The Age of Kali

The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple Read Free Book Online

Book: The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple Read Free Book Online
Authors: William Dalrymple
picture its former glory.
    ‘But the worst of it,’ continued Mushtaq, ‘is that the external decay of the city is really just a symbol of what is happening inside us: the inner rot.’
    ‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
    ‘Under the Nawabs Lucknow experienced a renaissance that represented the last great flowering of Indo-Islamic genius. The Nawabs were profoundly liberal and civilised figures: men like Wajd Ali Shah, author of a hundred books, a great poet and dancer. But the culture of Lucknow was not just limited to the élite: even the prostitutes could quote the great Persian poets; even the tonga-drivers and the tradesmen in the bazaars spoke the most chaste Urdu and were famous across India for their exquisite manners.’
    ‘But today?’
    ‘Today the grave of our greatest poet, Mir, lies under a railway track. What is left of the culture he represented seems hopelessly vulnerable. After Partition nothing could ever be the same again. Those Muslims who are left were the second rung. They simply don’t have the skills or education to compete with the Punjabis, with their money and business instincts and brightly-lit shops. Everything they have has crumbled so quickly: the owners of palaces and
havelis
have become the
chowkidars
. If you saw any of the old
begums
today you would barely recognise them. They are shorn of all their glory, and their
havelis
are in a state of neglect. They were never brought up to work – they simply don’t know how to do it. As they never planned for the future, many are now in real poverty. In some cases their daughters have been forced in to prostitution.’
    ‘Literally?’
    ‘Literally. I’ll tell you one incident that will bring tears to your eyes. A young girl I know, eighteen years old, from one of the royal families, was forced to take up this work. A rickshaw drivertook her in
chador
to Clarke’s Hotel for a rich Punjabi businessman to enjoy for five hundred rupees. This man had been drinking whisky, but when the girl unveiled herself he was so struck by her beauty, by the majesty of her bearing, that he could not touch her. He paid her the money and told her to go.’
    Mushtaq shook his head sadly: ‘So you see, it’s not just the buildings: the human beings of this city are crumbling too. The history of the decline of this city is written on the bodies of its people. Look at the children roaming the streets, turning to crime. Great-grandchildren of the Nawabs are pulling rickshaws. If you go deeply in to this matter you would write a book with your tears.’
    He pointed at the flat roof of a half-ruined
haveli
: ‘See that house over there? When I was a student there was a nobleman who lived there. He was from a minor Nawabi family. He lived alone, but every day he would come to a
chaikhana
[teahouse] and
gupshup
[gossip]. He was a very proud man, very conscious of his noble birth, and he always wore an old-fashioned
angurka
[long Muslim frock-coat]. But his properties were all burned down at Partition. He didn’t have a job and no one knew how he survived.
    ‘Then one day he didn’t turn up at the
chaikhana
. The next day and the day after that there was no sign of him either. Finally on the fourth day the neighbours began to smell a bad smell coming from his house. They broke down the door and found him lying dead on a
charpoy
. There was no covering, no other furniture, no books, nothing. He had sold everything he had, except his one set of clothes, but he was too proud to beg, or even to tell anyone of his problem. When they did a post-mortem on him in the medical college they found he had died of starvation.
    ‘Come,’ said Mushtaq. ‘Let us go to the
chowk
: there I will tell you about this city, and what it once was.’

    At the height of the Moghul Empire during the early seventeenth century, said Mushtaq, Shah Jehan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, had ruled over a kingdom that stretched from the Hindu Kush in the north almost to the great diamond mines

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