Breads of remorse, gravy of thorns
Cooked on a fire of anguish… 

Emperor Akbar mulls over the unexpected trade request from the Queen of England. He is not in a hurry to engage. Yet the Queen moves fast and sends an ambassador who requests an audience. “What do I have to lose?” Akbar grants an audience to John Middlehall who states the desire of his country to be treated on par with the Portuguese in trade.

Akbar is annoyed that the hopeful newcomers should presume to be on par. The Portuguese are regulars at his Court and Akbar appreciates their eagerness to blend in, learn, teach and share knowledge, meals and recipes. What will the new guests be like. Moreover, what do we have to gain from them, he thinks.

Akbar’s son and eventual successor Jahangir will need to take a call. To his good fortune and also due to his fluency in Turkish, the emissary William Hawkins finds favour with Jahangir who honors him with a captaincy. Hawkins soon settles down with an Armenian wife and becomes a frequent guest at the Court. Yet Jahangir, like his father before him, is in no hurry to grant the trade concessions that Hawkins came for in the first place. Jahangir has the support of key lobbies in his Court, including his influential trade minister Mukarrab Khan, and the Portuguese. He hands the same treatment to the next emissary Roe, serving him the special khichdi loved by his family. But no trade concessions.

Not far away, in Lahore, Shah Hussain – the radical Sufi Punjabi poet is dancing on the streets, and singing kafis to his lover, Madhu Lal. Everyone in the city knows his story. Years back, he had famously left his madrasa abruptly upon reading the verse: “The life of this world is nothing but a game and sport.” From then on he gave himself over to living without rules and constraints. Upon encountering him, his pir recognises his protegee’s true liberation and appoints him his viceregent.

The verses from one of Shah Hussain’s famous kafis connects to the Court – expressing what the reluctant Mughals are getting into with creeping British influence in the Mughal Empire:

Dukhan di roti, solan da salan
Aahen da balan baal ni

  • Britain and the Islamic World, 1558-1713, By Gerald MacLean, Nabil Matar
  • Biography of Shah Husayn (Madhu Lal), Abdul Nishapuri
  • Wikipedia: Madho Lal Hussain
  • Images: Ni’matnama of the Sultans of Mandu