CW: Racism, Religious fervor
Is that the perfume gifted by your captors who snatched you away from your kingdom that’s wafting in the air, my darling boy? It stinks and smells worse than your uncle’s blood splattered on your face even as you watched in horror: a 7-year-old Maharaja robbed of his wazir and his regent mother robbed of her brother.
It’s been 13 years since we breathed the same air, stood under the same roof, and spoke a word of endearment in person. It’s a pity we are not standing on the soil of Lahore from where you were ripped off my bosom on a hot August morning, leaving me burning in hell. This is Calcutta in January. The cold air smells of the sea, salt, and rebellion. Spence’s Hotel, for all the boasting about its grandeur, reeks of stolen riches at its foundation. It is not where I dreamed of embracing you, my little boy.
In all these years of being away from you, never for a moment were you away from my thoughts. Not when they shunted me from one prison to another, each time further away from you. Not when I escaped from Fort Chunar and travelled all the way to Nepal. And not when I dealt with my loyalists and traitors, bracing myself for anonymity and hostile hospitality. For I knew this day would come, sooner or later.
Come closer, my little Maharaja! Are you put off by your mother who is shorn of her fine clothes and regal jewellery? Whose life energies have been sapped by the cruelty of people and fate? I may be nearly blind but I can still feel the warmth of the halo around my golden boy.
Ah! This embrace after a lifetime! A thousand suns shine on the glacier in my heart. Yet, my lightless eyes can’t seem to shed a tear, my quivering lips can’t utter a single syllable.
Wait, you are not my little boy anymore! You don’t fit into my embrace. You have grown beyond it. You are a young man! A strange mix of pride and sorrow gushes through my veins like molten lava. I am besieged by the fear of losing you, again.
My hands fumble to grasp the delicate fingers of the boy-king who was exiled from his kingdom, put on a boat and sent far away to be put in a gilded cage. Your hands have delicate artistic fingers, still. What did they make you do with them? Paint their pictures showcasing their benevolence in letting you live in a palace that’s not yours? While sneering behind your back calling you the black deposed king in a white court? Oh! tell me the rumours I heard are not true. Tell me you never forgot for a moment, that you are the Maharaja of the Sikh Empire. My fingers pick on the foreignness in which you are covered as they brush against the velvet of your jacket. Its creases drive needles through my hands that used to pick the best silks for you. A mountain of shame and anger crushes me as my palm grazes your arm; you neither have an armband nor the Kohinoor. Even then, I am glad beyond words to hold on to your arm. You are my Kohinoor.
Not a crown but a fashionable headgear sits on your head. I stoke your head hoping to run my fingers through your locks, only to be let down. Waheguru! What have you done? Shorn your hair? I can bear losing your father, losing our kingdom, even being away from you. But changing your faith? You have traded your forefathers' blessings and the grace of The One God for the crumbs that your Empress brushes off her table! What made you think you would be embraced by your captors if you cut off your roots? Did you even have a meal of your choice since the day you landed on the foreign shore? Or did they mock you saying it's too pungent and fit only for the heathen?
Oh! My poor child, you did this to fit into your foster home, and the country that will never be yours, didn’t you? They may smile and compliment you on your sweet manners and kind gestures, let you borrow the jewels they looted from the Lahore treasury, may even let you in their innermost chambers, and share forbidden pleasures. But mark my words; no duchess or countess will ever walk down the aisle with you. Even if you are the only living son of the late Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Do you hear the clamour outside? The echoing “Bole So Nihaal…”? That is the thunder of the Sikh Regiment returning from the Opium War in China. This overwhelming wave of love, loyalty and honour should have been yours to wake up to, every day. Not the invisible shackles of redcoats around you fixing us with their stares even as I embrace my only son after 13 long years.
Promise me, you will not let them drag you away from me, again. Though my spirit remains unbroken after years of being jeered at as ‘The Messalina of Punjab’, my body is not the same as it was before. I don’t think it can bear that blow. It may just crumble.
I know we cannot go back in time and heal the wounds in a different way. The scars that we bear are unique and ours alone. There is no way I can capture the heart of an adolescent with the tales of his brave ancestors, offer him feasts filled with the rich aroma of his homeland or send him on trips to oversee everything from the glimmering wheatfields to snow-capped mountains of his vast kingdom. But I can and will spend the rest of my days filling whatever crevices left behind by our deep scars with the ashes of our burned history. It may not amount to much in the grand scheme of things. But maybe, it will just be enough to ignite your way back to your roots, someday.
For when the time comes, and sure as the day follows the night it will, I want you to be ready to tell your children those tales, sitting on the soil of your homeland, free from the clutches of the looters who took the sons away from their mothers.
At this moment though, I just want to hold you close.