The lashing rain had again made matters difficult for Koli. He told the rower to be careful for the third time and was met with a scowl.
The sea didn’t agree with him, such was his curse. His mother had wanted him to become a shopkeeper in some quiet inland village, far from war and water.
His father had dismissed the notion. ‘War is everywhere’ his father claimed. ‘I’d rather have my son near the water than remain inland to face Aurangzeb. Atleast the water can be merciful at times’
And so, Shivraj Koli became a man of the sea. Through sputtering rains and tempests, Koli would travel on nothing but a small boat. Sometimes, he’d be given a lift from Maratha maliks (sailors), and other times, he’d squeak his way through small towns on the Konkan.
Thunder growled again, lighting up Suvarnadurg Fort for a brief moment. The rain lashed harder after that as if the previous thunderous growl was a warning. Koli flinched as the thunder echoed in the sky, and then disappearing into the splashing noise of the rain.
The rower seemed unperturbed by the sounds. He adjusted the boat sideways as the shore came near. A single light flickered at the coast.
‘Do you know the code?’ the rower asked. ‘Only then will they let us disembark’
Koli nodded. The rower steered the boat towards the shore, the wind carrying them this time. The boat clambered up to the shore in a sudden motion as the wind grew stronger.
In the dark, Koli could only make out the silhouette of a man.
‘In these nights’ the man said.
‘The dead groan’ Koli replied.
‘The mermaids roam’ the rower said.
Thunder roared again, allowing the three men to see their faces for the first time in the dark night. Behind the stranger stood four guards. Koli almost fell over the boat, they stood as still as ghosts waiting to pounce.
‘You can get down’ the man said.
Koli jumped out of the boat, cautiously clasping his satchel, but his leg slipped on the wet sand and he slipped.
He moaned upon falling but quickly secured the safety of the satchel. The rower broke into a laugh.
‘Quiet’ the man hissed. ‘Go to your quarters’
Koli only heard the receding footsteps of the rower, as he was helped to his feet by the stranger.
They climbed the long-winding stairs into the fort, Koli limping his way up. The fall had twisted his ankle.
‘Careful on the steps’ the stranger said. Each time the thunder would come, Koli would look up to see the path ahead and the walls of the fort. Even at night, he could see archers standing vigil on the wall. The four guards walked behind him, adjusting to the limping man’s slow pace.
The rain gave no sign of abating, falling mercilessly on the stone steps. At last, they reached the main gate. At the entrance was an engraving of Lord Maruti. Koli bowed in front of it with folded hands, a reflex ingrained in him since childhood.
Inside the fort, things were more visible. Fire torches were clamped over the walls, a stone plank hovering over them to protect them from the rain. The street inside was narrow, lined by shuttered shops on both sides. The only people on the street besides Koli and his entourage were night sevaks on patrol. As the street curved and diverged into two paths, the stranger stopped and turned left to a locked door. He fished out a key and pushed the door open.
‘Wait’ the stranger told the guards and motioned Koli to get inside. When inside, the stranger lit the lamp inside, Koli finally able to see the stranger clearly.
As with most Maratha men in naval forts, the stranger had a sharp, square face, showing no signs of a lax muscle. He lifted the wet black turban from his head, his hair clamped down and shining against the mustard light of the lamp.
‘Some ministers arrived from Raigad. Sarkhel had to accommodate them in the main keep. He wishes to extend his apologies for this dingy room’
Koli looked around, not having noticed the room yet. To him, the room wasn’t dingy enough to warrant an apology. The bed looked warm and comfortable. There were fresh clothes on the wooden table across the window, an impressive chamber pot in the corner and a bath beside it. Paintings of Ganesh and Shiv softened the dark grey walls.
‘No need for apologies’ Koli said, giving a hint of a smile. The stranger nodded, revealing his sunken brown eyes complimenting his brown skin and wet brown clothes.
‘I will send someone with some hot water. I’ll come by tomorrow morning to take you to Sarkhel’
Koli nodded, setting his satchel down on the table.
‘Shall I send for supper?’
‘Something to drink then’
The stranger nodded. ‘Well then. See you tomorrow.’ He extended his hand. Koli clasped it and shook his hand.
‘I am Shivraj Koli’
The stranger nodded. ‘I know. I am Sekhoji Angre’
He sent his son. Koli bowed frantically. ‘My lord. I didn’t know’
Sekhoji held Koli by his shoulders and raised him back straight. ‘You didn’t need to. Father wanted to make sure his apology comes from his own blood’
Koli smiled and nodded. ‘I see’
‘See you tomorrow then Shriman Shivraj Koli’
Sekhoji left, and a hot bucket of water arrived a few minutes, along with a flagon of madsaar. Koli took a long bath, ridding himself of the salty smell of the sea. Every time he bathed after a sea journey, he would curse his father silently. Why the sea? Better the sword of Aurangzeb than the salty hell of water and thunder.
After the bath, he put on a clean warm dhoti and began drinking the madsaar. The bitter taste brought him warmth as cool winds rattled against the window. He never drank on the sea as seamen were known to. The sea made him cautious, too nervous to risk drinking.
The rain died down, but the wind refused to go down, whistling and whooshing through the fort and Koli’s room window. When sleep threatened to cross his eyes, Koli grabbed the satchel and stuck it underneath his head.
Only then, could he sleep in peace.
Every time the rain stopped, his stomach would begin to lurch.
It was an old problem of his. Once, he had taken the ved into confidence and told him about this problem. The ved’s reply had been as perplexing as his trade. ‘Perhaps Sarkhel shouldn’t sleep alone when it rains’
Kanhoji chuckled upon remembering the advice. He stared out of the window, watching the wind rush onto the fort as if it came bearing a message.
The lurch came again, twisting his way from his belly and up to his lungs. He grimaced and rubbed his chest. A strong gust of cool salty wind somehow eased the pain, whisking it away. ‘Salt heals’ he whispered and sat down on the chair by the window.
But why when the rain stops? He mulled. Kanhoji had a theory on it. The rain meant war, the constant exchange of steel and blood and gunpowder. War was glorious, a passionate dance led by the best dancers, collaborating to create a spectacle historians would record.
And when the war ended, nothing. An ugly heap of blasted ships and forts, smoldering ruins of walls and the smelling and strewn corpses of men and boys. The end of the war to him was the end of the rain. The facade of passion and dance was finally lifted.
Kanhoji wasn’t too keen on the theory. He kept improving it, updating it to meet new standards of pain. Sometimes he would ask the ved again if some new theory in the field of medicine had found a reason behind the pain. The ved would always give strange answers.
He shifted in his chair and began reading the letter from Raigad.
Sarkhel Kanhoji Angre,
Chief of Maratha Navy,
I know you would have taken the words said by my delegation with a pinch of salt, so I am writing this letter myself. I am sure you recognize my handwriting.
Away from the sea, things are changing. Aurangzeb’s son is a soft pup, not as bold and cruel as his father. The course is clear for us to dominate the mainland. Much war is to be fought now. Swarjya, as my grandfather imagined, may now be realized.
Then there are the foreigners. Everywhere I look, these goras are trying to sell me something. They say they love our land and want to trade with us. I’ve never understood money, Sarkhel. We are creatures of war, first and foremost.
The traders want me to open my doors to the goras. They say trade will bring prosperity. One gora officer came by last year and suggested his white King in the west would be happy to help me send the Mughals back to wherever they came from.
My mind wanders to other things. What if we do it? What if we expand the Maratha empire to lands it has never been in. The Mughals did that. And how did things turn out for them? A pup sits on the Sultanate in Delhi. Their empire crumbles now, as the expanse of this continent is starting to catch up with them.
I wonder whether dividing power is a solution. One man cannot rule the continent, we have seen ample proof of it. Akbar did it, but his sons failed. Aurangzeb did it, now his son is failing. Even the sons of Chandragupta Maurya could not match their father’s feats.
North, South, East and West, there needs to be a Maratha strongman in every corner to make sure the empire runs smoothly.
Well, this has been on my mind. You must have salt and rain to contend with. For now, I have to heed to the demands of the traders. Money is important to fund the wars we have to fight later. For now, the Mughals are the enemy.
And so I ask you this. Engaging with the goras right now is futile. We need money, Sarkhel, and the goras have enough gold to buy the world. We need only our piece of land to meet my grandfather’s dream.
Kanhoji read the letter twice and then set it on flames. He slid back in his chair, noticing the slight sound of raindrops coming again. All signs of the pain went away. He drank a glass of water and rose to see the rain falling.
‘Father?’ a voice came from the door.
‘Come in’ Kanhoji said tersely. Sekhoji walked in, a guard following him in. Kanhoji motioned the guard to leave.
‘How many times must I tell you not to call me father in front of the guards?’
Sekhoji pressed his lips and nodded. ‘I apologize’
Kanhoji eyed him for a moment, and then sat back down. ‘How is Koli?’
‘He’s fine. Looked flustered after landing on shore. Must be the storm’
Kanhoji gave a wry smile. ‘A seaman who fears the sea. The boy is an enigma. Does he come with something?’
‘I believe so, yes’ Sekhoji replied. ‘He held on to his satchel very carefully. I assume it has something’
‘He’ll be sleeping with the satchel beneath his head tonight. He’s a cautious boy, and only the cautious can survive such reckless times.’
Sekhoji nodded blankly.
‘The rower, pay him well and add him to the ranks. I do not want him wandering the seas anymore.’
‘It’s taken care of, father. You needn’t worry yourself over such small matters’
Kanhoji nodded, turning back to the window to enjoy the rain. He wondered if he’d ever get bored of it. Watching the rain slowly assert its strength and pelt the stone walls of the fort with a flourish, spreading the sweet smell of mud.
‘The delegation today, they want us to maintain the peace treaty with Bombay’
‘With the East India Company,’ Kanhoji said. ‘Bombay is ours. They are not of this land’
Sekhoji remained silent, hoping to egg his father to speak further.
‘Well, you were speaking of the delegation…’ Kanhoji said.
‘Nothing in particular. I was just wondering whether sending spies is the right move if peace is our motive. If someone catches Koli, it might become an embarrassment for us’
Kanhoji, staring out of the window, motioned Sekhoji to sit down.
‘What do you feel Sekho? Who do you think is the enemy?’
Sekhoji believed it to be another of his father’s tricks. He mulled the answer, thinking if giving the obvious answer was too easy. Father wouldn’t ask a question with a straight answer.
‘I’m not trying to trick you’ Kanhoji said, still staring out of the window.
‘The Mughals’ Sekhoji said tepidly.
‘Ah, the Mughals. Why?’
‘Well, they control most of the land. They have the largest standing army. Our dream of Swarajya is impossible if we don’t remove the Mughals’
‘All valid points, but does land matter when the Mughal king is a sheep compared to his father? A weak enemy is no enemy at all. Just a small obstacle to be swatted away. The Mughals are old now, the dusty heat of our land has tired them. Their fall is inevitable. The question is whether we replace them, or someone else manages to beat us’
‘Who can beat us?’ Sekhoji asked, puzzled. ‘We’ve been the only ones resisting the Mughals successfully’
‘So, you mean to say no one but us can replace the Mughals?’
‘Surely not the goras. The common folk won’t accept white overlords’
Kanhoji smirked. ‘You’d be surprised how agreeable the common folk are. The greatest folly every spread is the permanence of power.’
Sekhoji stared at his father. He was right of course. Kanhoji was not Sarkhel always.
The year was 1689, the time of Aurangzeb. Khairat Khan of Jinjiattacked Suvarnadurg, surrounding the fort, cutting down supplies and demanding surrender. Achaloji Mohite was the chief of Suvarnadurg then, and Kanhoji served him. Mohite, faced with the choice of fighting to his possible death or accepting surrender and live a life of shame, chose the latter.
Kanhoji wouldn’t have any of it. He sent word toChhatrapatiSambhaji, the then Maratha emperor, and immediately arrested Achaloji Mohite. An act of mutiny, but Kanhoji didn’t care. He evaded being arrested by Khairat Khan’s men and bided his time as Sambhaji sent backup to drive Khan away. Mohite was removed thereafter, and Kanhoji Angre was named the fort man of Suvarnadurg. More victories in the war would bring him the title of Sarkhel, and the control of all forts on the Konkan.
‘So the goras are the greatest threat?’
Kanhoji shifted in his chair. ‘They come from far-off lands, bringing gold, guns, and gunpowder. And people still say they come for trade? If we don’t stop the goras here, now, the west will rule this land forever. That is why we have spies, Sekho. That is why Koli risks his life bringing us information. The white man has come to replace the Mughals. We can either fight him or let him rule.
Here, where salt and sand collide, we see the true desires of the west. The king is away from the sea, he does not see what we see. And so we’ll fight. The war with the goras is not a battle for the Konkan. This is a war for the mainland’
The sun shone briefly at dawn, trapped again later by hovering dark clouds. In the council room were gathered delegates from Raigad. A large, blasted opening on the right side of the room acted as the window, bringing a gentle salty essence from the sea.
Kanhoji sat at the far end of the long table, his back facing the opening. A squabble had broken about amongst the delegates over the allocation of funds between shipyards and granaries.
As usual, Kanhoji remained silent. Sometimes one delegate would turn to him as if the check if he had not fallen to sleep. He would cock his head sideways, staring blankly at the door.
From the blasted opening was visible nothing but the open sea, facing west. The gathered delegates, some of whom had come to Suvarnadurg for the first time, found the scenery intimidating. One had suggested an iron railing to be built, but Kanhoji had dismissed the notion with a long stare.
The tone of the argument got louder, as one delegate leaned forward, pointing his finger at his opponent angrily. This incensed the other, who replied by hurling an abuse.
The voice ringed like the bugle blown before a battle, echoing across the room and overpowering the sound of the violent waters from the opening.
‘I will not listen to this anymore. We cannot do something of any meaning or worth until we rid ourselves of this need to argue and haggle. Look what’s in front of you. I know its a hard thing to do, the hardest at times, but you must. The Mughals are tired. The goras are green boys who know nothing about our land. And you sit here, haggling and howling about mere copper pences. The shipyard will be built, and so will the granaries. If there isn’t enough money, we will increase the taxes and force the sailors from the West to pay more. Tell Sekhoji the money you’ll need for the armory and shipyard, and then, leave. I’ve had enough of this delegation’
The seven men of the delegation rose, their faces flustered as they shook their head at Kanhoji before leaving.
The delegation left, and Sekhoji walked in. ‘Koli is here’
Kanhoji motioned with his finger, and Sekhoji was followed by Koli inside, a satchel hung around his shoulder.
‘Shivraj’ announced Kanhoji, as if he was wanted to show he remembered the name. ‘Sit down son’
‘Sarkhel’ Koli said, bowing. ‘I bring news.’ He fished a letter from the satchel and handed it to Kanhoji.
‘Read it’ Kanhoji said.
Koli nodded and promptly broke the seal. He opened the letter and remained silent.
‘Sarkhel, it’s in their language’
Kanhoji frowned. ‘English, yes. And you don’t know English?’
‘I’m a Marathi, Sarkhel’
‘Isn’t that a great explanation?Sekho, you read it’
Koli stretched out the letter to Sekhoji, but he lowered his head. ‘I don’t know their language either’
Kanhoji scowled at Sekhoji. ‘You don’t know a thing about our enemy. How will you then face them in battle? Bring it here.’ Kanhoji went through the letter twice and then set it down on the table. ‘You retrieved this from Small’s house’
‘A week back. Whenever he wishes to share information, he informs his coachman. The coachman is my man. He tells me, and I arrange for the gold.’
Kanhoji rose, turning to the blasted opening behind him.
‘What does the letter say fa…Sarkhel?’ Sekhoji asked.
Kanhoji didn’t answer. He continued staring at the sea. ‘Have you ever wondered what lies in the west?’
Neither Koli nor Sekhoji had an answer.
‘I wonder sometimes. Where do these goras come from? People tell me Britain, but what is Britain? Is it like our land? Why is their skin so pale? Even the Mughals who came from the North weren’t as fair as these goras. Who are they really?’
‘I don’t understand Sarkhel…’ Koli said.
‘Of course, you don’t. Neither do you’ Kanhoji said, turning to Sekhoji. ‘They come here from lands so far in the west. Why? To make war? Is that it?’
Kanhoji shook his head and sat back down. ‘Send for Edward’
Sekhoji nodded and left the room. A long ten minutes of silence followed between Koli and Kanhoji. Sekhoji guided Edward into the council room.
‘Surkail’ Edward said, bowing. ‘How may I be of assistance?’
‘Your Marathi has improved Edward’ Kanhoji said. ‘I was right to take you into my service’
‘Thank you Surkail’ Edward said.
‘A letter has come from Bombay. A man called Ch-aa-re-les B-oo-n-ee is now the governor’
‘Charles Boone’ said Edward. ‘Never heard of him’
‘Well, you have now. This Boone…’ Kanhoji said, correcting his pronunciation, ‘wants war. He hasn’t made an official declaration yet. But wall construction has begun in Bombay, they are building ships, equipping men, readying cannons’
‘I see’ Edward said.
‘We have a man on the inside, but I doubt this Boone likes him very much. He is a new man in a new country, and I am certain he wishes to make new friends. You follow me, Edward?’
‘As it happens, white men like making white men their friends. Not every lord is as open-minded as I. I can think of no one better than you to go to Bombay and become Boone’s best friend’
Edward smiled. ‘I’ve been missing seeing pale white faces again. But pray to tell me Surkail, why would Governor Boone want me as a friend. Why will he trust me?’
Kanhoji slipped back in his chair, cocking his head to the side. ‘New friends who expose old friends are often the best friends. Perhaps Small has outlived his importance’
Koli’s eyes widened, as did Sekhoji’s. Edward just gave a wry smile. ‘Loyalty of gold is overrated.’
‘That it is. You will go to Bombay with Koli here. You will tell Governor Boone you ran away from my service. That the Marathas are filthy beasts and Angre is an evil man who worships evil gods. You will show this letter to him, expose Small, and gain the governor’s confidence. In return for displaying such loyalty to the East India Company, Boone will award you his trust. I hope this is clear’
‘It is, Surkail’
‘Well then, you leave tonight. That is it for now’
When they left, Kanhoji turned to the blasted window, watching the clouds clear and the sun pierce through the gaps and tumble onto the open sea. The west fascinated him, as toys would fascinate an infant. He wondered if he would ever get the chance to sail far away, to lands where the white man lived. There, he would finally understand what the goras really want.