The Impressionist

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

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Authors: Hari Kunzru
brass lamps suspended from the ceiling, sending flickering shadows over the faces of the fifty or so courtiers assembled here. They wrap their shawls closer round their shoulders and pull meditatively at hookahs. Discreet servants wait in the shadows with new coals, plugs of apple-scented tobacco, slim-necked flagons of wine and silver trays of sweets.
    The men are richly dressed, expensively set turban jewels and heavy necklaces glowing significantly in the yellow light. Yet none, not even the brother who sits yawning with his foreign cronies near the back of the pillared hall, can outshine the Nawab, who wears seven strands of pearls and carries on his finger a ruby the size of a quail’s egg, given to an ancestor by the Emperor Aurungzeb. Though Nawab Murad, Slave of God, Father and Mother of the People, Defender of the True Faith and Shield of the Kingdom, is still a young man, his eyes are recessed in his skull and his forehead is heavily lined. An atmosphere of melancholy hangs around his neck more heavily than the pearls, an atmosphere he has, consciously or unconsciously, spread about him in this hall like a dusty carpet. He appears insubstantial, almost ghost-like, and his sorrow lends a quality of mourning to this gathering, which seems to look back into the past with such a constant collective gaze that the participants take on the appearance of a Persian miniature painting, their faces freezing into serene immobility, their poses as formal as the floral border of carnelian and black marble which runs around the walls.
    Reciting his latest ghazal, the poet Mirza Hussein senses this mood and (such are the ways of God) finds it instantly reflected in the lines he wrote for the occasion:
‘Every corner of the court is decked in shadows
Only my heart remains, burning through the night’
    A murmur of approval goes through the mushaira.
‘How long, O Mirza, do you think you can you survive
abandoning all hope, forswearing all delight?’
    Mirza concludes the final stanza, naming himself as the convention demands, and his audience anticipates the last word, joining in as he speaks it. The chorus of voices mouthing ‘delight’ breaks into calls of approval, and the poet receives his applause with a slight inclination of the head. It is a moment of near-perfection, and brings a fleeting smile to the Nawab’s face. He has called this mushaira, his love of poetry being one of the few good things he feels is left to him, a powerless ruler in a debased age. His courtiers seem to feel as he does. Only the line of uniformed Englishmen at the back appears unmoved. The Englishmen, on whose pink faces and starched tunics his illusion of a Mughal past shatters like a thrown mirror. The Englishmen, and Firoz, his younger brother, clicking his fingers at a servant and fiddling disaffectedly with the celluloid collar of his London-tailored shirt.
    The voices calling ‘delight’ are the first thing Pran hears as the Khwaja-sara guides him through the last courtyard to the mushaira.
    ‘In a moment you will see the Nawab,’ the hijra whispers. ‘Whatever happens, you are to be still and silent. Do you understand?’
    Pran nods. They emerge through an arch into the audience hall and stand in the shadows, beside a servant who stands very straight, balancing a tray of savouries on one hand. A drawn-looking man begins to read a poem in precise, elevated Urdu.
‘Why should you quit the chamber of my heart
Why should you flee this, your safest haven?’
    ‘That is the Nawab, to whom you now belong,’ whispers the Khwaja-sara.
    Pran studies the melancholy eyes, the bird-like gestures of the man’s hands as he speaks. As one sad couplet follows another, the Khwaja-sara mutters approval. ‘He is a very fine poet,’ he breathes.
    Pran looks at the assembly of nobles. In their finery, with their hawkish features and proud bearing, they are an impressive sight. Involuntarily, he raises a hand to his own face, to stroke an

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