Being a eunuch at Akber’s court
It all started fairly well for me that day:
Akber praised me for my loyalty, my quiet step;
he was tired from audiences with nobles.
The sun dropped quickly over Fatehpur Sikri,
its sandstone pinker in the evening light.
A slight breeze riffled flowers and pools.
Akber had started his evening work: the getting
of a son. A mighty kingdom needs an heir.
Three wives and still no child. I think he would
have emptied half his treasury for this.
I bore his perfumed note to Miriam’s handmaid.
She whispered I should tell my master her mistress
is unclean, her auspicious time has passed, her stars
not in the ascendant. I scurried back.
Those passages are dark and labyrinthine, but
it is my job. ‘Bring me my first wife then,
my Jahanara. I need a Muslim son.’
Even the nights are warm now. He’s put aside
his fur-lined chauga, donned his airy one,
the one that shows his manhood.
Much of my life I spend in secret passageways.
At Queen Jahanara’s I glimpse her chamber,
see its mirrored splendour, gems embedded
in its walls. Her handmaid says the mistress
has strained her back whilst arm-wrestling,
regretfully declines and offers an apology.
By now Akber has finished his ablutions,
climbed to his majestic plinth. Impatient,
he shouts at me as if it’s all my fault. ‘Surely,
I give them sport enough! So that just leaves
my little Hindu, my sweet third wife,
my Jodhabai. Take her this note. There can be
no excuses.’ I hasten off, heart in my mouth:
I have a dreadful fear the rumour that she fell
whilst playing polo two nights ago is true.
I find her handmaid and confirm the worst.
Akber will take it out on me, his faithful servant
Sometimes I think a eunuch’s life is harder
than a king’s. I tell him they are all at prayer
to Durwa, for a son. He sighs and says
‘Bring me a concubine then, that Persian one.’
No note this time. Again I rush off underground,
come up like some nocturnal animal to find
the harem is festering with some disease.
I get no further than the courtyard, but turn
and run for fear I too might be afflicted
and bear it to my king. But when I reach
his chamber he is sound asleep. I lower
the lamps, tiptoe to my post, think of all
his noble battles won, his conquests lost.
Fatehpur Sikri: palace of Akber, the Moghul king.
Durwa: Hindu goddess of power and fertility
Court ladies were allowed to play polo, veiled, at night using a light fretwork puck. They were also encouraged to engage in such activities as arm wrestling.
© Christine de Luca 2009
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