The brothers say that pleasure cures all fears. But Basant’s fears are many, and his pleasures few.
The lights of the butter lamps dance like fireflies across the marble floor, stopping just short of his jewel-encrusted slippers. Time and again he has studied those lights, and the shadows their flickers form. And now Basant shrinks into a corner, praying that the dark will conceal his plump belly from the palace guards.
To cure his fear, he dissembles, though no one sees him. Basant takes pleasure in dissembling. Though he cowers in the shadows he feigns a charming smile and presses a dimpled hand to his heart, just so, as if to say: Dear me! Did I drift off? I often daydream, here in these shadows; it is nothing special! Anyway, it is my right to be here. Even so, he shivers, though the night is warm, and a bead of sweat carves any icy path down his neck.
His eyes lift to the crescent moon in the blue-black sky above the river Jumna. Far off he sees the domes of the starlit Taj Mahal, like bubbles floating above the river mist.
The brothers say that pain is but a dream. And Basant is a constant dreamer.
He dreams of a time when he knew his name.
He is a child, an orphan. He is thirsty, for he hasn’t been given even a sip of water all day. He sits on the floor of his tent, with his hands tied to a post driven in the ground behind him. And though it is still day, his tent is dark, shut tight and hot, lit by a cheap lamp that hangs from the center pole. He knows he must be a very bad boy indeed to deserve such punishment, but he can’t think of what he’s done.
The tent flap opens, and the gentle men come in. Their hands are soft as they wrap cords around his torso and thighs. They speak with voices like doves, patting his hair as they tug the bindings tight.
The cords cut into his child’s flesh, and he cries out, and the gentle men shush him and call him sweet names. One of them holds a cup to his lips, and with some hesitation he drinks: it is wine, spiced wine maybe, or maybe something else. But it smells all wrong, and its bitter taste numbs his tongue; even so he drains the cup because he is so thirsty.
His mouth grows dry, and his thoughts swirl: his lips feel thick now, and they tingle; and the smells inside the tent—hot canvas and dry wool and dust—converge like harsh music; the guttering flame of the lamp above him flickers with eerie complexity.
Again light pours through the tent flap as the slavemaster enters, and with him a strange-smelling man with pale skin like a pig’s, and gray eyes. And he thinks (the way little boys think, with astonished excitement), That must be a farang! The boy is sure he will never forget this day.
The flap drops; the tent is again dark as a cave. The cramped air is hot with hot breath. Never have so many people been in my tent, the boy thinks with pride. At a grunt from the slavemaster, the gentle men lift him up and tie him, cords and all, to a wide flat board. The farang’s eyes, gray like Satan’s, sparkle like a madman’s.
From within the folds of his robe, the slavemaster reveals a magic wand: a crescent moon of silver on a stem of jasper. The slavemaster shows it to the farang, and both men touch the moon, and whisper in excited voices and drag their thumbs across its edge. And suddenly it is not a wand. It is a knife. The men are testing its silver blade, a blade like the crescent moon.
The gentle men ignore the blade and the whispering, and look only at him, and pat his hands and face, and one of them begins to cry: dark trails glistening on dark cheeks. The boy has never seen a man cry before. The sight begins to scare him. There, there, he says, trying to stop those tears. Smiling for the man, There, there, he says. He doesn’t know what else to say. But the tears still come. So he floats out of his body, floats like a bubble, and the tent grows silent, as if no one dared to breathe.
Then the slavemaster takes the knife, and with a quick sweep, whispers the blade through the boy’s clothes. The gentle men tuck the tatters away, exposing his smooth skin. He can feel the softness of their cool hands, and the ragged breath of the slavemaster on his bare stomach and bare thighs, and the cords that bite into the flesh of his legs and chest.
He sees his tiny lingam exposed in the flickering lamplight. The slavemaster tickles it until it tingles and begins to stiffen and grow, and the farang chuckles, but his breath has grown raspy and his eyes blaze.
The gentle men look away. Their faces are solemn and totally elsewhere. The crying one whispers that he shouldn’t worry, that the slavemaster is an expert. It takes the boy a moment to realize that the words are meant for him. I’m fine, he says. The crying one tries to smile.
With hands now careful, the slavemaster’s thumb probes slowly along the root of the lingam and also the testicles; these he rubs between his fingers with great care. Then with expert quickness the slavemaster slides the silver moon across his smooth round belly.
The boy feels his lingam come loose, and roll, and then fall. He feels it lodge between his thigh and the board he is tied to. Where his lingam used to be he sees a tiny fountain of blood.
The slavemaster presses a heavy thumb on the fountain: his long fingers curl around the boy’s testicles. This seems to happen very slowly.
The moon blade flashes once more. The boy watches it slide in an expert silver arc.
He thinks: Someone in this room is screaming. Like a speck of down, Basant drifts around the tent, looking for the source of the screams. The gentle men are busy, pressing cloths against his bloody groin. He sees the slavemaster’s bloody palm, and on it are his testicles in the tiny sack that used to hang between his legs. (He wonders, How will the slavemaster get them back on?) The farang leans close, his eyes wide and his face pale.
With the curved point of the silver knife the slavemaster teases the sack, deftly slipping the testicles onto his wide palm.
The screaming stops. He stares at his tiny testicles on the slavemaster’s palm: In the lamplight they look like living gems, and he is fascinated by their colors, pinks and grays and blue. They pulse, still alive in the slavemaster’s hand.
The farang bending his head to the slavemaster’s palm.
The farang’s face lifting, eyes aflame. His swallow and his sigh.
That pain that is just a dream.
That Basant remembers.
The slavemaster drops the empty sack of flesh on the floor, as one might drop an orange peel.
The gentle men lift the boy, still tied to the wide board, and press his wounds with cloths. He feels his lingam roll from beneath his thigh, and wonders what will become of it. He never sees it again.
They bandage him and place him upright in a hole dug in some sand. They bury him up to his neck. He is so little, the hole is not very deep.
He stays buried three days. He gets a fever. He has never been so thirsty, so that each breath burns.
Sometimes people come to stare and shake their heads; he sees the slavemaster and the farang pass by, glancing at him with sidelong looks.
From time to time the gentle men visit him, and feel his forehead and his cheeks (for all but his head is buried in the sand), and they cluck their tongues and shake their heads, and let him sip the bitter wine (but only a sip now, never a drink). Sometimes they wash his face and he licks the drips that slide down his cheek.
On the third day, using only their hands, two of the gentle men dig him out. With soft fingers they brush away the sand. They frown as they unwrap the bandages, and then smile, when they see the wound.
One produces from his turban a thin silver tube, like the quill of a feather. While the other holds him still (for his hands and feet are still tied to the board, and the cords still cut into his flesh), the man pushes the silver quill into the hole where his lingam used to be. It feels cold and enormous, but he does not cry out.
Then he feels it pop into place—somehow he knows it is in place—and he begins to pee. He pees and pees, the stream passing through the silver quill to form a puddle at his feet. Some blood is mixed with the urine. The gentle men examine the stream carefully and nod and smile some more. They release the heavy cords that tie him to the board. He collapses.
One carries him like a baby to the eunuchs’ tents.
From that day, he lives among eunuchs, travels in the eunuchs’ cart, sleeps in their tent. The gentle men who cared for him are there, and others. He thinks they must be very old. He is the only child in the tent. The slave children he used to play with aren’t allowed. Many of the eunuchs have dark, brown skin, but his skin is like cream, golden like a lightly roasted kachu nut. He wonders if he will grow dark when he gets old. He makes friends with them. When one of the eunuchs is sold, he misses him.
The eunuchs smile, and pat him and bounce him on their plump laps. They hide him from the slavemaster. They give him a special name—Basant, which means “springtime”—and after a while, he forgets the name he used to have.
Years later, Basant tries to remember his forgotten name. In dreams he hears it, but when he wakes, it’s gone.
Basant’s wounds heal clean, and the scars look not so bad. He carries the silver quill in his turban. He thinks it is fun to pee through; although he misses his lingam a little, he likes the silver quill nearly as much.
As they travel, rocking on the rough road in the eunuchs’ cart, his new friends tell him stories. Mostly they are in verse, and the verses are about lingams. How to rub them, how to lick them, the pleasures they can give. How odd, thinks Basant, now that I haven’t got one, to discover how pleasant they might be. The first time he hears a new verse, he laughs and laughs; they seem so silly and so clever.
When they camp at night, they teach him dances and these are easy to learn: shaking his bottom, mostly, back and forth and side to side. They make him sit on a funny seat for hours at a time; it hurts at first, but not as much as the knife, and then it scarcely hurts at all, even when they enlarge each day the nasty part that squeezes into his little bottom.
Sometimes Basant sees the eunuchs speaking with the slavemaster. Basant thinks it odd that the slavemaster should look at him as though he were a sack of gold waiting to be emptied onto the slavemaster’s wide palm. He sees the farang sometimes, hiding behind a tent, snatching glances.
One night they set up camp in a big town with a big domed mosque. The eunuchs dress him in satins and silks; they rub his kachu skin with perfume and stain his eyelids with kohl. They lead him to a special tent, with walls of fine red silk and velvet cushions and butter lamps, and they place him on a soft bed plump with cushions. It is the finest tent he ever has seen. One by one the eunuchs kiss him and duck out through the curtains until he is alone with only the flickering butter lamps for company. Wisps of incense curl through the air, but he can’t find where.
He is puzzling about this when the farang comes into the tent.
It is not pleasant.
Soon Basant finds he understands the answers to many puzzles. He understands with great suddenness, as one understands a fall down a well, or a fist to one’s nose. He understands it all.
Then, after an eternity of night, he falls asleep, and thankfully he has no dreams. The next morning the farang is gone, and only then does he weep.
He wipes the trails of his kohl-stained tears, and with some difficulty walks to the eunuchs’ tent. He hears them inside, but no one comes out to greet him. He stares at the flap, unable to enter. Instead he goes to the bathing place and washes himself, using bucket after bucket of cold water.
In time the eunuchs come to him and try to make him smile.
Night after night Basant goes to the soft bed of the rich tent. He has many visitors. He still remembers how they smelled.
But as Basant hides in the shadows his memory fades until once more he is himself: clumsy, scheming, fat, rich, and terrified. He gazes at the sky, at the sliver crescent moon, and wills himself to breathe. He has suffered much, but achieved much—now he is here, a person of substance, in the very heart of the empire.
So why then does Basant, Eunuch of the First Rank of the Private Palace of Mogul Emperor, now risk everything? Why risk his status, even his life, on this foolishness? Why?
If you asked him, of course, he would turn aside and say nothing. Such is his way, and the way of all the mukhunni. But if you could lift the tent flap of his heart and peer inside, you would understand: he does it for love; for the love of his mistress, for the love of the Princess Roshanara.
Of course he would deny this. He would ask: How might a eunuch love any woman, let alone a princess? He might joke about the speed of his fingers, or the deftness of his tongue, and wink and leer as if to say: When they can’t get what they really want, then they want me. For isn’t it said the mukhunni also have no hearts? So Basant would have you believe.
But Basant has a heart, and he has made of it a shrine to Roshanara, the princess he has served for nineteen months and four days. So he hides, by her command, in the shadows, in the terrifying darkness.
Basant hears each sound that emerges from Roshanara’s apartments. And even though tonight at his command the drapes over the windows and breezeways all are lowered, and even though he has ordered drapes of the densest velvet, lined with quilted muslin, winter drapes though it now is spring, despite it all, Basant hears through them every whisper, every grunt. With each noise his terror mounts; his pulse raises like a tabla at the end of a raga. Bad enough that he hears Roshanara, but Basant can also hear her partner: his growls, his filthy words. To explain such sounds would take time, and baksheesh: and he’s had no chance to make arrangements; for Roshanara had tossed this rendezvous together with unexpected haste.
Basant wonders desperately whether these sounds are really so loud as they seem to his anxious ears; whether they echo through the palace; whether the emperor who snores in a nautch girl’s arms but twenty yards away can hear each groan. He wonders if guards will hear them and burst in, swords whistling.
He can barely keep from running away, particularly when he hears the frantic squealing of the princess in her frenzy, and the groaning of her partner like a bull; that ancient song that Basant can hear but never sing.
Then, as if Allah in his mercy had not yet piled enough worry on his servant, Basant hears a sound more frightening: he recognizes the voice of Muhedin, second captain of the palace guards, the smartest of all the captains and the most suspicious.
Basant curses his fate; that Muhedin should be keeper of the watch this night, of all guards the most attentive! He knows Muhedin’s habits, what things might catch his eyes and lead him to investigate. Maybe it will all work out—maybe Basant can keep himself and Roshanara’s lover in the shadows and out of sight. Maybe no alarm will be raised. It is not so far to the tunnels. Just act, he orders himself. Now!
But of course he can barely move.
Basant creeps to the edge of the shadows and glances toward the battlements. The only guards nearby are the two Tartar women who stand outside the emperor’s bedchamber—strange pink women from a place where it is always cold. And they will not care.
Hesitating in front of the entrance to the princess’s apartments, trying not to imagine what he will find within, Basant at last pushes aside the velvet entry drape, heavy with jewels and golden thread.
As the drape falls behind him, pleasure mingles with his fear. To be in her presence, in the heart of her home, amidst the flickering lamps, amidst the incense, amidst the flowers and leaves carved in the walls and burnished with gold! He feels such pleasure as a lover might.
Basant’s eyes grow accustomed to the dim light and he makes out the clothing strewn around the room; the bed in attractive disarray with cushions haphazard everywhere; the princess’s thick raven hair spread wild across her pillow; the edge of her pretty ear peeping through the tresses; her arm with its silken skin poking from beneath a satin cover.
And he sees the body of her lover: the man’s dark limbs sprawled on the bed and his bare ass, sagging in his sleep.
Maybe jealousy clouds Basant’s heart. Oh, he knows that he can never possess Roshanara, not as a man might possess her. But he can give her pleasure that a man cannot, for he has been trained to use his tongue and fingertips in ways that only eunuchs know. He can exhaust his sweet princess, thrilling her until she begs for mercy. What man can say that? He eyes her hairy lover with the envy that only eunuchs know.
His eyes fly open as if he can feel Basant’s stare, and he rolls from the cushions to crouch by the bed. Facing him with dark malevolent eyes, even naked, even with his fat old lingam hanging down for all to see, the man looks deadly. The flickering lamp traces the bright edges of an ugly knife, one meant for use, not for show. Basant nearly faints.
“I need more light,” the man growls. He speaks quietly, clearly used to being obeyed instantly. As Basant lifts a lamp, the man paws through the bedding, looking for his clothes. The musty smell of sex rises from the cushions. Roshanara sleeps through it all like one exhausted.
“Get dressed, uncle,” Basant whispers. “We must go quickly.” The man scowls at him; he has found his inner turban and he begins to wrap his long hair. Hurry, hurry, you old oaf, Basant thinks, the harem soon will wake. On the man’s chest Basant sees a patchwork of livid scars. One runs the length of his body, from his left shoulder to his right hip.
The man puts on his robe; it hangs down nearly to his ankles, Bijapuri-style. He gathers his underwear, turban, and belt and rolls them into a tight ball, then stands and pushes them roughly at Basant. He is used to having others care for him. Basant takes the bundle while the man searches for his cloak.
The princess stirs but doesn’t wake—her hair falls back from the fine features of her round face, and she hugs a pillow to her perfect breasts. Basant watches her, fascinated.
Suddenly he yelps at a sharpness in his side. The man has crept up beside him and now prods him with his knife—still sheathed, but to Basant the point of the sheath is as unpleasant as the point of a dagger.
“Let’s go.” The man pokes him again. “No, wait,” he says. He pivots Basant roughly by the arm, turning to face him. He is short, not much taller than Basant, and his black eyes are empty and terrifying, like a tiger’s eyes. “Let’s get one thing straight. You take me to the Delhi Gate. Understand? No tricks. And no tunnels!”
“No tunnels, uncle? How shall I keep you hidden?”
“I know all about the tunnels. And about the well. You get me? No tricks. No tunnels. No well. Understood?”
“But what well, uncle?” But even Basant can hear that this response is unconvincing.
The man lets out a long hiss. “The Delhi Gate. Now.”
Again the point probes Basant’s ribs. “But uncle, how shall I take you there safely?”
“I’ll tell you how, hijra.” The cruelty of the term is not lost on Basant. “We’ll go to your rooms. You have rooms nearby, don’t you? I’ll put on clothes like a eunuch and we’ll walk right out, our heads held high. Understood? Like men, except . . .” He chuckles at his own wit.
Swiftly Basant considers his options and finds none. With a last glance at his princess, he draws back the drape and walks swiftly to a shadowy corner. The man follows him step for step.
Basant looks for the next shadow, and the next, tracing a zigzag path that leads to the eunuchs’ apartments. He becomes almost confident. There are no guards at the doorways; once the emperor has retired, only his Tartar women guard his bedroom; guards above suspicion and beyond attack. Sentries patrol only the perimeter, but they face outward, and are easy to avoid by sticking to the shadows and creeping silently along the walls.
They come to the mezzanine overlooking the enormous water tank at the foot of the stairs. Only the edge of the tank is in shadow; the walkway is lit by the lamps in niches along the walls of the Fish Building.
Basant is disgusted to have to live in a place called the Fish Building; he is sure it has been named that just to insult the eunuchs who live there. It is well known the nautch girls call the eunuchs “fish.”
They step swiftly along the edge of the mezzanine. Basant now sees his door and hurries toward it. Too quickly. His foot strikes a night bucket some fool has left at the tank’s edge. He stumbles. The bucket clatters as it rolls; it falls, clanging twice with a sound like a broken gong that fills the night. The echo takes forever to fade.
Basant fears he will die, and wants to. Then he feels a rough hand grab his robes; his collar bites his neck, strangling him so he gasps for air. The princess’s lover drags him along the edge of the tank. If there are any more buckets here, Basant thinks, this will be a good way to find them. But the man moves furiously, carelessly. “Where? Where?” he whispers through clenched teeth. Basant points miserably toward his door.
The man shuts the door, his teeth clenched so tightly that it’s clear he restrains his fury only with enormous effort. “You were drunk and you stepped out to pee. Understand?” They hear the soft knock at the door.
Sharp steel whispers as the dark man draws his blade. Then he presses against the wall: when the door opens, he’ll be hidden behind it.
Basant cracks open one side of his double door. “Evening, Basant,” says Muhedin, the sentry captain. “Everything all right?”
“Certainly, captain.” Basant can scarcely believe his voice works. “I was a little drunk and went to pee, and . . .”
“Mind if I come in and have a look around?”
“Actually, it’s not too convenient, uncle. I’m afraid I had a bit of an accident. It happens to us mukhunni sometimes: just a splash of urine, but so unpleasant . . .” Basant tries to give a laugh.
“Is anyone there with you, Basant?”
Of course there is, Basant wants to say. Can’t you hear him breathing? Can’t you smell the garlic? “No, uncle,” Basant replies.
“The thing is, someone thinks they saw two persons out there, Basant. Someone thinks they both came in here.”
Basant can’t breathe. Perhaps, if he played it right, he could manage to have Muhedin kill this awful smelly man. A thief, uncle! Sneaking into the palace, uncle! He made me bring him here! See his ugly dagger! And Basant was good at lying. But as he considers this, he feels a sharp jab beneath his arm; not blunt like before; the tip of that nasty, incessant dagger, now unsheathed and sharp as a needle. Basant wonders how long he has been silent . . . did it seem unnatural? “No, uncle, I’m fine, all by myself, just a fat old eunuch nobody cares for. . . .”
“But we must come in, Basant. Regulations.” Basant hears “we,” and peers through the crack until he sees a second guard behind Muhedin. Good, he thinks. “Oh, two of you,” he says pointedly, glancing at the man as if to say, You are finished now.
He opens one of the doors, the one that will hide the smelly man—Basant doesn’t wish to die too soon, after all. Outside, Muhedin is smiling pleasantly; but a skinny guard with a drawn sword stands behind him. Basant bows and steps aside, waving them through.
As Muhedin steps across the threshold, a rough hand thrusts out to push him across the room. He sprawls to the floor.
He looks up to see Muhedin’s startled face. Before the captain can even reach his sword, the dark man sweeps his knife. The blade glides through the captain’s neck, making a wet slapping noise, like a cleaver cutting cabbage. As Basant watches from the floor, a necklace appears around the front of his neck, like a thin scarlet thread. Then the captain’s head flops backward, and a deep red river erupts from his exposed neck. The captain’s legs buckle, and he falls to his knees: it seems as though he is praying. A shudder runs through his body and he falls over, convulsing, his heart still pumping dark buckets of blood.
From first step to shuddering death has taken less than a second.
His weapon still raised, the man now lunges through the door and lurches back, the hand of the other guard locked in his grasp.
The man yanks the hand so hard that the guard’s head heaves back, chin toward the ceiling. The man thrusts his knife through the soft spot under the guard’s chin and drives the point into his brain.
The guard’s head snaps forward, and Basant sees his astonished eyes, and his mouth still open, and his tongue pinioned on the blade, squirming on the blade like a pink slug on a skewer.
Then with vicious force the man wrenches the blade back. The body crumbles next to the captain’s. Other than the sigh of the knife and the soft thuds of bodies falling, there has been not a sound.
“I am Shaista Khan,” says the man, wiping his blade on the robes of the guard. “I must not be found here.”
Basant feels liquid warmth at his feet and assumes that he has soiled himself, but then he sees that it is the puddle of Muhedin’s blood that seeps through his jeweled slippers. He swallows back bile.
Shaista Khan glances up and down the mezzanine. Satisfied, he closes the door, quietly, carefully, and heaves the bolts. Then Shaista Khan arranges the bodies on the floor, forming a sort of dam to contain the blood and shit seeping from them. With unexpected gentleness he moves Basant aside. He bends down, removing Basant’s jeweled slippers with his own hands, and tosses them amidst the bodies and blood. Taking a pillow from the bed, he uses it to mop the floor. Basant’s hands dangle at his side like dead things.
“Change of plan,” Shaista Khan whispers. “Straight to the Delhi Gate. Dressed as we are. Right now.” Quietly he opens the door; quietly he looks for trouble. “Come. Now. The fools came alone.”
He steps behind Basant, his hands on Basant’s waist. “I need you, eunuch. I’m lost here. Which way?” whispers Shaista Khan. Basant turns almost imperceptibly. Shaista Khan presses him in that direction, and so they go: Shaista Khan half-follows, half-guides him. Like two odd dancing partners, clinging to the shadows, at last they reach the Delhi Gate.
Copyright © 2007 by John Speed. All rights reserved