Gaspar of India

  • Round: Books: 5 Page Challenge

  • Genre:
    Fiction: Historical Fiction, Multicultural
  • Submitted: January 17, 2011

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5 Page Challenge

Pages 1-5


Summary

In the early Sixteenth Century, an Egyptian Jew is plunged into a brutal war between Christians and Moslems for control of the Indian Ocean spice trade.  The only way he can save himself and rescue his wife and son and an African servant, is to lead Portugal's conquest of the Malabar coast.

Pages 1 - _

1

 

The Sultanate of Bijapur, Western India, February 1488

 

    

     A strident chorus of trumpets blared from the Sultan’s residential palace in the center of Goa.  The brassy wail echoed through the city’s narrow lanes and rolled over the riverside commercial district.  Along the sluggish Mandovi River, from the trade stalls of the merchandise quarter to the ship yards on the mud-flats, traders, warehousemen and shipwrights halted their activity.  Muhammad al-Misr edged his way around bales of silk textiles and scanned the waterfront.

     He saw a dark-skinned native boy push through the central gate of the city wall and heard him bellow an offer to part with the latest news.  The tout darted through the aisles of goods and slid to a stop when Muhammad held up a Malaccan tin pitis coin.

     “What gossip have you heard?”

     The tout wiped sweat from his face with the corner of a tattered longi.  “The prayer caller told me our new Sultan is to announce offers of employment.”

     Muhammad felt a chill of anticipation.  The rumors of executions of officials in the former regime must be true.

     “Did the prayer caller speak of the Sultan’s …interests?”

     The tout wobbled his head from side to side.  “He will act like the Arabs who favor their own; this usurper is Persian and desires men of his sect.”

     Muhammad spun the coin toward the outstretched hand. “The inscription reads success in life and religion.  I wish it for you.”  The tout scampered to a money changer.             

     Muhammad thought how religion, like knowledge of law and language, served a useful purpose in commerce.  He sighed.  Goa’s trading season had ended.  In a month the Monsoon season would churn the Mandovi into a rebirth of powerful eddies and currents.  He longed for such a change, a new course for himself.

     Shouts of praise cheering the Sultan’s name rumbled from the central mosque.  Muhammad stroked his short beard.  He was thirty two years old and had traveled the Indian Ocean since he was fourteen.  Those early years he voyaged as a mujawir, a respected scholar-sojourner learning the arts of navigation and the customs of distant lands.  It had been a time of prestige.  Now he voyaged like so many others, an itinerate merchant, a jawwāl.

     He bristled; he was weary of following expedient protocol, where the smallest omission garnered severe chastisement from easily offended customs agents and tax brokers.  He slumped with the full truth of his displeasure.  He suffered from his occupation because he did not have a friend to accompany him or a wife and family to welcome him home and praise his success.  Either would make the conditions bearable and give him a reason to endure quibbling over prices and the monotony of travel.

     Muhammad circled around mounds of ivory, baskets of spicery, and jars of rose water.  He joined merchants and brokers jostling two-by-two through the narrow gate in the fortress wall to enter the city and attend noon prayers.  He hurried past cargo haulers trudging up Goa’s primary road, a broad straight avenue gently rising between two story buildings into the heart of the compact city.  He envied the native merchant families arranging their shops with goods from Arabia and India.  

      A low-domed congregational mosque formed the eastern side of a market plaza in the city’s center.  Fervent men packed the walled caravanserai and crowded in front of the residential palace; their swelling pledges of loyalty to the new Sultan drowned the calls of praise shouted by his officials from two stunted minarets. 

     Muhammad pushed through to the residence entrance guarded by soldiers with Turkish longbows. 

     “May it please God; I wish to present my credentials to the Sultan.”

     Muhammad was led down an aisle formed by two rows of minor officials squatting behind low tables.  He stood, head bowed, in front of the Sultan’s carpet covered platform.  Behind the dais the courtyard teemed with stores of pikes and bucklers.

     A chamberlain intoned, “Behold our Lord, Protector of the Faithful on Earth.”     

     Muhammad placed his right hand to his heart and offered proper etiquette.  “In humility I acknowledge Sultan Yusuf, and his title, Adil Khan, the ‘just prince’.  The Righteous Words are; the sword for him who can wield it and dominion to him who conquers.” 

     Sultan Yusuf reclined against an embroidered bolster.  To his right, his companion, General Ghuzunfur Beg sat erect, arms folded.  They wore matching red tunics and white turbans.  The Sultan tapped a rider’s crop against a cloak arrayed over his loose-fitting riding pants and fondled loops of pearls and gold chains draped over his chest. He was a head taller than Muhammad and ten years older. Yusuf shifted an indifferent glance between his petitioner and his assemblage in the way common to an aloof authority. General Beg was more vigilant.  His eyes narrowed into a determined surveillance. 

     Although few traders matched his success Muhammad wore simple cotton garments and did not display gold and gems to portray his stature.  He presented a pious image rather than one of an eager merchant and trimmed his hair even with his ears following the Prophet’s desire.  Muhammad let his fingers trail along his single strand of pearls and worried the Sultan might judge him unfit.

     The Sultan’s Secretary of the Confidences, a tired, slumping man in a brown mourning robe came forward.  His eyes were rimmed in red.  Muhammad remembered seeing him two days earlier in the public square reciting salat-i-janazah prayers for the burial of a young son.

     During introductions, Muhammad placed his hand to his heart and bowed to the Secretary.  “The Prophet, peace be on him, lost his son, and said, the eyes shed tears and the heart is grieved, but we will not say anything except what pleases God.”

     The red-rimmed eyes moistened. “May God bless you, brother.  My son fell and struck his head during our passage through the mountains.  He never recovered.”  

     The Sultan slapped his rider’s crop on the carpet and nodded in Muhammad’s direction. The Secretary began the interview. “Friend, tell our Lord of your origins and travels.” 

     Heat surged over Muhammad, as it always did when he spoke about his past.  “I learned the ways of commerce in the Venetian spice factory at Alexandria.”

     The Sultan grimaced.  “Al-Misr, an Egyptian eh?  Corrupted by Christians perhaps?” 

     Muhammad’s pale complexion and blue eyes readily marked him as a foreigner.  He swallowed.  “I regret my past.  But God took pity and led me to accept the True Faith and forsake my Jewish birth.”

     A gasp rose from the officials.  General Beg’s eyes bulged.  He covered his mouth with a cloth, as one might do at the sight of a noisome corpse.  The General sputtered, “You come here as a Jew?  As an Infidel?”

     Confused, the Private Secretary looked to the Sultan.

 
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