In the inner court of Akbar’s palace at Fatehpur Sikri is a broad stone terrace with a chequered pattern that resembles a game board. Here, contemporary accounts say, the emperor played a kind of chess using human pieces drawn from his harem of three hundred. Costumed in various guises, schooled perhaps by a mistress of ceremonies, his women would have presented lively masques upon this stage.
Zelaldinus mounts such a pageant, glittering and fantastical, where past and present, nobles and commoners, history and fiction rub shoulders. The emperor himself, a man of limitless enthusiasms, is both chief participant and magus.
Our scene opens on the Aravalis, that chain of red hills at Sikri, played by ladies who wave lengths of billowing red muslin in the background. Enter upon the redstone stage a company of Amazons, the king’s guard, who form by gymnastic evolutions a human pyramid representing the imperial capital of Fatehpur, lately built on Sikri hill. From their midst bursts a magnificent warrior, an Abyssinian eunuch resplendent in cloth-of-gold. To the booming of drums from the drum house this grandee, ordinarily the chamberlain, mounts level by level a five-tiered pavilion on whose summit waits the emperor. At the topmost step the warrior halts and bows deeply. The drumming, which has reached a crescendo, breaks off into resounding silence.
Akbar, disclosed on high, advances a half step to acknowledge the keys of the city. At that prompt the action begins on the chequered terrace, telling the story of Sikri, retelling also the story of Akbar.
Whereupon a fleet of gleaming Volvo buses appears below the palace and disgorges a Teutonic tourist army bristling with cameras.
Lastly there appears, grimed and dented, an elderly UP Roadways bus that judders to a halt outside the city wall. From it alights a single passenger, the narrator, Irv.
the ghost walks
Irv! You’re back.
Majesty! [shuffling] I couldn’t keep away.
Count your blessings, Irv. I can’t bear to stay. I just overheard my
saint beg to be re-embodied and thought — Yesss!
[They sit on a culvert by the ticket gate]
Listen, you’re a storyteller. You can embody me. I’m sorry I was
rude about your profession. Some of my best friends are novelists
now — a Senegalese, a Kiwi. But they all go home. I can’t go past
that gate! Come on, embody me, walk me away. I’ve been too
long on this hill.
[Irv considers] There is a remedy, Majesty. But it’s worse than the
disease — or more final.
Nothing could be worse, Irv.
You’ll have to do as I say, Your Highness. The way my characters
Done, says Zelaldinus.
It’s not just your characters that obey you when you write,
Majesty. The whole world does. In that sense — begging your
pardon — I’m more absolute a monarch than You.
Ahem, says Zelaldinus.
A mountain is, when I say so on the page. A gun goes off when I
pull a trigger that wasn’t there before.
Remember I can’t write.
Narrate, then. Declare. Command. Say: ‘Leaves appear on this
That smacks of heresy, Irv.
It’s the only way out of here—if You really want that.
More than anything, Irv.
Story yourself out then. Say ‘Zelaldinus walks down the Sikri
Are you sure about this? I won’t be struck down? Okay.
‘Zelaldinus walks down the Sikri road.’ What’s this? [bridles,
rears up] What’s happening to me!
[calls after him] You’re walking down the Sikri road. Like You
[calls back] I can’t go like this, Irv! I’m not dressed, for one. And I
need ostriches and eunuchs and things.
Create them — but then You’d be back where You started. This is
something You have to do alone, Majesty.
Stop me, Irv!
Stop Yourself. Say, ‘Akbar halts.’
‘Akbar halts! Akbar halts! Akbar halts!’
Just the once. You’ve stopped.
Have I? Why, yes I have. ‘Akbar returns,’ then.
There, You’ve got the hang of it.
Look, Irv. Can’t you embody me in one of your stories?
What sort of story?
Oh passion, romance. An old man needs a love story.
[Irv sighs] Alright. Listen. Here are two lovers. See them?
Okay. Here’s Percival.
Something moved, Irv—just there!
Percival of Bombay.
Yes — he’s taking shape!
Um, maybe wipe Bombay. Another bhel puri blockbuster and I’ll
puke. Percival of Cal.
You mean Kolkata? Some pukesome stuff there, Irv.
Cal, not Kol. Percy’s an Anglo. Free School, no ropetrick, no
arselick. In love with, let me see, a Paki!
I like this game, Irv.
Well don’t tell the saint about it. Okay, let’s see. Visa problems!
She’s stuck there, he’s stuck here. Karachi, Cal. They’ve had just
one night together at a conference in, oh, Seoul. Now they’re
sure this is it.
She needs a name, Irv.
Patience? An Anglo too. Or no, we’ll make her a Parsi. Percy’s
Parsi. We’ll call her Naz.
Nice name, Naz.
Crush from Delhi University days, Sir. So, Percy and Naz. We
have to get them together. His applications turned down twenty
times, Percy decides the only way is — what?
Easy peasy, Irv. He can walk across.
Yes, Sir! But he could get lost. He needs a guide, someone who’s
been that way, done the route.
That could be me, Irv.