Carson wanted to try out the El Made’s in the open sea. The men agreed. Juan de Mengíbar mentioned Jaipur; precious stones, rugs, silks and an old acquaintance, Ashok. It sounded good, but then he seemed to reject the idea.
- “It”s inland.”
- “Is that a problem?” asked Carson.
- “Depends on how you look at it”, replied John.
The El Made”s sailed to Ceylon to fill its holds with tea, cinnamon and nutmeg. It then sailed along the coast of India arriving at Mumbai. The men and the cargo were then taken to the Pink City in two Leyland trucks. The markets of Jaipur were not at all like that of Padang where Neha had first met the crew. While Carson was talking business with Ashok, Merlone and Escarrabelli offered to accompany her that afternoon.
- “Like two Neapolitan gentlemen”, Merlone quipped. Escarrabelli bowed elegantly and then ceremoniously extended his arm. The colourful surroundings went far beyond the description the two cousins were giving the girl as they wandered through the crowded side streets. The smells were indescribable and the beauty of the women swathed in dazzling saris went far beyond what words could express. Neha turned around, smiling with surprise by the teasing glance of her companions. It took a while for her to fix her gaze on a silk stall. Several pieces caught her eye. She could not decide. All of a sudden, the noise of the market died down. A palanquin, carried by four bearers and adorned with a brocade, emerged. A silky gold-embroidered curtain waved rhythmically to the tempo of the bearers, protecting the occupant from prying eyes. The palanquin came to a halt and out stepped a majestic lady in yellow. As she passed, the crowd lowered their heads while the more daring kissed the folds of her sari. The lady made her way to the stall where Neha was torn between a purple silk and an emerald green gauze.
- “Silk no doubt, and yellow”, said the lady, choosing one.
- “Tis the colour of the sun, of joy and you are a beautiful young woman. Where are you from?”
- “Are you alone?”
- “I’m with a couple of sailors.” Escarrabelli and Merlone were standing right beside Neha.
- “I will expect you for dinner tonight. You shall bring me news from faraway places.”
- “All of us, milady?” asked Merlone.
- “Of course. And you, my girl, bring that gold-coloured cloth with you. It shall be my welcoming gift. I”ll show you how to wear it.” The merchant bowed respectfully. The lady went on her way and entered the shop of a jeweller.
- “She has chosen her colour for you. You are very fortunate”, said the merchant.
- “Who is she?”
- “That’s the Maharani; she usually honours me with a visit.”
The engagement was at the Palace of the Winds. As Neha and the men arrived, a servant led them to an arbour set in the garden with a table appointed for dinner. The servant then signalled a young man who was standing by a fountain, who then approached.
- “Take the guest to the chambers of the Maharani. She’s awaiting her.”
Neha followed the servant through several courtyards. Galleries with marble archways splendidly carved, red and white buildings, elephant sculptures... a magnificent spectacle. The sight was too much for Neha’s eyes. The Maharani was waiting by the screens.
- “The Maharajahs of Jaipur were a warrior race, accustomed to defending their territory and wealth. Rich and jealous, they built this palace so that the ladies of their family could observe the street without being seen. What do you think, my girl? Why is it that you travel with a band of sailors?”
- “They’re friends, milady.”
- “You are lucky then. Come, I will show you how to wear your sari.” The Maharani helped Neha wrap herself in the silk, which rustled gently in contact with her body. She placed two bracelets on her left arm and a ring on her right hand.
- “I can introduce you to the Maharajah. He would like you. Don’t you think it would be interesting to live in a Palace?” Neha didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t that she was offended by what this fascinating woman was proposing; rather a deep compassion had seized her.
- “Of course, if you decide to stay, I shall treat your friends favourably”, the Maharani said.
- “But, what about you?”
- “You mean, whether the Maharajah loves me?” The lady paused for a moment.
- “For a time he loved me deeply and intensely, but as with all his possessions he could not do without them, and is never satisfied. It would be a tragedy for any man, but he is immensely rich and can have whatever he so desires.”
- “Why is it that it is precisely you who proposes this to me?” asked Neha.
- “If I were to leave this palace, I would end up in the slums. Everything has its price, my dear. What”s yours?”
- “I’m not sure yet, but not this.”
- “Are any of those men your friend?”
- “Then no one can pay your price?”
When they reached the arbour, Carson didn’t know what to make of the gloominess that had darkened Neha’s look. The dinner was delicious and the conversation lively. The Maharani requested each guest to relate a legend from their respected countries. Carson spoke of the banshee, a fairy who foretells, in a mourning tone, of a death in the family. Juan de Mengíbar told the story of the Mulatta de Cordoba. Merlone and Escarrabelli preferred to sing an upbeat tarantella. Neha excused herself. She was unable to speak. She had a lump in her throat.