Fiction

Story: The Nizam’s Favourite Wife

By: Ram Govardhan

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Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

With a doctorate in molecular cytogenetics, having authored acclaimed texts and a slew of columns in renowned journals such as Nature, The Lancet and Science, the holy Grail for Salabat was producing a grand, encyclopaedic family-tree of the Nizams, in place of the highly sanitised one, which, he asserts, was one-tenth of the diagram if everyone of their chromosomal traces was to be reckoned.

“Licentious genes have uncanny knack of getting to unpredictable places and, thereafter, they are as uncontainable as they are untraceable,” Salabat said. Born to an Australian mother, he is one of the many direct descendents of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad. The Nizam had supported the family in Sydney until his death on two conditions; one, that she would remain faithful to him and, two, that she would name and raise the kid as a Muslim. And the greatest lure that floored her was her entitlement to a greater dower chest if she could completely abandon her Catholic faith, custom and tastes.

In the seventies, when Salabat arrived in Hyderabad on his mission, the surviving members of the Nizam dynasty, now commoners with one vote each; beset with bitter patrimonial squabbles, were suave enough to encourage him to give up his undertaking at once.

Undeterred by such dissuasions, the intrepid geneticist that he was, Salabat zeroed-in on the red-light district of Mehboob-ki-Mehendi for it was where the Nizam’s descendants, in absence of harems, gratified their unquenchable sensual appetites. He also gathered that there were myriad genealogical mysteries buried deep inside the dark bosoms of the old whores running upmarket brothels there.

Meandering through filthy alleys, expertly sidestepping piles of excrement, when he found it, the area was bereft of brothels.

Before he scouted any further, a slovenly pimp emerged out of the High Court precinct and presented his credentials, chewing pan, in Indian English, “Hello handsome, my matchless services are sought by erstwhile royals, boot-leggers, and barons, statesmen, spiritualists, foreigners, yogis, untouchables and paupers alike…. I just charge ten rupees…”

Salabat agreed; the pimp saluted by raising his hat for taking the bargain without a haggle.

The pimp raised his brassy spittoon, spat out, wiped his lips with the slack sleeve of his shirt and kept grinning all along the way to a murky, crumbling horse stable in Jahanuma. There were several pigeonholes, in a row, and scores of kids relieving themselves alongside the gutter choked with refuse and foul matter. Salabat couldn’t believe that brothels operated out of such pits quite capable of dousing even the burning desires of men starved of women for years.

Even as he expected famished girls in weird clothes to jump at him, the anticipative pimp said, “Don’t go by the looks of the area, lovely, very lovely parrots are waiting inside…you would be spoilt for choice to cherry-pick your beauty.”

“It’s I who offers him a choice, no one else…you cannot touch a girl,” warned Azma, the madam, pulling Salabat into her whore-house, “Until mutually agreed sum is laid on table.”

She must be twenty years older than him, weighed Salabat, but her full-bosomed looks were too alluring to withstand seductions of his senses. She was the comeliest madam he had ever seen, and he had been to best of whore-houses in Bangkok, Amsterdam, Paris, and Mont Carlo and the madams in such places resembled gays sporting baritone voices, beefy arms and ample shoulders.

Salabat opened his wallet and spread the notes on teapoy so that she could count them visually.

“These many can only get you an ordinary pigeon. Some more them…you will have a lovely parrot,” Azma repeated the sentence she reserves for foreigners.

Salabat placed some more of them like a decisive showdown.

“A few more of these would not only get you a golden virgin but, after the fun and feast, my dear, you would be seen off through a rear exit for peace of mind.”

Salabat took the pimp aside and whispered.

The pimp took Azma aside and whispered, “He wants you, madam, not any of those birds.”

Azma was not surprised, not exactly. Yes, no man had evinced any interest in her in a long while now, nevertheless, albeit clad in a bit of fat, her figure still had what it takes to excite even the stoics among religious celibates.

“But my nights are unreasonably expensive,” Azma said.

“You deserve all the riches in the world,” Salabat said, “I hate skin and bone women.”

Within a few minutes, he could make out that Azma was a storehouse of information pertaining to the Nizams. He learnt that his father, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, even when he was old enough to die, was marrying princesses, noblewomen, widows of peers and commoners on several continents until his last. Once, the richest man on earth, at the fag-end of his life, after undergoing a sort of Ayurvedic Botox, was on the way to Golconda to have one last glimpse of his falling empire atop the fort. Unwinding at an idyllic hamlet hemmed by steppes of rice paddies, the octogenarian was so enchanted by two Hindu adolescent girls that he converted the twins to Islam and wedded both of them on deathbed.

“His Exhausted Highness was of course the epithet rightly bestowed on him when his ravenous libido was at its nadir, a condition that hastened his death more than any other disgrace,” Azma said.

Azma was surprised by the breadth and scope of the family-tree of the Nizams Salabat proposed to compile that comprised of even the unknown, neglected and concealed genetic traces.

Furthermore, Salabat was appalled to know that, over time, the Nizam brethren and other nobles had generously swapped scores of concubines from each other’s harems, making patronymic affixal almost impossible. Cataloguing offspring of uncertain paternity under a common descendent pool was quite amateurish—chronicling every branch and gene share was professional ethic, even if it was one-sixtieth turnoff. Contrary to the fame, legacy and abundance of annals in secret archives, the genealogical data the Nizams had left was too scant.

Before arriving in Hyderabad, years of scrupulous research had enabled Salabat to put together a family-tree of the Nizams’ ancestors who landed in India from the far-off Samarkand and their Turkic ancestors past civilizations such as the Khiljis, Göktürks, Mamluks, Kumans, Timurids, Kipchaks, Khazars, Avars, Ottoman Turks, Turgeshes, Bulgars, and Seljuk Turks.

The more Azma revealed, the more it was evident that compiling the descendent half was arduous as there were three descendant classifications: sanctioned, unofficial and illegitimate; the last two being the most widespread and most numerous since the genetic footprint of the Nizams was truly global. They were erotic trail-blazers scouring crooks and crannies of the world snapping up some of the most gorgeous women.

“The Arabs are no longer interested in pubescent Muslim girls of Hyderabad; even the old, tottering Sheikhs are not coming,” Azma lamented.

“You still manage a large brothel, don’t you?” asked Salabat.

“These days, girls from poor families come to me…even college girls. My terms of hire and compensation attract the best in town,” said Azma. “And, unlike others, I let my girls take home more than half, and, since I don’t shuffle girls between brothels…it’s a hand to mouth life these days.”

As his research progressed, it was plain that the tolerance of other races, religions, castes, outcastes and half-castes stemmed from the Nizams’ obsession with extraordinarily beautiful women. Their worldly wisdom was gained through the prisms of feminity and appreciating gorgeousness with all the five senses was to fathom the depth and vastness of the universe.

The only object of the Nizams’ ambition was to please their ladies. Architectural romance ran in their veins and their epic edifices were as supple as graceful ballerinas. Every aspect had to be cultured, exquisite and delectable—even the towering citadels of Golconda Fort had to hide their belligerence inside bulwarks, exhibiting simple elegance. Weight, the nemesis of massive structures, was concealed under sweet skins of granites like hornblende, orthoclase, mica, and feldspar. Unlike enormous Hindu temples, their immense mosques, palaces looked magically dainty and sinuous. For all their aesthetics that warmed the cockles of their ladies’ hearts, every room, corridor, pool, chamber, durbar, fixtures, costume-jewellery, and objet d’art smacked of severe practicality and simple everydayness.

As Azma revealed all about the last Nizam’s love-children all over India and on several continents, the enormity and complexity of his task was daunting. However, Azma’s personal story, and the circumstances that catapulted her into King Kothi Palace, was pregnant with mysteries capable of untying many a genealogical knots Salabat was grappling with.

Thirty years ago, within weeks of her dramatic entry into the palace, Azma was the Nizam’s favourite wife, as perfectly manifest as common sense suggested. Her charms beguiled the Nizam’s four months and he continued to ignore rest of the harem. Such enchantment, wives and concubines agreed, was transient, but not turning to other women for such a long while was monogamic conduct, as ominous a sign as signs get.

With an interval of sixty days, matching the menstrual cycles, every wife’s, concubine’s turn happened like clockwork, to the hour-tong of Ghadial Gate Clock. Each one’s name was inscribed in golden letters in the yearbook of schedules. Fortune smiled on three thousand courtesans languishing in auxiliary harems at random. However, suddenly, to everyone’s chagrin, all the boxes of the almanac boasted only one name: Azma.

Azma’s entry into the Nizam’s life was an accident. Adolescent Azma’s lot in life changed the day her impoverished father turned up for one of the ‘charity hearings’ that are lined up every time the Nizam was in great humour, when spells of benevolence take over him like opium.

Distressed subjects entreating monetary bequests had to present every member of their whole family before the Nizam, and failing to parade even one of them was treason high enough to attract twenty whiplashes and banishment. Each of the pitiable blokes had to herd his spouses, including those who had deserted him, and beseech them to come to the palace for a day along with every one of the kids fathered by him. It was herculean for Azma’s father too in presenting all three of his wives, and fourteen children, Azma being the youngest. However he somehow managed the show.

In the Grand Khilwat Durbar Hall, the court crier heralded the Nizam in one breath, “His Exalted Highness Rustam-i-Dauran, Arustu-i-Zaman, Wal Mamaluk, Asaf Jah VII, Muzaffarul- Mulk-Wal-Mumilak…….Honourable General in the Army, and Faithful Ally of the British Government.”

Under the watchful eyes of Munshi and a posse of secret servicemen, the court escorts counted, verified names, ages, and as the ratified register reached, seventeen of Azma’s family were presented before the Nizam. They collectively shivered in reverence—the only way subjects expressed their gratitude.

The Nizam bestowed riches without hearing their plights, and, in an unusually calm disposition, peered at them and just as he raised the sword of approval, a senior spy barged in.

“Forgive me milord…forgive me. This man has two more children by his first wife. He has tricked us milord, tricked us,” gasped the messenger.

Trained in true Gestapo-style operations, the secret agents grabbed Azma’s father at one pounce.

While he swore on the Quran that he had not fathered those two, the Nizam stared at Munshi and raised the whip, signifying one hundred lashes to each and civil death. Munshi leaned to explain the faux pas; the Nizam brushed him aside and said, “The youngest would be my youngest.”

The Munshi was not surprised, not really, for the Nizam had not married in nine years and seldom visited any of his ageing wives these days. Of course he had secured about two hundred concubines in the period but never hinted of marriage.

Three burly eunuchs rushed rest of her family to chastisement cells, while Arab bodyguards politely ushered Azma away and charioted her up to the entrance of Jannat, from where two young maids and four peacocks conducted her to the grand royal suite.

Jannat, the Nizam’s underground chalet in the King Kothi Palace, had a grandiose entrance which had a unique iron and glass canopy but no door—the access and egresses were camouflaged behind the trunk of the banyan tree deep underneath which stood the chalet weathering its bulbous roots. No one knew the existence of the chalet except the thirty domestics staying in sunken shelters that served as guardhouses during wartime. The suite had several lavish designer beds, copies of opulently illustrated Kama Sutra sleeping under the bolsters. The gilt liqueur set, fine cigars, aged wines, French furniture and Belgian chandeliers dazzled in a riot of colour recreating the regal ambience even in the subterranean setting. Breastplates, rapiers, royal portraits mounted on cent per cent African mahogany walls and candelabra in windows rendered a surreal feel to it. Azma saw mountains of silk saris, dazzling court dresses and hundreds of family photos neatly laid out in an adjacent hall boasting awnings over windows, intricate woodwork, sloping tiled, octagonal shapes, and classical semi-circular arches.

Azma was shown diamonds, rubies, sapphires, pearls and lesser gems stored in old pine trunks fastened with English-made padlocks and loads of natural Basra pearls and large uncut emeralds. Complete with exotic array of herbal analeptics, bracers and other stimulants in cupboards, roses, ivy, jasmine and daffodils in the basement garden, the lavish sanctum was equipped to arouse even the weakest of the impotent Nizams.

Few months of imperial nourishment enriched Azma’s winsome allure, surprising the Nizam on a weekly basis. Her full lips, the hearty cheekbone, elfin nose, less protuberant forehead, subtle eyebrows, silken black locks, slender frame and the breathtaking harmony of all the features was beyond the scope and realm of human genome. Such Elysian beauty often reminded him of the creator although he swore by evolutionist theories.

A few days later when the news of the visit of the chief wife came Azma was bathing. She hustled but maids asked her to take her own time; they knew that she was the future, while the senior wife was long past hers.

Meeting Azma for the first time, the senior wife said, “I can see why the Nizam is in thrall of you…you are grace personified.”

Azma was surprised since the woman herself was too gorgeous even at fifty. She assured Azma that her parents have been suitably rewarded and put up in a lavish bungalow. In actual fact, even the senior wife did not know that Munshi had ensured that the family of sixteen languished as invalids surviving on beef tea.

Buttering dough-dry-fruit cakes in the middle of a sumptuous high tea, the senior wife revealed the Nizam’s wish to wed her—Azma became the wife of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad in an in-house ceremony and an overnight decree proclaimed her the sixth wife. Despite her own efforts to trace a copy of the decree, Azma could never find it.

That cold December evening, in an embellished evening dress, three sweater vests under it, the Nizam entered Jannat a little after the Ghadial Gate Clock tonged eight. There were no nocturnal half measures; foreplay was in the air the moment the Nizam crossed the threshold. Savouring wafts of perfume in the vestibule, the Nizam almost galloped to the grand royal suite where Azma was waiting for him. Aping avian courtship displays, swivelling round on one leg a few times, he flaunted his elaborate diamond-studded evening dress to impress her.

Untying her intricate Parisian ensemble, accessories and adornments one by one, he said, “You are endowed with all the best aspects of feminity, yet you must be overawed with the splendour of this underground manor. There are several such mansions spread all across our realm which is larger than England and Ireland together. We have sixteen thousand retainers, four thousand Arab bodyguards, and a posse of witches to examine virginity. And there is a large unit of senior eunuchs to retire old concubines, earmark and replenish suitable virgins from hinterland.”

Unhooking Azma’s skin-tight blouse with one hand, softly removing the Mayan-plug earrings with another, he gently sensed her scent. When he clapped the eunuchs in, Azma covered herself.

“No need…don’t care, they are hizras,” said the Nizam.

As he took the diamond-studded watch off the stay-hook, the eunuchs rolled a large rosewood casket in.

“This is the famed Nizam’s 173-piece pure-gold jewellery set,” he said, “Hard metal is the way to go, gems and stones are unworthy acquisitions.”

For all his famed golden-mouthed eloquence, might and fearsome tempers, the Nizam was surprisingly tender and spoke with lisp, almost in a milksoppish manner.

Walking over to the indoor garden that received moonbeams falling through tiny vents, he plucked a blue flower off a speedwell plant, a mellow fruit off a jujube tree and a bunch of purple grapes. Unfastening the tongueless buckle, easing the flower into her lustrous tresses, he slipped the fruit into her mouth. Holding aloft the bunch over her waiting lips, the Nizam teased her to bite the grapes in one hop.

Gathering her to his bosom, he whispered, “It’s been years since I slept with any of my five wives; their cunning eyes lie in wait for my death.”

One hot, midsummer evening, the Nizam presented Azma a silver-embossed, cowl-necked Turkish burqa, asking her to be ready to go out with him. Ordering the driver to linger, the Nizam drove his latest acquisition, Rolls Royce, straight to Royal Banquet Hall in the Falaknuma Palace.

“We embraced automobility the year self-propelling vehicles hit the roads in the West. Fiats, Fords, and Rolls Royces are custom built for us and every one of them carries this unique, ornate door handle, Dastaar, the royal insignia,” he said on the way.

“We import steers from Australia because the local beef is of famished cattle butchered in loathsome abattoirs,” the Nizam said looking at Azma enjoying her meal.

For all his idiosyncrasies, on balance, he was not that intolerable, thought Azma.

At the end of the ceremonial dinner, the Nizam presented her a Rolex Mint P&D Cocktail Watch and an exquisite Quebec diamond necklace from Geneva. While returning, he summoned the Ford Tourer taking his entire staff by surprise; until then, the Nizam had used this vehicle only to shuttle between the Public Gardens Mosque for Friday prayers and the palace.

A week before Azma’s first wedding anniversary, as rumours about the Nizam’s terminal illness spread, the herd instincts halved the harem into packs of restive wives and concubines. While concubines dreaded the aftermath of the Nizam’s death, senior wives, their eyes fixed on the throne, remained less perturbed, preferring assassination or martyrdom rather than debility for early coronation of juvenile descendants.

“The Nizam himself was crowned at thirteen,” cited the chief wife, who was the only one to bestow a son on the Nizam’s birthday. The identical dates of birth, separated by sixty years, she claimed, were solid grounds for her son’s entitlement to the crown.

A decade after Churchill was unequivocal that independent India would go to dogs, as rest of India was getting used to foibles of egalitarianism, a rebellious Nizam shrugged off New Delhi’s threats of crushing his beleaguered army. While his envoys parleyed covertly, inner workings of the palaces remained unchanged—the Nizam’s subjects were unaware of the independence, and unaware of the round table. But realities are always unremitting in reaching everyone, even if one is shielded in impregnable citadels.

Incensed wives and concubines resolved to act. And, by and by, not ready to take the will for the deed, the chief wife, the only one privileged to enter the king’s court at will, was tasked to achieve their common goal: undoing Azma’s hold on him, or bumping her off altogether.

The chief wife chose, among the brutal janissaries, Abu, the Kabuli harem attendant, to exploit his grudge against the Nizam for amputating his father for serving a slice of sour cheese.

Despite Abu’s eunuchoid speech and gait, the chief wife said, “He is not what you think of him; he is as straight as men can be.” As to how she knew of his ‘straightness’ was not something speculated by anyone.

It was not Azma’s gold-brocaded, billowy harem-skirt but what was seized as an opportunity to strike was the exorbitance of commissioning a Persian architect to redesign the grand royal suite for Azma while the Nizam was virtually bedridden. Besides, the outlandish architect was notorious for dumping projects midstream.

The Nizam was not half as generous in their salad days, wives and concubines lamented in chorus. Despondence induced mutinies in the harem; time for tact was over, the time for blood and iron had arrived.

The day the Nizam returned, the chief wife apprised him, “While you were away visiting Mysore, Abu spent three whole nights with Azma.”

When he questioned Abu’s gender, the principal spy produced positive potency test papers from the royal hakeem. To tighten the case, another high-ranking scout was presented as a witness. The moment the chief wife called Abu’s protests forged lies, the Nizam feebly waved a bladelike weapon from his bed: the very next day, Abu’s seven-foot frame was consumed by molten iron in the sword-cutler’s furnace inside Golconda Fort.

Of all the unfaithful acts, the Nizam hated infidelity the most, yet he was too lenient in Azma’s case—the decree downgrading her status was served at midnight and she was moved to a harem crammed with hundreds of lesser courtesans.

The rumblings of Operation Polo of Indian Army ruined celebrations of the Nizam’s Coral Jubilee (thirty-five years) of the throne. The Nizam brushed Munshi’s counsel at his own peril by saying, “Indian politicians would never be so foolish to make me a pauper and earn the wrath of millions of Muslims staying back in India despite passionate pleas of Jinnah.”

A year later, Sardar Patel, Bismarck of India, issued an ultimatum to join the union or face the music. The Nizam resisted the tunes until they were too unsafe for his failing health and gave up, bestowing immortality on the Middle Temple barrister.

Soon after the Nizam’s death, the warring descendants chose the chief wife as the principal arbitrator. As a consequence of one of the first pronouncements, within a week, the entire harem of courtesans was set ablaze at midnight.

“Stay upwind, stay upwind,” shouted the Arab guards and evacuated many women just in time. Enraged with the behaviour of the Arabs, chief wife proscribed most of them; awarded dowers to a few courtesans, but the Arab bodyguards bore the brunt: all five went to gallows for having defeated the very purpose of setting the harem on fire.

Stripped of all the eases of harem, comforting her shattered colleagues, the oldest courtesan proposed a better calling that needed no working capital: the oldest profession.

“Every one of us was sleeping with him, now, in Independent India, everyone is going to sleep with us,” she said establishing the first brothel that spawned many, too many, and so many to eventually turn the area into the red-light district of Mehboob-ki-Mehendi.

Within years, the entrepreneurial senior courtesan passed away rendering Azma the madam.

“And I have remained the madam ever since,” Azma said. “I am fed up with the state of the profession.”

“I am grateful to you, Azma…I couldn’t have put together such a diagram without your help,” Salabat said.

“I take it you are satisfied with the results of your research.”

Salabat nodded and said, “I have accomplished my work in India but the other three quarters of it can only be researched in several other countries.”

Azma was quiet for a moment and then said, “Would appreciate if you could marry and take me along.”

She saw a smile of affection and a twinkle in his eyes and, by the time tears welled from hers, he nodded no.

*****************

Ram Govardhan’s short stories have appeared in Asian Cha, Open Road Review, The Bangalore Review, QLRS, The Spark, Literary Yard, Muse India, The Bombay Review and other Asian and African literary journals. His novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. He lives in Chennai cursing the humidity all the time. Email: ram.govardhan2010@gmail.com

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