The Lioness in her Quarters; or, a day in the life of Sada Kaur: a short story

Lahore, 1830.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh was nervous. His knees ached, a vein throbbed violently on his temple, his hand – was it trembling. He laughed. What a merry time the Akhbar writers would have making tales, if he were to, say, fall. The Lion of Punjab has grown old, they would say. Write to Dost Mohammed, write to the tiger’s son, Wazir Akbar Khan. Ask the Amir to unleash the wrath of the Pathan on Punjab – the firangee will sit and watch, with joy. But perhaps they would understand – for, the Lion of Punjab was entering a place all lions fear to tread, the quarters of a Lioness. The fiercest of all, Rani Sada Kaur.

‘You have grown old, Ranjit puttar,’ the mocking voice, that could have belonged to a young mutyaar flowed from behind the thick, embroidered curtain.

‘You have… not, Maa-ji,’ Ranjit Singh said, pushing the curtain aside, to reveal Rani Sada Kaur, dressed in white salwar kameez, chunni tied around her waist, head uncovered. Silver hair glistened among the grey and black.

‘Have you come empty handed to your old Mother, puttar,’ Sada Kaur smiled, her eyes momentarily glistening with warmth, but the steel was back in an instant.

‘Fakir Saab, please come in,’ Ranjit Singh turned back and called. The wizened Fakir Azizuddin stepped inside with two swords, bare. ‘It has been years since…’

He was interrupted. Sada Kaur spoke, her voice returning to the mocking tone she used with Ranjit Singh, now, for almost twenty years, since he had brought her to Lahore.

‘Since you went to battle, dear Ranjit. Are you sure you still know how to wield a sword?’

Ranjit looked down and smiled.

‘Maa-ji, I am a king now, in case you have forgotten. Did you not make me so yourself? Was it not you who taught me that my first duty is to rule as a Dharmaraj, now that my duties as a Chakravarti are done? I have able generals who keep the frontiers safe, I devote myself to looking after the welfare of my people.’

Sada Kaur remained silent. Between them, the silence grew heavier still. Then she spoke.

‘You have not taken Sind, Ranjit. You have not taken Sind.’

Ranjit looked up, not the grizzled monarch now, but a child trying to convince his mother he knew better than her.

‘I… I… you know how hard it was for us to hold Multan… whenever our armies marched we were at the mercy of the Nawab of Bahawalpur… what if he decided to have a sudden change of heart, what if the Nawab of Malerkotla switched… what if the Tiwanas rebelled again… I have enemies on all sides, I cannot afford to have more within.’

‘I thought your shining star, that boy… Hari Singh had taken care of the Tiwanas once and for all. Tell me Ranjit, are you the king of Sikhs or of Punjab? All these people you fear, they have one thing in common…’

Fakir Azizzuddin coughed from behind the curtain. Ranjit Singh laughed.

‘She thinks I do not trust my Muslim subjects, Fakir Saab!’

The Fakir spoke, as if quoting a line from some great wise poet, ‘Rani ji, Allah gave the Maharaja only one eye so he could see all men equally.’

‘Allah gave him the eye of suspicion, not of foresight, Fakir Saab,’ Sada Kaur said angrily. ‘And a heart that only knows betrayal.’

‘Doubt my sight, for it is flawed, but do not doubt my heart. And do not doubt my rule, do not doubt my ability with this sword… In both I have been taught by the best.’

Sada Kaur’s face broke into a smile.

‘Come, let us, see.’

*

He was right. The sword flew twice from Sada Kaur’s grip during the duel. Her breathing was heavier than ever before. She noticed Ranjit holding back each time she grew short of breath. But she did not. She recovered each time and attacked him with renewed ferocity. Would she have killed him if she could? Five years ago, perhaps. Ten, definitely. Now, all she wanted to do was hurt him. Some blood, just some blood, for his betrayal of sweet Mehtab.

He had broken her heart. Her sweet child’s heart. Why? Had he known… the… No!

*

When the duel was finished, Ranjit Singh left without a word. He would return the next year. To mark the occasion again. The Fakir had asked her to wait in the gardens. She was waiting – for her gift.

As evening crimsoned the glorious Lahore sky, she sat under the arched portico of the palace, watching birds flit across the sky, returning home. She looked east, the sky was purple over her home, Batala was far away. The attendants fanning her from either side had become lazy, or tired. She said nothing. The girl rubbing her aching feet was still doing her job assiduously. Oh, how they ached! How everything ached. Everything.

A carriage pulled into the courtyard. Two magnificent black stallions, the largest she had ever seen. It took a while for her to notice, that on the seat of the carriage, was a young girl, dusky, lithe and beautiful, about thirteen years old.

‘And what is this?’ Sada Kaur asked, delighted by the sight of the grand stallions and the girl with the reins in her hand.

‘The gift, Rani Ji,’ Fakir Azizzuddin stepping out from the carriage, accompanied by a grand Sardar. ‘Sardar Manna Singh of Gujranwala has been looking after these beauties himself.’

Sardar Manna Singh bowed.

‘Sat Sri Akal, Rani Ji. These are English dray horses. Gifted to his majesty by the Firangi Sarkar. You would be most delighted in hearing the story about how they were brought up on rafts along the Sindhu last year by this young man… what was his name…’

‘Sikander. Sikander Burnes,’ the young girl, who had dismounted from her seat, and approached the Rani replied. ‘It was a ruse.’

‘Oh, forgive her, Rani Ji, this kudi has no control on her tongue,’ Sardar Manna Singh apologised. Rani Sada Kaur waved him off.

‘A ruse you say, young girl, why do you think it was a ruse?’ she asked looking the young girl in the eye. The girl did not look away. She returned the lioness’ gaze.

‘They wanted to map the Indus, of course. To know the way into the heart of the Empire. One day the firangis will come to Lahore.’

‘Let us hope that day is far away. Thank you for the horses child… if I may kudiye what is your name?’

‘Jind Kaur, Rani Ji. I am called Jindan.’

Sada Kaur smiled.

The sky darkened over Lahore.

***