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Once Upon a Time in India

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In Punjab, the mustard flowers in January. The individual flowers are minuscule but so abundant that from horizon to horizon, the lush green fields turn to golden yellow. The air that time of year is pleasantly cool, and the sky fills with kites, as young and old celebrate the arrival of spring.

If one were a traveler, coming perhaps from the east and the grand, sophisticated court of the Mughals at Delhi, or perhaps from the west and the icy, wild mountains of Balochistan, the Punjab waits at the crossing of the roads like a warm hearth, like a mother’s love, like bread and butter. It is the home that you have always longed for, the childhood memories of a long-lost idyll. It is comfort and ease and familiarity.

Not that Punjab does not have its own magnificence. For rising out of the mustard fields is the city of Patiala, and at its heart lies the Qila Mubarak, fort and palace both: imposing, forbidding, and elegant. It is the home of the Maharaja and his twelve sequestered daughters. Each is more beautiful than the previous daughter, until the youngest is a pearl who would outshine the King of Kings; or so it is said, for none of them have ever been seen outside of their veils and palanquins.

Certainly I am not one who could tell you the truth of any princesses. I am a mere wanderer – and, having once wandered too far, clear across the kali pani, I will never return to my home. Punjab seems a good enough place for me. I like the warmth, the food, and the people. Though they do have some strange stories.

My favorite of these stories is another one about the princesses: each morning, just as the sun rises, their shoes are found worn through. The Maharaja is said to be furious at this evidence of their disobedience, but nothing has been able to stop it. He has tried locked doors, guards, threats, promises, and still each morning the princesses’s shoes have new holes. When he questions them, they draw the ends of their saris over their heads, cast their eyes downward, and speak not a word.

In his frustration, the Maharaja has decreed that any man who solves the mystery – whether he be the son of a king or the lowliest street sweeper – may marry whichever daughter best pleases him, and will be named Maharaja hereafter. It sounds like a good deal to a wanderer like me.

I made my way to the gates of the Qila Mubarak, where I found nearly a hundred of men who seemed to have the same idea as me. And it was there that I learned about the catch: on the third day, any man who had not solved the mystery would be put to death.

Dejected, I made my way to the edge of the crowd, where a street vendor asked me to trade my last coins for a serving of chili bhajji. Never one to make a wise decision, I agreed. And I must say it was worth it: still steaming hot from the oil, the breading was thick and salty, the green chillies within spicy enough to make even my nose run.

I took a seat on the ground, propping my back against the outer wall of the Qila, prepared to devote my full attention to the food – likely the last I would have for a while.

An old beggar woman sat next to me, her sari plain white, her head shaved. She raked her eyes across me, and for a moment I thought she would insist that I find somewhere else to park my feet. Instead she held out a hand, palm up. “Alms?”

“Sorry, Dadi-Ma. I’ve nothing left.”

Her eyes dropped to the bhajji in my lap and, with a sigh, I handed over my entire helping. She immediately began to consume them, the chilies apparently not giving her a moment’s hesitation. My stomach let out a growl, which she politely ignored.

“You’re a good boy,” she said when she had finished eating and began to lick off her fingers with every indication of immense satisfaction. “Not like some of those here. You know what it means to respect your elders. For that, I will give you a blessing.”

I bowed my head, expecting the typical brief prayer and wish for longevity, but she clucked her tongue against her teeth and gestured for me to sit back up.

“Not that. This is something you can actually use. You want one of the princesses, don’t you?” She leaned in and raised an eyebrow, which I found rather disconcerting.

“Of course not, Dadi. I want a love match, not a marriage with a woman I’ve never met. What would I and a princess have to talk about?”

She flapped her hand at me. “I don’t need more flattery; I already said I’d give you a blessing.” I had meant every word of it, but I had a feeling that arguing wouldn’t do me any good. “Now, you go in there and tell the guards that you can solve the Maharaja’s mystery. Here’s how you’ll do it: drink or eat nothing that the princesses give you, but pretend to sleep deeply all night.”

I knew my surprise must have shown on my face. “Do you mean – ”

She raised a silencing finger. “Ah, ah! You don’t think I would accuse my rightful rulers of such treachery, do you?”

“Of course not, Dadi,” I said, curiosity bubbling within me none the less.

“And one more thing. This is what’ll really help you. Hold out your hand.”

I obeyed – somewhat tentatively, since I had no idea what to expect. But rather than the cobra or dagger or other dangerous object I was fully prepared to receive, she placed a simple thread bracelet across my palm. I held it up to my eyes. “A rakhi? Thank you for the thought, Dadi, but you’re not my sister – and besides, you’re supposed to tie it on.”

“Not this one. When you put it on, you’ll turn invisible. Not wise to try it out here. But you wait until tonight, put it on yourself, and then you follow those princesses wherever they go, and not a one of them will see you.”

I didn’t believe this, of course, but the tip about food and drink seemed like a good one. Besides, what else was I going to do with my life?

I took her advice and presented myself to the guards. I thought I might be turned away – the Maharajah might have said he’d take street sweepers, but even rulers said things they didn’t mean – but instead I was taken in, given water to bathe and brand new robes to wear. They were the finest things I’d ever put on, made of green and pink silk. And as though that wasn’t enough, I was then led to dinner at the Maharajah’s own table.

Well. At the opposite end of the table, a distance so great that I could barely make out his features. But it was the same table! Since the courtiers seated around me seemed to have no interest in making conversation with a man who would likely be dead in three days‘ time, I focused myself on the food. There were platters of pilaf, glistening kebabs, and – appropriate for the season – sarson ka saag, richly spiced and stewed to silkiness. Still, I couldn’t help glancing at the purdah screen. Though it was carved so finely of stone that each tendril was no wider than that of living ivy, it effectively hid the women behind it from view. Now and then I caught a tinkle of laughter or a murmured word, but not even a toenail or sari edge were visible.

After dinner I was taken to a chamber just outside the princesses’s bedroom. Just as the old woman had predicted, one of the princesses came to me, bearing a glass of chai with her own hands. She was dressed in a brilliantly red sari that enveloped all of her except for the tips of her fingers. They were indeed a lovely pale brown, the color of wheat, and when she moved I heard the jingle of hidden jewelry, but I was not attracted to her. How could I be? I knew nothing of her.

She offered me the chai in a demure voice, so low-pitched that I had to strain to hear her words. I accepted, but threw it all away rather than drinking a drop. She took back the cup, wished me luck in solving the mystery, and departed.

I sprawled out over the bed, and shortly began pretending to snore. It wasn’t hard; in fact, the difficult part was in staying awake. The bed was softer than anywhere I’d slept in years, and I would have greatly enjoyed a night there. But not so much that I was willing to lose my head for it.

I heard the princesses giggling, but kept my eyes closed. One of them went so far as to poke my arm, but I kept it limp, the hand hanging loosely over the edge of the bed, and they were convinced of my unconsciousness. The sounds grew then: the rustling of cloth, opening of wardrobes, skipping of feet across the floor. Finally I heard the clapping of hands, and a strange, mechanical sound that I couldn’t identify. I cracked open one eye and saw that the princesses had changed their clothes. Rather than rich saris and fine jewelry, they wore the clothes of any farmer’s daughter: salwar and kameez of plain cotton!

I didn’t have long to consider this, because one of the beds of the princesses was sinking into the floor, revealing a trap-door. The tallest – perhaps the eldest – pulled it open, and there was a staircase leading down into the floor. They jumped down it, one by one.

As soon as they were out of sight, I leapt from my bed. If they had changed their clothes, perhaps it was wise for me to do so as well. I quickly tore off the elaborate robes I’d been given and put my dirty and torn clothes back on. I found the rakhi stuffed in a pocket and, with a shrug, tied it on my own wrist.

Instantly my body disappeared from sight. I was so startled that I jumped, and then tripped over the corner of the bed – after all, I literally couldn’t see my own feet. But this matter too I could not stop and contemplate, because the bed made another sound and, afraid of losing the princesses, I dove after them.

So quickly, in fact, that I stepped on the trouser hem of the last princess – the shortest and youngest one. “Oh!” she said. “What was that? Who’s there?”

Thinking quickly, I modified my voice to sound like theirs, imitating their aristocratic accent and high pitch, and said, “Do not be afraid, sister dear. It is only a nail that snagged your salwar.”

I was worried that she would realize my voice was wrong, but she only laughed self-consciously. “I suppose you’re right. How silly of me!”

At the bottom of the stairs, the princesses and I found ourselves in a field of mustard. But this was no natural crop, for every leaf was made of emerald, and every flower carved of gold. They glittered and sparkled so that I could have stayed there and simply looked all night, but the princesses proceeded quickly on, as though they were used to this wonder.

I reached out and broke off a leaf, and the snapping sound that came was louder than I’d expected. Once again the last princess jumped, and whirled to look behind her. She could not see me, thanks to the magic rakhi, but she said, “Did you hear that noise? Something is wrong!”

Again I changed my voice and offered her reassurances. But when she had turned to follow after her sisters, I decided I had to have a flower too, and broke off one of them as well.

Again the snap, again the shriek, and again I promised her nothing was wrong. But I saw how she trembled with fear, and I felt guilty. I vowed to myself to do nothing more to cause her worry.

Eventually the princesses reached their destination: a simple clearing, the dirt well stamped down like in a village center. Waiting for them was a crowd of people; no appropriate companions for princesses these, but farmers and herders, weaver-women and maids. They cheered when they saw the princesses, and swept them quickly into the center of the crowd. Music began, and I searched for the musicians. They waited by the edge of the clearing, squatting by the fantastic mustard plants. Their drums seemed old and well-used, but the music they produced was some of the most wonderful I’d ever heard. Chimes and voices joined in, and I soon recognized the tune as bhangra.

The peasants began to dance flamboyantly, kicking their feet up and raising their hands over their heads. They laughed out loud with enjoyment, and shouted along with the music. The princesses danced in the same manner, as happy and free as the others.

I must confess that I was shocked at first. If I had considered the style in which a princess might dance, I would have said that her movements should be slow, graceful, and most of all elegant. Her accompaniment should be sitar and tabla, with perhaps the ringing of ankle bells. I did not think she should sweat with her exuberance, her hair tangle as she threw her head side to side, that she should joyfully clasp hands with men of unknown castes.

But the more I watched, lurking on the edge of the crowd to avoid stumbling into anyone, the more I grew to appreciate it. They looked so happy that there was no part of me that could condemn the sight. In fact I began to want to participate myself.

I undid the rakhi and tucked it back into a pocket, glad to see that my body reappeared just as quickly as it had vanished. I had felt some minor worries that I might never see myself again.

I reentered the crowd to find that the music had changed and dandiya sticks were being handed out. Dancers were quickly pairing off, and I hurried through the crowd – with perhaps a bit more shoving than was called for – until I found the youngest and shortest princess. In my dirty clothes I looked like anyone else at the dance, and I confidently stepped forward to tap my stick against hers.

The smile that broke out on her face was wide and whole-hearted, and it made my heart lift to see it. Then the music dove and swooped, and we were off. I knew this dance well from my travels, and I stomped my feet and swung my stick in perfect timing, but the princess was not so much as a step behind. We whirled around the other dancers, our blows coming faster and harder, and not one was misplaced. The beat of our sticks against one another grew to be as fast as the beat of my heart, and I could see nothing but the face of my princess, her long dark hair swirling around her, her eyes bright as polished jet.

Finally I was forced to step away, too out of breath to continue. She could easily have found another partner – anyone there would have loved to dance with her – but she came with me, to sit on the grass by the side of the clearing and cool down. We talked while we watched the dancing; I told her amusing stories of my travels, of the people and things I had seen. She avoided any mention of her family and home life – unsurprising, if she wanted to avoid being discovered as a princess – but she told me of her favorite lessons, her pet bird, and even – as the night went on and our hands crept closer to one another – of the type of man she would like to marry.

It seemed as though no time had passed, but suddenly another princess stood in front of us with her hands on her hips. “Hurry, Mohinder! Do you want to be discovered?” I looked up, and was surprised to see the night sky overhead was paling with the coming dawn.

Mohinder tossed me a yearning look, but scrambled to her feet. “I must leave with my sisters,” she said, “but I promise to return tomorrow night.”

I nodded, but did not make the same promise. I waited until the crowd had hidden her from view, and then slipped off to tie on my rakhi. Once invisible, I raced ahead of the princesses, following the trail we had followed to arrive, and returned to my fine clothes, my palace bed, and my pretend snoring.

When they arrived, not long after me, they checked on me, but my snoring and sprawled limbs again convinced them that all was safe. I felt a twinge of guilt at fooling them in this way, but knew of no other solution that would allow me to keep my head and even, perhaps, to speak to Mohinder a second time.

Later that the morning, the Maharaja called me before him. He sat on his low throne, laden with jewels and heavy robes, an enameled sword at his side. The entire room seemed composed of gold and gems, and everywhere I looked there were more untold riches. He asked me if I had solved the mystery, and when I told him that I had, the princesses were brought to stand attendance. They were once more draped and veiled, their saris so stiff that they barely moved even when the princesses walked into the room to stand in a line behind their father. I could see nothing of their faces, but I recognized Mohinder as the shortest one, once again the last in line.

But did she recognize me? I was as changed from last night as they were, my dirty kurta replaced with embodied robes, my bare feet enclosed in silken slippers. Even my shaggy hair was tucked up under a turban, the Maharaja himself having given me a diamond brooch to place on the front. In this guise, would Mohinder know her dancing partner from last night?

The Maharaja said, “Where do my twelve daughters dance at night?”

I had carefully considered what to tell him. I replied, “With twelve princes in a castle underground.” I spun an elaborate fairy tale of grandeur and aristocracy, such as could not be objected to by the strictest of fathers. As proof, I showed him the emerald leaf and golden flower, but told him that they had come from an enchanted grove, and no common field.

He turned to the princesses. “Is this true?”

I thought they might deny it, because for a long moment there was silence. But they must have realized that this story was safer than the truth, because one by one they bowed their heads and murmured agreement.

Then the Maharaja asked me which princess I would have for a wife.

“I am no great soldier, no poet, no noble, to claim the hand of your first-born. I will take the youngest,” I said, pretending that I had no knowledge of Mohinder, not even her name.

He was pleased with my humbleness, and granted the two of us a moment alone in a small chamber to the side of the throne room. Mohinder was shy, refusing to even turn in my direction. I pulled off my turban, and lowered my head to meet her eyes through her sheer veil. “Do you not recognize me?” I asked.

She cautiously glanced up, then her mouth flew open in surprise. “Oh! It’s you! But how – it doesn’t matter.” Still she didn’t look happy. She caught her lower lip between her teeth, and her bright eyes were filmed with tears.

Daring greatly, I took hold of her hand. “What’s the matter?”

“I do not mind being married to you,” she said, blushing at the admission. “But – but I will miss the dancing. A princess is not free. A princess has so little in life that belongs to her alone. And a Maharani, I fear, will have even less.”

“Mohinder,” I said, savoring the first taste of her name in my mouth. “I promise you, when I am Maharaja, there will be no purdah, no keeping of birds in jeweled cages. You will not need to hide your joy, your exuberance. Any work you want to do, I will support you. You will dance with the real people of Punjab, not fairy creatures hidden in a magic field. When we are crowned, there will be dancing in the streets of Patiala, and all castes will dance together. And you and I will rule as one.”

And indeed we lived happily ever after.