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The Exile

When they fought each other for the throne after my father’s death, guns were mounted on those minarets and cannonballs flew over Hazuribagh and crashed into the Akbari gate.

Does it matter where one dies, in which country, which land? Does it matter at all if the last breath is drawn among your own people, friends and lovers, or among strangers, or completely alone? If you have not lived at home, perhaps there is no cause to die there.

And what is home? Where I was born, or where I lived all my life? Do I call Punjab my home, or England? If I had a choice, where would I want my bones to become dust, and would it matter?

I know these things mattered to my mother. Bibiji. Beautiful Jindan, ruined by the same fate as I—at this hour I will even admit that perhaps we were both small and inadequate and the times demanded too much of us . . . But no—a dying mind wanders. When I met my mother in Calcutta, after our separation of fourteen years, before she decided to come with me to England, her only wish was to pass her remaining days at some holy place on the banks of the Ganges. She would never have been at peace if I had let her bones lie in England, far away from the land of her ancestors. That is why I had to do what I did, carry her back across the seas, let the few fistfuls of her burnt-out remains flow into the Godavari. I could not immerse her ashes in the Ganges or the Sutlej but at least she was in India. I remember how the waters churned the ashes, curled around them, swept them away. And even as I watched, a swift current took hold of them and soon it all became the same, the water and my mother only a sheet of twilight silver, vanishing fast.

I remember that moment, though I have forgotten much else. My memory is almost gone; this stroke has finished me. I can barely move. Stretching out for that glass of water on the table seems the most difficult of things. And that light, the patch of sky I see from the window, grows fainter by the day. A curtain is being drawn across everything and I no longer have the will, or even the desire, to fight. It is true that I am dying.

But there are days when, if I shut my eyes, strange colours can still rise in my mind, forgotten words, songs, faces, and the lost caress of the breezes of Lahore. Sometimes, when the light is of a particular shade, especially on late winter afternoons, I see myself in the Lahore fort . . . I am standing at one of the arched windows of my mother’s haveli, above a four-quartered garden with its marble fountain and walkways paved with thin bricks. Beyond the cypress trees I see a marble pavilion and still beyond, past the wall of the fort, the plain stretching away to the ribbon of water that is the Ravi. Somewhere there, I used to imagine, were all the battles fought between the Sikhs in blazing yellow and the British in red. I can hear the elephants swaying up the broad marble staircase that came up right under the Summan Burj. I was scared the first time I sat in a silver howdah and came up that staircase; I held on tight to the silver railing in front of me. I don’t remember who was with me then. Not Bibiji, else I would not have been afraid.

And there is the memory of the light filtering through the filigree of marble on to the floor of the haveli, making patterns that I would step on and imagine myself dressed in a gown woven with light. I wondered then how the light came to us from so far away, how the sun rose and set. I’d asked Mangla once, and she had said, ‘Ask the Angrez and he’ll tell you his race controls it all.’ Or perhaps this never happened, perhaps it is only a false memory and I imagine this because the British certainly were to control all my days and nights, all my stars. My life, such as it was.

I see my mother’s chamber often these days, sometimes even with my eyes open. The mind, I have heard, has a way of helping the body cope with physical suffering, and perhaps that is why I see that chamber so often now, feel the warmth of my mother’s body next to mine, when a thirst rages in my throat or a pain flares up, for no reason, somewhere in this half-wasted body.

From the window of Bibiji’s chamber the tall minarets of the Badshahi Mosque were clearly visible. When they fought each other for the throne after my father’s death, guns were mounted on those minarets and cannonballs flew over Hazuribagh and crashed into the Akbari gate. There was so much killing, Bibiji said, that rivers of blood flowed from the fort to the bazaar below and the people of Lahore covered their ears with their hands and shut their eyes and lowered their heads and waited, on their knees, for the nightmare to pass.

I have read all there is to read about those days and years after my father’s death; I know of the hundred and more treaties, letters, memoranda. And my mother told me of everything that I lost before I could understand what was mine by right. Some people who saw it all happen are still alive. Like Mangla Mai. I haven’t seen her for so many years, but Arur tells me she is alive, in an ashram on the banks of the Ganges near Hardwar. She will remember everything— her memory was astonishing. She will understand my wish to die a different death. And also my other wish: to sleep, to forget, to be done with it.

Or perhaps even she won’t. Nobody will understand why I am dying like this, alone, in this small hotel room, in a beautiful but strange city, from where I can see only the edge of a narrow cobbled street below and a thin strip of sky. The buildings across the street seem close enough to touch. Why am I here, denied all the wide open spaces of my life . . . the wheat fields that stretched away into the distance below the Lahore fort, the rolling countryside of Elveden?

Nobody will know how I fought—for I did, however imperfectly—and how I was defeated.


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