Along the backs of the bazaar stalls people gathered in knots to exchange the rumors they had heard during the day’s buying and selling; it was late on an overcast, sultry afternoon that had been filled with distant thunder, a sign many took as ominous, since it was known that Timur-i and his army were on the move, although no one knew where they would turn next. The still air was heavy with the odors of the bazaar—spices, food, animals, dung, incense, perfume, sweat, and dust—and the lingering oppression of the weather.
“Timur-i will attack us. The Armenian who brings black wool to market says it is assured,” said a seller of brasses. “He will not be satisfied until he has brought us under his control, and leaves Delhi in ruins, as he has so many other cities.”
“How does he know this?” asked the spice merchant. “Has he ear of Timur-i, that he is privy to his plans?”
“Hardly that. It is because the Armenians are afraid of what he will do to them, so they wish it upon us,” scoffed a dealer in muslin. “They would rather he try to fight us than set his sights on them. They don’t have an army to match the Sultan’s.”
“That’s very true,” said the spice merchant, a bit too eagerly. “The Sultan’s army is the envy of the world.”
“But we no longer have Mohammed bin Tughluq as Sultan,” the vendor of incense reminded them all: that capable Sultan had died almost fifty years ago and had all but vanished from living memory, leaving a growing legend in place of remembrance.
“That may be, that the Armenians would prefer Timur-i come this way, away from their homeland,” said the one-eyed man who made and sold fried pastries. “If it is true that he is bound for Delhi, who is to blame the Armenians for their desires? Wouldn’t we prefer that he attack Armenia?”
“They should not spread tales,” said the spice merchant, and added with hardly a pause, “I was told that Timur-i is going to turn toward Sind, to seize the ports and raid the ships as they arrive.”
“The Jagatai are all crazy,” said the pastry-vendor. “All of them, from Jenghiz to Timur-i, they are madmen.”
“Timur-i is a part of the Balas clan,” said the spice merchant, smug in his knowledge.
“He is a Jagatai, for all that,” the pastry-vendor insisted. “The rest of the Jagatai would not hate him so much were he not one of them.”
The four men nodded, seeing the sense of this, and turned their talk to less worrisome things.
Not far away, a group of muleteers were standing with their animals, at the opposite end of the bazaar from the camel-drivers. “Well, I tell you,” said the one with two fingers gone from his right hand, “I would not want to be in Timur-i’s place if he tries to attack the Sultan—Allah favor him! They say he has only horsemen at his command, and not many thousands of them. The Sultan has foot-soldiers, cavalry, and war elephants. Timur-i would be very foolish to try to battle such a mighty army.”
“So he might,” said the oldest of them—a lean, raw-boned man with a cast in one eye; he was an incredible forty-one years of age—as he spat to show his opinion of Timur-i. “That is not to say he won’t do it. If he does, I would want to be far away. For no matter who wins, it will be hard-going for the likes of us.”
The others nodded and made gestures to keep away evil.
“Why should he want Delhi in any case? Has he not cities enough at his command? Why must he strive for more? Let him stay in the West, and bedevil the cities there. What need has he of Delhi?” asked a man in the yellow robe of a Buddhist mendicant. “Everyone knows there are other, richer cities nearer to the places he has already conquered. There are the riches of the Inner Sea to plunder, and the cities beyond Aleppo. Why should he not choose one of them rather than cross the mountains to come here?”
“Allah preserve us!” exclaimed the first. “Does he need a reason?”
“Shaitan advises him, and he obeys,” said the oldest muleteer with conviction. “He may say he listens to that so-called saint he keeps by him, but if you ask me, Nur Sayyid Barak is nothing more than a sycophant, currying favor with Timur-i by finding passages in the Qran that support what Timur-i wishes to believe, and ignoring any word of the Prophet that does not approve Timur-i’s actions.”
“Or Nur Sayyid Barak may be the servant of Shaitan as well,” said the mendicant, who knew of Shaitan from his Muslim traveling companions.
“If he is, he hides it well; he lives a worthy life,” said the first, and began to move toward his animals to check them before preparing them to be readied for the short journey outward from the city to the merchants’ hostels that housed those not of Delhi.
“Some say that Nur Sayyid Barak is dead, and buried in a tomb fit for Sultans,” said the incense-maker.
“Except that he is at Timur-i’s side,” said the mendicant. “Many have seen him.”
“He may well be trying to keep Timur-i from greater excesses,” said the oldest muleteer. “He should preach peace if he is a true saint, as they claim.”
“Allah preserve us if that is so!” said the muleteer with luxuriant moustaches.
The oldest muleteer did not respond to this interjection. “Tomorrow is the final day of this bazaar,” he said to his mules.
“We come again in a month,” said the oldest. “We have four other cities to visit between now and then. My master has brasses to pick up, and silk.”
“Do you think it will be enough time to cover that distance?” the mendicant inquired. “You said you go as far as Bayana, Samdhar, and Hansi.”
“And Bijnor. We have done it many times before,” said the old muleteer. “My master and I know the way.”
“Well, may Allah watch over you in your travels,” said the muleteer who had extravagant moustaches. “And the Buddha.”
“And Ganesh,” said the man missing two fingers. “It never hurts to burn a little incense to Ganesh when one is involved in trading.”
The others nodded at the wisdom of this, and one of the men put his hand on the hilt of his Afghani dagger. “Just as well to have a weapon or two, in case Ganesh and Allah and the Buddha are looking the other way when trouble comes.”
There was a burst of laughter; the muleteers continued to saddle and load their animals, making desultory remarks as they did until the call to prayer was heard, when three of the men stopped their labors and went to the small well to wash, bowed toward the setting sun, then dropped to their knees to pray; the others paused in their activities out of respect and habit.
“We will have to be out of the gates soon,” said the oldest muleteer. “The merchants’ hostelries outside the city will be full in an hour. Tomorrow they will all be empty by this time.”
“That they will,” said the muleteer with the lavish moustaches. “And I do not want to spend the night at a campfire unless I have to.”
The others agreed and put their attention to loading their animals.
“May your travels be safe, and may you profit from your labors; may your spirit be guided on its path as surely as your caravans find their way across the world,” said the mendicant as he turned away, going away from the great red-granite main gate of Delhi. He, too, had a long road ahead of him and wanted to be outside the city tonight. He was bound north and east, to the majestic mountains and Nepal, Tirhut, and Bhutan, so he made his way through the city toward the North Gate, which, while less grand than the Great Gate that faced west, toward Mecca, was less crowded with merchants and had a small Buddhist shrine among the shrines to Ganesh and various Bodhisattvas of the region, just beyond the walls.
He had another reason for passing through this part of Delhi, one that had troubled him since his arrival three days ago; he could postpone his visit no longer. With a sigh and a half-muttered prayer, he took the side-street he had once known so well and went along to the house he remembered. Reluctantly he sounded the clapper that brought a household slave running to admit him, bowing in startled recognition.
“You do not have to do that,” the mendicant complained, chagrined at this reception. “I am not deserving of it.”
“But you are most welcome, Lord,” said the slave, continuing to bow as he ushered the mendicant into the garden around which the building rose.
“Will you tell Avasa Dani that I am here?” the mendicant asked.
“At once, Lord,” said the slave, and hurried away, leaving the mendicant alone in the shadowed garden. The mendicant stood for some time, taking in the beauty of the fast-approaching night; he heard the Muslim call to evening prayers, and bent his head in respect.
Light from an oil-lamp glistened as someone came into the garden. “Nararavi?” said the familiar voice. “Is it you?”
“It is a mendicant,” he answered.
She came nearer, holding the lamp raised so she could see his face. “It is you,” she said. She stood very still. “Have you come home?” She was past her first youth, but handsome and dignified of manner, of moderate height and carrying herself with elegance; her face was well-proportioned, with large eyes, a straight nose, and a generous mouth that just now curved in a tenuous smile. She was dressed in the modified sari that women of Hindu lineage wore; its color was hard to distinguish, being a soft blue-grey that blended with the dusk. Her glossy black hair was combed back from her face and secured in a bun; she wore very little jewelry and did not paint her face except for the caste-mark on her forehead.
“No,” he told her. “I have only come to do as I agreed I would do—to inform you that I still live and therefore you are still in the guardianship of the foreigner appointed to that post. Are you in the care of Sanat Ji Mani, if he yet resides in Delhi?”
“He does, and I am,” said Avasa Dani. “And will remain so for several years more, or so Sanat Ji Mani has told the Sultan’s aides, and paid the taxes they have levied for the privilege.” She studied his face. “You look tired.”
“I have traveled far and still have far to go,” he said, unwilling to discuss himself with her.
She nodded. “Will you sign the register, to show you have been here?”
“Of course,” he said.
A silence fell between them, one that was at once awkward and resigned. Both knew they were being watched, that every word they spoke was overheard and would be reported, but even without that, they would have had little to say.
“Nothing has changed,” Avasa Dani remarked a short while later.
“No,” said the mendicant.
Avasa Dani did not sigh, but some of the animation went out of her. “Do you know when you will return?”
“As to that, who can say? The Wheel turns and we are bound to it,” he answered. “I am leaving for the mountains and east, to the shrines to the Buddha, where I will learn from the monks and worship at their temples, and then, if I live, I will go as far as Kamaru, and from there come along all the coast of the land—east coast, south tip, and west coast—until I reach the Indus River, and I will follow it inland, then cross the plateau to Delhi. I will pray every step of the way, and I will depend on the alms of those who follow the way of the Buddha.” He spoke as if this were a minor undertaking instead of a harrowing journey.
Avasa Dani listened, appalled. “But that will take years.”
“It may,” said the mendicant. “You will be provided for in any case, until ten years have passed and I have not signed the register.”
“Certainly,” said Avasa Dani, who, unlike many women, had been party to drafting the terms. “I know what is contained in the register.”
“You do not wish to have another husband, do you?” the mendicant asked. “Shall I release you? The Sultan would not forbid it.”
“No, I do not want another husband,” said Avasa Dani, sounding very tired. “I am content to remain as I am.”
“That is virtuous of you,” said the mendicant.
Avasa Dani could think of nothing more to say to this man who had been her husband until he renounced the world four years ago; she lowered the lamp. The study seemed to close in around them, as if the shadows were palpable. “Are you keeping well?” It was an automatic inquiry, made almost without thought.
“I have alms and my wants are simple,” said the mendicant. “When even those wants are gone, I will be worthy to serve the Buddha.”
She held up her hand. “No. Do not tell me more. It will only distress me.”
“Because you have not yet understood the way of the Buddha, nor why I follow Him,” said the mendicant gently.
“You were once Nararavi, and you were dear to me. I do not know you now.” She kept any trace of blame out of her voice, but she could not shut it out of her heart. “Perhaps if we had children, I would feel otherwise.”
“That is what I have tried to tell you; the world is no longer holding me. I am grateful that we are childless, for children would bind me to the world as nothing else could,” he said, making his words simple. “In time you may understand.”
“Your god is not my gods,” she said, recalling their occasional arguments about which gods were true gods and which were not.
“No. You do not comprehend religion—as what woman can?—and thus you fail to understand what I have done.” His face was sad.
“You may believe that,” said Avasa Dani with deep weariness.
“You are clever for one of your sex,” the mendicant allowed. “Few women have your skills with numbers.”
“Few women have my education,” Avasa Dani reminded him.
“Because they have no gift for it,” said the mendicant, ending the matter.
After another silence, Avasa Dani said, “Will you stay here tonight? This is still your house and you have a place here. I will order the servants to prepare a bed for you, and a suitable welcome for your return. You would have a good meal and a bath, and leave in the morning with coins and bread in your bowl.”
The mendicant shook his head. “You see how easily the world tempts us? You do not think that you are bringing my faith into danger, for you suppose you must receive me if not as your husband as your guest. It is your lack of understanding that makes you do this, for I comprehend you mean well. Yet you do not know what peril you bring me. I will take alms if you will give them, and bread. I will sign the register and I will leave. This place is a snare, and I am in danger for every heartbeat I remain here.”
Avasa Dani bit back the retort she longed to make. “You must do as you think wisest,” she said, trying not to feel hurt by his condemnation.
“That is the beginning of wisdom in you, Avasa Dani, to know that you are not able to bend me to your will,” said the mendicant. “You may yet gain understanding, as far as you may understand.” In response to this she nodded, not trusting herself to speak. “The register is where I put it?”
“Yes. In your chest. It is still in your study.” She heard the flatness in her voice and sighed a little.
“Then I will attend to that duty. When I am next at Delhi, I will sign again, and continue your life as you wish it. Be sure you show this to the Deputy to the Sultan for Marriage and Inheritance,” he told her as he went into the house, making his way toward his study as if it had been only a day since he had been there and not three years. “I signed when I legt, and when I returned the first time. I will sign now, and it will be ten years before your situation will change—should I fail to return in that time.”
“Yes. I understand,” she said.
“It is as well that you do,” he pointed out as he stepped into the study; it was dark, for no lamps had been lit in the chamber for many months. “I will need light.”
Avasa Dani clapped her hands, and very quickly—too quickly: he had been listening—a slave answered the summons, a lamp in hand, and a bowl of water for making ink. “Put them down next to the chest,” she said, and waited until the slave withdrew to speak again. “Shall I remain?”
“Yes,” said the mendicant as he opened the chest and took out his writing-box with its ink-cake and brushes. “You should see me do this.”
“Adri, the steward, can witness your signing; he’s not a slave and he is almost a Muslim.” She was not entirely pleased with his calm assumption that she was unmoved by his return, or the implications of his signing the register, indicating his imminent departure. The sound of the grinding-stone on the ink-cake irritated her as much as a drone of insects might.
“You are a prudent woman,” said the mendicant as he continued to grind the ink. “I am grateful for that.”
“Then what can I be but proud?” she asked, hoping the sarcasm she felt was not in her voice.
“Pride is a blindness in the soul. Rid yourself of it, if you wish to achieve the Buddha’s promise.” The mendicant was satisfied with the ink. He unrolled the register and put a small brass figurine on it to hold it open. Then he dipped his brush into the ink and wrote his name and title, standing back so Avasa Dani could read it. “There. It is done. The Sultan’s officials will accept this, and you will be able to continue as you are for another ten years.” He blew on the ink gently to hurry its drying.
“Then you will go tonight,” said Avasa Dani, wanting to learn all she could before he left.
“Yes. It is fitting.” He swung around and looked at her. “You have no reason to want me to linger, Avasa Dani.”
“I have concern for anyone embarking on such travels as you are doing,” she countered, letting her annoyance show a little.
Her barb struck wide of the mark. “Then think of Sanat Ji Mani. He has come from much farther away than any destination of mine. When he returns to his homeland, he will go a far greater distance than I will.” He turned back to the register, tested his signature with his thumb, and, satisfied it was dry, he rolled it up again. “I will not put it into the chest. You may do that after you have shown this to the Sultan’s Deputy.”
“Of course,” she said. “Since you will not remain to do it yourself.”
“No; I will not,” he said, adding, “The register is sufficient.”
“Yes.” Avasa Dani waited for him to speak; when he did not, she said, “I have four brass coins and two silver ones.”
“Give me no more than half,” said the mendicant.
She reached down for the small purse of embroidered leather that hung from her low-slung belt. The coins clinked in her hand as she counted out three of them and held them out to the mendicant. “Here. Take them. I will order the cook to—”
He interrupted her. “Let me have the old bread when I go. Do not give me better; it would shame me to take new bread when there is old to be had.”
“If that is what you want,” she told him without inflection of any kind.
He did not face her as he went on, “You may not comprehend what I am doing, or why I have done it, but you have respected it, Avasa Dani, and that is a worthy thing. Not many men have wives who would be content to remain as you are. I will think of you when I pray.” It was as generous an offer as he dared to make.
“If that is what you want,” she repeated.
“I want to want nothing,” he reminded her.
“Yes,” she said. “Of course.”
“I will go get bread from the kitchen, and water from the fountain.” He still did not look directly at her. “I have found my true way, Avasa Dani; if only you could believe it.”
“I do believe it, Nararavi,” she told him with hushed intensity. “If I did not, I would oppose what you have done.”
He gave a single chuckle. “A wife oppose a husband?”
“There are ways,” she said.
“Then it is as well I left,” he said. “And it is as well that I go now.” He looked up at the sky. “I will sleep beyond the shrine to Lord Buddha tonight, and tomorrow, at first light, I will begin my journey.”
Avasa Dani held herself in check, for as much as she wanted to challenge him, to convince him that his enterprise was reckless and dangerous, she was certain he would not listen to her, and they would part on harsh words. “If you are satisfied that you will find what you seek in this way, then may your path be easy and your steps protected.”
“I do not ask for an easy path,” he said. “But I thank you for your kind wish.” He put his hands together in front of his face and bowed slightly. “Until I see you again, Avasa Dani.”
She did not bother to plead with him. “Until I see you again, Nararavi.”
He turned away and left her alone in the study, her oil-lamp providing only a very little, flickering illumination of the space around her, so that the shadows seemed vast and alive. She touched the register, thinking of what she would have to do in the morning, and realizing how little she wanted to do it. There was such finality in presenting the register, and all that it entailed. The deputies of the Sultan would insist on a formal review, and an assessment of her household. She did not mind having so many duties to perform, but she dreaded the questions she would have to answer, and the way she would feel when it was done. At least, she thought, Sanat Ji Mani would be with her—that was some consolation.
A while later the steward came to the study. “He is gone, Lady.”
“Yes,” she said, nodding.
“He took two lentil-cakes and a round of onion-nan made yesterday; nothing but bread, and none of it fresh-made. He would not have any meat or cheese.” The steward was at a loss to know what more information he should provide. “I offered him raisins and cucumbers, but he refused.”
“Yes,” she said quietly.
“He took water from the fountain; he would accept nothing more.” The steward rubbed his hands in distress, as if he thought he should have done more.
“Yes,” she said, as if to soothe him. “I know.”
“Shall we ever see him again?” the steward implored.
“If his Lord Buddha wills,” she replied, and thought she had better burn incense to Ganesh tonight, and—in case Ganesh was too worldly a god—to Varuna and Vishnu in the morning, in case Lord Buddha should fail Nararavi on his travels.
“What will the Sultan’s Deputy say?” the steward exclaimed, plainly with some idea in mind what that might be.
“What can he say? The terms were set out and agreed to four years ago and nothing has changed.” She was becoming impatient with the man, and did not want to share his apprehension. “Adri, we will do all that we must, and trust to the gods that my husband will remain safe as he goes about the world.”
“But Timur-i—” Adri said, and broke off.
“Timur-i will not bother himself with a lone mendicant Buddhist,” said Avasa Dani, hoping it was so.
“He may not,” said Adri as if he was certain of catastrophe. “But where Timur-i has been, devastation remains, and there are no alms to be had.”
Avasa Devi held up her hand. “Adri: no more. It is beyond any help of mine but prayer. My husband has chosen his path, and we are bound to honor it. You have nothing to fear, for you, and the rest of the household, are provided for. Whether he returns or not, you will not be put out into the streets to beg and you will not have to give up your religion in order to be employed.” She pointed to the door. “I am sure everyone is in an uproar. You are to reassure them. And see that is what you do, not raise new fears in their breasts.”
“But it is very dreadful—” Adri began.
“You’re not to say that. You may think that, but you will keep it to yourself.” She stared at him until he looked away from her. “If the household wishes to keep a fast on Nararavi’s behalf, they may do so tomorrow. Tell Chol he need not prepare a meal until sundown.”
Adri scowled. “Not all will be satisfied, Lady.”
“Perhaps not,” said Avasa Dani, “but it is enough for now.” She started to leave the room, then said, “Sanat Ji Mani has given the Sultan’s Deputy enough money to pay all of you your living for more than ten years, in accordance with his agreement with my husband. He has done that for all the household, beyond the monies my husband set aside for all of you; none of you will starve, whether or not my husband returns. Tell them that, and they will be less worried.”
“You do not think they are worried because of money, do you?” Adri said with feeling.
“I think it is a good part of your fears, yes,” said Avasa Dani calmly. “You would not be provident if you did not think of such things. The world is more filled with beggars, who yearn for the gifts of the world than with mendicants, who have turned away from them.”
“It may be so,” Adri said, not willing to make a concession on this point. “And some will find it reassuring to know that they have been provided for.”
“Very good,” said Avasa Dani, feeling suddenly very tired although the night was young. “Now leave me. You have what you came for.”
Adri bristled. “I was not merely seeking—”
“I know,” she said, cutting him short. “Were my husband here, you would not have to speak to me at all. I have no father or brother or uncle to stand in his place, and Sanat Ji Mani is a foreigner. You had reason to be concerned.” She had a sudden, baffling impulse to weep, but she kept her emotions in check; she would not behave so poorly before a servant, not even one she had known as long as Adri.
“The household is…irregular,” said Adri, willing to grant that much.
“Yes. And my husband is aware of it. If he is not troubled by that, you should not be.” She motioned him away from her and stood still while the steward obeyed her, leaving her alone with her lamp in the dark corridor.
* * *
Text of a letter from the manservant Rojire to the spice-merchant Tas Sarnga.
* * *
To the most excellent merchant Tas Sarnga who has long sold spices and other rare plants, woods, and medicinal substances in the city of Delhi, this order given on behalf of my master, the distinguished foreigner Sanat Ji Mani, who lives in the Foreigners’ Quarter near the North-Eastern Gate. This brings with it six measures of gold and two of silver, in fulfillment of our agreement.
Ten vials of lotus-oil
Ten vials of quicksilver
Ten measures of myrrh, powdered
Twelve measures of camphor-gum
Twelve measures of musk-flowers, powdered
Fifteen measures of longevity root, dried
Sixteen measures of bellweed, dried
Sixteen measures of thirst berries, dried
Sixteen measures of black-flower, dried
Eighteen measures of cured century-dung, powdered
Eighteen measures of flax-seed oil
Eighteen measures of saffron
Twenty measures of hemlock
Twenty measures of pheasants’ eggs, dried and powdered
Twenty measures of milkweed thistle, dried
Twenty measures of cardamom seed
Twenty measures of rose-hips, dried
Twenty measures of willow-bark
Twenty measures of royal-face, stems and flowers, dried
Twenty-one tamarind pods
Twenty-two measures of beggars-cowl, dried
Twenty-five measures of poppy syrup
Twenty-five measures of grain-pod, powdered
Twenty-five measures of juniper berries
Twenty-five measures of spider-breath preserved in honey
Thirty large hands of ginger
Thirty measures of ease-root, preserved
Thirty measures of tiger-spike, dried and powdered
Thirty measures of syrup of aloe
Thirty measures of spirits of grape wine
Thirty measures of olive oil
Have these delivered to my master’s house at the end of the Street of the Brass Lanterns, and you will receive another token for your service
Copyright © 2001 by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro