At Jaswant's earnest words Saeen gave a long sigh and said, "My dear, why would I hold back anything from you? But touching on a painful subjects can only revive suffering."
Jaswant: I know, but we have met under unhappy circumstances and that has, in a way, brought us closer. I too have had my share of troubles.
Saeen: I had a feeling that you were from Punjab and had been brought as a captive here.
Jaswant: Yes, that is right. I have managed to get my freedom after a lot of hardships. By God's grace and the kindness of your Agha Khan, I am hoping to reach my homeland. As he is a Pathan, I have not spoken very freely with him. But Saeenji, it's not easy to keep secrets for long from those we love.
Saeen: Barring some unforeseen calamity, I can assure that my son will keep his word to the end.
Jaswant: I don't expect anything less from him or from you my sweet Saeenji. I feel there is not much difference in the blood coursing in your veins and mine."
Saeen: Yes, I am neither a Pathan nor a Muslim. This appearance of mine has been created by love, or (laughing) maybe as a result of my actions in my previous life.
Jaswant: (holding Saeen's hand in a warm clasp) I can't wait to hear your whole story. Please, tell me.
Saeen: I am the daughter of Punjab, the land of seven rivers. Though I belong to the Rajput clan, I was born in the hills of Punjab. My father was a big landowner. His name was Shaktu, and our hometown was Nadaun. I was married at an early age, but within a short time my husband and my father both died.
We were living in Lahore at the time. In our neighborhood there lived a very cultured and dignified family. The lady of the house was a warm and caring woman. She took me under her wing after this tragedy, and gave me so much love that I became like one of the family.
So, dear Jaswantji, my blood is as pure as the waters of the Punjab rivers, and as such you are like my own brother (and she took Jaswant in a tight embrace. Tears ran down her cheeks, her breathing slowed and she seemed to go into a trance).
Jaswant: (after a while) Saeen, beloved Saeen, it's the Lord's gift that in this foreign, barren land, I have met a sister whose love has banished my feeling of aloneness. If you can tell me the rest of the story then my happiness will be complete. I am sure that Agha Khan too belongs to Punjab. The blood in his veins is full of vigour and strength, and not the harshness of this land. Tell me sister dear, that I am guessing correctly.
Saeen: Dear brother, it's a tragic tale, but listen and I will try to answer all your questions. To continue from where I had left of earlier, my mistress was the epitome of love and goodness, spreading cheer all round with her smiling face, singing Guru's shabad in her beautiful sweet voice. Her husband was a strong man, truthful and religious by nature, every ready to help. They made a truly unique couple.
They had one daughter and then the Lord blessed them with a beautiful son. I have never known such happiness, not even in my father's house.
(After a pause) We used to get a lot of visitors, and the mistress was always happy to receive them. So, I spent more and more time looking after the little boy. I feel like crying when I remember those days of joy, service and satsangat spent in that house.
Misfortune had descended on the country with Aurangzeb's fanatical rule. He had sown the seeds of communal hatred, fear and suspicion. These began to bear fruit now. The person who ascended the throne after Aurangzeb was Muhammad Shah, and inept ruler, too busy satisfying his lust for pleasure to give any thought to the country and the people.
At this time Nadir Shah began to invade with his savage hordes, completely devastating the land between Peshawar and Lahore. Rivers of blood flowed everywhere. Vast treasures of gold, silver and precious gems were plundered. Thousands of people were captured and taken back as slaves.
Bands of Sikhs used to make frequent forays into the enemy camps, snatching back whatever wealth they could lay their hands on, and rescuing thousands of young girls and women.
When Nadir Shah reached Delhi he asked about the Sikhs and when he heard details about their valour and discipline, he commented to Khan Bahadur, 'Handle then with care. It's quite clear that because of their qualities they will rule the country one day'.
But who was there to heed his words and he himself dealt with them with utmost savagery.
During this time we had to go to Patiala at the invitation of the Maharaja. Near Ludhiana we encountered Agha Khan's Pathan father, Hasn Khan, who was on his way to Delhi with a company of his soldiers. In no time, all of us were made prisoners-my master, mistress, the children and myself. That night when the Sikhs attacked, they managed to release my master and the little girl only. During our journey Sikhs carried out raids numerous times on Hasn Khan's party, but to our misfortune, we remained in his clutches till we reached Kabul, bedraggled and tied together like animals.
The sons and daughters of Bharat were sold for a mere five rupees each. Hasn was attracted by the beauty of my mistress and her son, so we were taken to his palace. Here, he tried his best to make her take the Islamic vows so that he could marry her, but she refused to give in. Finally, Hasn Khan took out his sword and brandishing it in her face threatened her, but she knew no fear. In a fit of rage, he lunged at her with the sharp blade and the next moment my most beloved mistress and friend lay dying on the ground.
Her son sat crying beside her and I was in such a state of shock that all I wanted to do was kill myself. Suddenly, I heard her voice weak and feeble, but clear enough for me to understand. She made me promise to take care of her son, no matter what it cost me. Then she continued, 'When he is able to understand then tell him about his origin and all that has happened. Tell him that I want him to go back to his country, become a Singh and spend his life in the service of his nation and his 'panth'. I leave this duty to you and, knowing that you will not let me down I can die now in peace.'
That black night I spent crying bitterly and consoling the child. In the morning I picked up the boy and went to Hasn Khan, and said, 'His mother is dead. What do you want to do with him?'
He asked in return, 'will he accept Islam?'
Folding my hands, I said, 'He is a mere child. What does he know of such matters? But this I must tell you that he belongs to a very rich and cultured Sikh family, and as such should be nurtured and not thrown away.
At that moment an odd thing happened. Hasn Khan turned to look at the boy, who smiled and him and lifted up his arms. The tough Pathan automatically bent down and picked up the child, murmuring, 'I was childless. Allah has sent me this gift. From today he is my son.'
He called his begum and put the child in her lap. But the boy would not stay in her arms. He kept crying and holding his hands out to me. Very politely, I said, 'Khan Sahib, I have looked after this boy since the day he was born, and he will not stay without me. If you kill me too, he will not be able to stand the shock and may die.' Hasn Khan glared at me and harshly asked, 'Are you also a Sikhni?"
I replied, 'No, I belong to the hill regions.'
He said, 'Oh! Not very resolute then. Will you accept Islam?'
I thought to myself my religion is love, and I must carry out the wishes of my benefactress. What have I to do with Hinduism or Islam? My duty is to love and care for this child. Any means adopted for that would become my faith.
So I said, 'I am ready to do whatever you say'.
This pleased them immensely, but I requested them to see to the respectful disposal of my beloved mistress's body. After along argument they gave me permission to cast it into the nearby river.
I took a sheet and carried her to the banks of the river. Reciting Waheguru, Waheguru, I got her ready for her final journey, wrapped her in the sheet, tied a stone to weigh it down and, with a breaking heart, said farewell to her. I had lost three beloved people and now had to take care of the fourth, all the time wondering what fate had in store for us.
I became a Pathani in a Pathan household, and won the trust of one and all, as if I was a part of the family. All the time I continued to look after my young charge.
So, my dear, Jaswant Singh, this Agha Khan is closer to you than you think. He not only belongs to your country but to your religious faith also.
(To be continued...)