The land of Jaya’s birth lay beyond the desert known as the Abode of Death.
Even that year, three years before the start of a new century, the small tribe of bards making its way to the kingdom of Balmer saw many auguries of death. Water holes and village wells were dry. The artificial lakes which watered the great desert kingdoms of Jodhpur, Bikaner, Jaisalmer were covered with green slime, their levels sunk so low the foundations of water palaces stood revealed, ringed by brown-scaled crocodiles dozing in shallow water.
There was little food to spare for the storytellers as they converged on village squares at nightfall to tell their tales for a place to rest, and yet they became a caravan. Throughout Rajputana it was known the Maharajah of Balmer awaited the birth of his first child. Families in search of a season’s work, other storytellers and tinkers and acrobats, called to the bards, ‘Do you go to Balmer for the birth?’ Learning it was so, they grabbed sleepy bullocks by their vermilion-painted horns and shouted ‘Hut! Hut!’ urging the animals onto the road.
Once a group of ash-covered sadhus lying naked in a broken pavilion built by a forgotten king waved their iron tridents and clambered into a crowded camel cart.
Sometimes the carts were pushed aside by the crested carriages of rajas who lived in the stone fortifications that outlined the treeless black hills. When the sun was at its height, the fortifications seemed to breathe, expanding and contracting in the haze as though the hills were massive, brooding lizards from the time of mythology and the motion of the stone battlements the sluggish shifting of their spines.
Sometimes the caravan attached itself to the procession of court ministers journeying to Balmer with secret messages from their maharajah to the ruler of Balmer, in defiance of the laws of Imperial Britain. Then an elephant led the way, flanked by cavalry units holding banners. When the processions moved on, a silver coin, embossed with a maharajah’s symbol on one side and the profile of the English Empress on the other, was gifted to each member of the caravan, even the children.
Scrub jungle gave way to sand dunes. At sunset, the sudden darkness brought a feverish chill to the empty landscape. The travellers willed their emaciated animals to reach the shelter of villages spaced farther and farther apart before the demon women who had died in childbirth came howling through the night in search of children to replace the stillborn infants they had never suckled.
Now the caravan was so large no village could contain it, and the travellers pitched their own camps.
While their children slept in the cloth cradles tied between the brass spokes of camel carts, the bards, the gypsy genealogists of royal India, talked through the night, exchanging news of the Rajput kingdoms.
‘Our rulers are preparing to travel to London for the Diamond Jubilee of the White Widow, the Empress Victoria.’
‘The retinues and gifts they must take to impress the British Empire will dangerously impoverish their treasuries.’
‘At least in London they can speak together. Here, Britain still fears conspiracy and will not allow the kings to meet except in the presence of Englishmen.’
‘But court astrologers are reminding their maharajahs that famine has come every twenty years since the rise of British power.’
‘And twenty years have passed since the last famine.’
The bards shook their heads, dismissing astrology for the reality they had witnessed on the road. They had seen the villagers praying for rain. The farmers knew already. Another famine had begun.
This is an excerpt from Gita Mehta’s Raj.