It was the winter of 1857. The cold winds cascading down the northern mountains had swept across the city of Delhi, swathing it in layers of grey. The chill had slithered through the lanes and by lanes and driven people into nooks and corners. A pall of gloom had descended over the city as people sat in corners, huddled together, speculating over their fate. The Emperor had been deported to an unknown place and the grief was much more than what they could bear. Being defeated by the white men was humiliating enough. Worse still, was losing the final vestige of independence.
Madhav stood on the terrace of the old haveli, located just behind Kashmiri Gate, his stocky frame silhouetted against the setting sun. His brows were knitted, as he stared down at the vacant street. Barely six months ago this very road had been rife with excitement as the local Hindus celebrated the Vasant Utsav. Nothing remained now, except for the lingering echoes of anguished cries and splashes of blood on the southern wall of the haveli.
His eyes spanned the stretch of land beyond the hedges on the other side of the road and settled on the cemetery. Tombs, both big and small, lay scattered around as harsh reminders of the turbulence of the months gone by. He winced in remembered pain. He drained the last dregs of the tea that Mataji had prepared for him, placed the tumbler on the table and turned away. That is when he caught a glimpse of the lone figure, sitting crouched beside a tomb at the southern edge of the cemetery. Swathed in thick, black clothing, the figure sat, with head bent low. He stood transfixed as the figure went about the motions of placing flowers on the tomb.
“Madhav,” he heard a low voice behind. “Major Wilkins has summoned us. We need to leave immediately.
He threw a quick glance at Raghu , nodded his head and indicated that he would join him downstairs. The setting sun had left behind a trail of shadows that danced around, in the midst of glimmering lights from the houses around. He saw the figure rise and walk slowly towards the gate of the cemetery. It was a woman. An English woman. He clamped his lips together and walked away.
Oh when will my blood drenched world see new hues of red ?
When will the anguished shrieks of my brethren fade ?
When will freedom dawn ?
Till when shall we mourn?
My questions float around on the wings of a prayer.
How else can I quell this deep ache , this endless despair ?
Madhav put down his pen and walked towards the window of his room. He was tired. Delhi wasn’t safe any longer. The meeting with Major Wilkins, the previous evening had not gone too well. There had been a distinct hostility in the British officer’s demeanour and he had issued veiled threats. He seemed to have sensed that Madhav and his family had a hand in the Delhi uprising. Perhaps, he even knew about their plan to escape to Jhansi along with their comrades.
He hadn’t slept much the previous night. Raghu, Mataji and he had spent the night chalking out plans for the future. He stifled a yawn, stretched and unwittingly looked in the direction of the cemetery. He wasn’t sure whether he was expecting to see anyone, but his attention was immediately drawn towards the young woman. She was walking slowly , a candle in hand. She was pregnant. In the morning light, she seemed less of an enigma. She stumbled a little, quickly held on to the wall, steadied herself and sat down. She seemed to breathe heavily. He watched her for a brief while more, then quickly turned on his heels and strode off to meet Mataji.
“Go across to the Kashmiri Gate and look out for Major Thomas,” Mataji spoke in low volumes. “He is planning to proceed to Jhansi. It seems Sir Colin Campbell has summoned him with a battalion. Keep a watch on his movements. Let him not see you. They always thought we were friends. Not anymore.”
“Follow my instructions carefully. Cut across through the cemetery, go over the northern wall and take the narrow alley behind the church. You get a clear view of the Major’s residence. He is meeting some officials today. They seem to be having some plans with regard to Jhansi. Gather whatever information you can.”
“When should we leave for Jhansi? The Rani is waiting for information,” Raghu asked.
“Tonight,” Mataji replied tersely.
She wrote something on a piece of paper, folded it neatly and put it aside.
“If someone sees you, you know what to do,” she said, looking in Madhav’s direction.
Instinctively, his hand moved towards the dagger on his right. He nodded.
“Kill any white person who crosses your path and tries to stop you,” she enunciated each word slowly and forcefully. “There are spies all around. We may be jailed anytime soon.”
There was a glitter of rage in her eyes. Her white hair shimmered in the light of the lanterns. “We have been defeated. We haven’t been broken,” she added quietly and rose from her seat.
The lingering hues of the setting sun, at any other time, would have inspired Madhav to write. Not today. He had made an early start. He walked along the sidewalk, his face masked. . He couldn’t arouse much suspicion, The few white men who rode past in their carriages looked at the Indian passers-by with disdain and mistrust. A soldier on horseback spat at him. He felt a surge of fury and disgust.
He hurried across the road to the cemetery and entered through the side gate. He paused for a bit. This was where the enemies lay buried. His lips twisted cynically. If they could speak from their graves, what would they have to say, he wondered. Would they be crooning over their victories?
He slid past the wall, feeling nauseous. There were many graves and the one consoling thought was that at least those many of the enemies were down. Some 400 metres away, there was a turning. He could see candles burning at some of the graves. His eyes scoured the entire stretch of the land. At one end stood Brigadier General John Nicholson’s tomb. He was the one of the architects of the British victory in Delhi. If a dead man could be killed again, Madhav would have done it. A flare of hatred lit up his eyes.
Just as he was about to move further, he saw her. This time, she wasn’t wearing a veil. Her face was clearly visible in the candle light. She wasn’t exactly beautiful, but there was a vulnerability that caught his attention. She was rocking to and fro gently and her lips were moving as if in prayer. There were no tears – just a blank stare.
The chime of the church bells reminded him of the task ahead. He turned and started moving stealthily through thick undergrowth. A gasp from the other side made him realise that she had heard him. Through the shrubs he could see her. She was standing there ,
fear writ large on her face. As he moved a little further, she shrieked. He stood still. She was breathing heavily. She quickly turned around and started walking fast.
Suddenly she stopped and placed her hand on her stomach. With a loud gasp, she sat down. A minute later, she groaned. For a brief moment, he was at a loss. Should he go forward and help her? But that would arouse further suspicion among the authorities. The Hindus never entered Christian cemeteries. He looked around to see if anyone else had heard or seen her. Not a soul was in sight. It was getting darker and he needed to reach the Major’s residence soon. He looked at her. Her face was contorted with pain and she was clutching her stomach. Should he go forward? She was a white man’s wife. The white men who had killed his brother in law hadn’t cared enough to think of his pregnant wife, had they?
A loud shriek rent the air followed by loud sobs. Without another thought, he jumped over the hedges and strode forth. She didn’t seem to notice him. She simply cling to his leg and groaned. He bent over and placed his arm on her shoulder. She leant against him, her chest heaving heavily. Despite the cold, she was perspiring.
“Madame, let me take you home,” he spoke slowly. His English was impeccable.
Her eyes flew open in fright. His deep, dark eyes bore into hers.
“Who are you ? Let me go,” she almost screamed.
“Shh” he said softly. “I am here to help you. I will not harm you. Let me take you home.”
“Let me go,” she said again, this time in a low voice. A look of hatred had replaced the fear in her eyes.
” Let me go,” she repeated. “Do not touch me.”
He dropped his hand immediately, rose and stepped away. She looked at him and then noticed the dagger that lay half concealed within the folds of his dhoti. She let out another scream . He immediately bent down and clamped his hand over her mouth.
“Do not scream,” he bit out harshly. “I will not harm you. I hate the whites but I will never harm a woman, British or Indian, especially when she is carrying another living being in her womb.”
Her frightened eyes, a deep aquamarine blue, stared into his. There was no hatred in his eyes. Just a steely coldness.
Tears rolled down her pale cheeks. “Don’t kill me. I want this child of mine to live.”
Her voice cracked. “ I have already lost one . Along with my husband.” She pointed towards the two graves lit up by candles. He hadn’t noticed the tiny one beside the bigger one. “
“ Both died before my eyes,” sobs were wracking her body. “ He broke into our bedroom that night and shot them. I never saw him. I only saw their bodies.”
She bent over, mourning loudly , rocking to and fro. She didn’t notice that he had moved back . The evening had melted into a sullen darkness with a half moon glowing over the cemetery.
“Madam, let me take you home,” he said in a low, almost inaudible voice. The little tremor in his voice was barely noticeable.
The sobs had tapered into a whimper. He held out a hand . She looked up at him through tear drenched eyes and then took it, after a moment’s hesitation. Slowly, she rose to her feet, leaning briefly against him as she steadied herself.
He led her through the maze of graves, up to the gate. The road outside, wore a deserted look. He looked around quickly to see if anyone had seen him. There was no one in sight. They walked silently for half a kilometre till they reached a turning. She pointed to the rows of house ahead of them.
“ I live there,” she said. “The third house.”
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“I feel better,” she replied. “The pain has subsided.”
She looked up at him. “Thank you. Thank you for not killing my child. You are a good man. Unlike those brutes.” A look of bitter anger had crept into her eyes once more.
His penetrating gaze met hers and for a few seconds their eyes were locked, each trying to convey something , but failing. She sighed, pulled her shawl closer around her and looked up at him again.
“Good bye,” she whispered.
He nodded and stepped back. He watched her retreating figure till it disappeared and slowly traced his steps back to the cemetery. He walked up to the two tombs and stopped in front of them. In bold letters was engraved the soldier’s epitaph.
Captain William Rogers
( 1826 – 1857 )
A life of beauty and service to the Motherland
He touched the tomb briefly. His glanced lingered on the smaller one.
Master John William Rogers
( 1853 – 1857 )
His eyes moistened. He ran a gentle hand over the tiny tombstone, then bent over and kissed it.
‘It was an accident,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to kill you that night, little one. I only wanted to kill your father.”
He then straightened himself , closed his eyes for a moment and rose. Slowly he made his way towards the northern wall of the cemetery. Casting one last look at the waning candle flame on the child’s grave, he jumped over the wall and walked into the grim darkness.
Haveli – Mansion
Vasant Utsav – The Festival of colours celebrated by Hindus to mark the onset of Spring.
Mataji – Mother
Dhoti – A garment worn by Hindu men consisting of a piece of material wound around the waist.
Photo By: Anton Darius
This is an entry from team Scribe Tribe of ArttrA-3 – A Game of Writers, co-sponsored by Diners Club International.
Check out the event guidelines here: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/arttra-3-guide-artoonsinn/
Follow Room8 for more updates of the event: https://www.facebook.com/groups/WritersAndReadersRoom/