The Mulberry Courtesan (Book Excerpt) by Sikeena Karmali

In 1857, the shadows are falling thick and fast on what is left of the Mughal empire. The last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is a broken, bitter man in his eighties who has retreated into religion and poetry. Zafar’s empire extends no further than the precincts of his grand palace, the Red Fort in Delhi, but this hasn’t prevented numerous court intrigues and conspiracies from flourishing within the Lal Qila; these involve the emperor’s wives, children, courtiers, hangers-on, and English functionaries among others. Flung into this poison pit is Laale, a young woman from an Afghan noble family, abducted from her home in the mountains and sold into the Mughal emperor’s court as a courtesan. Fiery, independent and beautiful, the ‘mulberry courtesan’ captures the ageing emperor’s heart, giving him hope and happiness in his last years.

Told against the backdrop of India’s great revolt of 1857, and the last days of the Mughal empire, The Mulberry Courtesan is an epic tale of romance, tragedy, courage and adventure.

About the Author: Sikeena Karmali has written a book of poetry, Places to Remember, and a novel, A House by the Sea, which was shortlisted for the Amazon/Books in Canada Best First Novel Award. Her writing on Muslim culture, human rights, gender and spirituality has appeared in academic publications and her articles have been translated into French and Italian. She has served on the Canada Council for the Arts peer jury for literature. Below you can read an excerpt from The Mulberry Courtesan.

Excerpt from The Mulberry Courtesan

Chief Eunuch Mahbub Ali Khan announces the naach of Laale to the court of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, introducing her as the gift of the Nawab of Jhajjar on the occasion of the marriage of Mirza JawanBakht. He deliberately leaves it unclear whether the gift is to Mirza Jawan or to Zafar. Laale is already sitting on the raised dais of the Diwan-i-Am. She stays seated long after the tabla player, none other than the UstadTanras Khan, has introduced the first beats of her song, then repeated them in a twirl and finally broken into the song itself perplexed by her failure to budge. Shabana makes eyes at Tanras Khan. She is worried about Laale. She understands very well the fear, the nerves that might have gripped her. Zafar also sits still. His attention rests singularly on Laale. His first wife, Begum Taj Mahal, folds her hands into her lap, confident that Laale will rise when the time is right. The Nawab of Jhajjar, high on opium, is flushed, grinning from ear to ear unable to discern whether this is a dream or reality, that the girl whom he rescued from the clutches of a British general, at a slave bazaar, is before him now, resplendent in a splendour of silk and jewels, holding the court of the Lal Qila in thrall, waiting upon her very breath.

Finally Laale stirs, abandoning the choreography of a much-stylized opening: the slow and graceful thaattukra, tora, and paran; the light rhythmic steps of the parhant; and the fast and showy tatkar that she and Shabana have so carefully rehearsed. Forgetting the ghazal composed by Ghalib especially for the occasion, Laale remembers the words of the pir she met at Humayun’s Tomb, and dances for God, singing her own song.

This breath, that lingers so upon my chest, does not rise out of any will of mine, oh no.

I’ll have you know that I have beseeched again and again, my Beloved to make it still, oh yes.

Again and again, I have beseeched my Beloved, but He does not hear oh no.

Rather than this, and that, splendour, I would have an embrace, oh yes.

Rather than this jewel, or that cloth, if, I could have Your sweet gaze, oh no!

And then Laale stops. The assembly of princes is transfixed. She turns away, erupting into a whirl of chakras. The santur player stops. The flautist stops. The sitar and cymbals also stop. Only Tanras Khan continues, his fingers bearing down on the tabla in an almost equal passion. She keeps on spinning in marvellous round circles, turning on one foot, one hand reaching up to the sky and the other seeking the earth. She becomes an electrified wave coiling around itself to the rhythm of her soul, which Tanras Khan somehow echoes. Laale’s dance is not a mujra; rather, it calls forth her own divine nature. Nawabs and princes stumble onto the dais and fling their jewels at her. The bidding for her first night has begun. Begum Taj Mahal leans back in her seat, satisfaction spread across her face.

The assembly of noblemen, drunk on wine and high on opium, begin to shout over each other, ‘One lakh rupees.’

‘Two lakhs…’ the Nawab of Jhajjar begins to counter but is cut off by the Prince Mirza Fakhru.

‘Ten lakhs!!!’

A third nobleman joins the fray. ‘A haveli in Mehrauli…’ to be outbid by a Salatin Prince, ‘My father’s Arabian steed!’

Shabana climbs onto the dais and gently pulls Laale, who is still whirling, into an embrace to stop her. She escorts her off the raised platform at the centre of the court.

Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar has recognized the voice from the mushaira at JawanBakht’s wedding. He stands up and announces, ‘The Padishah shall take her.’

Silence descends on the court. No one would dare challenge the Padishah who has not bid for a nautch girl in well over a decade. Zafar wins Laale’s first night.

Laale has retired to the Mumtaz Mahal zenana. Presently, Mahbub Ali Khan enters the inner courtyard where Laale lies in a solace of quietude reclining on a charpoy. He addresses her with the disciplinary expression of a headmaster scolding a miscreant pupil, ‘Emperor Zafar himself, a man of eighty now, but it seems still of avid libido, has bid for you.’ An alarmed Laale sits up. Mahbub Ali Khan uses the opportunity to lean in close to her ear and whisper, ‘Be careful, little gazelle. Do not invoke the wrath of the lions who keep you. Come with me now. You must be bathed and prepared for the Padishah. I shall show you the way.’

Laale follows the eunuch through the Diwan-i-Khas past the Lal Purdah and into the Khas Mahal. He leans over her and opens the heavy wooden doors that lead to the Padishah’s hammam. Three female attendants and a steaming bath await her. Mahbub Ali Khan takes his leave. She looks shyly at the women. Her long embroidered dress and silk pyjamas are still wet with perspiration. The women lift off her clothes and help her slip into the immense marble tub. The youngest of the three fetches a long silver flask and pours rose water over her hair. She hands Laale a sponge and a bottle of scented soap. The women retreat into an adjoining room, keeping an eye on Laale as she washes. How shall she refuse the Padishah himself?

Relinquishing the defiant refusal to become a tawaif, Laalewashes herself with the sponge, shedding the memory of Saqib. Preparing her limbs for yet another encounter.A new lover. Surrendering to a fate that leads her out of the bounds of her will, she lowers herself into the tub until she is submerged. As she climbs out, two attendants comb out her hair, drying it with the perfumed smoke of a bakhoor. The elder of the three women spins Laale around to inspect her, checking fingers and toes for clean nails and inside the ear for wax. She fingers Laale’s vulva and finding hair there, summons a pot of heated honey and lemon. Laale is made to lie on the marble floor. With a flattened spoon, the elder attendant spreads the sticky honey mixture across the entire portal of her vagina. The other two women hold back Laale’s arms, pinning her to the floor. One of them places a hand on her lower belly. ‘Bismillah,’ mutters the elder woman as she pulls the now caked honey off in strips. Laale opens her mouth to scream and a hand silences her. The woman continues in smaller patches along her inner lips, all the way back into her buttocks. She removes any leftover bits of sticky honey with scented oil. They sit Laale up and offer her a cool glass of lemon water, which she gulps down.

The women reappear carrying a long silk robe to be draped loosely over her oiled limbs. They place a mint leaf wrapped around cardamom seeds in Laale’s mouth, then lead her by the hand into the Imperial Chamber. Laale’s presence is announced to the Padishah and the women leave, closing the door firmly behind them.

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