Vantage point

Wednesday, February 12, 2003


PROLOGUE: This story is based on an incident in the 8th century A.D. that I read about on a site some weeks back. I have read up other sources too and have tried to be as historically accurate as possible. However, I wish to make it clear that this is basically a short story meant to be read for entertainment and I have taken some creative liberties.

Princess Suryadevi stood near the window, twirling the golden bracelet in her right hand with her left. She stood gazing into nothingness, thinking about the events of the recent past, something she did all day and all night. Then she shifted her gaze towards the ground. The view from her window was not all that great. There were more palaces standing in their splendour, and soldiers moving around in earnestness. In this crowd of soldiers, she noticed a young boy who sat peering at something on a windowsill near him. She looked more closely and realised that it was a sparrow that held the little boy�s fascination. He took light steps and tried to catch the sparrow, but just managed to touch it before it flew away. She was immediately reminded of her childhood in Brahmanabad, where she played in the royal gardens with her little sister, Parimal. Once while playing, she and Parimal had decided to catch a sparrow and tame it. They stalked one for hours, without telling their mother about their plans. They did manage to catch one, but their jubilation was short-lived when it slipped out of Surya�s hand deftly and flew away with a shrill cacophony of cheeping. What made an impact on their mind forever though was what happened next day.

Parimal came running in to her room, crying uncontrollably. She dragged Surya out to the garden where she saw the sparrow they had caught lying dead. It had been pecked violently to death by other birds. The two little princesses sat near their dearest pet and wept in sorrow for its tragic death. That is when the Maharani, their mother came to the garden. Seeing her daughters crying, she ran and took them in her arms.

�What happened, my precious princesses?� she asked.

�Mother, we had caught this sparrow yesterday, to play with it, but it ran away. Now see what has happened to it. Why did our friend die, mother?� Surya wailed. The Maharani thought whether she should tell the princesses the truth. They would learn the lesson in time anyway. But then they must realise that they have made a mistake and caused a life to end.

�Surya, Parimal, I know you just wanted to pet the sparrow and play with it, but when a human being touches a sparrow, the other sparrows kill it. So by touching it, you two have caused its death. I know you didn�t mean it, but I hope you will not repeat such a thing in the future.�

The two princesses were devastated and did not eat anything that day out of remorse. Something troubled Surya all night. The next day she asked her mother,

�Mother, I was the one who touched the sparrow, so I should have been the one punished. The sparrows should have come and pecked me. Why did they punish the innocent little sparrow?�

�My child, we live in a world where it is the innocent who often get punished. Unless the innocents are willing to retaliate in equal measure, they will keep getting trampled. I know you are sad at the sparrow�s death, but let this be a lesson to you for the future.�
Suryadevi was reminded of this piece of advice her mother gave, �The innocent must retaliate in equal measure�. She did not want to be like that sparrow, persecuted by others for no fault of hers. She looked at the golden bracelet.

�Is this bracelet not a metaphor for my captivity? Once the princesses of a vast kingdom, we are now just slaves of Walid, even if they have given us the fancy title of �Royal guest�. I am destined to be just another item in the Caliph�s harem. I could see the lust in his eyes when he came to �welcome� us at the palace.�

She felt a hand wrap around her shoulder. But she did not recoil in revulsion, because she knew the touch all too well.

�Hello Parimal, how was the afternoon siesta?� Suryadevi asked her sister.

�I had a dream about our palace in Brahmanabad. I miss Brahmanabad, Surya, I really do. And I hate this wretched city called Baghdad. Why have we been brought here?� Parimal lisped.

Surya said nothing and changed the topic. She felt angry enough at Qasim for putting her through this, but why did he have to include Parimal in this ordeal? Her little sister was just 15 years old, and still a child at heart. Surya herself was 20 and could understand the ways of the world, but why Parimal? She had begged Qasim to leave Parimal alone.

�Qasim, what will your Caliph get out of a tiny 15 year old girl? She is so thin, she looks like a ten year old anyway. Take me if you want, but let her stay.� She had pleaded.

�I am very sorry, Princess, I would not have liked to take anyone of you, if things were left to me. But these are orders from the Caliph in Baghdad. I am powerless. It is not my fault�, he said.

But it was his fault. She remembered the war, which was thrust upon her father, King Dahir, just because some pirates had hijacked a ship belonging to the Caliph. Fifteen times, the Arabs had attacked Sindh and had been repealed each time, many times by her brother Jaisiah. But Mohammad Bin Qasim had taken help of traitors, and taken help of enough lies to finally defeat Dahir and brutally kill him. Qasim was not powerless, neither was he without blame. He had destroyed her family, killed her father, made her brother Jaisiah convert to Islam and now this.

Suryadevi was snapped back to the present by the sound of two maids entering. They told her that the Caliph had come to pay her a visit. Surya immediately told Parimal to go in the next room.

The Caliph of Baghdad, Walid was pleased as punch with himself. He had done what many respected Caliphs before him had failed to do. Umar, Usman, Ali, Muwaiyah, all had sent armies to capture Sindh, but had come back vanquished everytime. In fact even this time, his orders to Qasim had been to not attack Sindh. Walid was upset that Qasim had defied him, but with victory, all was forgotten.

Walid entered the room and laid his eyes on Suryadevi. What an exquisite beauty she was. He had always heard that Brahmin women were good looking, but this princess literally took his breath away. He was not very impressed when Qasim had sent word that he was sending �two Brahmin virgin princesses as a gift for the Caliph�. Every general of his sent two bit princesses for his harem, and he was now bored of the practice. But one look at Surya and he was besotted. The younger one was still reed thin, but Surya, in the prime of her youth, was irresistible. Today he would have her. He smiled at her and called out to her in Arabic.

�Come, my beautiful princess, come in my arms� he said as he took rapid steps towards her. Suryadevi, who did not know Arabic, kept her eyes lowered and her arms folded. Walid took her in his arms and hugged her tightly.

�Oh princess, your divine beauty�.� He started to say, but was surprised at what the Princess did. She started talking animatedly in her language and tried to wrest free of his grip. The Caliph dismissed her rambling in a language he did not understand, as signs of nervousness of a virgin. But he froze when she kept saying �Qasim� a number of times.

�What are you saying, Princess?� he asked in Arabic. The princess dropped to her knees and made gestures with her hand indicating that she was mud. The Caliph was perplexed. He called for the translator.

�Tell me what the Princess is saying. Translate word by word.� he ordered.

�Yes Hujoor. I will ask her.� he said. Then he asked Surya in her language what she was saying and translated it for the Caliph.

�Hujoor, I do not know much about your religion or your kingdom, but I do know that you are the biggest King here, the most important of all men and very honoured.� Walid smiled conceitedly.

�I would be honoured to offer myself to you, hujoor, but unfortunately I am not worthy of you. I am not a virgin, and neither is my sister Parimal. Hujoor, your General Mohammad Bin Qasim forced himself upon us one night in our hometown of Brahmanabad and deflowered us both. We are not virgins, Hujoor, Qasim took our virginity. Qasim said he would marry us both but then surprisingly sent us here. We consider Qasim as our husband, hujoor, do not dishonour us like this.�

By the time the translator finished saying this, Walid was red with rage.

�That ingrate Qasim, that lousy rat, how dare he do this? He has always been disobeying me and insulting me in his own way and now he does this? He send me two women with whom he himself has already slept? He calls them virgin? How dare he? How dare he?�

The Caliph kept shouting as he left the room. He went straight to his palace, and called a minister of his.

�I want you to send 20 of our crack troops to Sindh with an order from me. Qasim has dared to insult me in this obscene way. I shall punish him in an obscene way. I order that Qasim be sewn up alive inside a big bag made of buffalo hide and brought to Baghdad on a camel. Send some other general to take command there.� He barked. The minister had never seen the Caliph this angry and he attended to his orders immediately.

The next day Suryadevi stood in the window, looking out again. She saw the boy whom she had seen trying to catch the sparrow the day before. He was crying, and carrying the dead sparrow in his hands. Suddenly, a woman came running towards the boy. She seemed to be his mother and asked him what was happening. Surya could make out that the boy gave his mother an explanation similar to what she had given to her mother years ago. However what happened next surprised Surya. The woman slapped her son hard about four times, and the dead sparrow fell out of his hand. She was yelling at him and pointing at the sparrow. She then pulled his ears and slapped him some more times, dragging him near the dead sparrow�s body. The boy, now crying uncontrollably, kneeled down and said a prayer over the sparrow�s body. His mother then made him dig a hole in the ground and bury the sparrow.

�Hmm, it is not just the innocent who was punished today�, she thought.

A week later, she and Parimal were summoned to the main square. One of her maids told her that Qasim had been brought back to the city and the Caliph wanted them to be present. The two princesses were taken to the main square on camel back. There the Caliph welcomed them. He looked wistfully at Suryadevi�s beautiful face and perfect body and cursed Qasim in his mind some more. He then said to her,

�The man who wronged you will be punished today. Then we will send you back to Sindh, if you want, with full honour. Your brother has embraced Islam and I am sure you will too. But anyway, here comes the culprit.�

A camel was led into the square by some men. On his back was a large buffalo skin bag, which the men carefully took down.

�Open it� the Caliph ordered and two men with daggers slit the bag open.
Qasim rolled out of the bag, with his eyes glassily still and his tongue hanging out. He had not survived the arduous journey and had either suffocated to death or died of thirst. A collective sigh went up among the people at the square. The hero of Islam who had captured Sindh, had met such an undignified death.
�There, Princess, justice is done.� Walid said, satisfied that Qasim had died on his own and he would not have to spill any blood today. He expected the demure princesses to be a bit sad at first, since she had said they regarded him as their husband, but Suryadevi�s reaction shocked him.

The princess was laughing, and laughing hard. She ran to Qasim�s body and spat on it and kept laughing. Then she came near the Caliph and said to his translator,

�Tell your ugly Caliph what I am telling you�, she said � Your people have made fifteen attempts to capture my people, but we always bravely fought back. Then you sent this man who used lies, deceit and treachery to conquer us. He sent me and my sister here to be your concubines and forced my brother to give up his �dharma�. But there was one quality he had, Caliph, and that is he was loyal to you. He never touched us, and we are still virgins. The only reason I told you those lies were to avenge my father�s death, and what better way to do it than with lies, deceit and treachery. You sent a large army to kill my father, Caliph. Here I have killed your ablest general without as much as lifting a finger.�

Walid was devastated. He had just ordered the killing of a brave man, who expanded the frontiers of Allah�s kingdom. Allah would never forgive him. As Suryadevi and Parimal Devi left the town square smiling, the Caliph sat with his head buried in his hands saying �What have I done? Allah, please forgive me�, while the people gathered in the square stood in silence, staring at the Qasim�s dead body.

EPILOGUE: There are conflicting reports about what happened next. Some say the two princesses committed suicide by stabbing themselves, so protect their honour. Some say the Caliph had them brutally tortured and then killed. Some say that the Caliph just threw them in prison for the rest of their lives.