Where’s the gold? He is famished.
Waris Ali Shah senses a panic rising from within his royal gut, like smoke clawing up the ramparts below. Outside the palace, across the river; farmers burn stubble left over from the year’s harvest, and a thousand fingers of flame grope upwards as though in supplication, as though in surrender.
Waris Ali Shah thinks of the Company and mumbles to himself, breathes in and out, and tries to mumble himself some more into at least a semblance of calm. He rubs his eyes; the air shimmers, and the heat stings. Yet, he can’t stop himself from looking past the walls of the palace, past the farms and the hearths and the smithies, past the irrigation channels, into a horizon that looks eclipsed. He closes his eyes, and places a hand on his chest as he continues muttering the roster of birds in the royal aviary. It’s something old Murtaza taught him long ago, a technique to puncture anxiety as it balloons inside. Names roll off his tongue; darters and floricans, coots, rollers and hornbills, barbets and woodpeckers, and the cramp in his gut finally condenses into a sour resignation.
Waris Ali Shah – he’s the son of Haider Ali Shah who won an impossible decree from the Mughal emperor in Delhi that transformed the Ali Shahs from governors to kings, from diwans to nawabs, and the grandson of Zulfiqar Ali Shah, Machiavellian diwan of the province of Doabi, dynast extraordinaire, most dependable tributary to the peacock throne, tracing his line back to the great Safavids of Persia, through Bukhara and Samarkand, to Khorasan.
Waris Ali Shah, the waris, or heir, with heredity his identity, lent existence for the sole purpose of continuing the line, the only son of his illustrious father. A trustee, a caretaker, a courier carrying the crown from the ancestor to the descendant, a vessel for the royal seed. Yet, here he was, the last of his line, a Waris with no waris of his own. Hence, a king to soon be without a kingdom, to be orphaned.
Waris Ali Shah, nawab of Doabi, sighs as he turns away from the jharokhas, their multifoil arches reaching up three-man-high, and returns to his sanctuary, cool and curtained. His sofa is made of weathered rosewood and carved ivory and inlaid emerald. It is surprisingly lavish, he concedes, as his fingers brush against the polished armrests. A gift from the austere Aurangzeb to his equally austere father, who once sucked the joy out of all that was beautiful and exquisite and fragile in his childhood by insisting on duty and piety, always. He can still hear the man, now in the company of his maker, booming over the flails of his scared little son who would rather play with the butterflies in the royal gardens than rote his statecraft lessons or practice sword-thrusts.
Waris Ali Shah strokes his beard with one hand and the velvet on the sofa-cushions with the other. His knees are stiff from arthritis, his ankles inflamed with gout, and his stomach tender from last night’s kababs of minced lamb in oyster-and-mustard. He drops himself on the sofa without so much as bending a single joint below his waist and falling back, bumps his head against the headrest of black marble.
“Aah!” cries Waris Ali, partly in pain and partly in irritation at that unknown craftsman who has used marble when he should have used cotton and silk and rabbit fur. Who makes headrests of marble?
His attendant scurries in, a mole of a man, half the size of the nawab.
“Jee huzoor?” he squeaks.
“Go check if lunch is ready,” snaps Waris Ali and waves him off, reluctant to let him linger and start with his usual litany of petty complaints.
Today, he wants peace; today is a tragic day, today is a historic day. That bastard Cornwallis will be here today. The Company will devour Doabi today.
But not before Waris Ali has immortalized himself.
His stomach grumbles. Maybe he should go check on the kitchen himself.
The kitchen is two floors below his chambers and just one wing away, and as he climbs down the steps, he remembers the day of his coronation. What a day, he smiles; within the first hour of the grand ceremony, to the bewilderment of all his officials, he had dictated that the royal kitchen be moved closer to his private quarters, closer than even his court. Since then, the pull of the kitchen has grown ever stronger – nearness makes the heart grow fonder. If it were up to him, Waris Ali would spend all his time in his beloved kitchen, with his khansamas. So talented are they that they can take one single look at their nawab’s face and, like djinns from the Arabian Nights, conjure up magical delicacies that transform his mood, lift his spirits. So unlike his courtiers, talentless and boring, utter sycophants all, incapable of thinking a single new thought even if their lives depended on it.
As he comes upon the first floor, he can already imagine the scenes in the kitchen, and he hurries. The rest of the establishment he has allowed to be pared down to the bone; in any case, he doesn’t have much choice, with the Company approving the purchase of so much as a muslin towel for his bath. But he has insisted on running the kitchen, full capacity. He had to fight that bastard Cornwallis for it, and Cornwallis had to give in.
The sweet sounds of the kitchen swarm up to him as he nears, of copper and iron and brass, of ceramic and crystal and china, clank and sizzle, clink and splatter, a veritable orchestra.
And then, the smells. They grow more robust – scents of garam masala and turmeric and chilly, aromas of exquisite marinades that take days to prepare, of sauces and chutneys, with ingredients sourced not just from all over the sub-continent but also from Central Asia and Tibet, of zaffran from Persia and zaitoon from Andalusia, of fenugreek and cumin and asafoetida, of basil and cardamom and curry leaves. All expertly wielded by twelve cooks hand-picked over a lifetime (a couple even poached from the Mughal kitchens) and especially Murshid, his Murshid, who elevates food to an art-form, always eager to caress all his senses, and seize him in a heavenly embrace, here on earth, paradise indeed – Jannat!
If there is a heaven, it is here, it is here, it is here, in the kitchen of Waris Ali Shah.
Murshid is the son of Murtaza, the grand old khansama who once served under Waris Ali’s father. Murtaza, who always saved the little Waris Ali from the senior Ali Shah’s fits of rage, letting him hide in the spice cabinets, always giving him a scrumptious jalebi to munch on while the father-nawab found something else on which to rain down his anger and it was safe again for the boy to venture out. Murshid, roughly the same age, often joined him inside the cabinets then. They played together, safely ensconced in the pungent darkness of the cabinets.
“What’s for lunch, Murshid?” asks Waris Ali, as he enters the kitchen.
“Mutton Rezala, Waris,” Murshid replies.
Murshid understands him like no one else. Mutton Rezala is the nawab’s favorite – lamb in a creamy curry of cashews and poppy seeds, an aphrodisiac for the soul, to be had with the classic dum biryani, of long-grained basmati rice with cloves and cinnamon. Of course, this is only the main course; the nawab’s meals usually comprise three.
“And what sherbet?” asks Waris Ali, looking forward to his sherbet of the day, chilled concoctions that Murshid stirs up, from watermelon and berries and mangoes and mint, in crushed ice.
He loves to go over the menu of the day as he does through the meal, strolling through the courses as they are brought to him. But today, he is impatient. “And is the desert…,” he begins before Murshid can reply. It is then that they are interrupted quite unceremoniously, by his wazir barging in, panting.
“A million apologies, huzoor, but he’s here,” the wazir says.
That bastard Cornwallis was supposed to have arrived by sun-down for the handover ceremony, but just like the surprise that the East India Company has sprung upon the whole sub-continent, Cornwallis too has turned up unannounced, wrecking expectations, overturning plans.
“The Company,” mumbles Waris Ali, with a sigh.
As much as he wants to avoid thinking about the Company, it haunts his thoughts like a ghoul. An inheritance, like most everything else, the Company was an accursed presence during his grandfather’s court, and his father’s as well. And while these warrior-guardians busied themselves in whispered intrigues of the imperial court in Delhi, the Company kept chipping away at Doabi. Company agents extracted trade concessions, set up trading ports on Yamuna’s tributaries, and fortified the ports with arms and men imported from across the seas, while buttering up the Ali Shahs with flattery and sweet deceit. The previous Ali Shahs, though, statesmen and military minds, had kept a lid on Company shenanigans with their armies and heirs, and the backing of the emperor.
But today, the Mughal emperor is a puppet himself in the hands of the Company and Waris Ali, neither statesman nor warrior, is already its vassal. Further, the Doabi army is little more than a marching band, and there is no heir.
Yet, the Company’s appetite is not sated. The more it gets, the more it wants.
It claims over Doabi the dreaded doctrine of lapse – no male heir, no princely status, hence assimilation into empire, annihilation from history.
So, today, Waris Ali, seventh in the line of the magnificent Ali Shahs and also the last, is to sign off on the abolishment of his princely state of Doabi and surrender to the Company all his territories. Doabi is to be integrated into the North-East Provinces and administered by Cornwallis, the provincial Governor. Today, Waris Ali is to step down as nawab and accept exile in Calcutta for the rest of his life, in the shadow of Fort William, to subsist on a meagre pension promised by Cornwallis.
But Waris Ali has extracted one concession from the Company – he can still keep his kitchen and his khansamas in Calcutta.
“Huzoor?” asks the wazir, always hesitant to interrupt the nawab’s long and silent reminiscences.
“Take him to his quarters,” says the nawab.
“Let him wait,” he adds, and dismisses the wazir.
He doesn’t care enough anymore; let them all feel insulted. He is going to be an ordinary pensioner from tomorrow and doesn’t have to keep up the pretense of aristocratic courtesy.
But he knows; Cornwallis is not one to stay in his quarters for long. That man is always in a hurry and will be down here in no time, breathe down his neck, and make him sign all of the handover documents and treaties. As if he were a spice merchant, here to land himself an annual contract for saffron.
Waris Ali loses whatever appetite he came with. He knows that there is often an inevitability to history that even the most kite-eyed fail to catch; the wheels of destiny thwart any individual attempt to steer them, and the tiller throws off any hand placed on its beam. But to be reminded of this, of the end of it all, right before the high point of his day, and in such a vulgar rush, is a bit much.
He will skip lunch, he decides, only have desserts; he has ordered the special one made today.
“Is the dessert ready?” he asks.
“Yes, Waris, but…,” replies Murshid.
That reminds him; he calls the wazir back.
“Is the gold here?” the nawab asks.
“Jee huzoor,” says the wazir.
“What are you waiting for then, the apocalypse?” asks Waris Ali Shah.
“A million apologies, huzoor. I’ll have the gold brought here, immediately,” says the wazir and hurries off.
“Hmm,” says Waris Ali. He pulls Murshid along as he hobbles towards the dessert-khana, “let’s go see how our dessert has come about.”
It is a dream dreamt by the nawab himself, seeded during his long conversations with Murshid in the dead of night, on the nature of the world and of life itself. He has named it the Shahi Tukda, a royal fragment. Murshid argued for a more grandiose name, but Waris Ali wants one that can be easily remembered and pronounced by prince and mendicant alike, to go with a dessert to be enjoyed by prince and mendicant alike.
And today, at his insistence, Murshid has given his fantasy life, sweet life.
That the rest of the khansamas don’t get it, Waris Ali knows. They are amazed and disappointed that their chief has consented to such a simplistic, gaudy dessert and even more appalled that their nawab has been behind the whole endeavour. After all, he has the most refined of tastes, the most discerning of palates, and is one who can distinguish between a dozen flavors of tea just by sniffing in the direction of a kettle. He, who can recognize honey adulterated with caramel by tasting only the tiniest of drops, a gourmand the likes of which the Mughal empire has not seen. That Waris Ali Shah, nawab of Doabi – has in his heart such a crude preparation makes his khansamas shake their heads and rue on their inability to understand their nawab – one who is on the verge of giving up his kingdom and yet cares on this very last day of his kingship, for a dessert.
But it is here in his palace that he is still the nawab, and if this is his last memorable act, so be it. Waris Ali has decided; what could be more worthwhile than to be immortalized in a dessert? Kingdoms come and go, empires rise and fall, kings taste glory and then bite the dust of oblivion, but food is the eternal blessing of the almighty, and an exquisite dessert the very essence of a gastronomic universe.
As they reach the dessert-khana, the rest of the khansamas stand silently by, a little hesitant, but Murshid presses the nawab’s hand, and a renewed assuredness flows into Waris Ali.
He stands with Murshid, looking at the row of a dozen silver plates before them, each with a single Shahi Tukda – a fried slice of bread soaked with sugar syrup, saffron-infused and spiced with cardamom, overspread with sweetened cream, and garnished with mango and strands of saffron.
Memories of jalebis and spice cabinets well up inside Waris Ali, and he brushes off a tear.
Murshid watches the nawab and places his hand around him, holds him.
There is a commotion at the door. The wazir is back.
“Huzoor,” says the wazir, “the gold is here.”
Aah, the gold!
Waris Ali turns around and walks to the dining table.
Murshid follows, carrying a silver plate, picked up from the dozen plates. As Waris Ali takes a seat at the table, Murshid presents the nawab with the Shahi Tukda, takes the box of gold from the wazir’s man, and places it before Waris Ali. It is a wooden box, with red and gold lacquer and a lid on top, hinged.
He opens the box.
They all wait.
Inside are a set of gold leaves, each sandwiched in fine butter paper, made by hammering a small gold nugget between thick wads of calf leather, by smiths working in shifts, without a break, over six days and seven nights. Only one establishment in the whole of Doabi can create such gold leaves, thinner than silk, and Waris Ali has had a dozen made, costing him a small fortune.
He picks up the first two sheets of butter paper, with the gold leaf between them, and places the set on his palm. Then he holds his breath and gingerly peels away the upper layer. The leaf below is so thin that it is impossible to lift up from the base paper; one risks crumbling it to gold dust at the lightest touch. Waris Ali carefully places the paper on the slice of bread, leaf down, lets it adhere to the cream, and lifts up the paper.
“Huzoor, should I…” the wazir begins to talk, but Murshid holds him by the arm and silences him.
This is a sacred moment for Waris Ali.
This is the moment that will be recorded in his Waris-nama, the chronicles of his life, and will reverberate for generations to come, every time someone helps themselves to his creation.
But first, a taste.
Waris Ali takes a soft bite, into sweet cream and saffron-cardamom, and turns towards Murshid, his lips aglitter.
A hush falls over the entire kitchen.
Waris Ali Shah, at long last, has an heir, a fragment of him, the last fragment of royalty.
Rahul Kanvinde is a consulting professional based out of Bombay, and has had one flash piece published in a magazine called The Chakkar.