Palace intrigue has always fascinated me, but ultimately, there's no way to verify the veracity of the stories. Did King Arthur really exist? Lancelot? We'll never know.
But one summer, I learned of a story of palace intrigue that was as true and real as anything you have ever known.
And far more morbid.
I'm here to tell it to you…
My family visited India for two weeks last summer. We stayed in one of the family houses, called Machli House. My parents spent their days visiting relatives, reliving their childhood memories, and eating mangoes. I, an American-born Indian, didn’t care that there were 12,000 varieties of mangoes in India.
It was a scalding hot day and impossible to step foot outside. Five minutes out the door was enough to leave you dripping in sweat from head to toe.
My mom suggested I visit my great-aunt Babli for tea. Given that I couldn't play cricket with my cousins that day due to the weather, I acquiesced.
Aunty Babli was main character energy, all day. She knew everything about everyone. 82 years and counting, yet nothing slipped past her eagle eyes. She also knew everything about the family history.
Oh. You should know this before we begin: We come from a long line of conquerors, originally Pashtuns in Afghanistan that made their way into India during the Mughal Empire, finally acquiring a state in India that they ruled until India's independence from the British.
Aunty Babli’s papier-mache hands, wrinkled as elegantly as they could wrinkle, were outstretched as she handed me a delicate porcelain cup and saucer engraved with a picture of a golden fish.
"Beta (dear), have your chai while it's hot. You know that tea is no good lukewarm."
I thanked her and started to sip my chai, although it scalded my tongue. Still, I didn't want to inform her that in fact I did enjoy my tea lukewarm. She was quite argumentative for someone of her age. I changed the subject.
"Aunty Babli, can you tell me anything about my great-great-grandfather, Nawab Hameed? I haven't been able to find much online about him," I said.
"You don't know the story of Nawab Hameed? Why, I would have thought your mother would have told you. It's quite scandalous,” she replied, and I could see the smirk creeping over her face. She was the family gossip.
"My mom can’t remember a royal family history story to save her life.” (Facts. She couldn’t.) “Would you mind doing the honors?"
"Well, I probably shouldn't, but I will tell you only because I think you should be warned. It involves magic," she said with feigned caution.
But I could see her eyes glint with excitement at the prospect of being the one to give me the low-down on a family scandal.
I leaned forward in anticipation. That was adequate encouragement for her. She started.
"My grandfather, Nawab Hameed, was an excellent leader, as you know. He was quite wealthy and the royal state had drastically expanded under his rule. He had acquired several smaller, neighboring states and as my grandfather grew in power, he developed independence from the British.
The British regency was beginning to fear that he was more powerful than they were comfortable with. They wanted the Indian kings to always be subservient to their command. The Indian kings didn’t make a move without approval from the British governor despite their riches and palaces. At the end of the day, they were still pawns.
They were growing wary of Nawab Hameed’s newfound divergence from the British on opinions related to governing. The British wanted the Nawab to fight a war against the Sikhs of Northern Punjab, who were threatening to defect from the British Empire.
The Nawab refused their demand. He didn’t want the unnecessary bloodshed of his people.
The British governor posted in India, who reported to Queen Victoria, hatched a scheme to take Nawab Hameed down.
The Nawab had many enemies, unsurprisingly. Of all of them, the one most enraged with jealousy was his younger brother, Mustafa.
His brother wanted power and control more than anything else, and was frustrated by the frivolous life he had been relegated to by his elder brother. It was a life of standing in for his brother in court frequently due to the Nawab’s busy schedule in regularly overseeing the various districts of the state.
Court days were full of food, music, and grand balls. The cuisine was exquisite; the kingdom was known for having the best kabab chefs in all of India. They were also renowned for their qawwali music. Yet Mustafa was bored. He had no real responsibilities.
When the governor, Earl Vince, proposed that they come together to usurp Nawab Hameed’s power and overthrow him, Nawabzada (Prince) Mustafa nearly leapt at the opportunity.
But now came the tricky part. How would they oust the Nawab from the throne?
If Mustafa’s machinations were discovered, he would be hanged for treason. Even if the Nawab’s grand vizier or others in the Nawab’s court that were still loyal to him caught wind of the prince’s design, despite its success, he still ran the risk of death.
His plot could not be foiled. It had to be foolproof.
And so, Mustafa realized that someone closer to Hameed than even him had to aid in unaliving the king.
And he knew just the person.
Nawab Hameed, like all other rulers of his time, had four wives. The first wife was the Queen Consort, or the reigning queen. Her name was Noor. The purpose of the remaining three wives was to provide enough potential heirs that even if the Queen Consort had only daughters, the Nawab would still have a son by one of his other wives. This would secure the lineage of the royal family. The Nawab’s son - not an uncle, cousin, or nephew - would always inherit the throne.
The Queen Consort did in fact have a son: Kasim. However, Kasim was born with hemophilia and doubt had permeated the royal court as to whether he would ever be strong enough to reign. Whispers abounded about his frail frame, which gave him the appearance of an eight-year-old despite his actual age of eighteen.
The second wife had unfortunately birthed no children at all, each dying prior to reaching full term. The fourth wife had all daughters.
That left the third wife, Rumana.
Rumana had a ten-year-old son who was fit to rule. An expert archer and horseman, a gifted mathmetician, and a polyglot able to speak six languages (Persian, Urdu, Arabic, English, Pashto, and Hindi), young Abdullah was the perfect prince. Not to mention, he had striking green eyes and thick, flowing black hair. It was clear he would be handsome one day.
Rumana wanted nothing more than for Abdullah to be king. He was imminently more talented - and healthier - than his half-brother Kasim. She had spent her whole life in the women’s palace, doing nothing but investing every moment of every day into raising and breeding Abdullah into the perfect prince.
Yet she knew that he had no chance to become King.
If not Kasim, then Mustafa would be the next king, and then ultimately his sons (although he was unmarried as of yet). Abdullah’s life was destined to be a waste.
So, when Mustafa and Earl Vince approached Rumana with a scheme devised to assasinate Hameed, Rumana did not hesitate to cooperate.
The plan was simple:
Rumana would obtain a vial of magic potion from Hakim Yusuf. Then, she would mix the magic potion into Hameed’s evening tea. The second magic potion would be passed from Rumana to her handmaiden, who would pour its contents into the tea of the carriage driver, Shah.”
I interrupted Aunty Babli at this point. “Why two magic potions? Isn’t one enough?”
Aunty Babli smiled quietly and said, “Patience, beta. I’m getting there.”
“Hakims were naturopathic doctors, some of whom dabbled in black magic. Black magic was considered a grave sin and crime, as it altered a person’s destiny. It was punishable by death.
But Yusuf was the most clever hakim in the land, and knew how to mask his magic potions under the guise of herbal remedies. He rarely used black magic, but if he did, it was only if he was paid extremely handsomely.
Rumana obtained the two vials of magic potion from the hakim in exchange for a necklace with emeralds the size of my fists.
We have very few of these such necklaces left in the family due to one family member after another selling them off for pennies and potions,” Aunty Babli scoffed. “Imagine if I had that necklace today, how rich I would be!”
It was true. The family had lost nearly all of its wealth over generations. At one time, the family’s fortune had rivaled that of the Nizam of Hyderabad, who had once held the famous Kohinoor Diamond (until it was stolen by the British).
“Anyway, one night, while Hameed was on the chamberpot (that’s what we used to call the toilet), Rumana stealthily entered his bedchamber.
She found his evening tea on the sterling silver tray by his bedside. She hurriedly dropped the contents of the vial into his tea and rushed out.
When Hameed returned, he climbed into bed and sipped his tea as he began reading the state’s agricultural records, his nightly reading.
Within moments, the magic potion had done its duty.
Suddenly, Hameed had the worst headache of his life. A thunderbolt of pain zapped his skull. He dropped the agricultural records book and held his violently shaking hands to his forehead, his eyes rolling back into his head.
Before he could even wonder about the source of this excruciating pain, he was dead, his lifeless body hanging limply over the edge of the bed.
By the next day, everyone at court had heard of the king’s tragic demise. Nawabzada Kasim would be the next king.
There were certainly whispers about whether he was fit, but they were instantaneously shut down by the grand vizier, who proclaimed that anyone who questioned Prince Kasim’s ability to rule would be tried for treason by a swift trial and a speedy execution.
The coronation had been scheduled for the fourth day following Nawab Hameed’s death, following the customary mourning period.
On the day of the coronation, Rumana gave her handmaiden, Layla, the second deathly vial. Layla went for a walk by the carriages and stables, and came across the carriage driver, Shah.
“Adaab (formal greeting). How good it is to see you today, Shah,” Layla smiled sweetly at Shah.
Shah replied courteously, “I’m very well. You look very well yourself.”
“Indeed, I am. I was wondering if it would be too much trouble to ask you to assist me in an urgent matter for Begum (ma’am) Rumana. She would like to ride her white Arabian stallion today. However, he is in a foul mood. I tried giving him sugar cubes, his favorite snack. Yet he continues to buck any saddle I place on him. I do so want to avoid being scolded by Begum Rumana!”
Shah jumped up. “Have no fear, my lady. I know just the trick to get that rascal under control. When he bucks, give him a delicious date to eat. He will become docile. I will take your leave immediately and will be back in just a minute.”
Shah rushed off to the stables on the far-end of the pasture where the personal royal horses of the Nawab and his family were kept.
As soon as he left, Layla found Shah’s flask made of camel skin hanging on the carriage horse’s saddle. She unscrewed it and poured the contents of the magic potion into his tea.
Within moments, Shah had returned, beaming with pride at his success in quelling the stallion’s foul temper. Layla had always suspected that Shah had wanted to ask for her hand in marriage, hence his eagerness to assist. Layla thanked him and promptly rushed back towards the palaces.
An hour later, the coronation had begun.
First, the vizier and other members of the court rode into the town on elephants covered in decadent crimson brocades. They threw solid gold coins to the poor, who had gathered in droves on both sides of the dust-covered main road that ran through the center of the city.
Next, the soldiers marched through, carrying banners displaying the coat of arms of the Nawab: two crossed sabres above a picture of an open-mouthed, gold-scaled fish.
Finally came Nawabzada Kasim, pulled in a horsedrawn carriage gilded top to bottom with a stunning display of uncut emeralds, rubies, and diamonds enmeshed in a frame of solid, pure silver.
Four Fusaichi Pegasus horses (the most expensive horses in the world) pulled the open-top carriage as young Kasim timidly waved to the cheering crowds.
Shah rode in front, now in a stately, stark-white turban decorated with a fine peacock feather, which was fastened to the turban with a Burmese ruby brooch.
The crowds roared in applause at the sight of their new young king as the carriage passed the throngs of villagers.
Suddenly, something happened to Shah.
The whites of his eyes turned black, and his eyes began leaking what appeared to be a black dye. Perhaps iodine? The midnight black liquid streamed down his face and suddenly, started gushing out of his mouth.
Then, his mouth began to foam. It was a fluffy white foam, tainted with the black of the dye.
He sneered. He was rabid.
At once, he cracked his whip, and the stunningly beautiful black stallions leapt from a relaxed trot into a frenzied gallop.
The carriage was out of control. It began to teeter left and right as Shah cracked his whip harder and harder, and the stallions become more and more frantic. Kasim was violently jostled up and down as he clung rigidly to the sides of the carriage, eyes squeezed shut in fear.
Shah yanked on the reins. The horses suddenly jerked to a halt.
Kasim was thrown about twenty feet from the carriage. His body landed with a thud in front of the townsfolk.
Their mouths gaped open in horror. Kasim was dead.”
“That’s so morbid! But why would Rumana want to help Mustafa? He would be the next king, not her son, Abdullah,” I wondered.
“There’s a reason. And you haven’t heard the best part of the story yet, child,” she said. Her face had contorted into…rage. Why rage?
My aunt pressed on.
“Rumana had struck a deal with Mustafa. After Hameed and Kasim died, he would become king. In exchange, he agreed never to marry and never to have children. That meant Abdullah would be next on the throne after Mustafa.
He held true to his word. Mustafa went on to become the next Nawab, and at the age of fifty-five, passed away of tuberculosis.
Abdullah became the next king.”
I interrupted again. “Is that the best part of the story? That Abdullah became king?”
“I’m getting there,” Aunty Babli replied. Her face was now white, the color drained entirely. Her eyes were dark, though. They conveyed something beyond rage. A bit scary, honestly. I better not open my mouth again, I thought.
“Abdullah became the next king, indeed. But within a month of his coronation, tragedy struck.
He had gone swimming in the lake next to the summer palace, as we all did growing up. But he unexpectedly drowned, despite being the best swimmer in the kingdom.
He died without heirs. As a result, the daughter of Hameed’s first wife, Noor, became Queen, and her husband, a king from another Indian princely state, the king. We are descended from her, in fact. Her name was Bilkees.
After hearing of her son’s untimely death, Rumana went absolutely mad.
She went to every hakim in the country, insisting that they use black magic to revive her son. Even if he would come back in a form that no sane person would ever dare face - as a zombie. As an undead.
No hakim dared interfere with the afterlife, for fear of incurring God’s wrath.
So Rumana took up black magic herself and spent the rest of her life on a quest to bring back her beloved Abdullah.
When she died, she had become so evil from madness that nobody dared touch her body, for fear that her evil would imprint upon them, even after death.
And so, she was never given a proper burial. Her body decayed in her bedroom. The door to her bedroom was padlocked and the key was thrown away.
Legend has it that she finally did create the magic potion that would bring her son back to life, but she died before she was able to use it. Apparently, she died clasping the vial in her hand.
Others say that she was able to revive herself with the vial just in the nick of time. If that’s true, we haven’t seen the undead Rumana yet.
In any event…an evil ending for an villanous woman,” concluded my great-aunt. Her fury had dissipated, fortunately.
“Where did she live at the time of her passing?” I inquired. I wondered if I had ever encountered this haunted manor.
“She died in Machli House,” my great-aunt replied nonchalantly.
“Machli House…isn’t that where I’m staying?” I asked, horrified.
She paused, thinking for a moment. “Yes, I believe it is.”
Aghast, I thanked her for the tea and excused myself. My mother would be expecting me for dinner soon, which was the truth.
I rushed home and barged my way through the long, winding corridor of Machli House until I was standing face to face with a thick, ancient wooden door.
However, the door wasn’t locked, as my Aunt had said. Curiously, the heavy, rusted padlock was dangling off the latch.
The door was open.