Children

HEROINE’S tale

Day 15, Month of Rabi Al-Thani (corresponds to November) 1500 CE Fortress of Samarkand, Present-day Uzbekistan

He has surrounded us,” Zahiruddhin said, his voice a mixture of anger, worry and outrage. “We’re trapped.”

“We’ve been trapped for months,” his sister, Khanzada said, dully. She gazed out of the window onto a bleak, sombre city. In summer, the rugged landscape with its looming mountains would have been a charming vista of greenery but now, in winter, everything was a depressing grey. Worse, beyond the gates of the fortress were camped thousands of enemy soldiers. They had laid siege for months, steadily starving out the people within. And they had almost succeeded.

“His name is Shaibani Khan,” Qutlugh Nigar Khanum, Zahiruddhin andKhanzada’s mother added in a low voice. “Enemy he may be, but he is still a —”

“Wretched Uzbek usurper,” Zahiruddhin spat. “A parasite that sucks the life out of land; a scoundrel who cares not about dignity and self-respect; who is —”

“Something has happened,” Khanzada cut in, suddenly. “You didn’t like him, but you accepted that he was a superior warrior who could strategise. Now, you’re raving and ranting. What is it?”

“Have you had any news?” Qutlugh added, quietly.

Zahiruddhin swallowed. “A message, this morning. He — God, I can’t even think about it!” He jumped up, pacing the room in agitation.

“Tell us.”

The young man paused. Abruptly, he pulled out from his waistband a mangled scroll and handed it to his sister. “He calls for truce,” he mumbled.

Twist in the tale

“Finally!” Qutlugh exclaimed. “The Uzbeks have realised that we Timurid royals, descendents of the great Genghis Khan are not to be treated like —” She stopped suddenly, watching her daughter’s expression change from hope to horror. “What is it? Read the message.”

Khanzada swallowed. “It says … If you would marry your sister the Begum to me, there might be peace and a lasting alliance between us.”

For a few moments, there is a stifling silence.

“Marriage?” Qutlugh whispered.

“It’s not to be thought of!” Zahir shouted. “Can you imagine how he’d treat her; how he’d abuse her –”

“I accept,” Khanzada said tonelessly.

“Daughter, you know not what you are doing.” Tears glistened in Qutlugh’s eyes. “Zahir is right; you cannot marry the enemy. There is no life here; no love. No respect. We might never see you again —”

“It’s not too high a price for your safety,” Khanzada clasped her trembling hands. “Either I marry him … or we all starve and die.”

Night fell outside. Darkness seeped into the room, and into their hearts.

The next day, Zahir and Qutlugh left the fort on foot with 200 followers, wearing the long tunics and simple shoes of their subjects. Khanzada watched them from a window in a turret, eyes blurring with tears.

She, a princess whose ancestry went back hundreds of years, a royal who had never known anything but the gentlest of treatment — would now have to submit to an enemy. She had no illusions about how he would treat her. Prisoners of war were never shown courtesy or affection. She would be abused, insulted and even beaten.

But her brother would be safe. Her wedding was the key to his well being. She knew that she might not survive this ordeal — but that was the fate of women like her. Zahir would live, and have a family. Perhaps even a kingdom.

Idly, she wondered how her life might be, if she could join him. But no, that could never be. Even if Shaibani Khan released her, somehow, Zahir would never want her back. She would be old and decrepit. He would despise her.

Twenty-three year old Khanzada brushed away her tears, and prepared to face her fate.

Day 13, Month or Ramadan (corresponds to December 15), 1510 CE Outskirts of the city of Kabul, Present-day Afghanistan

Inside an ornate tent of richly embroidered cloth sat Khanzada.

Ten years have passed since we last saw her. She is dressed in Turkish fashion: a long woolen gown, a bodice underneath, trousers, a jacket and lastly, a tall, conical Turkish hat, a veil floating down from the crown. Her face is weathered and lined, as one who has seen hardship: she had a son but lost him; Shaibani Khan divorced her and her fate might have been terrible if he had not been killed by a Persian king, Shah Ismail, in the Battle of Merv.

Now, the impossible has happened. She is free. And her brother is on his way to meet her.

Except that she’s quaking in her Turkish boots.

She may be only thirty-three, but she is already old. A woman who was little more than a slave to her so-called husband; who was treated terribly, and had survived the worst. How would she be received now?

A man, all muscle and sinew, dressed in kingly garb and with a long moustache bursts into the tent. “Sister!” He almost barks. “God be praised, but you are safe!”

It takes her a few moments to realise his identity. “Zahir — I am a poor, old woman —”

“Stop,” he grabs her in a hug. “Stop this instant. You’re a heroine; my saviour. My Goddess; my good-luck charm. Without your sacrifice, I and mine would never have survived. I certainly wouldn’t have lived to conquer Kabul, and make plans to expand my rule. You shall not only join my family, but become the head. You shall be Padshah Begum, for you are the light of our clan. We exist because of you.”

Khanzada Begum need never have worried. Zahir hadn’t changed a bit. He was still her brother. And every bit the tiger, Babar that his family and kingdom needed him to be.

Historical Note: Khanzada Begum remained the first lady of the Mughal Empire established by Babar, until her death in 1545 CE. She is mentioned with great love and respect in her brother’s memoir, the Babarnama.


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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 5:37:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/heroines-tale/article28201559.ece

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