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Fiction – “In the Half Light, a Woman” by Lavanya Karthik

Shahabuddin Muhammad lies dying. Once Shahjehan the Magnificent, King of the World, he is now just an old man imprisoned in his rooms, silently enduring his son’s rage. All of Agra holds its breath as he struggles to keep his. Do they miss me, the old man wonders. Will they remember the golden years of my rule, mourn for me as Aurangzeb stifles them with that fanatic zeal of his?

No more frivolities, Aurangzeb has declared. No more gardens of lavish opulence, no more drinking and dancing. Instead, he desires – no, demands – a new Hindustan, one of mosques and madrasahs, where the austerities of Islam find respect again, and where the decadence of his father’s rule will be wiped out forever.

Across the Yamuna, the Taj Mahal shimmers in the twilight, ethereally pale against a blood red sky. Every stone in its magnificent walls seems to taunt the old man, each minaret seems to shout out the name of his son – Shahenshah Aurangzeb, the new King of the World. And yet, this pile of gleaming stone had once been his own dream.

Shahabuddin looks down at the painting that has mysteriously appeared at his bedside the night before. He admires again the skill of the anonymous artist, a craftsman he would once have feted in his court, covered in jewels and titles. But now he is little more than a corpse, and must mutely accept this gracious gift. But is it merely a gift? Is there a message here, he wonders?

Framed in ruled borders of fish and fleur-de-lis motifs, the miniature depicts a garden scene, rendered in the Persian style, once so cherished by the Mughal court. Trees fill the middle ground; flowering shrubs feather the spaces between. The colours are rich yet muted, almost shadowy, as if the scene is set neither in daylight nor the darkness of night but in the space between. Animals abound – a lion, a bear, some deer. A bronze giraffe rears its elegant head through the trees; a ceramic wolf slumbers peaceably by a hare. Jeweled birds throng the branches of the trees, their phosphorescent plumage playing havoc with the shadows. A forest, you think. Look closer now; observe the high wall that bounds it, a single locked gate – a menagerie. Closer still, and discover at last, a peculiar feature in each beast – a key, as in a wind up toy. Gasp if you will, then move on, for this painting is not about them.

In the half light, a woman stands in the foreground. She seems to be dancing – her back is arched, her slender arms entwined over her head. Her hair is long and lustrous, her lithe body draped in the rich silks and diaphanous skirts favoured by women of the royal harem. She would be beautiful but for the peculiar complexion the artist has endowed her with – not the rich peach tones customary in paintings of this kind, but a luminous steel grey. There is more – a delicate tracery of lines that criss-cross her skin, as if she were seamed; strange articulations at elbows, neck and jaw line. And there at last, just visible at the nape of her neck, a key.

***

Once upon a time, a clockwork woman dances in a walled garden. She is built in the image of a dead woman, and taught to be exactly like her. These are the steps she has been told are hers, this the song she loves. And this, the man she is made for. All day she waits for him, surrounded by the other mechanical creatures that share her dwelling, waited on by the machinist’s apprentices, two silent young women in charge of the oiling, tightening and winding up that keeps each beast – and her – alive.

At night, she lies in his arms, listening to the steady beat of his heart, so different from the click and whir of her own. He talks of the woman she almost is, the one whose death left a void she now fills, but only to keep him from falling in.

What am I, she asks.

The shade of the woman I love, sighs Emperor Shahjehan, gazing into her eyes at someone entirely different.

A toy. An amusement just like us, sneers the copper lion, cynical after a decade in the Emperor’s menagerie where he is little more than an overgrown pet. We are the Almost, just lacking in the one essential character that makes us ourselves. I am a lapdog. You, a puppet. And it is true; the lion’s claws stay forever sheathed; he mirrors the calm of the leopard and she-bear, endures the Emperor’s touch and even gambols like the squirrels for his amusement.

My mother, whispers someone else (but it is not her turn yet).

His servant, says the aged machinist who has crafted her, forged her limbs from metals of his own making, woven her hair from lustrous ironsilk, set in place the heartstones that pulse a sort of life through her. She is his masterpiece; yet, he had once tried his best to prevent her birth.

“These animals are mere beasts, playthings for you and the Empress ” he had said. “Creating them is no sin. But a human… that is Allah’s right alone.”

“And who is your Emperor but Allah’s messenger?” Shahjehan had thundered. Then, in softer tones, “Zafar, my friend, do you not see how my grief eats me whole?” And indeed, the Emperor had aged in the year after her passing, his hair grey, his back bent where once it had been straight. “How can you let me suffer thus?”

“Shahenshah,” the machinist had begged. “O monarch of the world, the human clockwork is a complexity far beyond the simple workings of these toys. I cannot set its ways as I can these animals.”

“Rubbish,” scoffs Shahjehan. “You have built me an elephant that walks on two legs. You have made a lion that purrs, a peacock that dances when I command it, fish that flock to the sound of my voice. How much more complex can a woman be?”

Who was she? she asks. This woman I am supposed to be.

Only the Empress Mumtaz Mahal, says the antimony wolf. The Emperor’s beloved. His inseparable companion and his soulmate. Mother of his thirteen children.

Fourteen, the deer interrupts. Then again, the last one does not count.

Why is that?

Her birth is the reason the Empress is dead.

***

The woman in the painting dances, but not for herself. Her gaze, her whole body arches toward a figure seated some distance to her right, on an ornate plaque under the trees. His face commands attention; his clothes and posture suggest royalty. He smiles; a hand is raised in appreciation; but his eyes are fixed on the woman’s reflection in the pond at her feet.

The harem is scandalized; the court buzzes with rumour. The Emperor is a devil worshipper, they say. He has trapped the Empress’ soul in a tin box to increase his virility! No, no, he has trapped a demon in a vice of iron and couples with it every night! No, listen – he dances naked in his secret garden with his dead wife’s spirit! She has possessed him so he may never marry again!

I am her, the clockwork woman thinks. That is why he loves me.

He draws her close and she feels a tiny change in the rhythm of her jewel-run heart. Yes, he whispers. This is how she smelled that day in spring when I first met her. And these are the ornaments I gave her the day we were married. Now lower your eyes, like this, and blush. This is how she smiled when I embraced her.

I am not her, the clockwork woman thinks. You would see that if you weren’t blinded by memory.

She changes the dance steps, finds a new song to sing. He rebukes her gently, and changes them right back.

She gazes into his eyes when they kiss. He frowns until she is more demure.

She stops wearing blue, the dead Empress’ favourite colour. He has her wardrobe destroyed, and replaced with clothes of his choosing.

He never gives her a name.

***

A third figure is now apparent – a man, crouched by the walls of the garden, near the upper right hand corner of the panel. It is a face that startles – a visage so twisted with rage that it barely appears human. He is young but gaunt and his eyes burn with an intensity that is unsettling. What causes his suffering? The man in the foreground, on whom are his eyes riveted? The dancing woman at whom he points an accusing finger? Or is it the crushing weight of the object he bears on his back – a holy book? And yet, look how he embraces with his right hand this singular structure before him – an elegant pearly edifice, topped with minarets and a stunning dome.

“Father, how could you!” The young prince is inconsolable, the Emperor annoyed. Of all of his children, this is the one he thinks the least of – this skinny, solemn-faced stripling afraid of his own shadow. Shahjehan remembers him as a boy, inseparable from his mother, always entwined in her skirts or hanging on to the ends of the delicate embroidered stoles she so loved.

“How could you replace my mother? With a doll!”

“Hardly replaced, Aurangzeb.”

“It is ungodly!” Aurangzeb shouts. “All those creatures are, and that… thing, most of all!”

My son the fanatic, Shahjehan thinks wryly. Always obsessed with the straight and narrow, too afraid ever to risk himself. Too afraid to ever be truly great.

“And the Taj Mahal, Father! You said you would build the most beautiful monument in the world for Mother? Yet the construction site sits idle. The foundations are flooded while goats graze among the bare bones of the main hall. Even the labourers have begun drifting away, while you toy with your puppet!”

The Taj! Shahjehan hasn’t thought of it in a while, not since… her. He tries to recall the passion that had guided him in the days after his wife’s passing, the grief that had demanded a marker as magnificent as the one he had envisioned. He finds neither, only the beautiful face of the artifice that now comforts him.

“Perhaps we do not need this memorial,” the Emperor says. “For when I look into her eyes, I find my Mumtaz right here by me. Your mother lives in the skin of that creature, my son! I’ve brought her back to life!”

Aurangzeb pales in fury. His father has always been arrogant, he thinks. Always filled with notions of grandeur, too easily turned by sin – but this time he goes too far.

An excitement seizes Shahjehan as he finds a new image in his mind, one far grander than a lifeless heap of marble. “Aurangzeb, forget the Taj. Why not demolish what we have built and create a beautiful garden instead? An oasis filled with Zafar’s fantastic creatures? And even better, have him create a clockwork in my image, one that will live on in this palace long after I am gone!”

The Emperor’s laugh is triumphant. He seizes his son’s shoulders, blinded by the vision in his head. “That will be my legacy to the world, Aurangzeb! Myself, immortalized by Zafar’s alchemy!”

Aurangzeb looks out the window at the incomplete shell of the Taj. Already he is changing, hardening around the heart, driven by a singular need to show his father his place. Becoming, in many ways – though it would horrify him to know it – a clockwork man himself.

Is this the day that changes everything? For Shahabuddin will remember it years later, when Aurangzeb presents him with the heads of his other sons, and orders him shackled and imprisoned. He will remember that day and that heartbroken young man over and over again – as he stands in his cell, watching the Taj Mahal defiantly materialize before his eyes; as he hears of Aurangzeb proclaiming himself the new Shahenshah; and as he receives the news that his machinist has been beheaded and left to rot in a pauper’s grave, the animals of the menagerie dismembered and sold for scrap, and the beautiful walled garden leveled to make way for a mosque.

“My love,” the old man sobs, pressing the painting to his heart, and it is unclear who he means – his wife, his garden, or the one he has held close these long years.

***

The clockwork woman stands before the new Emperor. She is tired. She has watched him hack apart and disembowel the other mechanical creatures in the garden. She has watched the metallic birds be crushed underfoot, the bronze carp from the pond be speared and quartered. She looks into the fury in his eyes and awaits her end.

But why does Aurangzeb tremble so as he raises his sword? What stops his hand and causes him to sink to the ground, weeping?

“You… she used to sing to me,” he sobs. “Do you know that song, the one about the clouds and the rain and the little boy?”

It is his favourite song too, the man she was made for. She has sung it for him countless times; watched him close his eyes and see her – the woman she will never be. She could sing it now and possibly be saved by the memory this man before her clings to.

“No,” she says to the new Emperor. “I do not.”

He raises his sword.

“Wait!”

***

Wait – there is more to this picture. Do you see it – there! A tiny breach in the wall. Not much, just a couple of stones. And hidden deep in the shadows, barely discernible from the tree trunk that conceals her, a child, entranced by the dancer in the foreground.

The Unlucky One. That is what they call her, though her name is Gauhara. The fourteenth child of Shahenshah Shahjehan, the one whose birth hurt him so badly that he never ever looked in her face again. The harem is a tough place for motherless waifs, and this one is, in addition, a little murderess. But she is resilient and a quick learner. She learns to sneak around the palace, listening and learning. That is how she discovers the loose stones in the wall of her father’s secret garden – two stones too insignificant for anyone to bother about, yet enough to let in a small, wiry child looking for a magic mirror.

“You are my mother,” she says to the clockwork woman with all the certainty that comes from being five, and never having met the woman who gave birth to her. “Here, you can hold me like this. And pat me like this while I sleep. Do you know the songs I like? It doesn’t matter, sing me the ones you like.”

Mother, the clockwork woman repeats, searching for something in all she has learnt that will fit this new role. Her search is futile – the Emperor has never intended her for anyone but himself.

But what does a child care for the rules of a world she is no part of? Or the wishes of a father who pretends she does not exist? She will find loose stones in every wall that stands in her way, even walls shaped like heartbroken Emperors.

***

In the half light, two women step into a boat at the river bank. Behind them, the city of Agra slumbers, while its new Emperor sits motionless in the ruins of a garden. Across the still waters, the Taj Mahal raises its beautiful head, as four pallbearers carry the remains of the man who was once King of the World in through the gate.

“I have never been outside the palace gates,” the clockwork woman says.

“About time then,” says Gauhara. She looks down at the painting in her hand, the one she had drawn so her father could see what he had done. To her, to Aurangzeb, and to the woman beside her in the boat.

But did he? She would never know. She watches the painting sink slowly into the inky water.

In a minute the boatman will want to know which way to row. In a minute they will find out themselves.

“He never even gave me a name,” the clockwork woman says.

“Perhaps, mother,” says Gauhara, “it is time for you to find your own.”


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About the Author

Lavanya Karthik writes and draws in Mumbai, India. Her work has been published in Crossed Genres, Comix India Vol II, Kindle magazine and several editions of the Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul series.

She blogs at http://lavanyakarthik.wordpress.com.

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  1. What a clever idea and wonderfully written. I had a serious obsession with the Mughals while trapped in academia and it was a delight to stumble upon this story. I hope to read more of your work in the future 🙂

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