The Maharaja and the Ambassador: a story of British India and the Sikh Empire
outskirts of Lahore, September 22, 1808
As Charles Metcalfe poked his head out from the tear in his canvas tent, the chill of the approaching winter in the north Indian morning air gripped him by the throat. He cursed, and retreated. He had forgotten in the rush of things how cold the mornings could be, even if the chill lasted only till about seven or eight o’ clock, until the sun reached above the eyeline. He had also forgotten that he had had promised himself not to turn too shabby after spending a while in the wilds of the north Indian plains. So Charles Metcalfe did not shave on yet another morning.
What he remembered though was that he was not a mere officer. He was an Ambassador. Not merely of the Honourable East India Company, but of his nation, his race, his Queen. So, when he returned to the outside, he was dressed in a fading red, brass studded cloak, and a new pair of breeches tucked neatly into a rather worn pair of knee high boots. He would still have to do a lot of walking, if not riding, or, god forbid, fighting. No, it wouldn’t come to that. Not yet, anyway.
Metcalfe was an early riser. But the Sikhs took early rising to an extreme. Their priests woke at three am, and most of the rest of the camp would wake in the following hour, so before it was past four, the morning congregation would gather, in presence of their holy book, and the morning prayers would commence. Their prayers were uncharacteristically melodious for a pagan race. Not like the raucous mantras and cymbal beatings of the Hindus at Benares, or the mechanical chanting of the Muslims. The Sikhs would sing their holy songs, set to the melody of the ancient ragas of classical Indian music. That had been his waking call for four months past. As pleasing as his transition from somnolence into sensibility had been over these few months, his embassy had achieved almost nothing. Well, except for his understanding of the Sikh nature and their politics, which he had promptly compiled into letter after letter every evening in his tent, which was no mean task considering how insistent his hosts were that he join their drinking parties every evening.
Now, the Irish were keen drinkers, the Scots knew how to hold their drink beyond any reasonable capacity, but they, the Sikhs, they were drinking demons. From the common soldier to the Maharaja, every evening the camp would descend into an organised anarchy of drinking parties. It was a wonder their enemies never attacked the camp at night. But that was the point too, they had almost no enemies who would, or could, dare. North of plains of Delhi, the Sikhs were sovereign, till the borderlands of the Kingdom of Kabul, with its capital, for the moment, ironically, in Peshawar. The Sikhs had been, more or less unchallenged for the past three decades as Afghan power had waned, not without some stolid contribution from the Sikhs. Until a few years ago they had been a nation of clans, now they were an Empire.
“Mr. Metcalfe, the Maharajah will see you,” the young Kashmiri Hindu messenger boy stuttered amidst gasps of shortening breath.
“Or, finally, he has deigned to see me,” Metcalfe replied, in chaste Urdu, of course. He was, after all, born and educated in India, destined to, if that was not too bold, conquer and rule India, for his nation, race, of course, the Queen.
Metcalfe’s office required him to walk slowly, very slowly, whenever he was called to a meeting, to avoid the false impression that he had been summoned. The Maharaja almost never gave Metcalfe more than moment’s notice and always delivered his invitation through the youngest, least experienced messenger boy. Metcalfe took it upon himself to defend the dignity of his own. While walking slower and slower, lifting his knees higher and higher, and swinging his head gently from side to side, he would always take the longest amount of time to cover the shortest distance. He would always inspect the soldiers around him with a critical eye, and even took to admonishing some for not being up to their drill. These were generally common soldiers, drafted peasants mostly from the countryside, who would respond with blank faces to the strange, white man. He did have a small contingent of English soldiers, apart from these few Indian soldiers, assigned to him, about fifteen in all, but they were never to be found so early in the morning. Most of them would be nursing the previous nights drinking sickness, while others were plain lazy and insolent. Becoming more and more so as they spent longer and longer in the Sikh military camp. There were, after all, other pleasures to be had, and Metcalfe often wondered whether he too should not indulge. But such lapses of the mind were always momentary and fleeting, often induced by accidental glimpses of the, well, camp followers and their enticing smiles.
So, the Maharaja of the Sikhs had summoned him for a personal meeting. Finally, after days. They had had seven meetings in all since his arrival at the camp, and most of them had been short, curt interviews, if not interrogations, held by the Maharaja, who was himself not much older than Metcalfe. As he walked to the Maharaja’s tent in the centre of the camp, he recalled their first meeting.
“If I may, Mr. Metcalfe, how old are you?”
“I am 23 years old, your majesty. Not that it is relevant to…”
“Do you know how old I am?”
“My age, Mr. Metcalfe, can you guess my age?”
“Hmm. Your majesty, I would not be so bold…”
“Humour me, Mr. Metcalfe. Please do.”
“Well, considering things, I would say, about thirty five years, your majesty.”
“No, Mr. Metcalfe! That is not polite at all! I say you are off by ten years.”
“So, is it fourty-five, then your majesty?”
“Hmmm. You are a smart man, Mr. Metcalfe. And very wise for your age. You will go far. Now, tell me about this, Ingland of yours. You say you are ruled by a Queen. Fascinating. And, Mr. Metcalfe, how old is your Queen?”
Twenty eight years.
No, not the Queen, the Maharaja. Metcalfe had known that, and his more than inaccurate guess had been wholly impulsive and unplanned. But it had put the Maharaja off for a while and that must count for something. He had had his revenge on Metcalfe though, having questioned him incessantly on everything from his own personal life to the political system of England. And each of their subsequent six meeting had been similar in format. The Maharaja would ask Metcalfe a personal question about himself, testing the Englishman’s knowledge about him or his sense of perception, as they were, and then he would begin a round of incessant interrogation, ranging from questions about world politics, military structures, technological advancements in Europe, to the varieties of alcoholic drinks in the Queen of England’s dining halls and the nature and habits of English women, not that Metcalfe had much personal experience of the latter.
In the course of their conversations, Metcalfe had begun to develop a grudging admiration for the Maharaja. The conversation, this time, began on a morbid note.
In a bare tent, on an ordinary chair, sat a man who looked by all means also ordinary, not too tall, dressed in a white loose longshirt, with a neat round white turban on his head. His long wispy beard was streaked with hints of gray. The Lion turned to the Englishman and fixed his one eye on him. Metcalfe felt the gaze of ageless greatness upon him. Ranjit Singh offered a hint of a smile and asked.
“Have you ever killed a man, Mr. Metcalfe?”
“I have shot a musket into the enemy files, your majesty.” “And who were the enemy, in this case?”
“The Mahrattas, Sir. The armies of the Holkar. I was assigned as the Political Agent to General Lake in the Mahratta Wars and once a situation required me to take up arms.”
“I am sure you did not disappoint.”
“I hope not.”
“They are brave fighters, the Mahrattas. You know, of course, that their empire extended up to Punjab once. They could have become rulers of all of Hindustan if not for their defeat at Panipat. Do you know why they lost the battle of Panipat to Abdali, Mr. Metcalfe?”
“We have not yet studied the history of the Afghan invasions, your majesty, but as far as I can tell, from my limited knowledge, the Afghan tactics were superior and their soldiers more ruthless. That was probably the cause…”
“No, Mr. Metcalfe, in war all soldiers are equally brave, and all are equally ruthless. To have come so far from their home, to have subdued the Mughal and challenged the Afghan, no military can do that if it does not have an understanding of tactics. So, even in strategy, the Mahrattas were not lacking. What they failed to do, and the reason why they lost, is that they could not keep their friends close. The Afghans had friends in Hindustan, their brother Afghans of the Ramganga and then the Nawab of Awadh. The Mahrattas had friends, too, but unlike the allies of the Afghans, none committed to their cause. Why? Because they had no cause. The Afghans raised an Army of Islam, the Mahrattas did not fight for the defense of Hindustan, for the Hindu Dharma as the great Shivaji had done, but for their own glory. In the end, all personal glories will always shatter under the relentless march of history. Do you understand my meaning, Mr. Metcalfe?”
“I understand what you are saying, Sir, your majesty. And I hope our two great races will forge a friendship that will stand the… test of time.”
“Ah! We will, we will. But you have not understood the whole of my meaning. The whole, Mr. Metcalfe, it is always about the whole.”
“I do understand, your majesty. But some things are best left… unarticulated.”
“Forgive me for the interruption, but there is something I wish to say. Emrise and fall, your majesty, that is the only true law of history. But how they rise and how they fall, that is what the ages will judge them by. Of course, historians will ask why they rise, and poets will lament their fall. But we, as statesmen, must only concern ourselves with how they must survive.”
“Go on, go on, Mr. Metcalfe. I find your views most fascinating.”
“Your majesty, there have been many empires in history, but all empires are not the same. Abdali carved his empire, his was one of blood and plunder, and savagery. The Mahrattas carved theirs, but as you said, they stagnated because they could not keep their friends close, or cherish a higher cause. The Mughals built a glorious empire, but each emperor had his own personal vision of what the empire was to be, so there was no continuity from age to age, and more and more friction and inconsistencies. All built up, and sapped the energy from the imperial edifice, leaving as we now see, a hollow shell. In ancient Europe, there was the empire of Rome, it rose to greater and greater glory till the glory was that of Rome as a whole, but when glory became the contested property of emperors and generals, the empire weakened and fell. It was a vision that held the empire, impelled it towards greatness, and the contestations of personal glory which led to its fall.”
“I see we have come around to the same opinion, Mr. Metcalfe. Now, tell me, do you see a vision in my empire? Do you see a vision in yours? No, do not tell me. Let it be. You ask me to retreat from the Jumna. You ask me to leave these small kingdoms alone. Why? Mine is an empire sanctioned by the highest of the high, the legitimacy of my rule comes from the court of the one true king himself. It is my purpose to unite the sovereign lands of the Sikh people. They are Sikh kings, rulers of these lands, they owe allegiance to my… the one throne.”
“They do not wish to be subdued by your armies, your majesty. And they look to us for protection.”
“And you have the right to protect them. What gives you the right?”
“We are powerful, your majesty.”
“You are a bold man, Mr. Metcalfe. Do you know I killed my first man when I was not yet thirteen. I killed him with a sword, chopped his head right off with one blow. His blood splattered my face. I could smell it later, for days. I have killed many men in war after that. But that was the only time I smelled the blood. Do you smell the gunpowder of your musket, Mr. Metcalfe?”
“I’m not sure I do, your majesty.”
“You have been in my camp for weeks now. You have seen my army. Do you think you could easily defeat us in battle?”
“It will not be easy, your majesty. But I believe we will. You see, you have not kept your friends close either. You are fighting a war to conquer them.”
“I would like more guns, Mr. Metcalfe. Your finest. For the Afghans.”
“I will see if it can be arranged, your majesty. I presume they are for the defense of Lahore or your northern boundaries?” “My boundaries, Mr. Metcalfe. What are my… boundaries? Tell me, what will you do if I march my armies all the way to Kabul?”
“I… uh… you won’t!”
“Why not? The Pathans have never had any qualms about raining down on Lahore or Delhi. Why should I hesitate? Do not worry. I understand you have sent an embassy to Shah Shuja in Peshawar. Do not put your faith on him, he will not last. There is another man you must watch.”
“The Dost,” Metcalfe replied, hoping he hadn’t reddened, or if he had, his sun-burnt skin had masked it.
“Yours, Mr. Metcalfe, not mine. Come now, it is time for the langar.”
After the communal meal near the camp gurudwara, Metcalfe retired to his tent, to draft his daily dispatches for the Political Secretary in Delhi.
He reached the camp. The guards acknowledged him. He had barely settled on his desk when he heard his name being called out asking for permission to enter. He recognised the owner of the voice, permission was given and instantly a head peaked into the tent. The grizzled, bearded face of the Maharja’s chief minister, Fakir Azzizuddin smiled at Metcalfe. The man was barely thirty years old, but looked fifty, with a scraggly beard, and deeply wrinkeld face.
“Ah, Fakir Sahib, come, come. I hope my quarters are not too messy.”
“Not at all, not at all. You do have a cleaning woman, Charels ji, do you not?” the emphasis on the job description made it quite clear what the Fakir meant.
Metcalfe blushed again.
“I… I have a boy…,” he answered as the Fakir sighed, and Metcalfe immediately realised his error in choice of vocabulary and added, “an attendant, you know”. The damage had been done. It would be better to move on.
“The Maharaja… what is the next move, Fakir Sahib. I must tell you Calcutta is very anxious. You do not know the mad Frenchman. If he says he will march across Asia with a new Koran in his hand, he will. There is no stopping him. The Sultan is his man. The Persians cannot even take Herat, what can one expect of them when it comes to resistance against the Grand Army? You… I mean, you as a mussulman would not want to see the old empires fall.”
“Ah, Charels ji, you were born in Hindustan, were you not,” the young-but-old man said, taking a deep breath and looking around for a place to sit. Metcalfe noticed and pulled up a chair for him, and knowing that despite being a hakim, a doctor, the man had his share of ailments, he quicly placed a makeshift cushion on it. The Fakir took his place on the chair and gave Metcalfe a nod. Metcalfe returned an acknowledgment and took his own place by his writing desk. The Fakir was in the mood for a conversation, so Metcalfe poured him a glass of water from his copper jug.
“I was born in Bukhara, Charels Ji. I grew up with stories of how great our Islamic caliphates had once been, stretching from Spain to Rum to Hindustan. Those stories were from my father. But in my neighbourhood, you see, at the end of a street, in a broken down hovel, lived an old man, and he had very different stories to tell. Abba was a kind hearted man. He would send me with herbs and ointments for this old man, a withered soldier who by some miracle of Allah or trick of the shaitaan had lived too long. Maybe, just maybe, he had lived so he could lift the curtain from the mirage of our false reality for me. You know of Nader Shah, Charels ji?
“I have read of him. He was not a… a very gentle man.”
“No! Ha! He was not, he was definitely not. Not a good man, but a great conqueror. And also a wrecker of peace, a slayer of Hindu and Musulman alike. Now, if I had not met that old man, I would have considered him to be my hero, a great Rustam, a Sikander of the age. But that man, he had seen the true face of Nader Shah, the sword of the shaitaan. The shaitaan wrecked Hind, and even when he died he left behind the devil’s spawn, Ahmad Shah Abdali to continue his work. I have read of the misery inflicted on my people. The mournful laments of Bulleh Shah, Waaris Shah… My people, Charels Ji, these, my people.”
He stopped to take a breath, or quell the tears in eyes, which Metcalfe had seen building up even as he spoke. But the Fakir reigned his emotions, whispered a silent prayer, and spoke again.
“A few miles south of here, Charels Ji, is the court of Kasur…”
“I know of it. It has a formidable fort.”
The Fakir took a quick breath, face tense for a slight moment, but he quickly assumed his usual archaic smile.
“You seem to know a lot about the nature of our forts, Metcalfe Sahib?”
“I assure you it was only fortune that granted me this knowledge, a fortunate meeting rather. I met a young man at the Royal Banquet at the Raja of Patiala’s palace. Hari Singh…”
“Nalwa,” the Fakir interjected, “that’s what the Maharaja calls him now. That boy, he will do wonders one day. A true Sikander. He is a humble boy and probably didn’t tell you that it was him, and his band of Sher-dil riders who captured the fleeing Nawab. Qutubuddin, the ghazi and the fool. I had tried to reason with him before the siege of Kasur. To convince him that the only way we, here in this land, could expect to live our lives in peace, was under one, powerful, legitimate king. He rebuked me, called me a false Musulman, a traitor to my race. That is something I believe, Charels ji, that is something I know. And I know there is only one man capable of creating a realm of peace in the Hind. That is the man I serve.”
There was a long moment of silence. They could hear the activity of men, the neighing of horses and the occasional gunshot outside.
“Don’t you mean the Punjab?”
The Fakir laughed
“To flee after raising the banner of jihad! A coward, that Qutubuddin. You should have seen his face, brought down, dragged through the dust by a teenager.”
“The Maharaja does not share your opinion about the Nawab of Kasur, Fakir Sahib. Isn’t Qutubuddin now his commander?”
“The Maharaja is forgiving. And an intelligent statesman. Isn’t it what you Feringhee do as well? Defeat your enemies, make them dependant on you, embroil them in wars you do not want to fight?”
“Speaking about wars you… we do not want to fight…”
The Fakir tensed, and after a moment stood up. Had he misunderstood Metcalfe’s words again? As a threat? Perhaps that was what he wanted to convey.
“I meant the Afghans. Shah Shuja, in Peshawar. Tell me, Fakir Sahib, is the Khalsa Army preparing for an assault on Peshawar? Be forward with me, please. I implore you. We can come to an agreement.”
The Fakir smiled, now, a cunning, piercing look on his face. And he did not look weak, or sick anymore. He was a crow!
“No, Charels Ji,” he said as he turned around to leave. “Before exiting the tent, he glanced back, His eyes said — not yet.
After the Fakir departed, Metcalfe sat for a while in silence. His mind was overwhelmed with conflicting thoughts. It was impossible to get a grasp on Ranjit Singh… the man was… wily, yes, that was the word. He quickly noted it down in his diary. That is how he should describe Ranjit Singh. He reminded himself again and again, not to get enamoured by the Sikhs. They were orientals, after all, and even if their religion gave the impression of being a monotheistic one, at heart, they were pagans.
He needed a ride. Some fresh air.
Although the Sikh stables were well stocked with the finest horses, Metcalfe preferred the stolid roan which had carried him from Delhi to Thanesar, on the mud-filled quagmire that the official maps called the Grand Trunk Road. In the monsoons, the North Indian plains were for all practical reasons a mushy, shallow mud-water lake! The journey up to Thanesar from Delhi had been arduous in itself, it had also been psychologically taxing. He had been preparing to go to Haridwar, a more pleasant town in the foothills of the Himalayas. And he was eager to visit the holy Kumbh festival of the Hindus, despite the looming threat of a Sikh invasion of the Ganga river valley. That had turned out to be a false threat, and he had been turned north to Thanesar, where after wading along the Grand Trunk Road he had been intercepted by…
“Hari Singh! And what are you doing here, Sher-dil?”
The young Sikh visibly blushed. He was not a shy man, but could not bear any praise, as Metcalfe had found out when the inebriated Maharaja of Patiala had exuberantly repeated again and again the story of how Hari Singh had slain a tiger, ripped apart its belly and strewn its intestines all over the jungle, to save the life of Ranjit Singh.
“He should be the Raja of Lahore, I tell you. Nalwa, you know why they call him that,” and for the dozenth time the Raja repeated the story of how Hari Singh had torn apart a tiger by its nala.
“Sat Sri Akal, Charles. Are you going somewhere?”
Was there a hint of suspicion in Hari Singh’s voice?
“For a ride, actually,” Metcalfe said, shaking the young man’s hand. Steel, it was steel.
“That is wonderful. Why, I will accompany you!”
Hari Singh kept his chestnut on a canter so the roan would have no trouble keeping up. Metcalfe preferred the slower pace, even if he was slightly hurt that Hari Singh underestimated his faithful companion.
The Metcalfe had travelled into Punjab, the more surprised he was at how dry the countryside was. The Sikhs were an amalgamation of various Punjabi tribes, most of them, the more recent converts, were farmers. But there was hardly any good farming land. Was it neglect, misgovernance? Could he offer to send some engineers to the Lahore Durbar, to survey the land for laying out canals? It was a well watered country, with a good irrigation network…
“It wasn’t because of the way I killed it, you know. Nalwa does not refer to the ripper of naala, it’s a legend, an old story of a king, Raja Nal that Rajaji meant to name me by,” Hari Singh’s words broke Metcalfe out of his reverie.
He was momentarily startled, but quickly regained his composure.
“There… it was there I slayed the tiger. Of course, in the camps they know little about Raja Nal, so I don’t correct them. Come,” Hari Singh’s horse had barely come to a halt, and the young man was already firmly on the ground.
Metcalfe followed him. He turned back to notice that the Khalsa escort which had accompanied them was some way off in the distance. He followed Hari Singh, carefully avoiding the bush and bramble.
“Here,” Hari Singh pointed to a patch on the ground, and Metcalfe could almost see a slight pigmentation of red in the soil. But it had been almost a year ago that the thorny tree which Metcalfe had learnt was called a kikar. He was quick to notice that there was a tiny squirrel staring back at them, through big inquisitive eyes. “I was his khidmatgar then. It had been barely a year since I joined the court. My home is in Gujranwala, to the north of Lahore.”
“The home of the Sukerchakia Sardars,” Metcalfe added. He had read every book on the history of the Sikhs enroute to one location after the other. First, to Thanesar, then to Patiala, and then, to Lahore. He had had weeks, months. He had been lucky to receive John Malcolm’s still to be published report on his travels across Punjab. Richard Sullivan had a bit to say about the Sikhs but his work was sketchy and hardly reliable, almost as unreliable were the few accounts of Muslim historians. Perhaps a Sikh historian could be found, somewhere in the Punjab, to write a definitive history of their…
“I saw it, before it saw me. How could it? It had its eyes on him. From there,” Hari Singh pointed to a boulder across the ground, in the other direction, “I was watching. I was slow at first, hidden. I moved back here, the soil here was moist, it would make no sound, and I circled from behind, outside the tiger’s vision, beacuse his eyes were fixed there…”
Metcalfe marvelled at the young man’s assessment of the ground. He had the makings of a fine general. And if the Khalsa Army was led by one such as him, no army would stand a chance against it. A Sikander, Fakir Aziuddin had said. So if he commanded an army like Napoleon’s, he would conquer the world! How likely was it that the Sikh fauj would be anything like the French, leave alone any European Army?
“I startled the tiger. Not knowing what to do, it leapt at me. I had my kirpan in one hand, and a khanjar in the other. I let it come. I crouched, and like that… moved forward towards it, as it hurled towards me… he missed his target by inches that was enough. I ripped his belly, he bled dry, here. You can see the blood.”
“It was a year ago, Hari Singh…”
The young man’s face was steel. He still didn’t have a flowing beard like most Sikhs, he was still lithe and not broad shouldered like the other sword wielders, but Metcalfe knew — this was the most dangerous man in the world.
“You will see it. Look harder.”
Charles Metcalfe did. The day was beginning to darken. Distant cries of nesting birds wafted through the echoey evening air, and there was not a hint of breeze. He could hear every breath of the tiger-slayer.
Metcalfe laughed. The startled Hari Singh, who had just threatened an Ambassador of the mighty East India Company with the direst of consequences, if his masters,
in turn, threatened Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was suddenly, a young man again.
“Why do you laugh?” Hari Singh asked, slightly bewildered.
“Do you know of Tipu Sultan, Hari Singh Nalwa?”
“I have heard of him,” Nalwa replied.
They continued the conversation as they walked back to their horses. Metcalfe spoke.
“Well, he was one of the mightiest Sultans in the South, a powerful man, a worthy opponent. He used to have this quaint little toy, you know. A porcelain tiger, purportedly, feeding on the body of an Englishman. I believe that was meant to scare us.”
They mounted their horses, and began the return back to the camp. The Khalsa riders had spotted them, they were quick to mount, and were making their way towards the two, their silhouettes of flowing robes and slender lances upright against the evening sky making a perfect scene for a fine watercolour. Pity, Metcalfe, the colonial, had never cultivated these finer English tastes.
“He was a fool,” Hari Singh said as they approached the camp.
“And, why’s that,” Metcalfe asked as they passed the sentries, on the outer periphery of the camp, onward into the centre, where the commanders and generals had their tents pitched.
“He should have never picked a fight with you,” Hari Singh said, “there is nothing to gain. But it wasn’t the Sultan who started the war, was it?”
“No, actually, it was him. I believe he took his chances, and launched a preemptive strike against us.”
“So, you were planning to move against him and he moved first,” Hari Singh inquired. “I wouldn’t do that. You feringhees have your ships to bring you maal from all over the world, you have an impoverished population to draw manpower from… no. I would never strike first. I would draw you in, let you move… and then strike.”
“Like the tiger,” Metcalfe said laughing.
Hari Singh Nalwa walked Metcalfe back to his tent. The camp did seem inordinately silent. Maybe it was just the aftereffects of the ride and the conversations that had dulled him.
“This is it, then, Hari Singh. I believe I am now going to spend some time updating my journals. So, I will be up late into the night…”
“I will send you something to eat, the Singhs slayed some wild boars today, and… uh, drink. And there is an old man who arrived yesterday with his sons. They are the most exquisite musicians I’ve ever met.”
After some perfunctory protestations, Charles Metcalfe accepted. He could use an easy night. He shook Hari Singh’s hand, and as the young man departed he said one final thing which left Metcalfe thinking deep into the night as he listened to the ethereal alaap of the old man, to the accompaniment of the sarangi and tabla played by his two sons.
“He had it upside down, you know. Tipu Sultan. A fool.”
Before he slepth that night he had written to the Political Secretary that the threat of war with the Sikhs had passed. And with that the only remaining challenge to the British empire in India. It would have been an existential threat if the Sikhs had become their enemies. But friendship with the Sikhs would guarantee their hold of the empire.
When he woke up the next morning and peeked out of his tent, he saw his Indian guards standing in a huddle outside with forlorn expressions on their faces. The guards acknowledged him. Then, a head peaked out from the crowd. The grizzled, bearded face of Fakir Azzizuddin with that usual smile on his face.
Metcalfe knew something was wrong. He ran out in his underclothes. The sun was high in the sky. How long had he slept? And the camp! Apart from a few stragglers, mostly camp followers, there was no one there.
“The Maharaja left last night. He has ridden south,” the Fakir mentioned absentmindedly, handing coins to the guards. Metcalfe shuddered to control his anger.
“Where,” he shouted. “Is he going to cross the Sutlej? If he going to annex Patiala? Faridkot? Does he want war? Is that what he wants? You, you… think I am a fool! You wily…”
“But, but” the Fakir began again, “he has left me with instructions. We should get to work to defining the terms of our treaty, Mr. Metcalfe. Let us begin with the name — A Treaty of Peace and Friendship between our two great peoples, races, nations… what should we call it? Not peoples, no not just that. Let us say, empires, Charels saab, let us say, empires.”
Author’s Note: The Khalsa army had broken camp and moved on to Mallerkottla, where after a show of force the Muslim Nawab surrendered. Again, Metcalfe followed the fauj but could arrive at no terms for a treaty. Ranjit Singh’s march continued — to Shahbad, to Ambala, and finally, to Patiala. Charles Metcalfe would remain with the Maharaja’s army for months, getting increasingly frustrated with the Sikhs, and recommending war more than once. He finally managed to negotiate a treaty, in Amritsar. The Treaty of Amritsar was signed on 25th April, 1810, commencing an informal alliance between the Sikh Empire and British India, among other agreements. Such as, most significantly, settling the southern boundaries between the two empires. Patiala remained outside Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s domains. But that is a story for another time.
Author’s Note 2: As any reader familiar with Sikh history must have noticed, while the characters and the settings are real and factual, the dialogue and scenes are heavily fictionalised. The presence of Hari Singh Nalwa at the camp, or in Patiala earlier is completely a figment of the author’s imagination. As is the description of his tiger slaying. He did slay one though. And probably saved the life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. That too, is the subject of another story.