The Amir Dost Mohammed Khan had fifty-four sons. And his favourite among these sons was Akbar. One day Dost Mohammed feared that he was ill, and close to dying, and he called his fifty-four sons to him. They came from the far peaceful corners of the kingdom of the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan to the great city he had caused to be built, and as they rode through the country, they were not troubled or threatened. The wisdom and strength of their father made straight roads for them, and the justice he had wrought smoothed their passage.
One after another, his four-and-a-half dozen sons came to the great city of Kabul, and the people of Kabul, seeing that the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan had summoned his sons, turned their dust-filled eyes to the dust in grief. One after another, his sons rode through the wide streets, which were crowded but silent in sorrow. They came to the great palace, and came to the bedchamber of their father, the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan. And to each he said with kindness, as he came in, that his speed had been that of one driven by the Wind of a Hundred and Twenty Days. But the great Amir lied, for each had been driven to him by love.
At the end of three days, the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan lay in his bed, and looked around at the silent crowd of his sons, and bid them count themselves. The living counted themselves, and then the dead sons, and then the sons to come, who were not yet born, whom Dost Mohammed loved best, said their names, but only to Dost Mohammed in the dark shade raised over his head. He counted them, and there were fifty-three. It seemed to Dost Mohammed that one was missing.
"Great King," the second youngest of the sons said. "Akbar is not yet here. But he must be fast approaching." Dost Mohammed nodded, and the rough cloth of his bed cover seemed to whisper a denial. "That is not so," the youngest of the sons said. "Akbar my brother has sent a message that he will not come. He has sent a message to the great King my father that he is occupied, and may not turn away from the borders of the country, to mop my father's face and hold my father's head." And the brothers looked away in shame that their father should hear the truth.
But Dost Mohammed nodded, and was pleased by what the youngest of the brothers had said. "He has done right," he said, just that. He raised his head, and looked at the sons who were there, and the sons who were dead, and the sons who were not yet born, and the single son who had better things to do, and the Amir was pleased. And the sons--Afzal, and Azam, and Shams-i Jahan, and Ghulam Haidar, and Sher Ali, and Amin, and Sharif, and Akram and Wali and Faiz and Hawa and Hajira and Ahmad and Zaman and Umar and Ummat al-Mustafa and Bibi Zumurrud and Salih and Muhsin and Nur Jahan and Hasan and Husein and Wafa and Aslam and Qasim and Sher and Nek and Hashim and Sadiq and Shuaib and Rahim and Azim and Sadiq and Sarw-i Jahan and Yusuf and Azim and Habibullah and Mamlakat and Sharaf Sultan and Durr Jan and Sahib Sultan and Bibi Saira and Aisha and Bilqis and Sadiq and Rahim and Saifullah Khan Wakil and Agha and Fatima and Zainab and Banu and Mulk-i Jahan and Badr-i Jahan, youngest of the brothers (for it is written that the women who are born to a great Emperor may be considered sons, too)--the sons of the great King looked at him and saw him revive, and start to live again as he heard that everything was well with his kingdom. Glory be on the names of the sons of the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan, greatest of the Afghans, wisest of his people!
In time, Akbar found that his strength had secured his father's kingdom from his enemies, and, leaving his people with the instruction to be awake and vigilant, hastened to his father's house. But he found the Dost well, and recovered, and merry, and full of love for the greatest of his sons, and Akbar embraced his father. "My son," the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan said. "You did right not to come to my call, but to remain at the call of the kingdom that will be yours. You, alone among my sons, are truly my son." And after that embrace, the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan lived in peace and plenty for years to come, in the knowledge of his wisdom and the knowledge of the wisdom of his son.
"Emperor of the Afghans," Burnes chanted, "Lord of the most distant horizon, King of the far hills, Heir of Israel, Lord of the Wind of a Hundred, of a Hundred, of a Hundred--"
He opened his eyes, and made a deflating noise. "Ppphhhhhwah," he said. "I always get stuck there."
Outside, in the courtyard, a fight was breaking out between a gang of boys; the sudden close yelling was like a flock of geese, diving over the roofs of the mud-brick house. Burnes knocked his fist against his forehead, as if pretending to think. Dr. Gerard got up from the corner of the room where he had been squatting, awkward as a camel, and went to the shutters to see what, if anything, the fight outside was about.
"Very good," Mohan Lal said smoothly. "Your Persian is really excellent, if I may say so."
There was an embarrassed sort of silence, since Mohan Lal, naturally, ought not to say so. Certainly, it was not for him to tell Burnes whether his Persian was good or not. Still, he seemed to take it upon himself not just to compliment his betters, but, on occasion, to correct them. Anywhere else, of course--but this was not anywhere else, and, knowing that all of them had to rely on Mohan Lal's goodwill, the party had taken a tacit decision to put up with the guide's elegant superiority, perpetually bordering on the supercilious.
"What is it, anyway?" Burnes said finally. "I can't remember. I'm sorry."
"Lord of the Wind of a Hundred and Twenty Days," Mohan Lal said, smiling faintly, as if giving a child the answer to a terribly obvious Christmas puzzle. "An interesting title. The Wind of a Hundred and Twenty Days is a summer wind, a phenomenon fascinating in the abstract, although not something one would wish to experience. It is regarded as a unique property of the kingdom, and therefore an appropriate title for the Amir."
"Not something I'd want to boast about," Dr. Gerard said, turning back to the room, disappointed in the small drama of the courtyard outside. "And I hope we're not here long enough to have to put up with it."
"If he keeps us waiting here long enough," Burnes said, "we may simply have to grit our teeth and endure."
Outside, Kabul continued its usual life.
Burnes found it hard to be quite sure whether, here, they were prisoners or not. Ten days before, they had arrived at the gates of the city--or what passed for the gates, a waist-high mud wall full of holes. An inadequate rampart, one might have thought, but the Afghans came and went quite happily, as if never fearing an enemy, giving no thought to invaders or infidel. Until now, Burnes had remained swathed in his cloth, blanketed up, his face browned first by colouring and after by the weeks trekking in the mountain sun, his blue eyes becoming more startling by the day. Arriving at Kabul, however, it seemed wise to admit to what they were immediately, and take their chances.
Kabul had surprised Burnes. He had read what there was to read about the country, looked with every appearance of care at the drawings, the prints of the city. They hadn't been wrong, exactly; but still the city was not what he expected. No commentator, no artist, had captured what Burnes saw; it was as if they had seen only the outlines of the city, or rather, as if they, like Burnes, had seen it whole, and only cared to convey the city in part. Burnes tried to think of what it was his guides had left out. He could only think of it in two words: the fragrance; the filth.
In other cities, the fruit-and-flower smell of the street, the stench of the shit, human, canine, equine, and more, would have seemed the inessentials of the city's life. It had seemed like that to the observers of the city whose work they had so relied upon; they had removed the fragrance and the filth from their gaze as lying above or below what substance truly mattered. Buildings, thoroughfares, population numbers could be set down, and that was what, it seemed, really counted; not the mere smells of this city. It seemed always in danger of turning into an orchard, a stable, or a vast latrine. To Burnes, on the other hand, it was the intangible but overpowering fact of smell which seemed central to the place. Sitting in this half-prison, with all the time in the world to practise the address to the Amir and pursue absurd speculations, he found himself wondering about a map of the city which would convey this sense of his. In his head was a map of Kabul which did not describe the streets and the buildings, but set down the intangible and rich sudden odours of the place; described where a whiff of horse-shit mingled with the heavy perfume of rotting mulberries, where dead dog and fruit blossom competed. He closed his eyes, and there, in his head, was a weighty flush of sensation, a wave like the colour purple, arriving in his head, foreign, uninvited, irresistible. You did not need to walk the streets to map them in this olfactory manner; you only needed to sit by the window, and wait for a breeze. He had seen nothing of the city, in truth, nothing but a few streets as they had arrived, nothing but the few buildings around the house where they now lived, when their guards occasionally escorted them out. The city came to them, its perfumes carried on the wind.
They had arrived, and stood there at the wall, for a moment or two, as if their mere stance could announce their purpose. In front of them, there was the city. It was hard to think of it as a prize worth taking, now. Now that it was here in front of them, it seemed very unlike the great imperial jewel London and Calcutta so easily dreamed of. The hills and hollows of the land had been scattered, it seemed, with detritus; rambling, temporary houses, plastered smooth, scattered where they would fall. It was a city set high in the mountains, and the chill at night was fierce. Between the houses of the city paths, roads of packed-down mud ran; between them a thousand pedlars of goods set up their stalls to sell what they would. But it seemed to Burnes, as he stood there with his companions and waited for the Afghans to come and discover what he wanted, less like a city than a great wild garden. The groves of this high city joined, rambled with fruit trees, with what must be mulberries, blotting on the street and casting their high scent to the wind. What had London and Calcutta dreamed of? A city which could turn into an imperial jewel, certainly, a great imperial city, and not this random assembly, like the careless evening settlement of some wandering people.
Burnes, Mohan Lal the guide, and Gerard had dismounted. They stood there for a while, and it was not long before the curious little boys were succeeded by some more authoritative figures. Mohan Lal had stepped forward, but Burnes spoke first. They had listened to his explanation intently, had exchanged the ritual compliments calmly and gracefully, and, without consulting, had allowed them to remount, and led them into the city. A mounted group approached, shouting hoarsely, wheeled hungrily, curiously, around them like circling buzzards, and, before Burnes could start his explanation again, had ridden off.
First the customs house. The three of them had been hurried into a low white house, its door barely on its hinges. As the eager crowd of short, beakily featured men, all shouting, poured into the garden of the house, a flock of magpies rose clattering like knives from the fruit trees. The packhorses were tied up outside, and quickly stripped of their bundles. Inside, an immensely fat man emerged with great state from a back room, chewing and wiping some grease from his mouth with the bottom of his coat. All the Afghans fell abruptly silent. He gazed at them as mournfully as a dog as their luggage was brought in and dumped on the floor.
Burnes began his explanation. May the sun ever shine, glorious empire of the Afghans, long heard rumours of the wisdom and greatness of the kingdom. All received with gracious nods; tea was called for and brought by two boys of strongly corrupt appearance. Flat sweet bread followed, politely picked at by the Europeans, wolfed by the Afghans. Burnes pressed on. He and his companions were Europeans, returning home from India overland. Long heard rumours of the beauty of Kabul and promised, etc. (A brief pause here as one of the tea boys, after setting down a glass for Burnes, tried to stroke his neck. Burnes pushed him off gently, and the nearest adult hit the boy very hard with the butt of his rifle, to everyone's colossal amusement.) Hoped to stay in Kabul for a month, and their great dream was to meet and talk with the great and famous Emperor of the Afghans, the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan.
Burnes came to the end of his speech, and the customs officer gave a brief side-to-side nod of approbation. It wasn't quite clear what this meant; Burnes, to be sure of indicating what sort of people they were, got out his letters of introduction to the Amir, each carefully prepared in India with a grandiose seal. The official, however, showed almost no interest in them after a quick glance or two. "Oh God," Gerard said in English. "They're going to search the bags." Burnes ignored him; there was nothing to be done about it, and the best way to stay calm was to try not to remember what on earth there was in there.
"My books," Burnes said, as they extracted a dog-eared copy of Marmion and flicked through it. A sketchbook he feared might worry them more, but they looked at it cursorily, and set it down.
"Tell me," the customs officer said. "In your country, it is said that pork is eaten. Can that be true?"
Burnes was prepared. "It is a food eaten only by the very poorest people in our country. I myself have never tried it, but it is said that it has the taste, somewhat, of beef. That's a sextant."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher. Copyright © 2002 by Philip Hensher. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.