“His Excellency we wish you a long life and hope to see you back, hitting few sixes in the cricket match soon.”
Raja Shoor Veer Singh smiled and caught Thakur Lal Singh looking at him with intense visible hatred. Rajaji felt pleased at his archenemy’s blood shot defeated eyes and raised one mocking eyebrow to torment him further.
A troubled moneylender Seduram Lahoti was ushered in the hall and told to wait for the Bari rani to appear behind the curtain.
He felt dizzy and slowly sat down on the carpet with an acute sinking feeling over powering his senses. His brains were working hard to find an elusive escape strategy fast. It was now well over five years ago that she had called him. He respected and feared her, an expert negotiator who would not mind telling him about the timely help given to his father to ward off a serious life-threatening crisis. His whole family always felt greatly indebted to her.
He some how realized it was the pay back time. There will be no turning back now but to honor a commitment his immensely grateful father had made years ago.
He hurriedly got up on hearing movements behind curtain, bowed his head in respect and noticed there was no maid to announce her arrival. That conveyed a private meeting, his felt heart beat quickening.
“Ghanee khamma anndata...” He spoke respectfully.
“How is your family?” Her voice felt worn out and intoxicated.
“Every thing is well due to your grace, your highness.”
“I am in a hurry… wont waste any time and would come to the point…”
“Hukam anndata..” He felt numb.
“I need all the ornaments back for few days…is that clear?” Her now authoritative tone conveyed the finality of her wishes beyond scope of any negotiations.
“Hukum anndata..” Seduram Lahoti said with a sinking heart.
“I know you feel very troubled…but don’t be…it’s my commitment…
I will honor my commitment…till I am alive…I always did…didn’t I…?”
“Excellent…you see those papers and pen there on the table …write a note asking your brother to immediately release all the ornaments and sign it…and stay back to witness the handover..”
Sedu Ram Lahoti walked those few steps to the writing table with great difficulty. His legs felt very heavy, immobile, mind was numb…the sinking feeling revived.
“Don’t worry…you have my word…benefit will be far more than any risk you might presume right now…” Her voice betrayed impatience on his hesitation.
“Hukum anndata…but it is the biggest decision so far of me…please let me collect my courage…”
“Oh I see…. you need to gather courage to honor the commitment your late father made to me?” She challenged him.
"Are you sure of your calculations pundit?" Rajaji watched him with his blood shot eyes.
“Hukum annadata..." the gray haired Pandit Brij Kishore felt a chill gripping him.
"Who is she…?" The question acquired a sinister tone.
Pandit kept a pregnant silence. His eyes conveyed a faint tinge of hesitation.
"I need more details…who is she…how old…tell me all with out fear…you will be rewarded."
“What happened, your highness? Did he agree?" A worried Beechali Rani come running.
"Here are all the ornaments…choose what you would like …” Bari Rani smiled and affectionately patted her cheek.
“Oh my god…that's wonderful…I was so nervous…thanks a lot…how did you make him agree?"
“He had to honor a commitment his late father made to me years ago." Senior Rani sat down on her favorite rocking chair.
"Oh God…so good he did…otherwise he has been such a rascal.." Beechali rani almost shrieked happily.
Senior rani put her head on the rest, rocked the chair and spoke gravely.
"Yes…he has been a rascal…but did honor his commitment…oh where is my glass… Phooli…need few more tonight. I feel exhausted…but so happy for the girls and for you…it’s now celebration time…"!
"Oh …haven't you still had enough…?" The Beechali Rani cut her short.
"No…I haven't had enough yet…don't know what tomorrow might bring…want to get terribly drunk just now…” Senior’s voice displayed pain and helplessness.
"No please. I won’t let you have it…" Beechali Rani tried feebly.
Bari Rani twisted her lips, gave a mock smile and started to laugh.
"Oh …really…what would you not let me have…? The pain or it’s medicine…tell me…be frank…yes …come on…I need to listen…"
Beechali Rani remained silent respectful of her while the senior rani continued after long pause.
"You never really bothered about my pain? No you didn't…I begged you to help me meet Rajaji…and explain…. but I don't blame you…who would have cared for me…and you feared that scheming young bitch junior rani…she could have made you suffer…I expected a lot from you…got deceived…my fault…I thought you were strong enough…"
Tears rolled down the large eyes of Beechali Rani. She slumped to the floor and clutched the feet of Bari rani.
"Hey Phooli…you bitch…didn't you listen…get me one more…now…"! Bari rani shouted at her maid.
A terrified Phooli bowed, filled a glass, and handed it over respectfully. She moved back wards and stood in the shadows.
Beechali Rani wept loudly now, hitting her forehead at her feet.
"Please forgive me sister…I had no courage…yes you are right…she could have made me suffer…as she did to you…I didn't have guts to bear so much of suffering…you are so strong…I am weak… sorry…please… I beg of you… please forgive me... "
“I already have..." Voice of Bari rani was distanced.
"Oh… have you… thank you sister…a heavy load is lifted from my heart and soul…" Beechali rani kissed her hand and raised her self up with great effort, feeling drained.
Bari rani remained silent; drinking slowly and suddenly spoke. Her voice betrayed agitation.
"I am told she has managed to get pregnant after so many years…”?
"Yes your highness." Bari rani felt her heart sinking.
“I am amazed at God’s will…look at me…and at her…I keep silent to suffer and she schemes to prosper … …"
“Yes your highness…I feel same…”
“She is planning to get an heir…isn’t she?” The rocking chair gathered motion.
“Looks like…she is always scheming a lot…what you think…. will she be able to succeed…and become the queen mother?”
Voice of Beechali rani was laced with intense hatred. She shuddered to think of her future, being controlled by a monstrous greedy woman.
Bari rani stopped rocking her chair and opened her blood shot eyes.
“Oh no she can never …no…she is such a merciless cunning bitch, busy plotting her rotten ascent… I fail because I care…can’t cause hurt…she is heartless and so wins …wouldn’t mind killing few…but now enough is enough… I wont let it happen again…it was she who made Rajaji stop coming to me… he used to love me and was crazy about me…adored me…but that bitch stole my man…not any more…nothing is left to be afraid of?”
Beechali rani listened attentively.
“I do not fear now…what is there to fear…?” The tone of Bari rani seemed profoundly changed.
“What you have in mind your highness?” Beechali rani whispered expectantly and looked straight at the half close eyes of senior.
The tormented Bari rani fell silent, weighing limited options and closed her eyes, deciding against sharing thoughts. The rocking chair conveyed her agitated mind.
“Its nothing sister…I feel deeply tormented…my plight is becoming unbearable… Phooli…produce Mushya right now.” Phooli bowed and ran out.
“Why don’t you go now and take care of the marriage…?”
Bari rani held her hand as Beechali Rani bowed and started to move.
"Now, remember your commitments… must keep secrete…and there by my honor…"
“Yes your highness…I promise…”
“Are you sure and remember what is to be done?” Shamshad Ali sternly asked.
A green horn bhand Bhanwaria felt immensely elated to be the chosen one. It was going to be his first big professional assignment, to lure the legendry bhand Chailia and take him to a secluded room, where his nemesis would be waiting. A success would catapult him to high status, big money and honors. A defeat would throw him back to the well-known intensely despised fringes of a crawling existence. He was dressed as a desirable bejeweled woman reeking of a heady exotic perfume, attired in body hugging Ghaghra choli.
“Yes ustad.” Bhanwaria replied with confidence.
“Beta, you know the importance of the assignment tonight… I wont repeat…more than that… it is going to be your hour…to announce your arrival…and change your life forever…only few who are preordained for name and great fame are bestowed with such chances…I was not so fortunate…. and could only made a mark much later…I hope you understand what is being told…its gist of my own life experiences…I had no body to guide me…but you have had me… I gave you all of my learning…now it’s your foremost duty to bring honor for yourself and thereby to me too…god blesses you.”
A satisfied but shaky Shamshad Ali admired at his creation once more.
“Ok let’s go my son, move.”
“What is going on… what did the astrologer say?” The Bari rani asked as Mushya bowed his head in respect.
“One pregnant woman might bring dishonor to Rajaji…” Mushya whispered, as the sounds of songs and dances in the courtyard below grew louder.
“One what…. say it again…Phooli bring one faster…” She didn’t believe what her ears heard from her resourceful and trusted aid. Mushya repeated little more loudly but halted seeing Phooli come with glass. The senior rani drank half in one gulp and closed her large eyes.
“Who is she Mushya..?” Her voice sounded weak and drained out.
“I have no idea yet your highness…please gives me some time and will find out.”
“Don’t take the trouble…because I know her very well…”
Thakur Lal Singh seethed with serpentine anger as he reluctantly rejoined his now tipsy friends and relatives. They smiled and looked at him seemingly with huge expectations. But the coveted revenge plan was crashing making his senses mad-extremely mad.
How could he under estimate the arch foe?
The crafty Rajaji has played a deft trick to make his painful and costly labor to take revenge so amateurish. By simply feigning illness and enjoying his easy victory with his famous devilish grins.
Some thing has to be done to salvage the looming damage and acute embarrassments.
He has invited so many to witness his long awaited revenge. His honor was at stake and must be saved. The group of bhands led by legendry Chailiya will surely have an ace up their sleeve to deal with the crisis. They have to do their job well. But he was acutely aware of many problems slowly surfacing.
“What is happening Thakur saa…all are waiting for the show to begin?”
His old friend and accomplish Thakur Shaitan Singh probed his uneasy bearing with concern, closely related to Rajaji but has always resented haughty manners of the hated patriarch. He suggested the revenge plan and introduced the famous bhand Chailiya to bring havoc during the marriage cerebrations. He was not a trusted friend but the idea was too appealing to be discarded on mere suspicion.
“Rajaji is feigning illness and won’t be here…that’s what I hate…some one has betrayed me… they are prepared…”
Thakur Shaitan Singh judged his troubled face and waved away the mounting suspicion with expertise.
“These things are never a secret forever you know…those excited bhands are after all loud mouth rascals and must have boasted. Do not bother…let the show get going and hold the grooms going to the mandap before Rajaji offers an apology for his past misdeed.”
“There are problems…I may not get approval from my brother in law…he would over rule me…I know him…won’t agree. It would have been different…if it was a surprise and Rajaji was present…he would have had no option…but now it looks tedious…” Thakur Lal Singh replied gravely.
“You will loose honor…there are so many here…specially come to see Rajaji slump to his knees…”
A shaken Thakur Lal Singh slowly slumped on a nearby chair; his blood shot eyes were indecisive and clouded with thick strains of a looming defeat.
Thakur Shaitan Singh waited for him to settle down and whispered after a pregnant pause.
“I advise no back tracking… but a full frontal attack…come what may…I know how much pains you have taken for this day and the costs involved…it will be your defeat…I think you need a stiff drink to be decisive…and be sure there will be no second chance available…”
He signaled a servant hovering around; making sure Thakur Lal Singh was tormented enough to be pushed hard to make more foolish moves.
He had promised that to a suspicious Rajaji who wants to demolish his foe forever. The promised reward he daftly negotiated has to be earned now.
The servant bowed and asked his preference, raced to the table and come back to offer the drink. Thakur Lal Singh emptied the glass at once and lifted another immediately.
Thakur Shaitan Singh smiled and waited for his friend to take the awaited decision.
And that would deliver the reward.
Choti rani looked at her daughter princess Parwati being prepared for the marriage ceremony. Her heart felt heavy as the realization of the child going away forever dawned on her. She had made sure that the most fabulous ornaments adorn her only child, who looked so beautiful and full of innocence.
Parwati sat demurely and let maids and the groups of girl friends prepare her for the great occasion. They whispered gossip and secrete of married life repeatedly and merrily laughed at her discomfort.
Choti rani smiled at the girls and come out to inspect arrangements. She felt elated after success in cornering bulk of prime ornaments for Parwati. The difference will be visible to all and reconfirm her higher stature to any one who cares to see and she was sure there are many who would notice. She knew the middle rani would have come to know about it by now and must be very angry at one more defeat. It was a pleasure to defeat her foes repeatedly and come always victorious.
Ramkudi come running and almost collided with her.
“Oh. You blind Bitch …and what’s the hurry?” She shouted at her maid, who broke her blissful reverie.
“Ghanee khamma anndata…there are two big black snakes… lying on your highness bed… now both have slithered to the ante room.”
A terrified Ramkudi broke the horrific news haltingly; her face was washed in sweat.
“Two snakes on my bed? Are you sure bitch…or you will get few hard lashes.”
She warned her mischievous favorite maid as fear of bad omen come rushing to her mind. It was indeed a bad omen on an auspicious occasion. She terribly feared snakes and two lying on her bed was too scary a sight. And the damn snakes were supposed to be hidden in the anteroom, holding her secret treasure. It was unthinkable. She will ask servants to lock and guard till the marriage was over. It will not be possible to announce catastrophic presence of snakes during the marriage. She decided to deal with the feared reptiles later and continue undisturbed with marriage festivities. She chose to entrust the onerous responsibility on her loyal servant Jassu.
“Produce Jassu fast…and bitch don’t you dare to tell any one about snakes…is that clear?”
“Hokum anndata... “Ramkudi looked at her with fearful excitement and looked crestfallen on being forbidden to disclose her great discovery.
“The grooms are tall and very hand some anndata…” An excited Phooli turned back to tell Bari rani, who lay slumped in the still rocking chair.
“Be careful raand…someone must be keeping a vigil on us…we are not supposed to cast our unfortunate gaze on grooms, brides and on the mandap in the courtyard below…”
“ What will happen now anndata…I am been doing that and telling your highness what I see…I don’t want any harm come to them…because of me…’
Bari rani didn’t answer and closed her eyes. The feeble light from a small earthen lamp made them almost invisible ghostly shadows. Both childless baanjh women were supposed to keep away from the fun and gaiety of the marriage, and retire early. Their dinner has been served from the kitchen and lay covered, in sparkling silver on table for rani and one on floor for Phooli in brass. They silently heard noisy children’s laughter’s, marriages songs and cacophony of celebrations. The low piercing notes of shainai floated in the background.
“Anndata…forgive me…I don’t want to look at them any more…I go back to my own marriage and…all the pains it has given me…I don’t want that to happen to Baisa and Banra…someone told me that you suffered because of me too…because you allow me to be present in your marriage and see what has happened…no your highness I wont look out tonight again...please forgive me…” Phooli turned back and sat on floor.
“You want to drink raand…don’t you?” Senior rani asked.
“If your highness permits…” A sad Phooli replied eagerly.
“Go have as many as you want…and use a glass.” Bari rani dropped the glass on floor; it rolled away and rested against leg of a chair.
Phooli got up walked to the table carefully in dark, poured a drink and sat down on floor facing senior rani.
“What will happen to brides and grooms anndata? I have looked at the handsome grooms…will they be able to father kids…” Phooli took a sip and asked with fear.
“Yes...don’t worry…they will be able to…it is big nonsense...” Bari Rani laughed wryly.
“Then why are you being kept away from marriage celebrations your highness? I hate it… and that raand Ramkudi was teasing me about it … I almost slapped her…”
“Yes I know…it’s all because of Choti Rani…but I don’t care…”
“She creates so many troubles for you and yet your highness got all those ornaments back for girls…”
“Yes I care for girls…like my own…”
Phooli emptied her glass, got up for another fill. She left the bottle opened, gulped one fast, poured another stiff one and sat near the table and decided to confront her mistress.
“You continue to do so much for thankless people and get deceived often …so much pain and sufferings and yet you are good…you have to change anndata…I cant bear it any more…I want to go back to my village and wait for the death to relieve me of pain and humiliating life…I can bear my pain but not yours any more…please forgive me…I am feeling mad…If you permit I will kill that heartless scheming woman….”
“Oh raand…I know how much you care for me…”
“Yes I do your highness…. its enough of pains and every day torturous life…I wonder how you tolerate and why…just tell me and she will be dead…think about it your highness… no more humiliations…a peaceful life…but I suspect you love to suffer…but I cant see you suffering any more…?”
A brooding Bari Rani remained silent. Her big diamond nose ring sparked and sent a ring of rays on the darkened walls. An expectant Phooli waited eagerly for a reply. The earthen lamp flickered violently and died. They sat still in complete darkness as rest of the fort bathed in lights.
Phooli filled her glass again.
“You are going too fast raand…hold it.” Bari Rani warned her softly in barely audible voice.
“I don’t care your highness. Say some thing your highness…did what I say makes any sense…?”
“I don’t know…my senses are numb with humiliation and intoxication...you are a wise bitch and so brave… wish I had that clarity and strength...”
“Anndata please forgive me …I just could not tolerate any more and did some thing…I don’t know what will happen…hope every thing will be all right…”
“What are you talking about raand…what you did?” Bai Rani opened her eyes and looked around to locate her maid.
Phooli emptied her glass and stared to weep, keeping her voice low.
“It’s nothing your highness… I am talking nonsense…. just drunk after having too many…of this angrezi sharaab…believe me it’s nothing…”
Both remained silent for long as melodious marriage songs wafted through the stone grills and heavy curtains.
“How do I thank you Phooli… … for feeling so much for me…you take so much of risks…for understanding and being with me…in lonely tormenting nights…how could I have lived without you raand?”
“Your highness it my duty…to always think and do good for you…even if I die doing that…I was told clearly by my mother...when she gave me away to be with you…. and I have to honor what she said long back…”
“I feel tired now…. want to sleep to never get up again.”
“Don’t say that your highness…think of the life you are nurturing…and what will happen to me with out you?
Bari Rani remained silent.
“Should I serve you dinner, your highness?”
“No I don’t feel hungry.”
“No anndata you have to…so much of sharaab… must eat…should not drink now…you are not alone… the child.”
“Shut up raand…what do I think of the child who won’t live?”
“Every thing is possible…if you gather your strength! Let me light the lamp…and forgive me, I won’t listen to your no.”
“Oh yes light the damn lamp fast…let me see around...I hate and fear darkness.”
Phooli slowly moved around holding furniture to guide her locate the matchbox. She laughed mockingly and lighted a match.
“Oh no your highness…I think you love darkness and fear light.”
“Shut up raand…you don’t lecture …and make me sadder than I am.”
It was customary that the groups of bhands from both sides will have drinks and dinner together before the grand competition.
Shamshad Ali chose the venue for stay of his guests with great planning. The visiting party was put up in the secluded part of the fort; lost in a bewildering maze of serpentine dark alleys. Only few knowledgeable could reach out in dark. There were stories of few drunken unfortunate who chose to wonder and were found dead, some from snake bites and others fallen in to deep wells.
Separate quarters were allotted for males and females with a hall in middle to hold the rehearsals. An apt place for the artists to practice unhindered whenever they wanted.
The feast boasted of few specialties prepared for the leader of the group, the legendry bhand Chailiya.
“Shamshad bhai tonight you have no chance…I will win…” A drunken Chailiya laughed loudly.
“That is up to the almighty to decide who will win…. isn’t it? I just try to do my job well and never bother about results.” Shamshad Ali smiled at his drunken pray.
“Well…. I don’t take things lightly as you do…and mind it… it’s not about the usual song and dance stuff…that being handled by my boys and girls.”
“What are you trying to say? Be more candid now…I know very well that you have some aces up your sleeve tonight…don’t you?”
“Let that moment come… will see…and you won’t be able do any thing bhai…I pity you…” Chailiya laughed filling his glass to brim.
An alert Shamshad carefully looked at his ace rival, the legendry bhand. He has to act bewildered to lower competitor’s guard and present the devastatingly alluring Bhanwaria at an opportune moment. Precious time was running out and he has to make Chailiya incapacitate to act out his formidable repertory lampooning weaknesses of the bride’s family.
“Oh…I am aware you might win…even after consuming a full bottle of potent angrezi sharaab?”
“Are you joking Shamshad bhai…? I can manage one and half bottle and still remain deadly sober.”
Chailiya loved to boast his great capacity to drink.
“ I am sure you do bhai…let me offer you a rare hundred year old potent brew…it has great effect on mind and body…its always been an honor to talk to you…I would have never accepted this assignment but for Rajaji.”
Shamshad Ali signaled an aid to produce the gift.
“Well Rajaji is going to be very angry on the defeat after I get going… and you would not know where to hide face and how to save your honor…I am sorry but cant help it now…its too late…. oh”
Chailiya stopped boasting, as the bejeweled Bhanwaria emerged swaying seductively holding a silver tray with an embroidered cover. He liked what he saw and smelled from distance.
“It is my great honor to serve you ustad…” Bhanwaria bowed, tantalizingly neared his victim and delicately deposited the tray on the table. His dupatta slipped to expose the stuffed bust and rested on amazed face of Chailiya, who smelled the heady perfume making his senses foggy.
“Bhanwaria is very talented and wanted to meet you for long…” Shamshad said causally.
“Oh I see?” Chailiya looked closely at the perfumed allurement and felt his pulse racing.
“Yes…since I saw you last year…performing at Lalgarh…hai daiya I am so happy serving you tonight…” Husky voice and swaying body of Bhanwaria left nothing to imagination.
“Excuse me Bhai…need to see the arrangements…take your time…and taste my gift…the ceremony will start late after midnight…”
Shamshad left the dimly lighted room and signaled musicians sitting behind a heavy curtain.
Bhanwaria poured a stiff drink for a dazed Chailiya. The fiery sting of the hundred year old exotic liquor electrified his foggy senses.
Bhanwaria started to dance sensually, his Ghaghara bellowing wide and high.
Chailiya watched transfixed. And it has been a while; when he had let his guard lower and enjoyed an intoxicating company. His mind wondered about what lay ahead. Deep in his mind he sensed a clever trap to make him go astray and loose focus.
“Tell me what you actually did…?” Bari Rani asked sternly.
“I did nothing anndata….” Phooli was distanced and humming.
“I must know…now come on, tell me raand…”
“Anndata you have not eaten much…please take more…”
“Shut up, don’t fool me…you don’t look normal…” An agitated Bari Rani pressed ahead. She suspected Phooli had done something to harm Choti Rani.
“Choti si umar main…parnaee re babo sa….” Phooli sang a folk song softly, lamenting her heart felt angst about being married off young, by an ignorant father, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Tell me Phooli…I must know…” An anxious Bari Rani whispered.
“There is nothing to tell anndata…I have always wished that foul woman is dead…and that would make your life so glorious…you will be the Rani Maa…and now I just live to see that wonderful day…” Phooli spoke haltingly as in a trance.
Rani pushed bowl of dry fruits way.
“Anndata you have eaten nothing…” Phooli stopped humming.
“For the first time, I feel you are hiding something from me…why…and
“No anndata…I am hiding nothing…I just prayed deeply… that your life turns for better…I prayed for death of Choti Rani.” Phooli started to laugh keeping her voice low.
Rani closed her eyes and brooded over words of her maid.
“Stop dreaming raand…nothing ever has happened as per our wishes…”
“You have been so cruel to yourself by suffering…but don’t be cruel to the child…you must take stock of your life and his as well…”
“How can I do that…don’t talk nonsense raand..”
“Every day is different…something might happen now…we have had enough of pains…now our lives must change….” Phooli continued dreamily,
“My younger brother Balvir come to meet me…I told him about my wishes…he is very brave and resourceful…he felt so unhappy and sad about my painful life…he will do anything for my happiness…”
“And….?” Rani asked alarmingly.
“He said, everything will be alright…told me to wait for better days to begin…”
“What he will do…tell me …I must know…” Rani sat upright in her chair.
“I don’t know anndata…I don’t like you being ignored and humiliated…”
Rani slumped back in her chair and it gathered motion. She spoke lost in her thoughts.
‘What are your wishes raand…?”
“You are happy and powerful Rani Maa… and all my woes too will vanish …”
“Do you know how that is possible…?”
“Yes anndata…I have few ideas…but won’t tell you…because I don’t want you to know….such gory secrets…”
“Enough of this nonsense…Shut up and give me a drink raand.”
“Anndata…isn’t it too much for the night….forgive me….but please wait for next dark night to descend…let me help you to the bed now..”
“No…not so early… serve my dinner...”
Shamshad Ali smiled when an aid whispered about a drunken Chailiya lustfully following Bhanwaria in serpentine dark alleys.
He gleefully signaled his group to end the performance at midnight. It had been a cake walk for him, as his feared rival was found to be untraceable after many futile attempts. He earnestly wished Chailiya would live to see the next day. So many thieves and enemies had been devoured by deep pits of dark alleys and snake bites. It would indeed be so great to confront a defeated rival who gloated so much. He could only hope.
A satisfied Thakur Shaitan Singh looked at the defeated, shrunken frame of Thakur Lal Singh, who was now mumbling incoherently, lying slumped halfway on the floor. An empty glass lolled on his heaving, wet midriff. He got up, staggered and proceeded upstairs to declare success to the waiting Rajaji. An alert aide rushed to help him climb up the treacherously narrow steps towards his reward.
Tragedies stuck Shergarh in quick succession, a few days after the marriage ceremonies were over and all the guests had departed.
A half-eaten headless body was discovered by shepherds in the sand dunes, their hungry dogs must have traced the smell of blood and rotting flesh. The greatly respected astrologer Pundit Brij Kishor had met a gory end, presumably looted and beheaded by a band of nomadic criminal tribe, lately seen in the area.
Only a day before, the learned astrologer had written his will. He must have predicted his own terrible death and was prepared.
The ailing Raja Shoor Vir Singh died after coughing blood for a day. He could never give up his daily bottle of scotch whiskey. A sad Doctor Ganguli frantically tried to revive him but failed.
But that was not enough. Only the next dark night, a terribly broken Choti Rani slipped on the winding staircase to her instant death. Early morning, she was found lying in pool of caked blood by her favorite maid Ramkudi. The large earthen lamp had broken and its oil flowed down smearing the already slippery stone steps. Many weeping maids lamented about ignoring the sounds of cats fighting at night. The quarreling cats must have toppled the lamp, which was always filled to brim to last till dawn.
The grieving small town was in the news as the press, curious onlookers, friends, relatives and other royalty poured from far and wide to attend the funeral. ·
After about six months from these terrible events, Shergarh found a good reason to rejoice.
Bari Rani gave birth to a male child. An heir at last had arrived to continue the legacy left by late Raja Shoor Vir Singh.
Madhav Singh asserts his moral right as writer of this fictional story.
Glossary of Rajasthani words:
Rajaji: The King
Rani: The Queen
Anndata: The provider
Ghani Khamma: I seek your forgiveness
Hukum: I am pleased to be present, your highness
Yes, your highness,
You are right, your highness
Raand: Can be an abuse and endearment as well, depending on the context and relationship. Used as an expression for variety of meanings for a girl child, a woman, promiscuousness and a whore.
Bhands: Also called Mirasis are traditional performers, born satirists and stand-up comedians who still perform at marriages and birth of a son ...
Bhands: Also called Mirasis are traditional performers, born satirists and stand-up comedians who still perform at marriages and birth of a son ...