The Flower Seller of Agra

My name is Anjuli. I sell flowers on the road that leads to the Taj Mahal. In the morning, when there are fewer tourists, I sit in the sand and look at that new white palace shining in the sun, and remember. I am an old woman now, and penniless, but once I lived in the Court of Kings.

That was the Golden Age, a time when the Empire was blessed beyond all other countries of the world, when the line of the Mughal emperors was strong, and the people of India were happy. Love made it so.

The prince Khurram – Shah Jahan, as he was later known – was betrothed to Arjumand when she was just fourteen. Yet for years, he had not seen her. Then one morning he chose to walk in the market square and chanced upon his bride to be, bargaining the price of silks like a common housewife. I was her servant. I was with her that day and saw him looking at us as we laughed and talked with the vendors and the shoppers. He followed us home and kept watching from the garden. As I removed her veil, the breeze coming in through the windows blew her long hair into her eyes, and she brushed her hand through it. It was like a raven unfolding its wings for flight. I saw that Khurram could not take his eyes off her.

That evening, he sent his man to bring her to him. The valet came to me and I told Arjumand that the prince desired her presence and had sent her a nightingale as a gift. She looked at the bird in its golden cage and said, “Am I to be like this poor creature?” Then she took it out of the cage and let it fly through the open window.

The valet went back without the bird and without Arjumand. I trembled at the thought of the prince’s anger, feared for my lady’s life…and her servant’s as well. Soldiers would be at the door at any moment, I expected.

But it was Jahan himself who came. He stepped into the drawing room that was so dainty and feminine, like Arjumand herself, and overwhelmed it with his energy. He bowed to my mistress and said, “You released my nightingale, yet I am the captive one.” Then he kissed her hand and knelt at her feet.

From that day, she was destined to be the jewel in Jahan’s crown. He married her and called her Mumtaz Mahal. He was besotted with his new wife. Two other wives he had already, and children; they were all but forgotten. Everything he did now became an offering to this new wife, this girl, who commanded his life with nothing more than a smile. The building of massive forts, changes to the court, even military conquests – everything he did was for her.

I lived with her at the Royal Court. We were much the same age and as like as twin sisters in feature, although so different in fact. It is a mysterious thing, beauty. How the same eyes, the same mouth, the same curve of face and slightness of build can translate into such unique aspects in two different women, how what is so plain in one can be illuminated somehow into true loveliness in the other. Mumtaz was the perfect pearl created by a divine hand. I was simply the reflection in the mirror.

My duties were not onerous. I was her companion, her confidante, and in some ways her protector. For life at court was not peaceful. There was fury among the rest of the royal family at being deposed from Jahan’s affections so thoughtlessly.

As I quickly learned, political wives wield their power in subtle ways – through quiet alliances, by currying the affection of servants, and with maternal influence. Mumtaz was shunned by many, but her love for Jahan kept her head high. When he was at the palace, no one could touch her. But when he was away…oh then, the blades were sharpened more openly. There was one in particular who watched with needles in her eyes – Nur, a wife of Jahan’s father, Jahangir, and the real power behind the throne.

“I fear her, Anjuli,” Mumtaz said to me many times. “She knows that Jahan is strong and will one day soon become King, and then her power will be gone. She will do anything to stop me from replacing her as the chosen queen.”

I soothed her, saying, “My lady, you’re tired and imagining things. No one could wish you ill.” But I knew as she did that Nur was dangerous.

Still, the love of Jahan and my mistress became stronger year by year and they had many children together. He could not keep away from her it and no sooner did Mumtaz bring forth one baby than its successor was on the way. As their family grew, so did Jahan’s power and accomplishments in the battle field. He began to be restless to take his father’s place as the supreme ruler, and on many occasions, the voices of the two men could be heard raised in anger over some disagreement.

One day when Mumtaz was nearing the birth of yet another child, she walked with me by the stone palace wall. We talked of her hope that this latest confinement would produce a son again, and of how Jahan was even now impatient to return to her bed. We reached the steep staircase carved into the wall leading to the garden and paused to look down at the lilies and bougainvillea blooming below.

“I will pick the best for you,” I said and ran down to gather the flowers.

Just as I reached the cool grass, there was a cry from above, not a long scream, just a sharp shriek like that of a fox run to ground. I turned to see Mumtaz tumbling down the rough sandstone steps towards me.

I must have fainted, because all I remember of the rest of that night is the sense of pain and grief. For the baby was lost. Even now, so many years later, I mourn for the precious life that never was. There were other babies that did not live, but it is that one I dream of, it is that one that I’m remembering when I wake sometimes in the middle of the night with tears flowing down my cheeks.

Jahan was beside himself. Not just because of the miscarriage, but because Mumtaz clung to him that night, weeping and repeating over and over, “Khurram…she did it. She pushed me, tried to kill me! I cannot go on like this.”

There was no real proof that the fall was caused by Nur’s hand. But it was enough for Jahan that Mumtaz said it to be the truth. And when Jahangir angrily dismissed the suggestion, the rift between father and son became war. What happened then is now part of the history of the Empire.

Nur was cunning enough to know that if she lost this battle, she would lose her very freedom. Under the guise of wifely advice, she marshaled the Mughal forces against Jahan in the most ferocious manner and though his men fought bravely they were vanquished.

It was only by the grace of Jahangir that Jahan and my lady were spared the sword. Yet Nur was not satisfied. She began a new and devastating campaign – a secret friendship with their third son, Aurangzeb, who was now a young man.

What devilish ideas she put into his head, turning him against his own parents and older brothers with promises of wealth and power far beyond his natural claim. If only Jahan had taken more interest in his children’s progress. If only Mumtaz had remained at home with them instead of accompanying her beloved husband on his travels. If only…

* * *

The end of the love story came with little warning. Jahan had finally become the Emperor following the death of his father and had immediately imprisoned Nur. In 1631, he was fighting a campaign in the Deccan Plateau and Mumtaz was with him, and with child again. I was there too by her side. She was happier than she had ever been now that her sworn enemy had been declawed. Or so she thought.

When the birthing pains began, I held Mumtaz’s hands and we prayed together. As we were kneeling on the mat, a water girl came and touched my shoulder.

“A man is here,” she whispered. “He looks like a beggar, but his speech is like a noble. And he came by horse. He asks for an urgent audience with the Queen about her son.”

I was shaking my head but Mumtaz heard and said, “What is that? What son? Bring him!”

The water girl went away and came back with a tall turbaned young man. He was clearly exhausted and covered in the dust of travel. One sleeve was torn and the arm underneath

was wrapped in a stained and torn bandage.

He practically fell at my feet– at Mumtaz’s feet—and cried, “My Queen, a thousand pardons for disturbing your peace. But there is great danger on the way. My name is Nawaz. I am a guardian of the palace. I have word from the prison that your son, Aurangzeb, has been plotting with Queen Nur against Shah Jahan. They plan to take over the Peacock Throne and kill both Jahan and you, while you are here, far away from the court. Aurangzeb sent this message to his Horse Master but I intercepted it.” He held out his hand and showed her a waslis, a parchment with the words in calligraphy faint but legible.

Mumtaz crumbled before my eyes. She would not have believed it of her own son, but the words were there in the hand of a court calligrapher, the directives to the Horse Master a proof she could not dismiss. She would have fallen with shock and the pain of the babe about to be born if Nawaz had not caught her.

We placed her on her bed and I sent Nawaz away. I could not stop crying at the thought of what Nur had brought about, the bitterness that she had cultivated so long and so carefully in Aurangzeb. So artfully she would have suggested Jahan’s favoritism towards his older sons and the supposed injustices done to Nur herself. So subtly, she must have dropped veiled hints of Mumtaz’s infidelities and her belief that he, Aurangzeb, was the true heir to the throne.

“It will not end until death itself ends it,” I said.

Mumtaz knew it was the truth. She had intelligence, if I may be permitted to say that myself, intelligence and a will that matched that of her archenemy, Queen Nur. In that long night while she laboured to give life to her child, she also gave birth to a plan.

She held my hands and said over and over. “It is because of me that Nur has done this, because of her hatred and jealousy. She can stop Aurangzeb but she won’t do it until I am dead. That is the only thing that will cool her anger.

“Anjuli, you can see that, can’t you? You understand. If I were to die tonight, the country would go into mourning. Jahan would halt the campaign and return to the palace. Aurangzeb and Nur could get away with assassinating him on the battlefield, but not while he is surrounded by a wall of supporters and loyal subjects. Their plot would be found out and they themselves would be put to death. You must help me, Anjuli, tonight. For Jahan’s sake, you must do as I ask.”

The rest you know through the history books. Mumtaz Mahal did die that night…in childbirth…at least that is what the court scribes wrote. There are…were…only a few people who knew the truth. Most have gone to the holy place by now.

The doctor who prepared her body, the trusted servants who covered her face in the burial shroud, the one who opened the gate for me when I left in the early hours of morning, I swore them all to secrecy. Jahan himself never knew. His grief is there for the world to see in the white tomb that is his finest achievement.

Now, so many years later, Jahan himself is gone. Aurangzeb is Emperor.  And I? I sit here in the sand selling flowers and look upon the Taj Mahal. In the moonlight, it glows with the sheen of a pearl.

Mumtaz had intelligence and strong will, as I have said. But in the end, she did not have the courage.

No! Just this once, let me speak as myself, as the Queen I once was. I did not have courage. Try to understand when I say, I loved my little Anjuli. She was my dearest friend. I did not want to do what I did. Yet, when the time came to make that final sacrifice, I was afraid. I could not let go of life. Instead I exchanged one life for another. She was terrified, but I told her she would live forever in the world beyond this one. It was her duty to obey. We wept together even as I held the soft woolen blanket over her face.

So that night, my little servant girl – the reflection of the jewel in the mirror – became the perfect pearl. She is there still in the tomb Jahan built for me, that memorial to eternal love.

And now…my name is Anjuli. I am a flower seller. But once, I lived in the Court of Kings.