A howling rage took possession of the physician. ‘I’ll cure you, you glutton, for once and forever,’ he muttered to himself, and repaired to the pharmacy in the palace grounds. There, he took off his clothes and rubbed the scurf from his unwashed skin (he was not a man who favoured cleanliness) and rolled this body scurf into four miniscule pellets. These he further wrapped in silver foil, with a little cumin and asafoetida pressed in for good measure. While at it he added some anardana, the dried pomegranate seeds being his favourite ingredient and cure-all. Returning to the palace, he confronted his king. The four doses were placed on the royal tongue at quick intervals, while the fierce physician muttered curses and imprecations under his breath. These were, of course, taken as being addressed to the demon of ill health, for no one could possibly presume to be so rude to His Majesty.
By the time the third pellet was pressed into his mouth, the king was already feeling better. He beheld his loyal physician Jeewan Chandra Pant with gratitude and ordered that a bag of gold coins be given to him. The courtier who was summoned to bring the coins from the royal treasury appropriated five, but a bagful was still a bagful. The Vaidya was immediately moved to better humour and contemplated buying his beloved Pokhara mistress a gold hansuli, to frame her plump, pretty neck. Later, he was to wonder interminably about the possible conjunction of astral influences, the conspiracy of constellations, that had effected his radical cure. For the king’s digestion now flourished, the royal robes layered in purple velvet and satin rested gently on his reposeful abdomen; the queens, the prime minister, the ladies of the harem, all enjoyed the reprieve from his colic- induced cruelties.
The unexpected success of his unorthodox medicine prompted Jeewan to research further. He dreamt of formulating the perfect aphrodisiac. A Tibetan herbalist in Pokhara had told the Vaidya about the highly efficacious horny goat weed he had learnt of in China. The plant grew in profusion around the Pokhara lake, and the royal physician had concocted a rasayan using the distilled weed and small quantities of the pink bell-shaped valerian flowers of Jatamansi. The king was offered the experimental potion, and it worked wonders. A certain royal lady-in-waiting whose husband was a confirmed catamite found herself the subject of the monarch’s unexpected favour. He visited her bedchamber three nights consecutively and found his veerya, his royal libido, functioning as capably as that of a young man. The lady had a mole upon the inside of her left thigh, and this mole became the subject of his immediate and compulsive attention. The mole, he decided, in some leap of intuition or madness, held the key to his destiny as a monarch.
The euphoria could not, and did not, last. After a particularly late and heavy dinner, the royal digestion took a turn for the worse. Jeewan Chandra was summoned from Pokhara, where he had gone in search of more horny goat weed for the king’s—and his own—enhanced virility. One of the queen’s spies had informed the physician of this latest royal liaison, and he had determined to cash in on his run of professional good luck by promoting the new aphrodisiac. Jeewan’s mistress, in the meanwhile, was in good humour too, and his suspicions had been somewhat lulled by her fervent affections and her passionate response to his newly prolific libido.
The king’s spies were at work as well. The king knew of the Newari mistress and did not take an indulgent view of his physician’s absence from the royal presence. The prime minister had already summoned an alternative physician, an old man with a wizened face and a repertoire of Chinese and Tibetan medicine. When at last the Vaidya sped back from Pokhara, the king demanded another dose of the magical digestive cure that had changed his life. The doctor retreated to his pharmacy and made up the pills with cumin, asafoetida and pomegranate seeds, wrapped in silver foil. The king ate the four pills as prescribed, but his affliction did not lessen. The dull pain in his stomach seemed only to grow worse. Even unwise courtiers sense the moods of kings, and Jeewan Chandra Pant returned to his pharmacy and, rubbing the scurf from his thighs and underarms, put together the pellets of the inexplicable miracle combination.
It worked. The stomach ache abated, the clouds lifted, but before he could bask again in the contentment of his king’s affections, the prime minister’s spies, omniscient, omnipresent, had rushed to inform His Majesty of the secret ingredients of the cure-all.
The queen’s counterspies, in the meanwhile, hastened to inform the frightened physician of King Rajendra’s anger. Abandoning both his wife and his mistress, the Royal Vaidya took the 300 coins he had prudently stitched into a woollen thulma and, harnessing his sturdiest horse, draped the thulma over the saddle and rode non-stop all the way across the Kali River into Kumaon. Once he was safe in the justice of the white man, such as it was, he made a promise to himself. ‘I shall never work for a king again,’ he vowed, ‘no queen either. I will serve only the common folk and steer clear of royal favour and disfavour.’
Strange are the ways of kings. After an initial roar of outrage, and the threat of death and mutilation, His Majesty Rajendra, whose colic had obediently subsided, forgave his errant physician, even excused his unorthodox ingredients. ‘The man is a Brahmin,’ he explained to his prime minister, ‘and their caste has mysterious powers contained in their bloodstream, from their high birth and all the sacred mantras they recite.’
The stench of the Chinese medicines sickened him, and the wizened old apothecary had a disconcerting look in his eyes which did not inspire trust. The king was mortally afraid of being poisoned, and he missed his irascible physician Jeewan Chandra Pant. Emissaries, laden with gold, were sent in search of him. The mistress in Pokhara knew nothing, but the wife—who was being watched by the spies of the court— had word from her brother-in-law, Jeewan’s cousin, who had been dispatched to escort her back to Almora.
The king’s spies (it was unclear whether they were in the pay of the queen or the prime minister, being indebted to both) were so caught up in the counter tales they carried from the king to the queen to the prime minister that they confused the purpose of their vigil over the physician’s wife and allowed her to escape to Kumaon with her brother-in- law.
The lady-in-waiting with the mole on her left inner thigh died in mysterious circumstances. The king’s stomach aches returned, and he grieved for her, and his able Kumaoni physician, with equal despair.
Excerpted from ‘Things to Leave Behind’ written by Namita Gokhale, published by Penguin.
Things to Leave Behind follows the intertwined story of spirited Tilottama Uprety, whose uncle is hanged during the ‘Mutiny’, her troubled daughter, Deoki, missionary Rosemary Boden and Deoki’s husband, Jayesh Jonas, into Boden’s utopian Eden Ashram where artist William Dempster seeks out new Indias. At its heart lies one singular painting: a portrait of love, longing and courage.
Set in the years 1840 to 1912, Things to Leave Behind chronicles the mixed legacy of the British Indian past and the emergence of a fragile modernity. The book is published by Penguin.
Illuminated with painstaking detail, told with characteristic narrative skill, this compelling historical novel—the final one in the Himalayan trilogy, after A Himalayan Love Story and The Book of Shadows—is Namita Gokhale’s most ambitious work yet.
About the Author:
Namita Gokhale has authored thirteen books—seven works of fiction and six works of non-fiction. She is founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, and the Bhutan literary festival, Mountain Echoes.