RE­VIV­ING TALES FROM THE DESERT LAND

To most, Ra­jasthan sym­bol­ises vi­brancy, val­our and ro­man­ti­cism. Tales emerg­ing from the desert land are no dif­fer­ent. Ra­jasthani Sto­ries Re­told by Rima Hooja brings nine such age-old tales to life in a fic­tional nar­ra­tive.

Marwar - - Contents - Text De­barati Chakraborty

To most, Ra­jasthan sym­bol­ises vi­brancy, val­our and ro­man­ti­cism. Tales emerg­ing from the desert land are no dif­fer­ent. Ra­jasthani Sto­ries Re­told by Rima Hooja brings nine such age-old tales to life in a fic­tional nar­ra­tive.

Author Rima Hooja is an ar­chae­ol­o­gist and a his­to­rian, and has sev­eral books, re­search pa­pers and ar­ti­cles to her credit. When she be­gan work­ing on her ninth book, ti­tled Ra­jasthani Sto­ries Re­told, se­lect­ing sto­ries she wanted to retell proved to be an ar­du­ous task. “Tales from other parts of In­dia are equally vi­brant and re­quire a retelling. How­ever, since I have been re­search­ing the re­gion of Ra­jasthan for years, I had an ad­van­tage while writ­ing about it,” says Hooja. We bring you a tête-à-tête with the author.

Did retelling sto­ries from Ra­jasthan come nat­u­rally to you, as you have been re­search­ing and writ­ing on the area for so long?

I think I un­der­stood the land and the peo­ple, fes­tiv­i­ties, cul­ture and the dif­fer­ent types of vil­lages, towns and small set­tle­ments be­cause I had been re­search­ing the re­gion for years. So I had the added ad­van­tage—while writ­ing—of hav­ing seen dif­fer­ent sub-re­gions of Ra­jasthan over the years, and could call on those mem­o­ries or in­for­ma­tion when I de­scribed a scene or a cus­tom. I am always con­scious of the fact that ‘cul­ture’ changes and evolves over time, and that con­ti­nu­ity and change go hand in hand, be it in food habits or cus­toms or cloth­ing or even coinage.

How dif­fi­cult was it to choose nine sto­ries from such a huge pool?

Ini­tially, I thought it would be easy to choose the sto­ries, but as I be­gan to pen down the draft ver­sions, I found that there were hun­dreds of in­ci­dents and tales that I wanted to share with the readers. It be­came al­most im­pos­si­ble to make a ra­tio­nal choice!

Is there any run­ning theme?

You could say so, in one sense; and it is that I have taken sto­ries from his­tory and not folk tales. Other than that, be­cause the sto­ries are fic­tional ac­counts stem­ming from his­tor­i­cally known facts or in­di­vid­u­als, themes such as duty, hu­man frailty, in­tro­spec­tion, sac­ri­fice and hav­ing doubts about what a right ac­tion should be, are a run­ning thread in the sto­ries.

Tell us a lit­tle about your­self.

Where does one start. I’m in­ter­ested in things that have to do with the past and the world’s her­itage, a tra­jec­tory that led me to study­ing and teach­ing his­tory and gain­ing a PhD in Ar­chae­ol­ogy from Cam­bridge Univer­sity on the Com­mon­wealth Schol­ar­ship. I am cur­rently the con­sul­tant di­rec­tor (Li­brary & Ar­chives) at the Ma­haraja Sawai Man Singh II Mu­seum, The City Palace, Jaipur. I am also the man­ag­ing trustee of the Jaipur Vi­rasat Foun­da­tion. I have been an as­so­ciate ed­i­tor of the In­dian Book Chron­i­cle, which was the coun­try’s first jour­nal ded­i­cated to book re­views and book re­ports. I am cur­rently the ed­i­tor of the Jour­nal of Her­itage Man­age­ment, a peer-re­viewed jour­nal, pro­duced by Sage In­ter­na­tional for Ahmed­abad Univer­sity’s Cen­tre for Her­itage Man­age­ment, where I am also an ad­junct fac­ulty.

I’ve done my share of the usual col­lege and univer­sity-level dra­mat­ics, as­tron­omy, en­vi­ron­ment and film clubs, be­sides de­bat­ing and row­ing. For the past few years, I have been help­ing run the An­i­mal Care Trust, which was reg­is­tered in May 2014.

BAT­TLE HON­OURS

The young man shook his head yet again, as if by that ac­tion he could stop the world around him from spin­ning. The blows that had rained down on his hel­met had been sav­age, but the fight was over now. The bat­tle had been won, and the op­po­nent who had dealt those blows with a spiked mace would never hold an­other weapon. Or, for that mat­ter, any­thing else. War­fare was not new to the war­rior. He and his troops had seen non-stop cam­paign along­side the im­pe­rial Mughal forces in the past six months or so. The ro­man­tic vi­sion which he had held of bat­tle and val­or­ous he­roes from child­hood, when he had prac­ticed ad nau­seum daily with sword and spear, and bows and arrows un­der the crit­i­cal and watch­ful eyes of var­i­ous tu­tors, cha­rans, and even his women rel­a­tives, had al­ready been tem­pered by the re­al­ity of death, de­struc­tion, and suf­fer­ing on the bat­tle­field.

He shook his head once more, and felt a trickle of per­spi­ra­tion down his back. Or maybe it was that ear­lier wound break­ing open. There was too much he still needed to at­tend to be­fore he could think about him­self. Some­one had al­ready taken charge of his horse, and other hands were try­ing to help him with his hel­met, his body ar­mour, and his sword-belt, al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Anirud­dha shook his head once more, and tried to fo­cus.

“How have our sol­diers fared?” he asked. “Ask Ni­hal Singhji and the men lead­ing the mixed es­tate-hold­ers to give me a com­plete re­port. Tell Fateh Mo­hammed to check on our Bundi can­nons be­fore some oafs try cool­ing them down the wrong way.” His voice sounded a lit­tle hoarse to his ears. His throat was parched af­ter the fight, but he was not fin­ished with his in­struc­tions. “I want our camp set up as quickly as pos­si­ble to the south of the im­pe­rial camp. Keep a rea­son­able dis­tance. And at­tend to our in­jured at once.” He couldn’t show any weak­ness in front of his men, but he would have dearly loved to have sat down on the hard ground be­neath his feet and give in to the waves of nau­sea that threat­ened him. How­ever, he was their king, and kings had to ra­di­ate strength, and lead from the front—at least that is what his father, the royal priest, and his tu­tors had drummed into him.

That is also what his friend Umaid had re­peated to him on the day the fif­teen-year-old Anirud­dha had sat on the throne of Bundi for the first time, just a few months ear­lier. Umaid and all the other former child­hood play­mates of the young Rao Anirud­dha of Bundi no longer had un­hin­dered ac­cess to him, much to their mu­tual re­gret. When he had protested this, his aged prime min­is­ter, who was also one of Anirud­dha’s many great-un­cles and the grand­fa­ther of Umaid, had pon­der­ously told him it was for their col­lec­tive good.

Anirud­dha be­came aware of some more aches and pains, even as an at­ten­dant wiped away a streak of blood above his left eye. “Send off the messengers to our court as soon as the let­ters have been ap­proved by the min­is­ter,” he or­dered. “See to my horse, and some­one get me some wa­ter.” Even as he was speak­ing, Anirud­dha re­alised his so-far so­lic­i­tous servi­tors were sud­denly dis­tracted.

He fol­lowed their eyes. A tall, lean, old man, still wear­ing bat­tle-ar­mour, was stand­ing nearby. He had pierc­ing eyes and a per­ma­nently stern ex­pres­sion. He was also im­me­di­ately and wholly recog­nis­able to ev­ery­one who was even re­motely con­nected to the Mughal im­pe­rial court. Flank­ing him were a ver­i­ta­ble com­ple­ment of bat­tleweary but richly ap­par­eled and ac­cou­tered courtiers.

Anirud­dha’s be­fud­dled mind was still grasp­ing the fact that the em­peror was stand­ing near him, when Au­rangzeb’s voice cut through the un­nat­u­ral si­lence that had fallen on the Bundi con­tin­gent. “So this is the hero of to­day’s bat­tle,” Em­peror Au­rangzeb stated, more than asked. “An­other of the reck­less Bundi men, as I saw for my­self on the bat­tle­field to­day. And are you too proud a Ra­jput to salute an older man, even if you won’t salute your em­peror?”

Anirud­dha pulled him­self to­gether. Em­peror Au­rangzeb’s tem­per was not to be tri­fled with. He had no idea why the em­peror was here, and whether the Bundi co­horts had done any­thing wrong in the em­peror’s eyes. The em­peror’s words sounded more a taunt than a com­pli­ment, since Anirud­dha did not think he had done any­thing spe­cial on the bat­tle­ground that day.

“A Ra­jput always salutes an el­der—even if it be an en­emy. You are my el­der, and as such I bring my hands to­gether to greet you. You are also the bad­shah to whom my great­grand­fa­ther, grand­fa­ther, father, and rel­a­tives have al­ready sworn fealty. That is my in­her­ited duty, and there­fore I too fold my hands in greet­ing to you.” He had not fin­ished speak­ing, when Au­rangzeb in­ter­rupted him. “Are you stat­ing that I am your en­emy, and that you have brought your ban­ners and your Bundi swords here only be­cause it is your in­her­ited duty, but not your choice?”

Au­rangzeb’s voice was like whiplash. Peo­ple around them had be­gun to look war­ily at each other over this ver­bal ex­change.

Anirud­dha stood his ground. “Your Majesty did not per­mit me to fin­ish,” he stated, as calmly as he could with a head that was still throb­bing and mak­ing him feel dis­ori­ented. “I did not have a choice when I be­came Rao of Bundi, but when I ac­cepted all the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of a Bundi ruler, it in­cluded fealty to you. Since that time, my troops and com­man­ders and I have fought un­der your im­pe­rial com­mand for sev­eral months now, and I have par­taken of your salt, both wit­tingly and un­wit­tingly. Hav­ing eaten your salt, I now owe Your Majesty my loy­alty also, and there­fore I fold my hands in greet­ing to you.”

Au­rangzeb be­gan to laugh. “You Ra­jputs know how to use words al­most as well as you wield swords. You looked au­da­cious enough when you first came be­fore me, and now you are spin­ning out words faster than those arrows I saw you use the last time I saw you in bat­tle some months ago. Stay—Here. Some­one give this war­rior my hand­ker­chief, and wipe that blood off his fore­head.” Au­rangzeb was smil­ing now.

“I will need to learn weav­ing and be­come a weaver my­self, if I keep dis­tribut­ing my per­sonal hand­ker­chiefs to Ra­jput war­riors like the Bikaner prince and now you. Well done, Rao of Bundi. When I sent my ele­phant, Gaj-Gauhar, for your corona­tion rit­u­als in Bundi, I did so out of re­spect for oth­ers of your House that I have per­son­ally known. To­day, I can openly de­clare you are their match. You have won the day and saved the hon­our of the House of Taimur and Chen­giz in the bat­tle here. It is I who must salute you to­day. Ask me for any boon that you wish. What would you like? Lands? Ja­girs (es­tates) Jewels? Position at court? Gover­nor­ship of some tract? Per­mis­sion to re­turn to Bundi with your men? Or maybe all of these things? Ask, Rao of Bundi. To­day you can de­mand any­thing that is in my power to be­stow, and I will agree to it.”

Au­rangzeb was now seated on a quickly un­rolled rug, and was sig­nal­ing to his own men and those of Bundi to take their places as per­mit­ted by pro­to­col. Some of the servi­tors had al­ready un­furled the im­pe­rial canopy over his head. Anirud­dha’s mind was in a whirl. He looked at the Bundi men around him. If he asked for land, they would get to share in it. He could even ask for some of the tracts that Bundi’s col­lat­eral branch Kota held. Or if he sought per­mis­sion to re­turn to Bundi, he as well as his men could all see their fam­i­lies and friends again sooner than they

had hoped. Or maybe he could ask to be­come sube­dar (gover­nor) of La­hore or pos­si­bly of Malwa, or be­come a fau­j­dar (mil­i­tary com­man­der) in the Deccan. To be a gover­nor at the age of fif­teen would be an hon­our in­deed!

Even as all these thoughts flashed through Rao Anirud­dha’s mind, came clar­ity. He voiced his de­ci­sion. For­mally bow­ing be­fore the Mughal em­peror, he de­clared, “If Your Majesty feels I de­serve any­thing at all, let it be the hon­our of lead­ing your im­pe­rial armies into bat­tle. I am a war­rior, and it is a war­rior’s boon of be­ing first on the bat­tle­field that I would have. Grant me the right to lead my Bundi con­tin­gents at the van of your army from this mo­ment forth.” Ev­ery­one present looked amazed and even con­fused for a mo­ment. Then the look changed uni­ver­sally to one of col­lec­tive ap­proval and ad­mi­ra­tion.

Em­peror Au­rangzeb’s ex­pres­sion gave noth­ing away as he looked at the fif­teen-year-old Anirud­dha for a long time. His look was un­wa­ver­ing. So was the look that Anirud­dha re­turned, mea­sure for mea­sure. The si­lence held for a long time. Some­where, a koel bird had be­gun to call. Other sounds car­ried in the wind from var­i­ous camps that were be­ing raised nearby. Fi­nally the em­peror spoke. “Is that all you ask for?” he rasped.

“It is all that is mine to ask,” re­sponded Anirud­dha. “If I had re­ally done enough to have a ja­gir or a sube­dari, or gold coins, you would not have asked me my wishes. They would have been mine by right, not by re­quest. I do not want that which I have no right to. I am a sol­dier, and as a sol­dier I ask for that what I feel I have a right to—namely, to be first in the bat­tle­field. This is some­thing that I truly be­lieve I have a right to de­mand.” Au­rangzeb had heard him out in si­lence. The em­peror’s si­lence con­tin­ued for sev­eral mo­ments af­ter Anirud­dha fin­ished speak­ing, even though sev­eral oth­ers present looked as if they wanted to ap­plaud.

Fi­nally Au­rangzeb spoke. “You have not asked for it, but none­the­less, to­day I give to you the ti­tle of ‘Ma­harao’—the Great King. From now on­wards, you and your suc­ces­sors will bear the ti­tle not merely of ‘Rao’, but of ‘Ma­harao’ of Bundi. I also grant you lands and ti­tles and other hon­ours, which I cer­tainly think you have earned. My wazir will write out all that for­mally and con­vey it to your men. And as for lead­ing the advance guard of the army into bat­tle, from this day forth, as long as you live, Bundi Ma­harao Anirud­dha, that hon­our will be yours and that of your sol­diers of Bundi.” And so it was de­cided, and so it came to pass.

Ex­cerpts from Ra­jasthani Sto­ries Re­told

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