This story is by Susmita Ramani and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My given name is Arjumand Banu Begum, but I go by Arba. I was born in 1593 to a family of Persian nobility. At twenty-one, I married a king. During our nearly two decades together, we had fourteen children.
Childbirth was perilous. Seven of our children died at birth or young; I had narrow escapes during labor myself. Death terrified me.
When I was pregnant with our fourteenth baby, I was walking with two maids in our riverside garden in Agra. We came upon a wizened lady in a tattered saffron-colored sari, pulling radishes up from the soil and eating them.
My maids said, “Shame on you, thief!” and “Go away, old crone!”
I’d been taught to respect elders, so I quietly admonished my maids, and addressed her. “Aunty, you may eat anything in the garden. But would you not rather accompany us to the palace for a hot meal?” I reached out to her.
When she grasped my hand, I gasped to feel a shiver of energy pass between us.
I told my maids I wished to speak to the woman alone.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“I claim no name, so you may keep calling me ‘Aunty’ if you wish. I live simply, and need no more food than this. But because you have shown me such kindness, I offer you a wish. Anything you want.”
My first instinct was to laugh. But her voice, tone, and look — penetrating the depths of my soul — made me believe her. So I told the truth.
“Aunty, I wish never to die.”
“I could grant that, child.” She sighed. “But there would be heavy conditions. You would have to disappear in order to keep those around you — and there are many eyes on a queen — from noticing you are not aging. Your family would have to believe you died.”
I gasped. “But I might have two decades before anyone even suspected.”
She shook her head. “Alas, that is a condition.”
“But…Aunty, how could I leave the people who are the reason for my wish? I want to live to see what happens to them.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Then you do not have reason enough to make this wish.”
“Where could I go?”
“You would accompany me on a pilgrimage to the Himalayas, child. After that, I would advise you to move far away and start a new life, and keep moving every so often — as the other condition is that you could never tell anyone of your immortality. To do so would anger the gods, who might take it out not on you, but on your ancestors and descendants.”
I shrugged, as that seemed minor.
She frowned. “I will return tomorrow morning, and you can let me know.”
That night, I couldn’t sleep. How could I leave my family?
My children were precious to me. But they’d been raised by the nannies of the royal household. My husband, Khurram, was a much tougher matter. Though he had two wives besides me, he loved me as his one and only, and listened to me. He also had faults, as all do. He knew the risks of pregnancy, yet liked me to be pregnant. But that was also the way then.
Finally, I decided it would upset him greatly to lose me, but it wouldn’t break him.
That might have been wishful thinking.
At some point, all other thoughts were eclipsed by a new feeling…of my spotlight of inquiry turning within. I’d always had a taste for adventure that had been stifled. Raised in a cloistered environment, I was given books as substitutes for experiences. Despite being a queen, I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted. I’d never dared to ask myself before. My head swam with delicious, forbidden possibilities. To see the rises and falls of empires, the movement of people…it took my breath away.
Anonymity was alluring in its own right. How would it be not to be a queen with many hands always on her, but rather a woman like other women, relying on her wits?
In the morning, I returned to the garden. Asking my maids to stand guard, outside, I approached the lady, who sat waiting for me on a bench.
“Aunty, I wish never to die. I accept the conditions. But first I must have this baby I am carrying, whom I believe will be born in the Deccan Plateau, where I am to accompany my husband on a campaign he is fighting.”
She nodded. “I will meet you there. Tell everyone I am your nurse, who must remain at your side.”
Two months later when Khurram and I reached the Deccan Plateau, she met us there. I introduced her as a midwife; following my example, everyone called her ‘Aunty.’
I went into labor, and it was the worst of my life, lasting thirty excruciating hours. But for the wish, I wonder whether my life would have been cut short then.
After I had the baby, a girl, I was spirited away to rest nearby, while Aunty told everyone I’d died in childbirth. From a nearby morgue, she procured the body of a local woman without a family who’d been trampled to death by an ox. That body was kept in a tin box filled with layers of herbs, ashes, and camphor, which was thought to stop the decay of flesh…and which concealed the person within.
I was heartbroken not to be able to even see my newborn daughter. My breasts hurt also, as they were full of milk…for no one. But I’d made my choice, and had to look ahead. Trading my silks and jeweled sandals for warm layers and hiking boots, I traveled into the Himalayas. The mountain weather froze the marrow of my bones, but Aunty was an experienced traveler. We moved quickly between camps, ending in Lhasa, Tibet, where she lived out her final years, and I studied with the 5th Dalai Lama until his death in 1682.
Khurram mourned me in seclusion for a year, then ordered the 22-year construction of a breathtaking tomb for me on the right bank of the Yamuna River. I’ve been there countless times, removed my shoes, walked the ice-cold white marble floors, touched the walls and columns, and played games – often with children – where one whispers something at the base of a column, and another can hear it at a column far away.
Before Khurram could build himself a matching tomb in black marble, our son put Khurram under house arrest at the Agra Fort and usurped the throne. Though I heard about that from afar, it hurt me more than I can say.
Seventy-five years after I left India, I returned for the funeral rites of the last-born daughter I’d never met. I knew I wouldn’t be recognized. My face had always been covered in public during my years as a queen, in accordance with the Muslim ‘Law of the Veil.’ No contemporary likenesses of me are accepted as fact.
Over these centuries, I’ve seen countries and kingdoms come and go. I’ve lived in every country, sailed the world, flown planes, and fought in wars. I’ve had other men in my bed and life, but never remarried. I got pregnant once again in the early 1900s, had the child, and had to watch in agony as she and her descendants grew old and died. In the 1960s, I got my tubes tied, as I couldn’t handle outliving more children.
Sometimes I cross paths with my descendants, and try to help them, as I try to help everyone. But I can never reveal my identity, which means that basic human intimacy is out of my grasp. While in the beginning I’d eagerly embraced anonymity, now I feel saddled with it. I live a half-life, at the fringes of existence. I’m most comfortable with superficial small talk, as that won’t expose anything real about me. But who wants even an hour of truly meaningless patter, let alone an eternity of it?
When I made the wish, the world and I both were in a gold-green state of innocence. I never dreamed people would shed so much blood or so drastically alter the planet. I’m filled with terror by climate change, pollution, the state of the oceans and air, the world’s dictators, and the sharp rise of so many types of technology. The Earth is no longer healthy.
But our fates are not inextricably tied. From centuries of hard work and prudent investing, I’m a millionaire. Up to now, I’ve lived simply and donated most of my money to charities.
But recently, I spent a sizable chunk of money on myself, for passage into space. Tomorrow, I’ll be on board a spaceship. From there, I’ll take a small craft and steer it into a black hole. I’m ready for something new to happen. If that’s obliteration and oblivion, it’s high time.
That’s why I’ve written this down.