Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Tiger

As the the slanting rays of dawn made their way through the tiny window, she shook the vestiges of sleep and gradually woke up. She had no premonitions, no warning that today was going to be any different. She was wearing the deep purple ghagra choli to bed, which meant that the green was the one to don today. As there had been so much haste, she had been able to being with her just three sets of clothes, her two ghagras and her burqa.

Outside her room stood an Angrezi guard, impassive and stern. She knew from the thud of the regular treads outside her room, the discipline of the steps portraying his diligence. She awaited her mother's arrival soon. She was an only daughter. Even though her mother had aspired for a son, her chief concern was to keep the only soul that love could latch itself onto, cared for, as her father had passed away a month ago.

Predictably, at eight in the morning, her mother entered the room. She looked forward to her mother, her only remaining conviction that sanity and care prevailed in this world.

The door closed. Her mother seated herself on a chair. She removed her hijab to reveal her face.

She gasped.

It was not her mother.

"Do not scream and do not be frightened", said the stranger. Yet, her instinct drove her to do exactly those two things. Born in the tumult of war, her trust was not easy to gain, though she was a mere child of fourteen years. 

"Where is my mother?", she demanded, wishing her voice sounded commanding like her father's, even though she herself realise, the only power her voice was communicating was that of the grip fear was having over her.

"Your mother was taken away by the guard. We have very little time. I ask you to give me the inheritance that your father left me and I leave you in peace.", the stranger said.

"What do you mean taken? And what inheritance are you talking about? All I have inherited is a painful childhood and an unrecoverable loss", she lamented.

"Your mother is taken. I do not know for a Sahib or for himself. She will never be allowed to return to you. You brothers have been isolated, kept unaware and protected. She is suffering the same fate many of my kin have had to.", her listless eyes, cold as steel.

"No! God will not take away the only person I loved away, she will be back for me no matter what", the child whimpered.

"I have no time for your emotions, give me your inheritance and I leave", said the stone-faced stranger.

"What kind of a woman are you? You are informing a daughter of her mother's kidnapping and calmly expect me to conjure some non-existent inheritance, like a magician", this time tears accompanied her mournful voice.

"Listen, I have no time for this pleasant talk. Save it for other women, I have come here for a mission and nothing more", intoned the stranger yet again.

"I have all the time in he world. I have nothing. Nothing makes sense. I know not who you are. ", she climbed onto the bed.

"Give me all your possessions".

"The only things I own are the two other suits of clothes apart from what I am wearing"

"That cannot be, I thought I translated the riddle correctly."

"There is no bigger riddle than your presence."

Silence stretched between them. A lot of unspoken things were said. Finally the stranger said, "All guards have vacated the women's premises. There were talks of taking them to England. By the Hooghly, it would be easy. Celebrating your father's victory, I have a shrewd suspicion that none of them will return, overly confident in wine and what not! I will tell you my story, Fathima. I do not think a ten year old can help me, but your lack of inheritance is disturbing and I, like you, am an orphan. I also have nothing.", the stranger's eyes displaying the first hint of human life.

Curiosity seized Fathima. "You know my name?".

A laugh. Silvery and pleasant emerged from the hitherto spectre of misery. "Of course I do! You are Fathima, named after your grandmother, daughter of Tipu Sultan. I am Mary d'Souza."

"You are a Christian?!", asked Fathima eyeing her perfect burqa.

"Yes, a Mangalore Christian", said the lady with a supreme smile. Fathima knew not how to react. She thought any person who would boldly announce that they belong to that traitorous clan in front of Tipu Sultan's daughter, must either be very brave or very foolish.

As though her thoughts reverberated in the humid air, Mary said, "And what does this teenager, vestige of the royal blood who condemned our race, thinks is a befitting punishment to our existence?", sarcasm coating every word Mary spoke.

"I do not know. I should not even be talking to you. You are a traitor to the ruler", stated Fathima with an emotion that would have made her father proud.

"Since you have decided not to talk, listen at least. Perhaps if you have been imbued with some rudiments of logic, you will empathise with me. Otherwise, well it will not be a disappointment.", she said, preparing to recite her story with a more comfortable seated position.


"I was praying. The church was razed. I did not have time to think. I simply ran while the building was turned to ash. All of us were taken prisoner, from all parts of the coast, and were forced to walk to Srirangapatnam. There were 30,000 of us. Walking. Men. Women. Children. Through the most arduous route of all, the fort route. We ate little. There were pregnant women among us. Forced to walk as well. They gave birth and if, God willing, they survive, forced to walk with their babies. Walk. Walk. Eat. Walk. People died and were buried on the same spot. People were harassed. When we reached the fort finally, the men forcibly converted. Women forcibly taken. Men isolated so that their race died out. And you expect me to respect your father?"

It was Fathima's turn to be bewildered. She knew of the capture but did not know its exact gory details, perhaps deemed inappropriate for her childish age. Mary, however, had thrown such reservations to the wind. She seemed to  have lost control over her anyway, speaking things that had been locked away for so long.

"I agree it sounds harsh. But my father would have never taken such a step if your people hadn't betrayed us.", she said, her voice quailing as she cowered under Mary's glare.

"So you believe, 30,000 of us, most of whom are not even aware of the Sultan's existence over the entire coast, communicated and plotted against the king? And what did we women do to deserve such treatment? ", Mary spoke with anger.

"Honestly, the betrayers were from your clan. And, b- "

"Do you know who betrayed your father at the final battle?"

Fathima lost. She knew the answer. She did not want to admit it. She knew that the one who betrayed her father was none other than his most trusted courtier, Mir Sadiq, who called the entire army for salary at the same moment the British stormed the fort. Silence struck again.

A wry smile came unto Mary's lips, "Is the daughter of Tipu Sultan a coward?". Fathima answered fast and furious, "My father may have erred on this occasion but that does not mean he is not worthy of respect. He built the first church in Srirangapatnam and he is not as cruel as you believe. Do you know? He protected a temple from attack. He donated regularly to the Sriranganatha temple. And he did not raze the church that was under my grandfather's best friend's hold."

It was Mary's turn to be surprised. She had often visited the church of Srirangapatnam, but had merely thought it was a relic of British architecture. Also, she viewed Tipu as an intolerant ruler, certainly incapable of  protecting people of other faiths. 

Fathima continued, " Do you how many women my father had rescued from oppression? I think my father is the finest man in the world. Have you ever seen buildings as beautiful as the ones he built? Most of all, do you know that my father and grandfather are the only Indian rulers to defeat the British in war?". She waited to catch her breath.

Mary whispered," I only know his atrocities. There were rumours of that alone in our camps. Whatever said and done, he is a ruthless man."

"My father was ruthless to the people who betrayed his trust.", mused Fathima.

"Did your father actually defeat the British in combat?", asked Mary in wonder, forgetting for a moment, the debate, the hurt and being replaced by an insane curiosity.

It was Fathima's turn to laugh. "Of course, the first thing the British did on entering the fort was blowing up the artillery, but not before the carefully storing one of the indigenous rockets".

"I see", muttered Mary.

Fathima continued in earnest, "Please do respect my father. I apologise for your people on behalf of his dear departed soul. I know I cannot erase the consequences, but I hope to tell you his good attributes too. He was an able ruler, kind. He was rash and he hated being betrayed. There were people from all faiths in his court. Ranga Iyengar was there. Shamaiya Iyengar, his brother, was also there, in charge of Post and Police."

At the mention of the words "Shamaiya Iyengar", whatever little colour Mary possessed left her. She started to weep.


"What happened?", asked the astonished Fathima.

"He was to be blinded right?", Mary asked subdued, her face in her hands. Fathima rushed to reassure her, "Oh but he was forgiven, didn't you know? He was forgiven because his son died in battle. Also, he was in trouble because of Mir Sadiq. He declaimed Shamaiya as a traitor."

"Well, it is about time you knew what happened to me. I was preparing to escape from my camp. On the route of escape, we got enmeshed into a battle. As we hid, I noticed a wounded man, dying from a gunshot, whimpering. They had abandoned him for dead. After the sounds of battle ceased, I made my way to the wounded man, cautious. I tried to help him, stop the bleeding. He smiled, a smile that I will never forget. He held my hand and said, "My name is Murali Iyengar, I am grateful for your help. A war feels honourable when you win it, deplorable when you are forgotten. Please take this with you, I know I cannot live any longer, it is  the key to the king's inheritance, I would have liked to find it, not to steal it, to prove to him that in his arrogance to punish my innocent father, he counted his riches to early. Yet, now as death approaches me, my thoughts of revenge disappear. I give this to you to do whatever you want to make of it. Thank you.", he passed away, serenely.

"This was the what was written:

As was before, so shall be.
Like a flower in a desert,
blossomed in peril was she.
The ruler's treasure does lie
at the helm of the tiger
striped rule, always guarded by 
the dark angel of power,
which gains strength by the Sultan's blood.

It was a riddle. A classic Victorian riddle. I wanted to find it. I returned to Srirangapatnam, braving the fact that the next person to be kidnapped could well be me. I believe I survived merely due this disfigurement", revealing a scar on her neck. "They only wanted the most beautiful. I did not catch their fancy thankfully. And then, it fell. I did not know why I went groping with the riddle, I convinced myself it was due to the dying man,  was merely carrying out his plans. But now, I think it was my revenge. Mine alone."

Mary paused for breath. Realisation crashing on her, like a wave that woke her up from a dream. Fathima sat quietly. For the third time, they spoke in silence.

"Anyway, I thought the riddle referred to you. You were the last child, born during war, Tipu Sultan was known for his tigers, you are dark and of his blood. It all seemed to fit. I travelled all the way to Bengal, following them, noticing their plans to keep the next heirs isolated."

"I am sorry, I honestly have no idea what you are talking about".

"That is well, come live with me here, we'll travel from this hovel in Tollygunge of Bengal to the jewelled city, Calcutta. I've gotten a certain liking for you."

"I would like that", answered Fathima shyly. "Is there no way I can see my mother again?", she asked.

"I am afraid so. I am truly sorry."


"Well, we better go now", said Mary. "Here I'll take your clothes. Come along now." Fathima obeyed. She realised she was not very old, perhaps twenty five. Yet she sounded so many years older. "My god, your burqa is heavy, and what are these lines?".

"Oh my father had a huge fondness for tigers. Just a few stripes. Actually if you look on the inside, you see an entire sheet of orange and black at the foot of the robes."

"Oh... Oh my god! The riddle!", exclaimed Mary.
"What about it?"
"It wasn't the helm of the tiger's rule, it was the hem of the tiger striped rule."
"Your inheritance is in the dress!", she said examining the cloth at the bottom. At one place, she cut the the padding, to Fathima's horror. 

Only to find the Navratna pendant in her hand.

Mary did not know what to do. Half jubilant and half scared.

Fathima said quietly, "I understand if you want to take it, you can have it. I want nothing to do with it. By depriving my family of this, you fulfill your vow of revenge."

"Yes, I will take it. But not for the reasons you said. We will go to England and sell it. We will live there in style. I will come back, surely. I need to answer to my race. We have nearly died out. I did not need to take revenge, I think God takes care of justice"

As they walked out of the house, preparing for their daring escape, Fathima said, "I do not care what my father's soldiers thought, I think you are the most beautiful woman on Earth".


They successfully made it to England. Mary worked odd jobs to get the ship's ticket. She was moderately educated. In London, they sold the pendant to a General. They were quite happy and content. Mary, however, wished to return to her country whereas Fathima wanted nothing more to do with it. Well-educated now, she decided to remain in England. Mary went back to India, even raised a family. Fathima, always remembering Mary's story about war, about unattended wounded, affected women, joined Florence Nightingale at the age of sixty-four and returned to Mysore during the last few years as a nurse. The Tiger reigns supreme.



This is a pure work of fiction. I simply wanted to write about Tipu Sultan. But there are so many divided opinions. Partly, some exaggerated to undermine his authority, to enhance divide and rule. There is no doubt his father was more tolerant, yet some accounts how that he is not as cruel as he made out to be. Arrogant, but still a force, an enigma. The British were frightened of him. And he portrayed that with his mechanical toy tiger. So I first thought I'll put the two points of view. But my over-active imagination wouldn't let me. All the above could have happened, because Florence Nightingale did come into the scene fifty years later and the fate of Tipu's daughters are unknown, that of the sons are highly documented. The only unlikely thing is whether Fathima and Mary would have been able to communicate, give Mary's native tongue would have been Konkani and Fathima's Persian or Kannada. Still, I had a nice time writing it. Hope you enjoyed it. The facts of the battles are true. The three Iyengars are historic. Though I made up the son's name because I couldn't find it. And I've taken the extracts of diaries for the great march of Mangalore Christians, it seems to tally with most other facts. Also, the navratna pendant was auctioned recently. And I am not sure whether Tipu built the first church in Srirangapatnam or in Mysore. And Genelia D'Souza is a Mangalore Christian, inspiration for the name. I saw the name Fathima in the Mausoleum. AND, this post is a testimony to the fact that I can write about Indian history also.