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Chapter 4. Ismail

TMO-KANHOJI ANGRE

‘I hope they have something better in Bombay. The swill they serve is…’ Edward grimaced, smelling the madsaar in the glass. He lay on Koli’s bed, his hands cupped around the glass as he basked in the sun spilling into the room.

Koli was busy stuffing a new set of clothes in his shoulder bag. Sekhoji had been kind enough to gift a complete set of new dhotis and kurtas, along with a new belt bag. He half-listened to Edward, and half nodded. The only thing he hated more than traveling in the sea was traveling in the sea with someone else. He believed he thrived alone, and the prospect of traveling with Edward already troubled him.

‘You’re the quiet type eh?’ Edward said. ‘No matter. Say, have you met this Small chap?’

‘No’ Koli replied.

‘Does he have a wife?’

Koli frowned. ‘Yes. Why?’

‘Nothing’ Edward said, giving a strange smile. ‘Did you see any women there?’

‘Women?’

‘Yes. Women.’

Koli frowned again. ‘There are women everywhere, and yes, there are women in Bombay’

‘What about the brothels?’

Koli feared the conversation was headed in this direction. ‘I don’t know’

Edward smiled. ‘Ah, the shy Maratha boy. You must be taught the ways of men’

Koli stuffed the last dhoti in his belt bag and tied it. ‘Let’s go’

The two left the room and set out to for the shore. The road was largely empty, only the odd malik or guard passing by. The walls as ever were guarded by the vigilant archers and artillerymen. When they reached the stairway outside the fort, Edward stopped to take a breath.

‘I’ve been holed up in taverns and haughty dinners for too long. Even a short walk has become exasperating. Anyway, how are we going to Bombay?’

‘There’s a merchant ship about to leave for Colaba. We’ll go to Colaba first and then take a boat to Bombay. I will brief you about our system on the way.’

‘System?’ Edward asked, catching his breath.

‘Yes. I’m not a man traveling alone in the sea. We have a system in Bombay. A system of the right men in the right places to get the right information. Get it?’

Edward nodded vaguely, a little overwhelmed by Koli’s explanation. Until then, Koli hadn’t noticed the paunch of a belly Edward had. His square, pale face almost betrayed his obvious lack of fitness. They started walking again after a while, Edward thankful that the stairs were descending down to the shore. The Englishman kept running the wineskin down his throat.

At the shore, a well-dressed malik awaited them, standing by a fishing boat.

‘I’ve been waiting for an hour’ the malik said when the two men came. ‘Here, the letter has instructions from Sarkhel’

Koli grabbed the letter, opened its seal and went through it. He then passed the letter to Edward.

‘I can’t read Marathi’ Edward said. ‘What does it say?’

Koli eyed the malik and tore the letter to shreds. ‘Let’s get on the boat first’

The malik helped them embark from the shores, and rowed them to a ship floating near the coast. A rope ladder was lowered from the vessel. Koli directed Edward to climb the ship and then followed him up. The captain was waiting for them at the bow.

‘Welcome to KumkumJaan’ the captain said and led the two men to their quarters. Once inside, Edward asked him about the letter again.

‘It’s about the ships. Sarkhel wants to know about the ships and weapons they’re building’

Edward gave a slight nod and crashed onto his bunk bed. Having finished his wine, he was quick to fall asleep. Koli was glad to see his compatriot quiet. He could return to atleast maintaining the facade of traveling alone. He took out his own wineskin, of which he hadn’t drunk any and sat down upright on his own bunk. The sound of the crew’s rabbling soon died as the ship began moving. The familiar whiff of salt and fish filled the cabin and made Koli depressed. How he wished his father to have allowed him to fight Aurangzeb.

***

In the dream, he was swimming. Every stroke he made, lunging forward in the water, his arm ached. The shore was in sight, but it had been so for a long time.

After a while, he began to wonder if he was even getting close to the shore. He had heard stories about people getting lost in forests and circling back to the same spot over and over.

He vehemently dismissed the idea, partly because if the idea was true, he would drown soon.

He slammed the water with his arms as he kept lunging himself forward. At one point, he marveled at his own stamina. ‘It’s the fear of death’ he thought to himself. ‘It is what keeps my hands and feet moving’

His fears of not moving forward soon died away. A gentle shift in the tide swept him forward with a force and threw him over the shore. He coughed, spitting out the salt he felt swarming in his throat and belly. When he looked up, he saw a hut and a man emerging from it. The man wore a white kurta and dhoti.

‘Who are you?’ the man asked.

‘Kanhoji Angre. Where am I?’

The man looked at him closely. ‘Survarnadurg. You are one of Mohite’s men’

Kanhoji nodded.

‘I heard he surrendered to Khairat Khan’

Kanhoji nodded. ‘I need a place to hide. Khan’s men, they’re after me’

The man eyed him again as if he could assess Kanhoji’s character by staring at him. ‘Come’ the man said, guiding him into the hut.

Kanhoji walked inside, checking his scabbard and dagger to see if they were in place.

The shanty hut had a bed, some utensils, a bucket lying in the corner, and a candle standing on a wet decaying wooden table in the corner. A boy, no more than ten, sat on the bed, eying Kanhoji with suspicion.

‘I am Ismail’ the man said, motioning Kanhoji to sit down. ‘Water?’

Kanhoji nodded, sitting down on the mud floor. Ismail gave him a cup of water from the earthen pot.

‘What is happening out there?’ Ismail asked.

Kanhoji drained the cup and set it down. ‘Khan is about to begin the siege. Our fleet has been destroyed. Our men are scattered.’

‘Mohite has surrendered?’

Kanhoji turned to look down at the ground, nodding his head.

‘So that’s it? We lost?’ Ismail asked.

‘No’ barked Kanhoji. He needed to believe, it was always his only problem. The ability to accept imminent defeat was lost upon him.

Ismail grazed his hand on Kanhoji’s shoulder, caressing it in pity. ‘You must have fought bravely. You needn’t worry though. There will be more battles to come. For now, you need to hide’

The sound of footsteps approaching came and sprang Kanhoji into a defensive posture as he moved his hand over his scabbard.

‘No’ Ismail said. ‘Hide under the bed.’

Kanhoji heeded to the man’s advice and crawled under the bed. Ismail placed a jute bag in front of the bed, hiding him. Through the small holes of the bag,   Kanhoji saw two men walking into the hut, armored and armed.

‘Eh chacha. Did you see anyone coming in?’

‘No.’ Ismail said in a firm tone. ‘Who are you? You don’t look from around here?’

‘You must be living under a rock. We are from Jinji. One of our men claims a man washed up here. Did you see him?’

‘No shriman. I didn’t see anyone’

One of them walked into the hut, staring at the modest facilities. ‘What is this?’ the man asked, holding up a book.

‘What do you mean?’ Ismail said. ‘It’s the Quran’

‘You are Muslim?’

‘Well, I don’t read the Quran for literary purposes’ Ismail said.

‘AEY! Just answer the damn question’

Ismail took a step back towards the jute bag. ‘Yes. I am Muslim’

The man holding up the Quran exhaled sharply. ‘And you slave away for the Marathas’

Ismail chuckled. ‘I am no slave. Your king would make me run across the land fighting endless wars. Here, I have a steady home. I am happy where I am’

The man was about to reach for his scabbard but was stopped by his compatriot. ‘No need. Once we take the fort, there wouldn’t be any need. We will teach these fools a lesson then’

The two men stomped off, Ismail stepping out of his hut to see them walk away. When they were out of sight, he asked Kanhoji to come out.

‘Dhanyavad’ Kanhoji said.

Ismail smiled and patted his shoulder. ‘We are under attack. How can I turn over one of my own people?’

Ismail later cooked broth on his chula. He served some to Kanhoji and the boy.

‘Your boy’ Kanhoji asked. ‘What is his name?’

Ismail turned to him, opened his mouth, and mumbled something indescribable. Kanhoji felt his body being warped into the ground, his legs jerking while his hands were paralyzed. His eyes blurred and the dream ended. He was back in bed in Survarnadurg.

‘The name’ he murmured. ‘What was his name?’

He coughed, screeching as he cupped his palm over his mouth. As the cough began to hurt his throat, Kanhoji kicked the bed covers away and left the bed. He sat down on the chair across the window and drank a glass of water. The whiff of breeze soothed against his sweaty body. The coughing stopped after. He glanced his palm, noticing blood mixed with phlegm. ‘What fresh hell is this?’

Kanhoji washed the blood away, dismissing it as nothing but an aberration. Too much time near the sea, he thought. Perhaps I should visit Delhi as a shanti doot. Some sunshine wouldn’t hurt.

He returned to the chair across the window, parking his feet at the window sill. ‘What was the boy’s name?’ he asked, looking intently at the night sky. He hoped the answer would come, like a shot of thunder to his head. And yet, nothing came. All he remembered was Ismail and his son, the people who saved his life.

And he remembered how he stood by while his fellow soldiers slaughtered them.

***

Aslam was welcomed to Bombay with the smell of sweat and salt and a vicious lash of thunder. He covered his head with a cloak and disembarked from the ship.

Everywhere he looked, he saw white faces. Early on in life, the white face intimidated him. They had a strange calm in them, a self-assuredness he never found in his fellow brown brother’s wrinkled faces.

Aslam was careful to maintain a steady gait. He kept looking at the ground, careful not to trip over a rope or chest and fall on the wet and muddy wooden wharf.

The path curved as the shore drew near and diverged into two roads leading into the town. Aslam turned to the street on the left and entered the town. Most shops and houses were closed shut, no noise coming except that of ship crews running from and to the wharf.

He walked further into the city, a clear destination in his head. The more he got inside, the darker the city became. At the dockyard, there was atleast the modicum of light from the moon. In the city, nothing. Only the occasional flicker of a candle from a window, but nothing more.

Aslam stopped at one point and turned to face left. An old grim cottage stood in front of him, covered half by a decaying tree, and the other half seemed like a sand castle about to be brought down by a wave.

He walked onto the porch of the house and knocked on the door.

‘Wait’ a voice said. Aslam turned left and saw a woman sitting on a chair at the porch. ‘Its this way’ she said, pointing left. Aslam followed her direction and came upon a stairway to the basement of the house. He walked down.

At the end of the stairway was a table behind which sat another woman, not as old as the one sitting outside. Behind her was a red satin curtain. Aslam could hear giggles and murmurs coming from behind the curtain. He shifted the cloak to hang over half his face.

‘Welcome’ the old woman croaked. ‘Sit’

Aslam sat down on the chair.

‘Water?’ the woman asked. ‘Or something stronger?’

Aslam cocked his head sideways. The woman turned around towards the curtain and shouted. ‘SALMA’

A young girl, no more than seventeen, emerged from the curtain. She wore a saffron robe over her thin, malnourished body. ‘Bring a flagon of ale for shriman here’

‘Ale?’ Aslam murmured.

‘It’s a new drink. The goras brought it here. Its better than the shit we were used to’

Aslam nodded. Salma came back with a flagon of ale and a cup and poured him one. She eyed Aslam, who stared back at her blankly.

‘Leave us’ the old woman said. Salma walked back behind the curtain.

Aslam took a sip and then shook his head. ‘It’s good. Not bitter like madsaar. No customers this night?’

‘On wet nights like these, men find their wives suitable enough. Business or pleasure?’ the old woman asked.

‘Both, but let’s talk business first. I hear a new Governor has arrived’

‘Boone’ the old woman said. ‘Yes. A new man. An interesting man. Walls are being erected, ships are being built, every day I hear new things. Someone told me they are bringing new cannons too, ones which would turn all those Maratha forts to dust. I wonder if this Boone will do your job for you’

‘No’ retorted Aslam. ‘No. I won’t let him. Angre is mine’

‘Shouldn’t you be in one of his forts then, waiting to plunge a knife in his heart’

‘I was’ Aslam said, taking a sip from the cup. ‘But Angre surrounds himself with capable men. Even when he ventures out, there is a line of bowmen surrounding the area. He’s impossible to kill in his fortified forts’

‘Poison then. Should be easy enough?’

Aslam looked at her and shook his head. ‘Why would I poison him? So easy.’

‘So you had the chance to poison him, but you passed it up? I warned you about emotions’

‘This is all about emotions. If you must know, I have done something to cause him some pain. He must be coughing up blood by now’

‘Slow poison? The woman asked. Aslam nodded.

‘Men like him cough blood as easily as they take their next shit. You need to do something more’

Aslam nodded. ‘That is why I am here. To meet your governor. If its a lion I must ride to get what my heart desires, a lion I will ride.’

‘Meet Boone? How do you suppose you will meet him?’

Aslam shrugged. ‘Old fashioned ways are often the best ways.’

The old woman chuckled. ‘Yes. Yes, they are. I assume you want information?’

Aslam leaned forward. ‘A day ago, two men arrived in Colaba. A white man and someone from around here. They came from Survarnadurg. They later took a boat to Bombay. By all estimates, they should already be here. I have seen the white man before in Survarnadurg’

‘So you think Angre sent them?’

‘In the Arabian Sea, even a fish doesn’t slip into a net without Angre’s permission. This man accompanying the gora, he is Angre’s spy. A Koli.  So why is a spy coming with a white man?’

The woman leaned back in her chair. ‘Angre wants someone close to Boone. He knows the Koli is too brown for Boone’s trust. So he is sending a white man along. But why does he think Boone will trust a random gora?’

‘Maybe Angre’s gora is bringing along some information, information Boone will much like to know. Angre is betting Boone to trust his gora in exchange for the information he brings.’

The woman’s face froze. She took the cup of ale from Aslam’s hand and took a sip. ‘The shoe fits the princess then’

Aslam’s eyes widened. ‘What do you know?’

‘I know a man in Boone’s personal staff is up to something fishy. He recently sold off an antique Mughal necklace to one of those smugglers from Surat. But Angre, this goes farther than I had imagined. Angre has men everywhere’

‘Who? Who is this man?’

‘Boone’s secretary. Mr. Small’

Aslam turned away, staring at the ground as if he was processing the information. ‘So Small is Angre’s spy. He probably passed information onto the Koli who then took these messages to Angre. Then Angre sends Koli back here along with one of his gora men. He wants to supplant one spy with another, probably because he doesn’t trust Small completely. Loyalty bought with gold is not loyalty at all.  A brilliant move. It’s a pity though, that we will thwart his plans in the crib’

The old woman nodded and clapped her hands. ‘On to pleasure then. Salma?’

Salma emerged from the curtain again. Aslam rose and clasped her hand. She pulled him behind the curtain, into a maze of more curtains until she stopped and drew one to the side.

Inside was a cushioned bed. Aslam followed Salma inside and watched as she spread herself on the bed, slowly removing her robe.

Aslam turned his back to Salma and lowered his cloak before removing his kurta and dhoti. ‘Turn around’ he said.

‘What?’ Salma said.

‘You don’t want to see my face, turn around’

Salma turned around, facing the wall as Aslam turned around.

‘What’s wrong with your face?’ Salma asked.

‘Shh’ Aslam said, grazing his hand over her bare back.

It was a long time since he’d been with a woman. He tried to enjoy it, to feel the blood pumping through his body, but something was wrong. He spread his body over Salma, hoping the smell of lavender from her skin would awaken something in him. Nothing.

‘Not now’ Aslam said, jumping from the bed and turning around. Not now, Aslam thought. Not until I get what my heart truly desires.

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