Ah ko chahie ek umr asar hone tak,
Kawn jeta hai teri zulf ke sur hone tak?
A sigh needs a lifetime to assail,
Who lives long enough for your charms to prevail?
--Mirza Ghalib, Delhi, 1797 - 1869
The Azadi Trilogy
Doctor Margaret's Sea Chest
The full moon hung like a lantern, as if held by an invisible force, in a cloudless sky. We galloped on a treeless plateau that sloped down to the glittering waters of a wide river. From the numerous smouldering pyres, visible along the ghats*, I believed it to be the mighty Ganges. The river flowed endlessly, until it seemed to drain into the star studded heaven to deposit the ashes of the departed. Although I had gazed at the flickering stars countless times before, there seemed to be something strange about them that night. Was it the weird pattern they had formed themselves in, or their unusual brightness? I could not resolve just then. In the hot night-air, sweat poured down my face and body, drenching my light cotton tunic and riding breeches.
The rider ahead of me, clad simply in a white wrap, charged with speed, waving frantically at me to keep up, as I fell behind. Was it not for the simple fact that the rider rode side-saddle and had long blonde hair that shone in the moonlight, I would have taken her for a man. Her horsemanship was flawless; in the bright moon-glow, her mount jumped over dry gullies and manoeuvred around large boulders without breaking stride.
Tall mountains loomed ahead and clusters of leafy trees cast long shadows. Apart from the clatter of hooves, the unmistakable albeit faint sound of cannon fire reverberated like distant thunder claps from the far side of the mountains. I leaned down to check if my musket was still in its saddle holster, for I feared that the Godiva-like maiden, rushing headlong forward, was surely leading me into battle. While I remembered that a rebellion had broken out across the land, whether we would fight for the Indian revolutionaries or on the British side, I knew not.
Suddenly, the silhouette of another rider on the crest of a small hill could be seen moving briskly towards the heights on a white charger. Something about the horse and rider looked odd, almost eerie. The rider appeared to be slumped in the saddle, head on the horse's mane and arms wrapped around the creature's neck. The colt ran hard, as if led by an instinctive force to a specific destination.
“Hurry up. We have to save the Rani!” The blonde figure up ahead shouted to me, pointing toward the injured rider.
A Rani? It was only then I noted the other rider's colourful garb, like that of an Indian queen. However, she looked injured, almost lifeless. Her long dark hair flowed down the pale horse's neck that looked streaked with blood. I continued my efforts to keep up with the two pairs ahead as they galloped across the now steeply rising land, dotted with increasing amounts of vegetation.
“Why? Why do we have to assist her,” I hollered back.
“Look at the stars.”
I stared up at the sky again to see what my mysterious leader wanted me to observe. It was then I perceived the strange formations of the planets and the stars. The outer planets: Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and others had formed themselves around the moon into a Yod—a major configuration, also referred to as an Eye-of-the-God or the Finger-of-Fate. I had heard that this configuration of planets in the form of sextiles and quincunxes was extremely rare. The formations occurred only once a millennium or so and were thought to have major dynamic influences on the persons they shone upon. These people then became the chosen ones, who would go on to perform miraculous deeds.
I wondered if we were being followed. I stood up in the stirrups and glanced back. Sure enough, some distance away in the valley, a contingent of riders was visible. From their glinting helmets and their rigid riding formation, they were definitely British cavalry.
We galloped on, following the Rani’s horse. Finally, it seemed that our mysterious destination loomed up ahead. On the remote mountain slope in a small dell, virtually hidden by the surrounding ridges and trees, moonbeam shone on some sandstone pyramid-like domes, likely those of a temple. It looked to be a perfect secluded spot to hide from the enemy.
The blonde woman was again getting far ahead of me. I heard her shout once more, “Come along, before it is too late. The Rani of Jhansi is India's last hope for freedom.”
“How can we serve her? There are only two of us. The whole British army is behind that mountain,” I yelled back.
“Kali will assist us. Don’t you see the goddess flying over the mountain top?”
I peered intensely towards the peak. For a while, other than the treetops, I could not see much. Then suddenly, as if by magic, she appeared on the horizon. It was the four-armed lady, riding a tiger. She held a sword in one hand and in the others what looked to be: a trident, a severed head and a cup dripping with blood. She wore a skirt made of human arms and a garland of white human skulls that glowed in the moonlight. She looked down at us with fiery red eyes, which flamed from her dark blue face. It was the mother-goddess. Kali.
My labouring steed's mouth foamed, yet in an attempt to get a last burst of energy out of him and to get closer to the two exotic women and Kali, I spurred hard. The creature neighed aloud and stumbled onto his front quarters. I was thrown from the saddle and tumbled on the dusty ground, my ears ringing.