Contest #218 shortlist ⭐️

45 comments

Desi Historical Fiction Creative Nonfiction

This story contains sensitive content

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.

October 04, 2023 08:23

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45 comments

Susan Catucci
14:41 Oct 10, 2023

Such longing. Your gift remains true, Suma. My mother's heart ached as I read this. But, inevitably my spirit always soars when I read your stories, Just look what can be done with words alone. You have always been one of my favorite modes of travel to beautiful and memorable places. Your writing makes me happy.

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Suma Jayachandar
06:53 Oct 12, 2023

Susan! Great to hear from you. I’m grateful for such kind words and high praise.

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Laurie Roy
16:25 Oct 09, 2023

Ignite your way back to your roots. Beautiful.

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Suma Jayachandar
06:49 Oct 12, 2023

Thank you for the read and the comment!

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Kevin Logue
13:57 Oct 08, 2023

This is a brilliant piece, full of rich language and heartfelt raw emotion. For a piece of historical fiction it never reads that way, although I must confess I had to google some of the references, it is a mothers tale of perseverance. And fantastically done it is! These lines in particular stood out to me in their visual poetry>>> "In all these years of being away from you, never for a moment were you away from my thoughts." - Captures parenthood so well. "I may be nearly blind but I can still feel the warmth of the halo around my gold...

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Suma Jayachandar
06:25 Oct 09, 2023

Kevin, Thank you so much for your overwhelmingly kind words. I appreciate it. I’m glad my little tale inspired you to google for bits of history of a subcontinent that’s not necessarily spoken much about.

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Graham Kinross
10:19 Nov 24, 2023

Congratulations on being shortlisted. Well deserved. The mix of happiness at the return of her son and the anger at the things he did to survive is interesting. Obviously changing faith isn’t something a person does lightly and it was probably a matter of survival but she sees it as betrayal. The way the story is rooted in scent, not sight is amazing. You managed to fit so much into this story. Well done.

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Suma Jayachandar
04:59 Nov 25, 2023

Thanks a ton for the read and kind words, Graham. Appreciate it!

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Graham Kinross
12:26 Nov 25, 2023

You’re welcome Suma.

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Charlie Murphy
21:52 Dec 02, 2023

Hi, Suma, I wrote that story about Beth and diapers. I was wondering if you'd want to read my stories on Booksie. Sorry for posting this here. I cant PM you on Reedsy.

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Amanda Lieser
16:44 Nov 18, 2023

Hi Suma! Congratulations on the short list! I think that thing that I loved the most was that first few initial lines about perfume because I thought that it painted such a vivid picture. My whole body felt the way that you described encountering that smell-my nostrils flared and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. We all know how powerful perfume can be and I thought that image and the way that it stayed with us throughout the entire piece was incredibly well done. Of course the story was a beautiful telling of a mother’s love, and I ...

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Suma Jayachandar
04:52 Nov 19, 2023

Hi Amanda! Thank you so much for the read and your kind words. I’m touched you found it relatable.

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Story Time
18:45 Oct 18, 2023

I think you may be the best on this site when it comes to weaving language into narrative. It reminds me so much of classical literature, and this piece is so sweeping despite its brevity. Well done.

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Suma Jayachandar
04:26 Oct 19, 2023

Always great to hear from you, Kevin. And each time your encouragement grows exponentially. I’m tearing up. I don’t know whether I deserve such praise, but I’m grateful to receive it.

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Tommy Goround
20:40 Oct 15, 2023

Good job, Suma

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Suma Jayachandar
03:30 Oct 16, 2023

Thank you, Tommy

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Audrey Knox
14:09 Oct 14, 2023

The voice in this is so strong and specific, so heartbreaking in its energy. I envisioned the mother as blind throughout the story, relying only on her sense of smell and touch to gather the information that her son is unwilling to verbalize to her, and I like that you never came right out and said it, instead allowing us to deduce for ourselves. By the end of the story, I read this as a metaphor for the bigger relationship between Indian culture (and colonized cultures everywhere) rediscovering their roots and being called home after genera...

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Suma Jayachandar
03:29 Oct 16, 2023

Thank you so much for reading and sharing such an insightful comment. I greatly appreciate your kind words.

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Philip Ebuluofor
20:37 Oct 13, 2023

Fine work here. Congrats.

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Suma Jayachandar
03:10 Oct 14, 2023

Thank you.

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Philip Ebuluofor
08:37 Oct 16, 2023

Welcome.

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Karen Corr
20:05 Oct 13, 2023

Congratulations on your shortlist win, Suma! (:

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Suma Jayachandar
03:10 Oct 14, 2023

Thank you, Karen!

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18:54 Oct 07, 2023

This was such a beautiful and heart wrenching story. The struggle of the mother is so well described. I have never had children, but I could empathize with her pain. You evoke so much emotion in your work. Well done <3

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Suma Jayachandar
06:18 Oct 09, 2023

Hannah! Great to hear from you! How have you been? I’m glad you found it moving.

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17:16 Oct 13, 2023

CONGRATULATIONS, MY FRIEND! a well deserved shortlist <3

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Suma Jayachandar
03:09 Oct 14, 2023

Thanks Hannah! Always grateful for your support.

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Danie Holland
17:22 Oct 07, 2023

Every single word from this mother to her son carries with it the weight of mountains. You can feel the anguish of absolute loss. To be ripped away from one’s land, culture, people, roots. As many have said already, this is very powerful. “The scars that we bear are unique and ours alone.“ — What beautiful weight these words carry. To be cut off from one’s way of life and be forced into complacency with another’s culture can be a pain that effects generations. We see this many times in history and it is such an incredible loss. The mot...

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Suma Jayachandar
06:16 Oct 09, 2023

Danie, I can’t thank you enough for reading and leaving such a heartfelt and thoughtful comment on my little tale. I’m grateful that its themes resonated with you. Past is in the past, it’s a choice that we make whether to be wounded by it or become wise- say the enlightened people, but I guess it’s difficult to put that in practice.

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Danie Holland
10:14 Oct 09, 2023

I love that. Make a choice to become wounded or wise, a great perception to carry. Thank you!

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M.A. Grace
14:42 Oct 07, 2023

Very powerful and well written piece of historical fiction. Good luck with submission!

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Suma Jayachandar
06:08 Oct 09, 2023

Thank you for your kind words.

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Michał Przywara
20:39 Oct 06, 2023

What strikes me most here, is the mix of opposed emotions in the mother's heart. There's anger (at circumstances) and love (for her son), there's outrage (at what he's done to himself, at what they've done to him) and relief (seeing him again). Happiness at being reunited, and a double sense of loss, because she's lost him in so many ways. He is no longer the little boy that was taken from her. He is no longer little at all. And he is not now, nor will he ever be, the man she hoped he would one day become. From her POV, her past was stolen...

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Suma Jayachandar
05:54 Oct 07, 2023

Thanks a lot for taking time to read and leave such a thoughtful comment, Michal. Of course you don’t do it any other way:) ‘it's easy to forget that these were real, living, breathing people’- I couldn’t agree with you more. History is complex and as you rightly pointed out, it has many layers to it. Yes, the son too has come all the way from England to Calcutta to meet his mother (takes her back with him; she dies after 2 years, at the age of 46) and it’s politically charged with the first stirrings for independence taking place in India...

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Michał Przywara
22:10 Oct 13, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist!

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Suma Jayachandar
03:12 Oct 14, 2023

Thanks! It was a pleasant surprise given the nature of content.

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Wendy M
14:43 Oct 06, 2023

I love this, I've read a couple of your stories now and think the theme of motherhood comes over so strongly in your work, it's powerful and the story is thought-provoking. It also meets the brief with the sensory detail which is very engaging.

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Suma Jayachandar
06:00 Oct 07, 2023

Thank you Wendy, for the read and such a wonderful comment. I appreciate it!

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Aeris Walker
18:51 Oct 05, 2023

"I may be nearly blind but I can still feel the warmth of the halo around my golden boy."--you really get the sense here that the mother has aged not only in body but in spirit. Love this last section: "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 wi...

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Suma Jayachandar
08:30 Oct 06, 2023

Aeris, This high praise from a giant talent as yourself totally made my day:) I'm glad you found it moving. And to add a bit of fact, Maharani was just 44 at the time of this meeting, though aged beyond years because of the harsh blows dealt by life. I greatly appreciate you reading and leaving a comment, Aeris!

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Rebecca Miles
15:03 Oct 05, 2023

I'm so glad you added the comment on the historical context Suma as it helped me to access the story far more. I really understand the depth of the mother's rightful anger; the frustration at everything that had been taken from her as well as her country. The British, and I'm sadly one of them, have much to answer for here. I related to her as a mother, desperate to rebond with her son but amazed and hurt at how his enforced absence in a different culture has changed him: the hair, the clothes. Against this and the need to state these storie...

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Suma Jayachandar
08:26 Oct 06, 2023

Thank you for your heartfelt comment, Rebecca. I greatly appreciate it. History cannot be altered or repaired. It is often complex and not any one particular faction can be hoisted with the entire blame. That's one of the reasons I chose to write this in first person, as I find it's impossible to write any historical account impartiality. That, and of course we need more female voices from history, don't you think?

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Rebecca Miles
11:30 Oct 06, 2023

Absolutely. And a mother's point of view in particular. The human face of loss is the most emotive although objects stolen get the most attention.

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Mary Bendickson
15:35 Oct 04, 2023

You captured so much in this story of captivity. I know nothing of the history here but you gave it richness. I was assuming it was England and should have known it was India. Thanks for liking my Where the Wild Things Aren't Congrats on shortlist.

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Suma Jayachandar
05:05 Oct 05, 2023

Thanks Mary, for the read and your kind words. To give a bit of context: As you may know India was colonised by the British for nearly 100 years, annexing the regional kingdoms of the subcontinent to the crown. Maharaja Duleep Singh, the boy-king, under the regency of his mother Maharani Jindan Kaur was separated from his mother, deposed at the age of 10 years, and later exiled to England. He met his mother after 13 years and under supervision. This piece is the creative interpretation of that meeting.

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