The boy from Hindustan

Submitted into Contest #80 in response to: Write about a child witnessing a major historical event.... view prompt


Coming of Age Fantasy Historical Fiction

On a freezing white winter morning, as I carried spring water home, I found the entire village council convened on the frontyard. Not an unusual sight, my mother, Bahisa was the village Seer, but it meant that I would have to make my way, discreetly to the back. In passing, I noticed the ceremonial hat of the council chief.

“Aliseh,” I burst into the back chambers, out of sight of the seating hall at the front. 

I noticed my other parent had wrapped her noisy mortar and pestle in cloth while grinding her daily stock of medicines. She was the village healer and my only source of sweets and gossip.

I tiptoed near her and sat down cross legged. I almost whispered into her ear, “Tell me, why is the village chief here?” 

She paused for a moment before launching into speech, “The spies report that the exiled Emperor of Hindustan, Babur has camped nearby.” Aliseh sniffed a little from the pungent, peppery mix she was grinding. “After the battle of Gilgit, I doubt we will host anybody from the other side of the mountains.”

Bahisa, giving council on war? She never gave any definite answers, in fact she never gave answers at all

“Why do we move places, Bahisa?” 

“Move what? Geograhical locations or stages of life?”

I realized early on, if all I get is more questions at the end of my question, I might as well seek the answers on my own.

I edged closer to the lapis lazuli and wooden beads curtain at the partition. 

The Council chief was seated across the room and flushed with exertion. “There cannot be any foolishness in moving away from the path of approaching danger. In a skirmish, we will be no match for the Mughals. We are nomads and swiftness is the best weapon we have.”

“And what if the “danger” you apprehend, is nothing but a seasonal wind?” Bahisa asked. “War is a possibility. Wild animals, blizzard and hunger are a certainty, Councilman, a monumental risk for the weak, newly born and invalid. Moving will be fraught with danger."

Meanwhile, Aliseh noticed how close I had inched to the sitting room. She tugged me back “Arsala! Step back, you know it is disrespectful to eavesdrop.”

“Extra knowledge never hurts, does it?” I shrugged her off but walked away, waiting for the right time to barrage Bahisa with my questions.

I only had to wait till nightfall. “We are not moving away from here, are we?” I carefully traced my fingers across the map to find the precise position for Sirius.

“You are marking in the wrong octant.” Bahisa said, without looking up from the piece of parchment she was pouring over. 

Why do I never get my octants right?

I changed the octant and my tack. “By the way, which constellation do you study, when you seek advice for wars?” I kept my eyes peeled to the translucent map in front of me. Again no answer, but silence. I looked up in frustration and Bahisa relented.

“Stars do not tell us everything, Arsala, our creator has given us a brain for some of the answers as well.” She went back to her paper again.

“Is the emperor in exile really---”

“And you are again marking in the wrong octant.”


Attending council ceremonies, even as a bystander, gives me this distinct impression of being a dying walnut tree, gradually turning into a black fossil. Turned out that meeting an Emperor in exile is no different either. This one was named “Humayun” or the blessed one. But so far his blessings were not very apparent to me. Exiled not once but several times, cheated by his own brothers and now, too sick to leave his resting chambers. 

Realizing my time would be well spent away from this dreadful pomp and show, I changed into camel skin boots and ran down to the frozen river. On reaching the river bank, I found a boy, roughly my age, pirouetting around with a flashy sword, fighting imaginary enemies, with an occasional, “Hah!” or “Maat”, like the Sheh and Maat in a game of chess. It was quite hilarious, seeing a soldier without the battle. 

“You are not from the village are you? Are you---” I stepped out in front of him and immediately jumped back in shock. His blade had swiftly turned and was now quivering near my neck.


I blinked in surprise at the most mottled, dirty face I had seen in a long time, looking at me with unbridled contempt. It was in direct contrast to the beautiful red and gold colors emblazoned on his slightly tattered shirt.

“Why? I am not praying to anyone right now.” My voice shook a little. Even the assassins of our tribe were better mannered than this. And this was a group of men who lived just for killing, and only while killing. 

His cold blade now touched my skin as he moved forward. “Pray for your life and kneel.” I could see numerous bruises and cuts all across the insolent, tight lipped face.

“Your majesty, no! That is the Seer’s daughter.” A man shouted from a distance and came running towards him, immediately stooping in a curtsy at some distance. “Your majesty, the emperor has requested your presence.” 

The boy struggled a bit but did not lower his sword. “Now who is this Seer?” 

“Your tutor during our stay, Majesty. She will be teaching you astronomy and the sciences.”

“A woman, my tutor,” he smirked, still holding the sword at shoulder level.

This was more than I could hear. “A far more educated and learned woman than you. And infinitely more well mannered.” 

“How dare you?” His eyes flashed with anger but the foot soldier interrupted. 

“Your Majesty, leave this fool alone.” Seeing the slightly mollifying effect this had on the boy, he continued, “ She doesn't even know how to keep silent when there is a sword placed on her neck.” 

This broke them up into laughter and he finally lowered the sword. The pair walked away in merriment as I seethed with a mute rage that I had never known I was capable of.

While the sun arduously made it to the other side of that horrible day, my list of horrors kept growing. Bahisa confirmed that the boy at the river bank was the Emperor's son and was arriving the next day for his studies. "No. Please tell me you are making fun of me and have not agreed to this madness."

As usual, Aliseh was the only one to comfort me. "Child, have patience. Are you not happy to have gained a friend?"

"But I have friends, Shami, Abdul, Peerzada….the kids from our tribe are enough!" I stepped away from the big bowl of korma, stewing and bubbling. My face was reddening up anyway, even without the steam and heat. Bahisa was cleaning up the shamiana with slow, patient strokes of the broom. "That boy….I met him on the river banks….he is a menace."

With one last sweep, Bahisa laid down the broom and sat down with Aliseh as she knitted socks for the soldiers. "Leave the korma and come and sit down here," she patted on the durrie in front of her. "What happened on the river bank?"

I narrated the ordeal and expected both of them to be shocked at the insolence and boorishness of the emperor’s son. 

Bahisa was the first to speak. “He is a stranger, you had no business creeping up on him like that.” My jaw dropped. “He may look like any other 14 year old, but he has seen more than any person his age. Do not treat him like the other children of the tribe.”

“So I am supposed to bow and kneel in front of him?” 

“My advice would be to let the boy be and not bother him.”

I could taste bile in my throat but there was nothing more to be said. With my blood boiling, I got back to the stew and Aliseh followed to help. 

“Arsala, my lioness, it is not your fault. And to be honest, I consider the boy to be an arrogant prat as well. But he has seen much tragedy and misfortune in his lifetime. He was an infant when his father had to leave him behind and go into exile. There was a time when there was serious doubt as to whether his father would ever come out of his conquests alive.” 

“I never had a father to begin with. Our tribe has moved around three times in the last decade. We have crossed deserts and warded off invaders. But in case you didn't notice, I do not go about swinging swords around people’s necks,” I replied.

But nevertheless, I kept my distance from Bahisa and her protegee. Sometimes I would carry out delivery of Aliseh’s medicine, some days I would join my friends in the fruit orchards, and when there was absolutely nothing to do, I would spend countless hours on the river bank with a soft, restful, white noise I had grown to love. I wondered what kind of place Hindustan must be and what the emperor’s son had to leave behind.

The thing about idyllic peace is that it shatters when you expect the least. I came home from a morning well spent, to see Bahisa and Jalal standing with thick wooden sticks in the backyard, preparing for a fight. Impatient to see the rest of this, I ran up the hill. The moment I came in sight, the boy shouted out, “Not you, your daughter. She is my equal and I will fight her.” Bahisa turned to me and scowled as if again I was at fault. Aliseh was nowhere in sight.

“Why did you come back early?” Her deep, lyrical voice was fraught with irritation. Without waiting for my answer, she turned back to her quite shorter opponent. “Your majesty, this was never a fight, we are not your enemies. And if you want to return to your alchemy lessons for now, that would be quite agreeable.”

“I am not a coward!” He screamed. “I can take on men twice my size and fight off wild beasts, unarmed. Do you not know, I am the crown prince, Akbar?”

Bahisa stood with the stick under her right arm, not poised for a fight, yet not laid to rest.”Forgive me, I was under the impression you went by the name Jalal.”

I could not help but chuckle. What happened next I could never have anticipated. Jalal whacked his staff across Bahisa’s shoulders, narrowly missing her head. 

“Amma!” I lunged towards my mother, but she blocked me with one hand. Bahisa deftly held out the other to stop Jalal’s next strike, mid-air. Pushing me away, she took one large step, planted her feet to the ground and twisted the staff out of his hands. With a loud snap she broke it into two pieces and threw them in two opposite directions. Just like Jalal and I, both of us splayed on the ground across the backyard in opposite corners. Me, awestruck, him, shaking. With fear, I hoped.

She walked towards him as he tried to crawl away like a lizard and held him by the scruff of his neck, hoisting him up. “Go back to your father and tell him, I refuse you as a pupil.” When she left him, he buckled, with his legs still trembling. I quickly got up to my feet and marched into the house, trying to forget that just a minute ago, I had been thrown as unceremoniously to the ground.

It was just the three of us again that evening; no rowdy 14 year old boys to destroy the peace of our tranquil, open-air dinner. With great gusto I recounted the day’s events to Aliseh, who listened with rapt attention. I probably left out the part when Bahisa had tossed me aside like a pancake. And accordingly, Aliseh was shocked by the boy’s arrogance. She had already known how he refused to recite his algebraic formulae, how disinterested he was in learning the intricacies of our language. But she had expected Bahisa’s patience and wisdom to power through, like she had done with so many before him.

Bahisa sat through all this and more, in complete silence. When our gushing conversation eventually ran out of its depth, she finally spoke up. “It is time to prepare for Arsala’s Safar. The world is changing and she needs to start seeing as much of it she can in her brief lifetime.”

“She is just twelve. At least let her turn 16 or 17,” Aliseh said with a panic in her voice. She sounded exactly like I felt. 

“Let us listen to Arsala. What do you want to say?”

I stared back at the two of them with mute horror. The Safar was an eventuality of every Seer’s life, the journey across the world. Sailing across unknown oceans and setting camp in foreign land, armed with nothing but your thirst to know, seek and explore. Some Seers come back after a decade, some after 4 decades and some don’t come back at all. I had always been equal parts terrified and intrigued by it. But it was always a vague event in a distant future, that I would have ample time to prepare for. Not something I would have to do in a year or two. I could not help but feel that all of this happened because of Jalal and his vagabond father. Why could they not keep to their side of the great white mountain?

“Why did you prepone my Safar?” was all I managed to ask.

Bahisa started laughing, the first time in never. “And all you do is ask more questions,” she wiped her eyes discreetly, “You are truly my daughter, Arsala.”

“Our daughter,” Aliseh reminded her. Her eyes were glittering for some reason.

“Come here, let me show you something.” Bahisa cleared space for me to sit beside her. When I sat down, she put an arm around my shoulders and tilted my chin up to the sky. I hoped she would not ask me to predict the next eclipse. I hated cutting up in calculations, this infinite blanket of inky darkness, with a million stars twinkling along its seams.

“The universe creates ephemeral flames out of its vast, unmeasurable nothingness, trying to grasp its own magnitude.” She had a wistful tremor in her voice which I had never heard. “The star you were born under and your own life will each have a very different portion of that infinity, yet both will live, burn and die the same way. What do you think is the purpose of a star’s life?”

“To send its light as far as it can, for as long as it can.” I knew this answer, my heart had known it since I was born.

Nobody spoke and I tilted my head straight again. Aliseh had been crying the whole time; Bahisa and I watched her in silence, hoping she was crying our tears as well. She buried her whole face in her huge embroidered handkerchief and resurfaced after a beat.

“No, what Bahisa says is true. These Mughals have poisons I have never heard of, firearms traded from God knows which parts of the world and medicines I can not even dream of concocting. And to think that only a few years ago, their forefathers ruled in the same land as ours and did not know one plant from the other. The world we knew and travelled is changing, knowledge is flowing out like small streams cut out river beds in granite; slowly, but surely.”

Now I could put forward the question I had been rearing to ask. “Had it not been for the Mughals, could I have stayed back for longer?”

“Now, listen to me very carefully, Arsala.” Bahisa transfixed me with her green eyes, “Your life has nothing to do with the ways of the powerful and mighty. They may command a thousand troops and build monstrously large monuments, but their lives are petty, meaningless circles of each one falling into the grave of his predecessor. I tried to teach the Mughal boy a slightly different path, make him aware of a life beyond battle and conquests, but I failed. Perhaps fate will have a different teacher for him.”

“It is funny you say that because the Emperor has requested your presence, tomorrow,” Aliseh interrupted, “Here are the summons,” she pulled out a piece of parchment with a golden seal.

Bahisa opened it and read it intently. At the very end, her eyebrows furrowed in. “They have requested Arsala’s presence as well.”

Fantastic. Jalal was not only an incompetent oaf, but also a snitch. “Are they going to punish us?” I asked without much fear. I almost hoped the tribe would banish us so that in the initial days of my Safar, Aliseh and Bahisa could travel with me.

Bahisa rolled it back and pushed it under her pile of books. “Only one way to find out.” We finished our dinner in silence, savouring the last flickers of hot embers, at the end of their battle with the unforgiving winter air.


1603 A.D., Fatehpur Sikri

An aged Akbar orders his guard to leave him alone inside the tomb he is visiting. He hobbles through a modest sandstone doorway and kneels before a sarcophagus covered in prayer sheets and rose garlands. The air inside is fragrant with incense and he touches his head to the inscription on the grave of Arsala Temimi. The inscription reads “Here lies the patron saint of knowledge and learning, who blessed the emperor and this land with her final breath.”

Below that a separate line reads, “Kingdoms wither, character stays.”

February 12, 2021 10:52

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