OF SULTANAS AND BIRYANI

by Deepannita Misra

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, that will be all. Now add some water to it.”

Tonight, there is a strange, orange-ish creature brewing in a large cauldron. The embers are glowing extra-bright and the firewood is burning out faster than you could imagine. I can barely carry one humongous lot out of the shed before the last one begins to make its dying sounds. All this cackling. And what is this, another lot gone already?

“Have patience, huzoor,” she winks mischievously.

(What is ‘huzoor’, I wonder. How she teaches me new words every day!)

I must have carried out this routine thrice, by now. Every time I leave the spot to get more wood, I am afraid of missing out. The woman with kohl-rimmed eyes sprinkles a bit of this, pinches a bit of that, and never stops stirring. And I swear by her “Allah Miyaan”, this woman is too fast. Way too fast for me.

We have been taking turns at stirring for over an hour now.

“Uff! This heat is too much,” she says, retreating into the dark shed and slamming her back against the wall, lapsing into a rare and total silence where I cannot see her too well. Yet, how beautiful does she appear!

Suddenly, as if with complete abandon, she gives a violent tug to the miles of fabric obscuring her face — an impressive jewel blue, stiff fabric, which has always been wrapped so immaculately around her neck and her hair — and it all comes undone. Her dark tresses loosen and sprawl across her shoulders in an instant, as if they have a mind of their own. It is the first time that I have ‘seen’ her.

She stands unmasked under a broad beam of moonlight.

This woman I know, is called Sultana Raziya. She told me her name once.

(Initially, I would not argue. But who in god’s country names his daughter as if she were a royal monument? On the other hand, by the looks of her strange attire, the name was befitting indeed!) I had never laid eyes on someone like her, only heard of such a woman from my brother. She arrived on horseback a year ago, stomping into my fields with such an attitude so as to enrage any honest man.

“I come from- …(she meant Turkmenistan), a land very far away. I come to seek shelter and food for a few days, if it will not trouble you,” she said, eyeing me from the ground up. But do I not know women? It was more of an order, a command, than a humble request. I tell you, all women everywhere are the same.

She cut an impressive figure though, what with that majestic horse and not an inch of her skin visible, save for the furrows in her dark, uncertain brows and deep, translucent eyes. Metres and metres of soft golden fabric flowed from her heavy belt, the pleats rumpled after a long journey. She looked like a stately mountain, I tell you.

I could not take my eyes off of her.

Janaab?” she asked, clearing her throat.

‘Khuda kasam’, as I have heard her exclaim often in her language, you could have beaten her with a broomstick right then and there. She had crushed the onions and coriander to a mush under the hooves of her black Arabian horse. Are women in every land the same — cruel and merciless? And yet, her eyes were something else altogether. Grey, like dirty mist or murky ghee. You could drown in their sadness and be astounded by their temerity, all at once.

They were not the eyes of a submissive woman.

“No, no bhai! I am not lying. There is such a Sultan, a lady Sultan, who rules over men and women. They tell me her ancestors were males, all rulers of the same land. Then she was put on the throne. Nobody had seen her but they had all heard her voice. They have the ‘Purdah’ there, na. So you see, she rules without the fear of men gazing at her. Although, I have heard she knows how to wield a sword too. Rumours, na bhai? They will convince you of almost anything these days,” I remembered my brother telling me one day. I had learnt a smattering of Farsi from him, and thus, could make some sense of what Sultana spoke too.

He told me about the strange customs of that land, of praying on one’s knees (not unlike us in this matter, I suppose) and even stranger ways of cooking meat.

“They go to war and they get hungry. What is to be done then? The women are not travelling with them. So they take out their swords, straight up, and take the poor hunted animal and stick it up his body. Alongside, they create another bonfire and mix rice with raw spices in a pot,” my brother said.

“And then?”

“Then what, bhai? That is it! Their meal is ready. They call their meat gosht. It is very bland, bhai. You will not like their food.”

I admit, for a second there, a powerful image had floated in front of my eyes — Raziya on horseback, wielding a sword. She was right there, a true Sultan, heir of a regal dynasty in her blue headpiece and kohl-rimmed eyes, standing in front of a line of cowering men kneeling before her. And then the image gradually fuzzied, fading and diluting into ringlets in the misty night, along with the steam coming off from the cauldron.

Bah! Utter nonsense! She was just a woman. Besides, she was not capable of roasting meat on a sword, I knew.

“Arre!” Sultana runs out screeching, jumping straight into the action and pulling me out of my reverie. She hurries over from one pot to the next with the agility of a panther. “Get the zaafraan quickly!”

I hurry back with strands of a pungent, burnt red fibre staining my palms.

“Now put the lid back on. Yes, like that.”

A strong perfume of sizzling spices and roasted meat wafts through the night air, as the lid comes on once again. Just a little while longer, Sultana assures me, and my creature will be ready for the meal.

“Suppose that my brother were not lying. Suppose there exists a female Sultan, after all. Can two women not bear the same name?” I thought, as Sultana sits down by my side. Her headscarf is back in place, with the exception of a few loosened strands escaping from it. And her eyes, oh those eyes, mashallah (as the Turkis say)!

I will marry Sultana tomorrow. It is all decided. She has agreed.

No one ever sent for her from that strange land. And the supplies she brought with her, on horseback, are bound to run out soon. I suspect she is a runaway after all, and my brother was not wrong. She is not a Sultan, just an ordinary, veiled woman from Turkmenistan. There are no female Sultans there, huh!

“A costly horse does not make a woman a royal heir, na bhai! She could have stolen it, just think! And when has she ever told you that she was the Sultan? Did she say so herself? No,” my brother’s logic was sound.

And just as well. I love Sultana the way she is—proper and homely, though she is in a strange land too. Never mind, I will teach her our customs in due time. She will become Hindustani in her speech and attire too. I will have to suffer her cooking, though.

A ray of sunlight now peeks over from the mountains, from somewhere far off in the Himalayas. Dawn has split open like a broken nut, revealing the fragrant, tinted, cooked rice in the cauldron, ready to counter my ferocious appetite. The meal is ready, at last.

Janaab, nosh farmaayeinmy Sultana, a domestic goddess from a faraway land, now beckons me with a smile.

 

Deepannita Misra is a student of Literature, studying in Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi. She is an avid reader as well as writer, and contributes to the English Literary Association (SVC)’s magazine, Mosaic, and the DU Beat.

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