A CHASHNIGIR IS A TASTER. ONE OF the many specialists in any kingly residence. Like cup-bearers, shoe carriers and torch bearers. His sole responsibility is to taste food. To ascertain its fitness for consumption. You expect him to be diligent about the one thing he is hired for. So imagine finding that the taster has actively assisted in getting your food poisoned. This is what Babur has to deal with as he is bent over in discomfort.
Now to give him some credit, Ahmed, the chashnigir wasn’t acting on his own. Remember Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi? Remember he gave refuge to Ibrahim Lodi’s family? Ibrahim Lodi’s feisty mother was among that group and it turns out she wasn’t going to be won over by the man who killed her son. After months of waylaying old handlers who had once worked in her son’s kitchens, Dilawar Begum (the mother) began to understand how the kitchens under Babur worked – Not very differently. In fact he had retained a handful of the earlier cooks.
The Begum’s moment comes when she makes the happy acquaintance of Ahmed, the chashnigir. Any simmering discontent is brought to full bloom. The day came to get the plot in motion. The Begum has a packet of powdered poison prepared. She has it delivered to the palace into the hands of Ahmed. For the poison to be effective, it will have to be mixed in the pot with the food as it is cooked. The Begum has emphasised this to Ahmed. But last minute nerves means Ahmed fails to do this. It could also be that he would be risking his own life. Since he is sometimes required by the chief kitchen supervisor/cook, the Mir Bakawal, to taste the food that comes from the pot. Instead he sprinkles the powder on the food that is laid.
The marked-out dish consists of thin slices of bread garnished with poison and topped with fritters. But there are other dishes too: stewed rabbit, fried carrots and lots of dried meat. Babur starts with the meats and coasts along. But touching the bread is inevitable. He has a bit to wipe up the last traces of the stew. Just a few minutes later, he turns unwell. Babur takes a few days to recover from this near-fatal episode of poisoning. But while he is still finding his bearings, his trusted officials have got into action. They get to the root of the episode and inform Babur of the same.
There seems to be much activity around him. Babur, propped up against cushions, has the detachment of the battle weary. He thinks of Dilawar Begum and the charitable treatment he had given her. He thinks – there’s no accounting for what runs through the minds of people you have helped.