On a camel’s back hill beyond Agra stands a redstone citadel altogether different from the white marble Taj Mahal. Fatehpur Sikri is the capital Akbar built to honour the saint who foretold the birth of his first son. In the inner court of the king’s palace is a broad stone terrace with a chequered pattern that resembles a game board. Here, accounts say, Akbar played a kind of chess using human pieces from his harem of three hundred. Costumed in various guises, his women would have presented lively masques upon this stage.
Zelaldinus mounts such a pageant, glittering and fantastical, where past and present, nobles and commoners, history and fiction rub shoulders. Its variety of verse and prose forms evoke the carnival spirit of a masque. Underlying the depiction of a rich and varied court life at Sikri are reflections on kingship, a meditation on fathers and sons, and a plot within a plot that tells a crackling story of love across the Pakistan border—while through it all strides the nimble ghost of Akbar himself. Jalaluddin (Zelaldinus) Akbar.