Prologue: The Birthstone
Simla, Punjab, Northern India
9th August, 1923
Robin Windsor’s squeaky voice echoed in the grand entrance hall as he pushed open the doorway to his home. The foyer’s cool air was a much-needed relief from the sticky heat of the sun, immediately soothing his skin. In the estate grounds behind him, the palm trees cast long shadows across the driveway, their leaves sulking in the warmth of the Indian summer.
The Hindu month of Ashadha would soon be over, and he looked forward to Shraavana Amavasya – the new moon night of Shraavana – as it signalled his birthday was close.
Despite his young age, Robin already knew about the differences between the traditional Hindu lunar calendar and the Gregorian calendar that most of the world used. His father was British, but often encouraged him to learn about his national culture and the wonderful customs it held. He did not want to disappoint.
“Mama?” he called again, impatiently kicking off his sandals and leaving them sprawled on the Persian rug beneath his feet.
“I’m up here, my darling,” his mother’s somewhat hushed answer floated from the first floor.
A wide grin spread over the boy’s face as he heard her voice, and he broke into a sprint, his short legs carrying him to the sweeping staircase. His khadi danced around his knees, the thin fabric bouncing freely as he galloped up the steps almost two at a time. Prominent figures of his royal ancestry watched him as always from their antique portraits. Robin paid them no heed, though, especially the creepy one of Queen Victoria and her Crown Jewels.
Daylight shone through the windows at the top of the stairs, reflecting on the crystal chandelier to create a kaleidoscope of wonderful colours on the rosewood walls. Turning right, he darted along the corridor towards Aryan’s bedroom, unable to contain his excitement as he burst through the door.
His mother smiled affectionately from across the chamber. She was clad in a purple sari embroidered with silver stitching, and was seated on a rocking chair, cradling his baby brother in her arms. Aryan was wrapped in a shawl of fine cotton, his tiny face nestled against her bosom. With a free hand, she brushed aside her flowing black locks and held a finger to her lips, then welcomed Robin to join the peaceful moment.
Subduing his eagerness, the boy tiptoed around the cot at the centre of the room. The curtains that veiled the window fluttered briefly in the afternoon breeze as he passed. He peered outside, his eyes moving from the lawns of the colonial manor to the unending tea fields that lay beyond. Workers were dotted among the rows of the plantation, cutting leaves with their sickles and collecting them in large woven baskets. To the north, the hulking snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan Mountains loomed like a great fortress, grey and distinct against the cloudless sky.
Nearing his mother, Robin finally sighed with satisfaction, and allowed himself to collapse into her embrace.
“And how was your day?” Shilpa asked in Punjabi, pulling him tight. She frequently spoke in her native tongue when they were alone, stressing the importance of being bilingual.
He giggled. “Hmm…okay, I guess.”
“Your father is not yet home from his business with the viceroy,” she said, “so that makes you the man of the house for now.”
“But, Mama…I’m only four.”
“Yes, but one day you will grow up to be big and strong. And handsome. Just like your father.”
“I don’t want to be big and strong.” Robin frowned, glancing up to meet his mother’s gaze. “I like being four.”
“Is that so?” Shilpa chuckled, mussing his hair in comfort. “Then, I suppose we better have fun before you turn five.”
Robin said nothing more for a minute, instead focusing on his sleeping brother. Shilpa observed with interest as he leaned forward, investigating the gold chain she had earlier placed around Aryan’s neck. It was small but intricate in design, and bore a locket with a deep blue sapphire. Reaching under the collar of his khadi, Robin pulled out a similar pendant, his own complete with a ruby.
“Aryan has a stone too?” he queried.
Shilpa nodded. “That’s right.”
“Just like mine?”
“Almost like yours.”
“But, why? What’s it for?”
“Inside each of your lockets is a special gem called a birthstone,” began Shilpa, stroking her son’s face as he stared curiously at his own gleaming red jewel. “It’s our tradition for them to be given to you shortly after you are born. They are very important. They have mystical abilities that bring you good luck, and sometimes can even help you to heal.”
“Really?” Robin whispered with intrigue, slowly turning the charm between his fingers.
“You should never take it off,” his mother instructed, her tone soft but sincere. “You are bound to your birthstone, and it to you. It is part of who you are.”
“What about Aryan?” asked Robin.
Shilpa did not answer immediately; a strange sensation had washed over her.
Only the casual sway of the curtains broke the silence of the bedroom as the pleasant draft swept around her bare ankles. She looked down upon her youngest son, so pure and innocent. He yawned in his sleep, scrunching up his endearing bronze features. As he wriggled, the sapphire pendant fell to one side, disappearing from sight.
After a few moments, Shilpa returned her attention to Robin, offering him another smile as she cuddled him once more.
“I have a feeling that this birthstone will one day be very special to him.”