Authors: Kunal Mukjerjee
‘Go on,’ Andrew urged, his voice gentler.
‘I first heard about the legend from my mother. She had heard it from a servant whose grandmother worked for the Nizam’s family. Mother said that she was so disturbed by it that she had a Hindu priest come in and purify the house after they moved in. I thought about that story often, recreating it in my mind. Somehow, it made me feel as if I belonged to the royal family and that the palace was mine. I guess that is where I started identifying with being a prince.’
‘I can imagine that,’ Andrew said, and I could hear the smile in his voice.
‘The palace, as I told you, had been mysteriously abandoned after it was built. It had taken many years to build the imposing two-storey structure and lay out the elegant gardens and orchards. So the palace was not ready for habitation for the Nizam until 1880, decades after work had begun. Begum Razia Banu, the Nizam’s mother, a tough and tenacious old lady who ruled the household with an iron hand, insisted on making the rounds of the palace to make sure it was ready for the royal family.
‘As a child, I could imagine the grand old dowager going from room to room, marvelling at the tall ceilings, the marble floors, the spacious portico and the delicate balustrade that ringed the open terraces upstairs. “Bahut khubsurat,” she probably said as she gave her regal approval to the beautiful work done by her minions. In my vision, Razia Banu was dressed in a glorious sharara—the floor-length ensemble worn by Muslim women—loose and shimmering
with silk thread and sequins. Her head was covered with a fine muslin veil made by legendary weavers from Dhaka. Her fingers were wrinkled, liver spots liberally sprinkled over the parchment-like skin. Rings encrusted with precious diamonds, rubies and sapphires from the Golconda mines weighed down the fingers that firmly clasped a walking stick with a jewel-studded head in the shape of a dragon’s visage. She made her way through the royal palace that was to be her personal domain, planning every last detail of the big move. Then she came upon a bat on the floor of the upstairs bedroom. The bat lay sprawled, dead, in the centre of the mosaic pattern on the floor. She screamed dramatically, backing away. “Toba! Toba!” she said, over and over again, her hands touching each side of her face.
‘Her superstition ruled the day. The palace was condemned as a place of ill omen. The family packed itself into the horse-drawn carriage and left, the dowager muttering to herself that she would not allow bad luck to touch anyone in her family. I saw the handsome prince sulking as he sat facing the rear window of the carriage, his eyes brimming with tears, feeling powerless and angry, knowing that he would never be able to play in the garden and make friends with the trees and birds. Because, of course, he wanted to, just like me.
‘The dowager cursed the palace. “
Hum nahin rah sakte hain to yahan koi khushi se nahin rah sakta … Khandaan ke chirag ki zindagi barbad ho jayegi.
’ A short and powerful curse: “No one can be happy in this palace if I cannot live here. The life of the heir of the family which lives here will be hell.”
‘My mother was afraid that our family would face misfortune because of the curse.’
‘What a horrible thing for her to say! Such a witch,’ Andrew interjected.
‘Yes. Who knows why she was so evil.’ I shivered even though the fire was warm.
‘So what happened to the palace after she left?’
‘It was shuttered and left empty for many decades, and nature crept stealthily into the grounds. Wilderness and chaos continued unchecked until the Indian government took over and the palace became the Mint House.
‘In front of the palace that I grew up in were immaculate lawns and a lake, fruit orchards, the driveway and thickets of trees that surrounded the endless carpet of green. Over the years, shrubs and bushes had turned into trees and trees had grown into towering giants that stretched and wove their branches into the ancient canopy above. Behind the palace were the tennis courts, the dhobi ghaats, the giant banyan tree and the guava orchard. And the palace walls were patrolled by sentries day and night.’
‘You lucky bastard! That sounds like a fantasy palace, complete with guards and walls.’
‘Yes, I was lucky—until it all fell apart. So back to my obsession with Rajesh Khanna and the letter …’
April 1973. Hyderabad.
I would come home from watching Rajesh Khanna films, consumed with thoughts of him—how he looked and how he smiled—his every gesture a source of endless stimulation. Then, at night, I would lie awake in bed, seized with a nameless longing. Sometimes, I dreamt of him and me together, at home in the palace, sleeping in my bed. I would relive my dream all day and remember with pleasure how his body had felt next to mine.
But after what had happened at school the week before, my love letter to him—once a beautiful missive—had become a curse. I had to destroy it. I would be a ‘homo’ as long as the letter existed.
As I continued on my quest for the letter in the garden, I went to one of my usual hiding places. Looking carefully over my shoulder, I picked up a large rock at the base of a tree and removed a little metal box. I scraped the soil off the box. It was decorated with a print of Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore, the name of the 1969 hit film
inscribed across the cover. I opened it and took out the letter still in its envelope. I read it once more. The familiar
words said farewell to me, as did my dreams of meeting Rajesh Khanna.
I hid behind the bushes as I tore up the letter, starting at the centre and rending each square into smaller pieces. I struck a match and lit the pile. My writing came alive one last time as the flames curled around each square. Fragments of words—‘want to see you and be with you … dream about spending time with you’—glowed as they disappeared in smoke. After the pile was burnt, I took each little piece and ground it between my fingers. I rubbed the ashes into the ground with my feet. There was no one around. The gardeners and sweepers were on their afternoon siesta.
The deed done, I climbed up the gulmohar tree to my favourite spot, surrounded by a carpet of dry twigs and red-gold flowers. I climbed the precarious footholds with ease and, once high up, I snuggled against the trunk. A koel tried half-heartedly to start its sweet crescendo of calls, but faltered and stopped. A faint wind blew towards me from the mango orchard, carrying with it the tangy smell of its raw fruit. I had destroyed the evidence. For the moment, it felt safe.
Hearing my father call me, I climbed down with a guilty flush. I returned to the palace to see Ahmed Uncle and Shabnam Aunty standing in the portico, ready to leave. They gave me one last hug before they drove off in their Baby Ford.
The shadows of the trees in the garden were long, casting accusing fingers at me. I knew that no one had seen me burn the love letter, but I felt a shiver of apprehension. Birds chirped madly in their last chorus before settling in for the night in the giant banyan tree behind the palace. A large flock of European wood pigeons that lived on the
grounds swooped and climbed the sky in a silent grey cloud as mosquitoes buzzed in a darker cloud close to my head. Thousands of black, flitting shadows darkened the evening sky as bats left on their nightly excursion. I looked up at the upper storey of the palace and my heart beat with excitement. The silhouette of jagged, urn-shaped structures that once supported the decaying frame of a balustrade looked like a broken crown. Behind them, I could see shells of rooms, some without a roof, sprawling until I could see no more. Clouds of bats came pouring out of the abandoned rooms. Some of the still-habitable rooms were used by Colonel Uncle. I was desperately curious to find out what was there, but my parents had made it strictly out of bounds.
‘Rahul, you always find a way to do what you want. But I don’t want you to go upstairs—there are bats there. It is dirty,’ my mother warned me. However, I feared another, darker terror upstairs, something menacing that I would do well to avoid. But Rani and I would make occasional, half-hearted attempts to go upstairs, she egging me on. ‘I challenge you to go upstairs,’ she would say scornfully at the end of an argument. These challenges were always at night, of course. ‘I knew it, I knew it!’ she would then crow in victorious delight when she would find me, each time, huddled on the tenth step of the winding wrought-iron stairs, unable to go any farther, frozen in terror of God-knows-what.
‘Are bats dangerous?’ I’d once asked my mother. I was fascinated by them. Each bat had a fox-like, mammalian face, except that the nose was shaped like a leaf. Every sunset, I saw them flitting around like little black butterflies, wheeling and diving. ‘Ignorant people think so because they look so different from anything else that flies. Contrary to
urban myths, flying foxes or bats are completely harmless to humans and certainly do not get entangled in our hair,’ Mother had said. ‘I just think that places where bats live are filthy and dark. You never know what else might be there.’
Anyway, the urgent matter of the letter handled, I went to my room and curled up in my favourite chair with a mystery by Enid Blyton. Turning on the lamp, I was soon engrossed in my own world when Rani burst in.
‘Rahul, Rahul! Where are you?’ Rani sounded annoyed when she could not see me. The large armchair in which I comfortably snuggled easily swallowed my thin arms and torso.
‘I’m here,’ I answered, wary and not quite sure whether Rani had a devious trick planned.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be studying and preparing for the exams?’
‘Yes, I am, but I don’t feel like it.’
‘You better do well at school or Baba will be very upset. And then we won’t get to go watch any films this summer.’
‘What about you? Are you preparing for the exams?’ I countered.
Rani raised a hand patronizingly. ‘Please. As if I would ever neglect my studies. You are the one who is always daydreaming and wandering about in the garden. I’m surprised you haven’t been hauled up by your teachers at school.’
I wished she would go away, but Rani continued: ‘Talking about school … I heard from Suresh Khosla’s sister that someone called Amit in your class was expelled. He told her that he had alerted the principal about a love letter that Amit had written. I am sure Suresh made it all up. Such
troublemakers, Suresh and his sister! I hate people who tittle-tattle and get others in trouble. His sister is always bullying the new girls.’
I sat up, attentive. ‘Suresh is the same way,’ I told Rani, happy we were in agreement about something, thinking about his hatred when accusing Amit. Surprised at how amenable Rani was being, I decided to push my luck and ask her the question that had been preying on my mind all day.
‘Do you know what shock therapy is?’ I asked.
‘It is given to someone who has a mental problem. You know, they put these metal plates on your temples and send some high-voltage electric current through it. It zaps the brain and gets people to stop behaving a certain way. Some people go mad after the therapy. Why?’
‘Oh, nothing …’ I said, sick to my stomach at the thought of Amit gone mad. A stab of fear went through me. What if I were made to go through shock therapy? Misery wound itself like a tight rope through my gut and I thought I was going to vomit. But I decided to push further. Perhaps Rani would know why the boys were so disgusted in class.
‘Rani, what is a homo?’ I asked daringly.
‘What? Where did you hear that word?’
‘Shhh …’ my sister cautioned me, looking around to see if anyone could hear us. Hearing a car coming up the drive, we both jumped up.
Ashamed of my question and grateful for the reprieve, I blurted: ‘Who could be visiting so late? Ma will want us to seat our guests. I will go and tell her.’
‘Don’t mention that word again,’ Rani said sternly before I ran off, wishing I had not asked her anything.
My announcement of visitors sent my mother into a flurry of activity to become presentable. I ran to the window that overlooked the garden and the driveway, trying to see who had come. I was glad that Rani had not responded to my question—maybe she would forget it. The automobile lights swept the front of the palace, casting long shadows on the portico as the car came to rest.
An old, familiar Bentley sat there, shaking with the effort of coming up the long driveway. ‘Firdausi Uncle and Aunty are visiting,’ I informed my parents. Mr and Mrs Firdausi alighted from the Bentley, followed by their daughter Dilnaz. I was happy to see them. We loved to play board games and hide-and-seek with Dilnaz who was a year older than my sister. She was boisterous and tomboyish and ready for fun at any time. Grasping for a tiny bit of normality after such an anxiety-ridden day, I looked forward to a fun evening playing in the garden.
Rani and I turned on the lights in the sitting room and quickly straightened the sofa and the cushions. ‘Namaste, Uncle and Aunty,’ we chorused, opening the door when we heard our visitors knock.
‘Namaste, beta,’ they answered.
I was shocked to see a few inches in height and budding breasts had transformed Dilnaz into a young lady. ‘Hi, Rahul. Hi, Rani,’ she said in a put-on grown-up voice.
We led them to the sitting room and my parents joined them. As we went out into the garden with Dilnaz, I tried to tell her about the Enid Blyton books we were reading, but she had other interests.
‘Have you started reading
Mills and Boons
novels?’ Dilnaz asked.
‘Yes, I have. But I have to hide them because they are
meant for adults and our parents don’t like us reading such books,’ Rani replied, looking over her shoulder.
‘I have to hide them too. But we are grown-up now, aren’t we?’ Dilnaz said to Rani with a wink and a nudge of her elbow.
I stared at Dilnaz. Her new hairstyle, like the actress Aruna Irani’s, made her look very confident. She no longer wore a simple hair band over her frizzy hair. I tried to talk to her again, but she ignored me.
‘So, have your menses started?’ she asked Rani.
My sister and Dilnaz laughed at a shared joke I did not understand.
‘Yes, a year ago,’ Rani said.