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The Twentieth Wifeby Indu Sundaresan
When my mother came near the time of her delivery, he (Akbar) sent her to the Shaikh's house that I might be born there. After my birth they gave me the name of Sultan Salim, but I never heard my father...call me Muhammad Salim or Sultan Salim, but always Shaikhu Baba.
The midday sun whitened the city of Lahore to a bright haze. Normally, the streets would be deserted at this time of day, but today the Moti bazaar was packed with a slowly moving throng of humanity. The crowds deftly maneuvered around a placid cow lounging in the center of the narrow street, her jaw moving rhythmically as she digested her morning meal of grass and hay.
Shopkeepers called out to passing shoppers while sitting comfortably at the edge of jammed, cubical shops that lay flush with the brick-paved street. A few women veiled in thin muslins leaned over the wood-carved balconies of their houses above the shops. A man holding the leash of a pet monkey looked up when they called to him, "Make it dance!" He bowed and set his music box on the ground. As the music played, the monkey, clad in a blue waistcoat, a tasseled fez on its head, jumped up and down. When it had finished, the women clapped and threw silver coins at the man. After gathering the coins from the street, the man and his monkey gravely bowed again and went on their way. On the street corner, musicians played their flutes and dholaks; people chatted happily with friends, shouting to be heard above the din; vendors hawked lime-green sherbets in frosted brass goblets; and women bargained in good-natured loud voices.
In the distance, between the two rows of houses and shops that crowded the main street of the bazaar, the red brick walls of the Lahore fort rose to the sky, shutting out the imperial palaces and gardens from the city.
The city was celebrating. Prince Salim, Akbar's eldest son and heir apparent, was to be married in three days, on February 13, 1585. Salim was the first of the three royal princes to wed, and no amount of the unseasonable heat or dust or noise would keep the people of Lahore from the bazaar today.
At Ghias Beg's house, silence prevailed in an inner courtyard, broken only by the faint sounds of the shenai from the bazaar. The air was still and heavy with perfume from blooming roses and jasmines in clay pots. A fountain bubbled in one corner, splashing drops of water with a hiss onto the hot stone pathway nearby. In the center of the courtyard a large peepul tree spread its dense triangular-leaved branches.
Five children sat cross-legged on jute mats under the cool shade of the peepul, heads bent studiously, the chalk in their hands scratching on smooth black slates as they wrote. But every now and then, one or another lifted a head to listen to the music in the distance. Only one child sat still, copying out text from a Persian book spread in front of her.
Mehrunnisa had an intense look of concentration on her face as she traced the curves and lines, the tip of her tongue showing between her teeth. She was determined not to be distracted.
Seated next to her were her brothers, Muhammad and Abul, and her sisters, Saliha and Khadija.
A bell pealed, its tones echoing in the silent courtyard.
The two boys jumped up immediately and ran into the house; soon Saliha and Khadija followed. Only Mehrunnisa remained, intent upon her work. The mulla of the mosque, who was their teacher, closed his book, folded his hands in his lap, and sat there looking at the child.
Asmat came out into the courtyard and smiled. This was a good sign, surely. After so many years of complaints and tantrums and "why do I have to study?" and "I am bored, Maji," Mehrunnisa seemed to have finally settled down to her lessons. Before, she had always been the first to rise when the lunch bell summoned.
"Mehrunnisa, it is time for lunch, beta," Asmat called.
At the sound of her mother's voice, Mehrunnisa lifted her head. Azure blue eyes looked up at Asmat, and a dimpled smile broke out on her face, showing perfectly even, white teeth with one gap in the front where a permanent tooth was yet to come. She rose from the mat, bowed to the mulla, and walked toward her mother, her long skirts swinging gently.
Mehrunnisa looked at her mother as she neared. Maji was always so neat, hair smoothed to a shine by fragrant coconut oil, and curled into a chignon at the nape of her neck.
"Did you enjoy the lessons today, beta?" Asmat asked as Mehrunnisa reached her and touched her mother's arm softly.
Mehrunnisa wrinkled her nose. "The mulla doesn't teach me anything I don't already know. He doesn't seem to know anything." Then, as a frown rose on Asmat's forehead, she asked quickly, "Maji, when are we going to the royal palace?"
"Your Bapa and I must attend the wedding celebrations next week, I suppose. An invitation has come for us. Bapa will be at the court with the men, and I have been called to the imperial zenana."
They moved into the house. Mehrunnisa slowed her stride to keep pace with her mother. At eight, she was already up to Asmat's shoulder and growing fast. They passed noiselessly through the verandah, their bare feet skimming the cool stone floor.
"What does the prince look like, Maji?" Mehrunnisa asked, trying to keep the eagerness out of her voice.
Asmat reflected for a moment. "He is handsome, charming." Then, with a hesitant laugh, she added, "And perhaps a little petulant."
"Will I get to see him?"
Asmat raised her eyebrows. "Why this sudden interest in Prince Salim?"
"No reason," Mehrunnisa replied in a hurry. "A royal wedding — and we shall be present at court. Who is he marrying?"
"You will attend the celebrations only if you have finished with your studies for the day. I shall talk to the mulla about your progress." Asmat smiled at her daughter. "Perhaps Khadija would like to come too?" Khadija and Manija had been born after the family's arrival in India. Manija was still in the nursery, too young for classes and not old enough to go out.
"Perhaps." Mehrunnisa waved her hand in a gesture of dismissal, her green glass bangles sliding down her wrist to her elbow with a tinkling sound. "But Khadija has no concept of the decorum and etiquette at court."
Asmat threw her well-groomed head back with a laugh. "And you have?"
"Of course." Mehrunnisa nodded firmly. Khadija was a baby; she could not sit still for twenty minutes at the morning lessons. Everything distracted her — the birds in the trees, the squirrels scrambling for nuts, the sun through the peepul leaves. But that was getting off the topic. "Who is Prince Salim marrying, Maji?" she asked again.
"Princess Man Bai, daughter of Raja Bhagwan Das of Amber."
"Do princes always marry princesses?"
"Not necessarily, but most royal marriages are political. In this case, Emperor Akbar wishes to maintain a strong friendship with the Raja, and Bhagwan Das similarly wants closer ties with the empire. After all, he is now a vassal to the Emperor."
"I wonder what it would be like to marry a prince," Mehrunnisa said, her eyes glazing over dreamily, "and to be a princess..."
"Or an empress, beta. Prince Salim is the rightful heir to the throne, you know, and his wife, or wives, will all be empresses." Asmat smiled at her daughter's ecstatic expression. "But enough about the royal wedding." Her face softened further as she smoothed Mehrunnisa's hair. "In a few years you will leave us and go to your husband's house. Then we shall talk about your wedding."
Mehrunnisa gave her mother a quick look. Empress of Hindustan! Bapa came home with stories about his day, little tidbits about Emperor Akbar's rulings,
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