1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 26
Surat to Agra
The leader of the guards the diwan had sent along with them was clearly upset, and it didn’t look like a simple temper tantrum brought on by the heat of the afternoon.
John looked hopefully at the approaching weather front. It had been either been oppressively hot or pouring with rain every day they’d been in India, neither of which conditions were tailored to please a West Virginian. To add insult to already-abused sensibilities, the men in charge of the caravanserai they’d rested at last night since leaving Surat all claimed this was an unusually hot and dry September.
“What is it, Iqtadar?” John asked, through Angelo.
“Your women, they must be covered. They must not be allowed to lead my men into unclean thoughts, or there will be consequences this one,” Angelo gestured at the Afghan, “will not be blamed for.”
“Pardon?” John said, anger spiking.
Without looking, Iqtadar pointed back along the line of riders to where the ladies were. Angelo toned down the angry snarl falling from the guard captain’s lips and calmly translated: “Your women must cover themselves.”
John looked over. Ilsa had removed her hat and was fanning herself with it. Her blonde hair shone in the sunlight like a halo. She was, in every way that mattered, his angel.
“I am sorry,” John said, dragging his gaze from the love of his life and knowing he wasn’t at his best: “We do not keep…”
“Purdah,” Angelo supplied.
“Right, we do not ‘keep’ our women in purdah. We cannot…No, we won’t even try, to force them into a life of such restriction.”
Iqtadar did not look pleased, and spat something angry.
Angelo looked less sanguine this time: “Iqtadar claims he will not be responsible for what happens if you cannot control your women.”
“Is that a fucking threat?”
Angelo held up his hands and spoke over John’s outburst, “Please, Signor Ennis, calmly…These armed men who are helping us in our travels are not asking for anything exceptional or improper under the laws and customs of this place.”
“Customs and laws that treat women like property!” John spat.
A sweating Rodney rode up at that moment. “What’s up?”
John hiked a thumb at their guard, “Iqtadar here was just telling me how the women got to get covered up.”
Rodney shrugged. “Thought that might be a problem.”
“Not ours, that’s for sure! It’s not like they’re running around in god-damn bikinis or something!”
Another maddening shrug. “Different standards, man.”
John lost it: “Which standards? The ones that allow a man to fucking own another human being? Or the standards that allow one guy to cut the nads off a kid so they can make ’em acceptable company for the women they keep shut up and behind walls their entire lives? Tell me, please!”
Everyone within earshot was staring at him now, but the anger wouldn’t be stopped: “Fuck. Their. Standards.”
“Um, please don’t translate that, Angelo,” Rodney said into the silence that followed John’s tirade.
“Oh, I think Iqtadar has the gist of it,” Angelo said.
With a savage pull at the reins, Iqtadar turned horse and galloped back toward the rear of the caravan, passing the women of the mission.
Conferring a moment, Ilsa and Priscilla rode forward to meet their husbands.
“What’s wrong?” Ilse asked.
John, feeling like a just-cracked pressure cooker, could only shake his head. He could feel Rodney’s eyes on him, willing him to get a grip.
“The guards ain’t happy with you ladies going uncovered,” Rodney said.
“Well then,” Ilsa said, looking to Priscilla for support, “we’ll just have to cover up.”
Priscilla nodded agreement. “Good thing Monique bought us all burqas in Surat.”
“I…” John tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come out.
God, am I this fucked up? First I lose it over this bullshit, then I can’t even explain it…
Ilsa looked at him fondly then reached out a hand and squeezed his forearm. “We knew when we came that things would be different here.” She nodded at Priscilla. “We even talked about it coming here. We can’t stop and attack this kind of thing head-on every time we’re confronted with it, certainly not here, with people we don’t have any hope of convincing. Maybe, when we get to court, if there’s a safe opening, we can try and turn the lights on for someone in power. Someone who can effect real change. But for now we can’t risk our safety or that of the entire mission just because some locals want women to conform to their idea of modesty.
“Even back in the USE some people still have foolish, shitty ideas about how proper women should behave.”
Priscilla snorted. “Up-time, too!”
Ilsa’s light laughter soothed him, even as her use of the profanity indicated just how deeply she felt about the situation; John might curse all the time, but she rarely indulged.
“It’s not a problem we’re here to take on. Not directly, anyway. Seriously, it’s not a problem, right, Priss?”
“You bet…Aside from the fashion,” Priscilla said.
“What’s that?” Rodney asked.
Priscilla put on a British accent: “Well, I very much doubt our burqas will be the height of fashion when we arrive in the capital. We colonials are so easy to look down on, what with our simple speech and provincial ways!”
“Frightfully so, daaahling,” Ilsa said.
John smiled. His German-born wife had always loved the regional accents of English speakers, and her snobbish Englishwoman was even better than Priscilla’s. He felt himself slowly unlock, the warm banter between friends and wife easing his mind.
* * *
“Could it get any wetter?” Monique asked, shifting her entirely insufficient umbrella to her other hand and pulling at her burqa in another vain attempt at finding shelter for her dampest parts.
As if listening to her, the rain chose that moment to increase from the hours-long soaking drizzle to a heavy downpour.
She sighed. “Silly question: of course it can.”
“Indeed it can,” her father mumbled from his own misery, replacing the lens covers on his borrowed binoculars. He was completely enamored of the things, borrowing Rodney’s pair every chance he had. Never mind that the terrain had hardly changed in the last week; forested hills to their south and west marching unending along the gently sloping plain they rode north and eastward.
Angelo spilled water from his riding hat, spoke up. “Ah, India in the monsoon, such a joy and pleasure.”
Seeking distraction, Monique said, “Those soldiers, the ones who challenged us yesterday, they didn’t look like our escorts.”
More water spilled from Angelo’s hat as he nodded. “They were Mewaris, a Rajput caste.”
“Aren’t Rajputs an ethnic group, like Sicilians?” she asked.
“Not…exclusively. Rajputs are the traditional ruling caste — have been for as long as anyone recalls. So the Mewari are, well, I guess the closest thing would be…a clan of Rajputs. And the Mewaris have their own dynasty of kings.”
Angelo shook his head. “Most Rajputs, including the Mewari, remain Hindu. Some have converted to Islam, though.”
“In exchange for the right to rule?” Monique asked. Central Europe had been savagely divided by differences between the religions of its people and that of its princes often enough in the last decades. People being people, she figured Indians were similarly motivated.
“No. Akbar and Jahangir were both very conciliatory toward the Hindus and Sikhs, treating them quite reasonably.”
“Who were they?” Gervais asked.
“The present emperor’s grandfather and father, respectively.”
“All right…getting back to the Rajputs: how is it they’ve come to rule subject kingdoms rather than their kingdoms being ruled directly from the emperor’s Court?”
“The Rajputs in general have long been respected for their fierce warrior practices and the Rajput kingdoms successfully resisted the Mughals for a very long time.” He scratched his sodden beard, “If I recall correctly, Mewar only became part of the empire about fifteen years ago, making peace with Emperor Jahangir. As with most peace agreements hereabouts, it was sealed with marriages and tribute.”
He grinned. “The Mughals have won so many kingdoms in this way, I daresay the emperor’s family have as much or more Rajput blood in their veins as Persian and Mongol.”