The history of the Qureshi family began on the banks of the great Buriganga in the time in the early seventeenth century when the emissary of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir established Dhaka as a military outpost for his king. Goddess Dhakeshwari watched and ruled over her charge, and so the charge was named Dhaka, it was said. It also ran that the Dhak tree that grew on its soil and its soil alone was the spur behind the name. The dhak, the drum beaten on the festival of Durga, was yet another supposed genealogical root. Perhaps yet, it was the watchtower known as Dhakka, the covered vantage of guards, that lend the city its name. From Alexander to the English, every conquering horde wanted Bengal. For that matter, that was how the Mughals ended up there. To enlarge an empire, one had to find the known ends of the world. All the better if that end provided the richest soils on earth, water everywhere, and people as proud as the storms that lashed the region's coast.
In 1610, Subhedar Islam Khan Chisti elevated his homage and renamed Dhaka Jahangirnagar and made it the capital of Bengal. Seventy years later, Muhammad Azam Shah, Bengal's new governor, began construction on a fort that was supposed to be the gleaming gem at the empire's farthest end, to be ranked among its finest architectural feats. His governorship was cut short, and a mere fifteen months after he had assumed it, he returned to Delhi at the summons of his king.
It was under Bengal's next Mughal governor that the city of Dhaka came into its grandeur.
Shaista Khan has become a figure more mythological than human, despite the loss of his enchanting daughter Pori Bibi leaving him undone, the lasting memory of the fort he was charged to complete on the riverfront, abandoned to a broken heart.
Lalbagh Fort, left by Azam Shah to Shaista Khan to do with as he wished, became a graveyard for Shaista's child. It's a matter for another account that Azam Shah was married to Pori Bibi, and the circumstances under which he left her, murky. This is not to cast aspersions on Azam Shah, but to posit, perhaps, that she could have died of a broken heart herself, or conjecture that he did indeed break her heart, wrote her from Delhi ending their marriage, defying the norms of civility, the customs of the land, and the laws of God, bringing shame, scandal, and death to Shaista Khan's house.
The long line of historical hearsay tells of Shaista Khan's anguish haunting the riverfront for forty days and nights. And even after that if one listened. Beyond the lapping of the waves, the ripple of a boatman's oar, a fisherman's song, the slap of cloth on stone as the washerwomen washed, there it was, the great man ground to ruin.
Safdar Qureshi is the first known Qureshi in the region. All that is known of him was set down by his own hand. He didn't begin life as a bookish man, unless it had to do with keeping accounts of his lucrative livelihood in various businesses, but spent the middle-to-twilight years of it devoted to learning and writing, and recording the discoveries of his own history on paper. Not many are as fortunate as he. Other documentation also exists. One of Shaista Khan's scribes set down in great and minute detail his dealings with every person of import that he crossed, and Safdar was indeed a man of import in Dhaka.
There were murmurs at first among the tight-knit populace of the city of friction between the royal emissary and Safdar, over, what else but, territory. When Shaista first arrived, he was treated with the revulsion reserved for migrants and the distrust flung, rightfully so though not always in large enough portions, at conquerors. The Mughals had, after all, come to India through invasion, through conquest. Safdar had sent representatives to Shaista Khan's court with offerings that were misconstrued as bribes. When Safdar sent assurance that they were not bribes, Shaista Khan remained unmoved. Shaista couldn't care less what it was. He didn't want it. It took Safdar a little thinking to understand the deeper meaning of the royal emissary's message: he was not going to be in any man's debt. But it was a gift, Safdar reasoned. A gesture of welcome. And he tried once more, this time with the more modest offering of an invitation to his home. Once more, Shaista replied with rejection.
His advisors counseled that it was best not to alienate Safdar completely. They added, in fact, that Shaista would be smart to keep Safdar close. No other men had his standing in business or his influence in the growing political agency of the region.
"I won't be beholden to him. I've never been beholden to any man but my king, this I insist," was Shaista Khan's condition.
His representatives visited Safdar. Proud, still smarting from rejection of his gestures, not to be easily mollified, Safdar heard them out, said nothing, and then he sent them on their way with his own rebuff. No. If Shaista Khan wanted to offer an olive branch, it would have to be delivered by his own hand.
Then Shaista's daughter died. Safdar didn't send a word of condolence, didn't attend the funeral prayers. There was no point, and he wasn't crazy about being insulted in person if he showed up. He even said to friends that the poor girl was better off dead than being the daughter of such a boorish, uncouth man.
For forty days and forty nights Safdar heard the cries of Shaista Khan. They became such a staple in air of the city that their end unleashed a silence twice as loud. When the period of mourning came to an end, and another prayer meeting was held, Safdar changed his mind and took a chance, himself counseled by confidants to be not only gracious but make the prudent move as businessman. The Mughals were there to stay. In the long line of conquerors, they were no different. In time, as the history of empires showed, they'd find enemies within themselves. Brother would slaughter brother, son father, ally cut the throat of ally. No need to give them readymade foes.
"Your grace," Safdar said, taking Shaista's hand in both of his, "if I've offended in any way, I ask your pardon. We're proud men but men of reason."
Shaista Khan was so pale he was luminous. A ghost in a man's flesh. His eyes were out of tears. They were the shade of red that rouged the lips of courtesans that Safdar sometimes hired for entertaining guests and future business partners. When they looked at Safdar they bore through him, their web of veins extending like fingers for something they'll never reach.
"It is I who must ask your forgiveness," Shaista said. "I'm nothing."
Safdar couldn't hold anything against Shaista Khan anymore after that meeting. He even felt remorseful about his treatment of the man, worse for having done it behind his back. He wanted to tell him as much, but what could possibly be of more consequence to someone than the death of a child, much less the words of a neighbor trying to save face. It was morsels for the fish that swam the Buriganga waters, Safdar's confessions, his apologies. All Safdar could do was be a friend.
Safdar was a haunted man.
His misery didn't need a dead child. It was not from loss of any kind. His despair was born of the nightmares that terrorized his sleep. Night after night, as long as he could remember, without rhyme, without reason, with no history he could trace it back to, Safdar Qureshi feared sleep like other humans feared the wrath of God. Given the choice Safdar would take God's wrath over his bad dreams. He would take on the bad dreams of any other man or woman over his own. They didn't come in a variety either, the dreams. No portents, prophecies, or premonitions of doom. No visions of end of days. None of that. Those would be easy to dismiss. They could he chalked up to any number of the nonsense he picked up from the chatter among his workers, snatches and pieces of conversation that breached his ears on the streets, a story he heard during a business transaction from a superstitious merchant. The fodder for dreams, bad or good, was rich in supply, their sources endless. But Safdar was visited with the same recurring ones: of curses. Curses that showed no beginnings and didn't foretell an end, but made themselves known from night to night like a wound left to fester.
By day he was a stubborn, stiff-necked, unrelenting, often insufferable negotiator, a man of business acumen respected even by his staunchest rivals. During waking hours people saw a forceful man of medium height, broad, rounded shoulders, his feet firm on the ground, eyes alert. He was shrewd as he was respectful, swift with words as he was patient with an ear, frugal without being a miser, who, though not a religious man himself, was charitable during festivals from Eid to Durga Puja. Once he was retired from his daily presence in the world, his terror began. No one saw the sweat that drenched him at the thought of going to bed. They didn't see the feverish chills that shook his bones. His look of a condemned man with his head on a block.
The few times that Shaista Khan had his faculties about him to notice, he told Safdar how ravaged and sickly Safdar looked. Safdar was touched. That in his condition Shaista Khan had the wherewithal to make the observation. It was the mark of an emperor's eyes and ears, the heart of a leader. Safdar brought his glass of sherbet with shaky hand to his mouth and a smile tried to push through.
"Poor digestion, your eminence," he said, trying to laugh it away. "Keeps me up at night."
Shaista Khan knew something about sleepless nights.
Safdar came close to telling him. Shaista Khan was the one man he considered a friend, an amazing fact in itself, and also because being of the Mughal court Shaista would have some knowledge of things like curses. God knew kings and emperors were known for their belief in one or two. But Safdar held back.
He would tell him what precisely? That his dreams told him his bloodline would be plagued for generations? That it was touched by something that no past could explain, no present absolve, no future repel? No divinity divine? That his children and their children and their children after them down through the ages were condemned to unknown forces? Forces neither divine nor damned, but that were no more good than they were wholly evil?
"Something is on your mind," Shaista said. "It's heavy I can tell."
"Bad dreams," Safdar said.
Shaista Khan didn't ask more. He had had enough of bad.
"My hakim can give you something," Shaista offered.
"For your digestion."
No hakim had the kind of "something" Safdar needed.
That night, before the invasion of dreams, Safdar dined with a trader of muslin and spent the evening staring at the dancing girls he'd arranged for his guest. The man had shed tears speaking of his devoted wife, their children, and the life they deserved and he wished to give them. Then he took two dancing girls with him to bed. Long after the anklets had ceased their jingling and the hall was a cave of silence, Safdar sat alone with his thoughts. They were the thoughts of a lonely man and no one to share them with.
"You're a young man," Shaista Khan said during another visit. There was the touch of more blood in his cheeks and strength in his voice, which he must have had to summon to keep on with his duties. "You need a companion. Don't be alone like this all the time."
"Your eminence," was all Safdar could get out.
Safdar could have kissed his feet right then. That was it. The bereaved, broken man had offered him a lifeline, one that Safdar had always been too busy, too business-headed, too surrounded by men and ledgers and numbers to consider. Of course that was it. What his home needed was a woman, his solitary, tortured nights a confidant.
Shahnama Wali was the youngest daughter of Wali Muhammad, a trader, shipbuilder, and silk and spice merchant from Calcutta, and she was long past the age of marriage, which had left her widowed father grave with worry but also resigned and defeated to age and a host of its companion ailments. Still, a part of Wali held on to hope. He did not want his daughter wasting her life taking care of him, and she would do just that if she didn't have her own family to care for. In the past Wali had asked Shaista's help in finding her a match, complaining that the suitors and the proposals that did come for Shahnama's hand were from men older than him, men with housefuls of wives that had borne them housefuls of daughters, and men who only wanted a line to Wali 's fortunes. Shahnama herself had forsaken the idea of marriage. She was never keen on it in the first place.
Shaista Khan wrote to Wali Muhammad about his neighbor and friend. Safdar Qureshi was of an appropriate age, successful in business, and a decent man. Shaista asked Wali to come meet Safdar himself at his convenience.
A fortnight later a small town arrived at Shaista Khan's door. Attendants, servants, and valets, waiting women, guards, and cooks, musicians with their instruments filled Shaista Khan's home for three days and nights. Among them, Shaista looked like the puny civilian hosting an imperial train.
"A little too much, all this, in my current state," Shaista confided to Wali Muhammad. "But I understand why."
"I beg your pardon."
"Please don't. I would do no less for my daughter."
Safdar saw the arrival of the massive train and didn't know whether to feel delight or insecure. A man that would put on such a show just to respond to a proposal of marriage for his daughter must have expectations no other man could meet. The daughter herself, she too must have impossible standards.
Shaista Khan was to do the preliminaries and make the introduction, but Safdar's impatience took over him and he paid Shaista a private visit.
"Your eminence," said Safdar. "This is more than I could ever have expected."
"Then why do you look so troubled?"
"It seems from all the ceremony that perhaps…"
"Perhaps what? You don't think she'll be good enough for you?"
Safdar's mind was to the contrary. His pride stood guard.
"I'm sure she will be." He chose to take the route that didn't place him on a lower pedestal. It would have been one thing if it was Shaista Khan's daughter – may she rest in peace – that he was courting. Wali Muhammad was a merchant like hundreds of others Safdar knew, and he knew them as equals, even if their coffers were large enough to swallow Safdar's whole if they chose. They didn't because of respect. They knew just as well who Safdar was and treated him in return as an equal.
"Listen to me," Shaista Khan said. "My name comes with this arrangement. I respect you. But don't make me regret it." It was the first glimmer of the hard man of old that had shown itself in a long time, and Safdar didn't take it well. He gave Shaista his word that he would not give him reason to regret anything and left with the silent message clearly conveyed by his brash exit that he was unhappy, insulted by Shaista's lack of faith.
He invited Wali Muhammad to dine with him, and, in order not to make it seem to Shaista Khan that he was going behind his back, being, in other words, ungrateful, asked him to join them too. It came as no surprise when Shaista Khan declined.
"My daughter is not a business pawn," Wali Muhammad made it clear. "I know you're an ambitious man, just as I can tell you have much bigger successes ahead. If we link our fortunes it will be separate from the vows you make to Shahnama as her husband."
"I have no designs on your fortunes."
This gave Wali Muhammad pause, which filled Safdar's chest with pride.
"I'm happy with what I have," Safdar added. "It will grow as it has grown. Now, your wish to join hands with mine is a different matter."
It was a method that had worked in his favor every time, even when it was known that Safdar had brought the request to the table, that he was actively petitioning to link his fortunes to a bigger one. Hold something back. Keep his dignity intact. Give the impression that if the other man backed out, it was a much graver loss to him than to Safdar, that Safdar, in the end, could do without him. Dignity always won.
"I don't," said Wali Muhammad. "I have nothing more to gain from joining hands with anyone."
"Then, well, good," Safdar swallowed a small morsel of dignity. All was well. A huge exception was at play here: this was the man that would be his father-in-law and so what he was really doing was offering respect.
"I will speak with my daughter," said Wali Muhammad.
"Speak with her? About what?"
This came as a bigger surprise. But Safdar kept his seat.