Your Esteemed Majesty Samrat Maurya,
All the suns in all the worlds must hide their glow, so bright may the Empire shine.
With these words, I offer you peace and great health.
It has come to my attention that Ustaad Vaani, Seventh Pillar of the hallowed Court of Akardham, has recently announced his retirement from all forms of music composition. This comes as an utter surprise because his career was flourishing. It pains me to imagine the walls of the radiant court which must stand barren now, devoid of Ustaad’s majestic symphonies. A pluck of his sitar carried through the winds, and his haunting arias made lions weep inside their dens.
I hope I am correct in presuming that His Majesty is currently receiving applications for the vacant post of the Seventh Pillar. To be inducted into the Pillars — seven esteemed men and women exceedingly adept in their respective fields — will be an honour unlike any other for a poor minstrel such as myself.
I was trained in the classical modes by none other than Ustaad Amir himself. Ayad, Murad, and Nashvar, the three chief raag are on my fingertips, although I am aware a Pillar such as Ustaad Vaani was adept in at least a dozen more. I am writing this paigam to offer my services as Chief Minstrel of the court radiant of Akardham. I shall strive to uphold the virtues of the rank of the Pillar, and never let the court and your subjects down. With this letter, I am attaching a reference from Ustaad Amir, who graciously suggests that the silence between my two sung notes is the silence of the universe when it was born.
Awaiting your reply,
Your subject and in your service, eternally,
Keishan Kaumara of Llaiha
From the Court of His Esteemed Majesty Samrat Maurya.
Regarding your application for Court Minstrel.
His Eminence is extremely pleased to learn that someone deep in the south, especially from the pleasant land of Llaiha, holds Akardham in such high regard. As you must be aware, the kingdom of Akardham has its benevolent tendrils from the west to the east, but it pains His Eminence that he hasn’t been able to bind the divisive factions of the south in one cohesive unit. Perhaps your induction in the hallowed Pillars will prove to be a fruitful endeavour, not just for you, but for the longevity and prosperity of the realm.
His Eminence is inclined to accept your application. A reference from Ustaad Amir greatly elevates your chances. However, I must inform you that musicians from the four corners of our realm have applied for the position, and it becomes the responsibility of the court to give each application the attention it deserves.
His Eminence would like to listen to either a couplet sung in raag Murad or the great Song of Sundar sung in raag Tilismi — which Ustaad Vaani created. At this point, we’re not inclined to listen to your original renditions for reasons I must not disclose in this paigaam.
Please visit your nearest raysaray to send your song. If the raysaray uses brass strings as a medium to transfer, then I must implore you to find a better place. Copper works decent for us, but Illabastium is the best.
Eagerly awaiting your song,
Eternally in the service of the Samrat and his realm,
Rustam Abhari, Wazir.
His Eminence, Samrat Maurya and his Respected Wazir, Rustam Abhari,
May your joys be boundless like the universe.
Your letter was received by my spouse, Jaya, while I was away. She was making my favourite cumin-tempered daal, and she was so overjoyed upon opening the paigam, that she spilled some all over my freshly ironed kurta. The yellow-stains will be hard to wash off.
I am elated. The devas have showered their mercy upon this poor musician from Llaiha. I would be delighted to sing a couplet in Raag Murad! I have been practicing for His Eminence the song of his valorous exploits and troublesome toil, the enchanting Voyage to Skilhara. I had also composed a rendition of my own, and I must confess I am only slightly disappointed to know that the court is not taking original compositions into consideration.
I would have to spend a major chunk of my meagre fortune to send you the song via Illabastium. Even for copper, I would have to walk at least ten kilometers to the next village. It has been recently ravaged by the Anaksha danav. (I believe a god has been called upon to slay the danav but one keeps hearing such news.)
Extremely apologetically, sending the song with brass,
Your eternal servant,
Keishan Kaumara of Llaiha
From the chamber in the North turret of the Akardham Palace,
I must say His Eminence was mighty unimpressed! How uncouth of you in expressing your disappointment over a letter addressed to His Eminence! And then, you send a rendition in brass?? Brass simply doesn’t have the same qualities, and with the distances between the two places, song-notes get lost in transit. I have asked Yuvraj the Healer to look into enhancing brass-relays, but that will take some amount of time.
With our misgivings out of the way, I did find your song to be as melodious as Ustaad Amir had claimed in his reference. I just wished we could listen to it properly, especially His Eminence.
The scythe of age has caught up to me, but I still trust my ears; they’re sharp as a papercut yet, and I can tell you: you have talent. I daresay you are better than Ustaad Vaani when he joined us as the Seventh Pillar, may the rest of his days be spent in anonymity and prosperity.
You must now prove to us your other virtues. We request your attendance in the hallowed court of Akardham for a final test.
Wazir of Akardham,
Once the fish sang at the bottom of the sea and night fell so vast and dark. ‘Twas the song of His Eminence’s birth.
My spouse Jaya received the paigam, as I had taken ill.
Comprehension and ability to form words has eluded me. I can now taste colours on my tongue, and see shapes of words, so utterly joyful was the news you gave me. I must, again, apologise sincerely for not sending the song in copper, and further, for my impudence. Please don’t take it as a mark of my character.
I have to arrange for a mode of transport now. For some reason, the harbours have been sealed. I haven’t seen new ships docking near Llaiha nor any leaving for that matter. I also see paintings of none other than Ustaad Vaani himself all across the cities of the South, and I wonder if he’s opening a Musical Teaching School in Llaiha!
Crossing the Mahama desert on a ludhur-pulled cart wouldn’t be a small feat. Add to that a bulky sitar to carry and my struggles compound tenfold. I apologise in advance if there’s a delay in my arrival.
In the service of the realm,
Free are the lands and the seas, free is the sky above. Free is the fire, but chained is the heart that beats.
As I type this with my bony hands, I sit inside a ludhur-pulled tonga. By the time this letter reaches you, the ludhur would be on its way to cross the Mahama. It picked up speed in the beginning. It’s a fresh beast, I must say, fresher than most I have seen in these parts.
I have no intention of telling anyone that I am coming to the Capital and that I am to be inducted as the Seventh Pillar. My village attire, too, doesn’t invite many curious gazes. For now, I am content with anonymity, though I am certain being inducted as a Pillar will snatch that joy from me. But I am willing to exchange that with the honour of being present in the kingly court at all times, listening to Samrat Maurya’s eternal wisdom, offering assistance in shaping reforms and policies, and above all, making sure my sur and raag entwine.
If you would be kind enough to apprise me of the nature of the test beforehand, I would perhaps be better prepared for it. I ask, obviously, with utmost respect for the position of the Pillar. It’s a great long journey, and preparing for the test would help me pass the time, if nothing else.
Would you also be so kind as to let me know if I could invite my dear spouse Jaya to the palace, if I am inducted as the Seventh Pillar? Would I be getting family living quarters like the other Pillars? I must say my spouse was apprehensive of the journey, despite her elation. We argued, and almost fought. She wants my success, but not at the cost of our separation by such a long distance. She means well, though.
I will reach the town of Vivrana in three days. Two days is the amount of time a paigam would take from Akardham to Vivrana. Address the paigam to Sidhi, with my reference. I will rest there first and then proceed on foot for the rest of the journey.
With warmth of the two suns that shine on Akardham,
There was once a god who couldn’t see and couldn’t talk, yet his mind had a thousand eyes and a billion mouths. The god sang of His Eminence’s grace.
I reached Vivrana two days ago. The town is bright and dusty. The air is tinged with the sweet scents of daalchini and jaifal, and I see women on the roadside crushing red chillies as big as my palm in mortars as big and deep as a cement bathtub. There are no coconut trees of course in these areas. All those curved tree barks are replaced by proud straight ones. Although I yearn for my spouse’s daal, my friend Sidhi’s spicy potato and spinach gravy makes me forget Llaiha. These sights, scents and tastes are alien to me, yet comforting. The town itself is slightly chilly for my liking, but I soon look forward to the warmth of Akardham.
My friend, Sidhi, tells me that he has received no paigam yet from the court regarding my upcoming appointment. Curious is the absence of the brave Laal Sainik altogether, who, according to my friend, were guarding the borders of the town only a week ago. Curious also is the name that’s on everyone’s lips — Ustaad Vaani. He has quite the following here, in these parts. His face smiles down upon us from high-flung tapestries in inns.
I do understand the court has other more pressing matters to attend to. My dear friend has offered me, graciously, a separate room and a separate study, and I can stay here for a week.
Anticipating your reply, your eternal servant,
Your Esteemed Majesty Samrat Maurya,
There’s hell beneath the earth, and a hell beneath hell.
It has been a week and I have received no word. My bones still ache from the travel and the chill of the air only aggravates matters. My patience grows thin each passing day, and I can’t count on the magnanimity of my friend Sidhi eternally. To make matters worse, I now find that the Vivrana borders have been magically sealed by none other than Durvasa the Builder. Chants of Ustaad Vaani grow loud every day.
I hope His Majesty is thinking of ways to deal with such unfortunate events.
Your Esteemed Majesty Samrat Maurya,
A kind alligator, a four leaf clover, thunder that strikes twice on a nail, and a river that is pink and blue; rare sights are all of these, yet rarer is His Majesty’s rage.
I address this paigam directly to you since Rustomji seems to be otherwise occupied. I am unable to move an inch from the town I am staying in. There seems to be some kind of an embargo. I can neither move forward nor go backward.
This is a call for help.
I must implore you to turn around and go back home to Llaiha. I can’t reveal much at this point, and certainly not in a paigam. Consider this as a small mercy on my part, or you wouldn’t even have received a word, with the events that have been happening around these parts.
Words written on the walls of a cell.
My nails grow hard and black and sharp. I am Keishan Kaumara of Llaiha.
I count my days.
Jaya, my love, my beating heart,
There’s no sun so bright as your smile,
They have held me captive. I was taken to Akardham in chains and put in a damp jail far beneath the palace. It smells of sewer and rotting onions. I don’t know what is happening in the Kingdom, but it’s most foul. I couldn’t even meet the Wazir, nor get a glimpse of His Eminence. I don’t know what will happen now. They have only allowed me one paigam every couple of weeks to send out messages to my loved ones. I almost scratched my nails away while writing a song on the stone walls of the cell.
I will now write to you, only you. Please take care.
Jaya, my love, the light of my eyes,
I saw light today. They say the sun shines its copper light upon the turrets of the Palace of Akardham, radiating it outwards. I saw it today, and it’s as majestic as the tales tell. However, it’s the only majesty I’ll be seeing in a while.
It pains me to tell you that His Eminence was slain in a hand to hand combat by none other than Ustaad Vaani himself, who had harboured political ambitions, and who hadn’t taken retirement, but was secretly planning a coup, after being made an example of in the hallowed halls of the Palace. Things have taken a turn for the worse for Akardham. Perhaps those faces of Ustad Vaani I saw in Llaiha… I can’t help but think that he was gathering power all this time. To think a musician could have such sharp a mind, to overtake an Empire.
I must apologize to you. I should have listened to you when you told me to think twice before taking such a long journey. I was blinded by my ambition. Please find it in your heart to forgive me!
Jaya, my love, my shining moon,
I sang to my captors today, and they were mighty impressed with my performance. I must say despite the horrors of the damp cell, I retain my voice. In exchange for my songs, they have shown me mercy and kindness. They give me an extra roti at meal times, but the daal is much too diluted with the tasteless Akardham water. I miss the smokiness of your cumin-tampered daal.
Most of all, I miss you. Please forgive me.
Come home. Please don’t ask for forgiveness. I love you.
The devas have smiled upon me. I am elated to know you do not harbour any ill-will, and love me as I love you. In Akardham, new developments are taking place. The rotis I am eating in the cell are getting better and hotter, the daal thick and coarser.
I shall keep you updated,
Jaya, the brightness of my mornings, the radiance of my soul.
A most fortunate thing happened today!
I was released from prison, after the merciful jailor sent a message directly to Ustaad Vaani — who now goes by the name of Maharaja Vaaniraj. His Eminence Maharaja Vaaniraj has invited me to his esteemed court tomorrow. He wants me to compose an original song on his exploits. An original song!
Maharaja Vaaniraj is an old friend of Ustaad Amir and knows about my nimble hands and how they dance on the sitar, and my voice, its cadence, and how it sings to stone and air alike. Maharaja Vaaniraj has also banished all the old Pillars to a forest, and instead keeps a close-knit group of seven confidantes, whom he calls Strings.
Like in a seven-stringed Sitar.
This paigam, is a paigam of joy, my love. Now, I must ask you too much, once again. You see, I am not a Pillar now, as I had set out to be. I am a String, as it was always meant to be. My songs, my music have saved me after all.
Please come to Akardham.
Amal Singh is an author, screenwriter, and an editor from Mumbai, India. While his short fiction has appeared in multiple venues such as Clarkesworld, F&SF, he also co-edits ‘Tasavvur‘, a magazine dedicated to South Asian voices. His most recent work, a ten-part audio drama, is currently streaming on Audible.