The new queen arrived astride an elephant, amidst a shower of coins, roses and lilies, glittering in gold and diamonds. She was seated in a bejewelled howdah atop the elephant, gently swaying to its motion. She looked like a jewel, radiant and dazzling. And before Meera could see her face properly, the Maharani had passed by and was headed towards the durbar hall. The crowd went berserk and broke through the security trying to gain access into the palace but was deterred by the guards with great difficulty.
Saanvali pulled Meera towards the durbar hall. The Maharani had got off the elephant and was now, flanked on both sides by courtiers, entering the hall. She walked up the few steps to the throne and took her seat beside the already seated king.
‘Let the ceremonies begin!’ the king exclaimed with a flourish of his hands. The new queen smiled and straightened up. A flicker of impatience flitted across her face, but she was quick to cover it up with a smile. It was going to be a long evening.
All the important women of the palace – relatives, wives of noblemen – came up to the queen, one by one, to bless her and offer her their gifts, who in turn, touched each platter and sent it away. She had a smile on her lips, but her eyes flickered nervously every now and then. She heaved a sigh of relief when the last person finally left, and the durbar hall suddenly reverberated with the beats of the dholaks. Within minutes, a troupe of Gari dancers swept in, their colourful ghagras swirling, and their ornaments jingling. The queen sat back and relaxed.
The evening sky had given way to a starry night. Strains of music and the rhythmic beats of dhols filled the air. The crowds slowly thinned out, and the last of the remaining citizens returned home after a day of uncontained excitement. The lamps had been lit and the illuminated palace atop the Bangra Hill cast a luminous glow for miles around.
After the dancers left, Saanvali walked up to the dais, bowed her head and folded her hands. The Maharaja turned to his new bride. ‘This is Saanvali, the best singer in Jhansee. No one can sing the Miyan ki Malhar like her,’ he said. ‘So, Saanvali, what will you sing for us today?’ Saanvali kept her head bowed. ‘It is my daughter who will dance for the new Maharani today,’ she said. Then turning to Meera who was standing behind her, she signalled for her to come forward. Meera walked up to the dais and instead of bowing her head, looked straight into the eyes of the queen.
‘Is it true that you ride horses?’ she asked curiously. The courtroom lapsed into silence. People looked at this impudent girl, aghast. Saanvali almost fainted. There was no knowing what the punishment would be for such impudence. Never before had anyone had the cheek to look straight into the queen’s eyes and demand an answer. And that too, a courtesan’s daughter!
‘Hush, hush, you wretched girl, what have you done?’ Saanvali spat through clenched teeth. Surprised, Meera looked at her mother and then turned back to the queen, waiting for an answer.
‘What is your name?’ the queen asked. Saanvali knew what that meant. Meera was now a marked girl, an offender who would be remembered for years. Saanvali fell down on her knees.
‘Please forgive her, she’s a mere girl. She is foolish and knows not what to say. Pardon her, Maharani! She will be your slave for years.’
‘Why would she be my slave? I just asked her name,’ the queen replied, puzzled at the woman’s behaviour.
‘Her name is Meera.’ The girl who stood before her reminded the queen of a peacock, her long sinewy neck rising above a slender body, draped in voluminous layers of turquoise silk, iridescent in the shower of light that fell upon her from the glass chandelier that hung directly over her head. Her tawny skin, like her sari, was luminous in the glow of the lamps. It lent softness to the otherwise stern face with a hooked nose, high cheekbones and a defiant chin. It was a face that defied servility and would have passed off as an arrogant one had it not been for Meera’s large dark eyes that sparkled with innocence.
‘She is Chandraki, my companion!’ announced Queen Lakshmibai.
Excerpted with the permission of Juggernaut Books from the book ‘The Queen’s Last Salute’ by Moupia Basu.
You can buy the book here.