My Telegraph has closed down and its competition is homeless. For now we are communicating via Facebook and WordPress, putting our pieces into the mix and carrying on as normal. The Daily Telegraph is not going to reopen its blogging platform any time soon. The theme for this month’s competition is Time Travel. The following piece can be read without the introduction, which gives a historical setting to my tale. Length, including introduction: 3,000 words. The site link for the contest is
The Moghul period saw a late flowering of Turco-Persian influence. Like the Khwarezmian Empire, the Mamlukes and the later Ottomans, it was a slave empire, sweeping away kingdoms and realms. It was also an outgrowth of the Central Asian nomadic tribes with a Persian overlay. The nomads were largely animists until the time of Genghis Khan. The Ili is a river system in former Kara Khitai / Dzungaria (now Xinkiang). A little appreciated fact is the position of women and girls in the nomad way of life; they enjoyed freedoms which were denied them by more ‘civilised’ peoples; we now know that 20% of nomad warriors were female.
At its height, the Moghul Empire covered much of what is now India. Shah Jahan (Mirza Shahabuddin Baig Muhammad Khan Shah Jahan) ruled during the golden age of Moghul architecture. He erected the Taj Mahal when his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal (born: Arjumand Banu Begum) died in childbirth. She was 38 and on her fourteenth child. Here she is a streetwise princess. Along the way, rags to riches is turned on its head. Amibanu is a Farsi (or Persian) compound of Ami + Banu. Meaning: Sparkling Lady.
I was weak and felt bloated.
“She waits. Hurry.” That was Jahan. The Emperor.
Footsteps shuffled quickly into my chamber. Another spasm wracked me. I cried out. My body didn’t want to play ball. My maids ushered them in. I was back in the birthing position. This wasn’t entirely new to me. If you’re asking, yes, that’s a big downside to being the Emperor’s favourite. Definitely not recommended – but never complain, keep it to yourself. Still, I commanded the maids to ensure only my face was visible. There was no time to powder up and primp. Sweat would dissolve that anyway.
Jahan spoke, “Oh Amibanu, love of my life, vision of all that is fair under the sun, moon and stars…” he went on at length and I felt like telling him to follow his own advice and get on with it; I was in the middle of childbirth and he was practising speeches – who did he think I was, his Prime Minister? Fortunately, a strange, harsh voice with the accents of the steppes, broke in, “Be present oh Emperor but I implore silence.”
That sounded like he meant business. I’d had enough of apothecaries already so what did this one want?
“My queen and treasure, I beg your forbearance in this matter but I have endeavoured to bring to you…” it sounded like Jahan was itching to get one of his speeches out. ‘For posterity’s sake’ he used to say. He wasn’t the one in agony producing a child; still, all things considered this was better than producing a child as a commoner. Oh yeah, before I forget, this was number fourteen. Between gasps I interrupted him, “A man should speak for himself, oh love of my life.” Yeah, yeah, you have to say these things but a grim determination broke out to keep my perspiration company. Time to burst the bubble, “Let the stranger be commanded to speak on his own behalf.” If Jahan had brought another religious fruitcake to keep him company he was going to be in for a shock.
“Very well Amibanu,” Jahan was suitably crestfallen but he used my pet name. What was he planning? Another spasm took me. Sweat poured out and I bit hard into the damp towel, strategically placed between my teeth. I bet I’d have bitten a stray hand or arm clean off.
The stranger began, “I am Agar of the Ili. Your prince says you are poisoned. I can help you live on but it only through this,” he held up a topaz amulet, set in a gold chain, “and such life be not for this time.”
I listened intently, acutely aware of life’s blood mixed with birthing fluids. I’d put a hard face on but that alone wouldn’t win me past this time. Even if I survived, child fifteen would do me in. That’d be in twelve months time, right?
He gave the command and slaves brought forward incense burners. Phew, what a pong! I did my own scents, thank you. Unfortunately I wasn’t in a position to argue. My attendants would be busy ages trying to get the stench out of the hangings and rugs.
Agar brought forward the amulet which sparkled eerily in the lamplight. His grizzled face had the look of a Westerner. They say the Westerners have witchcraft and magic. They also burn witches as well as rabble rousers, badly dressed priests, anything they can lay their hands on. Probably just excuses to have a fire, I mean, like, they have snow, ice, freezing rain and winter, that alone must drive them half-mad. Anyway, I never held with witchcraft, but you go along with things. The pain was driving me half-mad and I wasn’t for making out like a Westerner.
“Breathe deep. Touch the topaz.”
I took a deep breath. It made me sick. Another spasm took me. I felt myself drifting away. A voice came from the distance, “I will honour you to the far corners of the Earth. All will see the truth of my love, and will wonder. I love you until the Sun grows cold and the stars fall out of the sky…”
That had to be Jahan. Only he could get so hammy. I tried to hold the thought but it fell away and silence filled me.
* * *
* * *
Gradually I was coming out of it. I’d felt in a fog so long I was totally all over the place.
“She’s coming to.” A man’s voice. The words were alien and harsh but they were a welcome of sorts. A trauma of birthing pains waited lamely to reacquaint itself but it was no more than a shadow. My body was a limp lump and I was drowsy. No draughts, stale air with the dry dust of people; I was indoors, somewhere.
“Gedder up. C’mon. We haven’t got long.” A second man. Impatient.
Hold on, I wanted to say, what’s the rush? My mouth wouldn’t work.
“Just give ‘er a shake.” Rough hands grabbed my shoulders. Words came into my mind. Not my tongue… alien and strange.
The first one said, “Shhh! Leave her a moment.”
Too right. I realised I knew this tongue. My eyes were still shut. A harsh light probed. What had happened to Jahan and my maids? Agar was an Ili shaman. Was this the result of his magic? There was no time to think. My shoulders were over-zealously wrenched.
“Come on, come on. Wake up Zowie.” It seemed like just the two voices.
Zowie? Who’s Zowie? My brain tried to connect to my mouth again. “Mmuu-eergh..” It wasn’t working.
“Give her time. It’ll be a while before she comes back down.”
“We have to move. My job’s on the line here!” Impatient Man sounded whiney.
I peeped. Strange strips of light in a room with a smoothly walled finish. Not clad in drapes, or tapestry. Not cold though. What kind of place was this?
The first voice cajoled, “You are being paid quite handsomely for your work so give the girl a break.” He turned his attention back to me, “Come on, Zowie talk to me. Just relax and talk. We’ll know if the psychotropic implant’s took hold.”
Zowie, Zowie, who are you? She was connected to me; she was me, or at least she ought to be, but she was awash with panic. I felt her fear: they’re going to test me and I don’t know, what if I answer wrong? I opened my mouth. Words wanted to come out, I knew the answers; I was a Royal Princess of high blood. I was born to rule. Commoners were slaves but… common sense suggested another route. I knew the tricks of men; greedy, grasping. I’d come into the hands of such and other words suggested themselves. No longer was I a Mughal, I was a poorly educated, no-nothing shrinking violet who’d joined a program for quick cash, “Gimme a break,” I snarled. So, the language of the street which she was too timid to use. I wasn’t.
“Hey, hey, easy. We’re on the same side, remember?”
Were scum bags on any side but their own? Zowie was nervous; she lacked confidence and shied away from the unknown. The unknown implied threat and was out of her comfort zone. “Can you move?” asked the more considered guy. He was tall and wore tight fitting clothes.
I felt physically okay. The pains of childbirth had just vanished – I mean, just like that. That meant either a lot of time had passed without me knowing, or the magic had took and I really was born into another body. What was going on and what did they know? This demanded that I probe. Yet I needed to keep my wits while I dealt with the situation at hand. I played for time “Look, fill me in on the detail; I’m still a bit groggy.”
I could see them more clearly now. I sat up – I too was wearing something that showed – well curves – but little worse than the robes I was used to. Mr Impatient was short and skinny with coverings over his eyes. Spectacles. I had the word for that. The other guy was tubby but not flabby. Both grey-haired. Things ought to make sense – I’d picked up the language but Zowie was busy cowering in my head, terrified she’d done something dreadful. No help from her.
Mr Impatient muttered, “They’ll be doing security soon, come on-n-n-n!” If there’d been an escape hole, he’d scuttle down it.
“Hold your peace,” said Tubby. He turned to me, “Now Zowie, We need to do some tests. Do you understand?”
“Sure, fire away.” Tubby was beginning to look nervous. He brought out a flat slate. It was graven with a finely worked picture and strange characters.
“Mean anything?” He asked.
Plainly I was expected to look closer. I peered – the writing was the wrong way round – no one I knew wrote left to right – then with a shock I realised it made sense. I read aloud,
“India-Pakistan Tussle over Treasure Hoard. A diplomatic row erupted over competing claims to an ancient topaz necklace once worn by a wife of Shah Jahan. On her death, Shah Jahan went on to build and dedicate a great monument for the memory of her…”
Why, Jahan, why? I knew exactly what this was. But did they? They must – no, they weren’t sure. Show nothing, say less. My eyes skipped down; this wife – me – had had fourteen children. So no more. The monument was the Taj Mahal, one of the great wonders of world architecture. Now that was acutely embarrassing. Greedy eyes watched; this was supposed to mean something to me – well it did, it meant that my life was exposed to the scrutiny of the idly curious. When I was at the centre of power that would have meant little but it was plain that Zowie was a pawn, which meant I was too. She’d abdicated so it was down to me; everyone I knew was long gone and I was stuck in the West. As far as I could see, I’d be little better than a freak, a curiosity to be peddled. My eyes lingered over the final sentence, ‘Shah Jahan’s successor, Aurangzeb, squandered the Moghul legacy on war.’ Ah yes, son number three, Aurangzeb the insufferable. At least that was long out of the way. Always complaining about his brothers’ behaviour; pious little prat. Cunning emboldened me, “Yeah, yeah. I know this stuff should mean something; it’ll come back – just tell me what comes next.”
Tubby sighed, he sounded very disappointed. “I have a historian – willing to take a professional risk – keep you out of the hands of these gold-diggers here.” Things fell into place. Zowie knew nothing about me. If she began spouting off about empires and princesses, they’d have caught their prey; me. He gestured behind me. I turned. Big, brash Latin letters spelled out
GET A PAST LIFE – YOUR WAY
“Look, let me spend a bit of time brushing up.”
“He’ll be dialling up anytime now.” Tubby looked ready to break out into a sweat. The slate emitted a chiming sound; I nearly jumped out of my skin but simultaneously Tubby ripped it out of my grasp, prodded it and spoke. “Gratz, we’re nearly done; just getting her ready. Post recovery stuff and all that, you know.” Nervous.
The slate spoke back – no one blinked, so neither did I, “Is everything alright?” More a menace than polite request.
“Well, as you know, the psycho-emotive transfer is complex.”
It wasn’t cutting any ice and the slate retorted, “I’ve an auction lined up. You want I should just close it down? You’ll be toast if I do.”
Mr Impatient was now Mr Panic and looked ready to run for it.
This required intervention. Zowie was in way over her depth and in total meltdown. Wimp. “Gimme the…” slate I nearly said, but Zowie released the right words, “…freakin’ thing!” I snatched the slate back. A man’s face stared uncertainly out of it. Twist the argot, leave them in no doubt how things stood, “Hi there. You doan’ need to go talkin’ over me. Jess you get showin’ me some o’ those fancy bids you got lined up, hey?” Probably pushing it but a natural fit to Zowie’s speaking pattern.
“Young lady…” Young lady!! “I have eminent and respectable clients, whose identity is a matter of greatest confidentiality.”
I eased off some. “For sure, their secrets will stay safe with me. But if you’re a wanting a happy client, won’t you need all the help you can get? Let me give you the edge…”
Slate face’s voice went low, “It’s not that easy. Take a look at this – it’s not for public consumption by the way.”
Tubby’s ears seemed to grow an inch – was I on the way to stealing his deal? Slate face was replaced by a list of crazy Western writing. A glance was enough… Jahan, Jahan_world_emperor, Jahan$$$, Jahan_porn_king… all made up. Idle fantasy, silly boy stuff. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mr Panic carefully place a gold chain with a topaz at its heart into a glass case. Zowie was all for hiding – she wanted time out which gave me my next move. “That’s good.” I said to the slate, “Now I need a lady-break. On my return, let’s be looking at their bids and your assessment.”
“Wait! You’re white, that’ll give you an edge! You can’t expect me to…” It was too late, I’d already handed Slate-face back to Tubby.
Mr Panic was still busy with the minutiae of holding up a glass lid while he eased the ancient gold chain in. Make him sweat some more. “Say chuckles, you can’t direct me to ladies, can you?”
“Out, left then first right. Now leave me in peace, fer Christ-sakes.”
I stood on legs that wanted to wobble. Zowie was in poor condition; my people came from the steppes; we lived and breathed horses, as did I. She’d need some toning up if we were to get along. I went out stiffly. She walked like a clod and I brushed the propped open door.
“Don’t knock that!” an urgent cry from Tubby. I’d hardly touched it and it had a wedge, what a squealer!
But I heard a solid crunch behind me. Had he let the glass cover go?
Which meant Mr Panic was having a hard time but I ignored him. A right, a left and an instinctive straight arm; I was in. Somewhere a distant bell went off. It barely registered with Zowie and I took my cue from that. This was little more than a box with small privies, a mirror and a high window. A lever arrangement suggested the possibility of out. A brief glimpse in the mirror confirmed my skin was fair, and my hair, which was a sweat tangled mess. I sat in one of the cubicles and rested my chin on my hands. In times past, before my people carved out the Delhi sultanate, they had been fair-skinned. This was now. Where was I? Where truly was I? Was this the nation of the Franks? Did it matter? The West was strong, that was certain. The important thing is those with money hid their identities. Money was king. I knew the words that talked to power – from a long ago time. Bought and sold by made up names? No question about it, I’d be a trophy. How many children now? But different rules held sway; I could live on my own, marry or not, have children or have none. Work. Play. Create. Be a freak or be normal? I cursed Jahan for the Taj Mahal. What was that all about, apart from drawing attention to HIS pain? A statement of self-absorbed pity. A major architectural folly to draw attention back on me. Thanks
The bell brought me back. Another bell, nearer, much nearer; just outside the door. Zowie’s intuition suggested: run. I levered the window open to mild night air and climbed up the adjacent cubicle. My clothes weren’t robes, which would have encumbered me; for that I forgave them. Out. Out. I was out. A hard black surface stretched in front of me and blocky buildings, arranged in rows were attended by high lamps. Up above was still sky, clouds and a moon. All that stood between me and away was a fence, meant to keep out, not in. I’d ridden horses, even in an advanced state of pregnancy. A fence wasn’t going to stop me. Almost certainly I’d change my name; it was the done thing, especially for the powerful and those with something to hide.
A couple of minutes later, enriched by a scuffed knee, I was in the land of the free. I looked back at the building; a luminous sign spelled out:
The Center for Research into Past Lives.
They could go get someone else to wear a freakin’ tent and be pregnant nine months in the year. Me I was gonna find a man; the rougher the better. Perhaps I oughtta go on the run first.