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midday sun whitened the city of Lahore to a bright haze. Normally,
the streets would be deserted at this time of day, but today the
Moti bazaar was packed with a slowly moving throng of humanity. The
crowds deftly maneuvered around a placid cow lounging in the center
of the narrow street, her jaw moving rhythmically as she digested
her morning meal of grass and hay.
Shopkeepers called out to passing shoppers while sitting
comfortably at the edge of jammed, cubical shops that lay flush
with the brick-paved street. A few women veiled in thin muslins
leaned over the wood-carved balconies of their houses above the
shops. A man holding the leash of a pet monkey looked up when they
called to him, "Make it dance!" He bowed and set his music box on
the ground. As the music played, the monkey, clad in a blue
waistcoat, a tasseled fez on its head, jumped up and down. When it
had finished, the women clapped and threw silver coins at the man.
After gathering the coins from the street, the man and his monkey
gravely bowed again and went on their way. On the street corner,
musicians played their flutes and dholaks; people chatted
happily with friends, shouting to be heard above the din; vendors
hawked lime-green sherbets in frosted brass goblets; and women
bargained in good-natured loud voices.
In the distance, between the two rows of houses and shops that
crowded the main street of the bazaar, the red brick walls of the
Lahore fort rose to the sky, shutting out the imperial palaces and
gardens from the city.
The city was celebrating. Prince Salim, Akbar's eldest son and heir
apparent, was to be married in three days, on February 13, 1585.
Salim was the first of the three royal princes to wed, and no
amount of the unseasonable heat or dust or noise would keep the
people of Lahore from the bazaar today.
At Ghias Beg's house, silence prevailed in an inner courtyard,
broken only by the faint sounds of the shenai from the
bazaar. The air was still and heavy with perfume from blooming
roses and jasmines in clay pots. A fountain bubbled in one corner,
splashing drops of water with a hiss onto the hot stone pathway
nearby. In the center of the courtyard a large peepul tree
spread its dense triangular-leaved branches.
Five children sat cross-legged on jute mats under the cool shade of
the peepul, heads bent studiously, the chalk in their hands
scratching on smooth black slates as they wrote. But every now and
then, one or another lifted a head to listen to the music in the
distance. Only one child sat still, copying out text from a Persian
book spread in front of her.
Mehrunnisa had an intense look of concentration on her face as she
traced the curves and lines, the tip of her tongue showing between
her teeth. She was determined not to be distracted.
Seated next to her were her brothers, Muhammad and Abul, and her
sisters, Saliha and Khadija.
A bell pealed, its tones echoing in the silent courtyard.
The two boys jumped up immediately and ran into the house; soon
Saliha and Khadija followed. Only Mehrunnisa remained, intent upon
her work. The mulla of the mosque, who was their teacher,
closed his book, folded his hands in his lap, and sat there looking
at the child.
Asmat came out into the courtyard and smiled. This was a good sign,
surely. After so many years of complaints and tantrums and "why do
I have to study?" and "I am bored, Maji," Mehrunnisa seemed to have
finally settled down to her lessons. Before, she had always been
the first to rise when the lunch bell summoned.
"Mehrunnisa, it is time for lunch, beta," Asmat
At the sound of her mother's voice, Mehrunnisa lifted her head.
Azure blue eyes looked up at Asmat, and a dimpled smile broke out
on her face, showing perfectly even, white teeth with one gap in
the front where a permanent tooth was yet to come. She rose from
the mat, bowed to the mulla, and walked toward her mother,
her long skirts swinging gently.
Mehrunnisa looked at her mother as she neared. Maji was always so
neat, hair smoothed to a shine by fragrant coconut oil, and curled
into a chignon at the nape of her neck.
"Did you enjoy the lessons today, beta?" Asmat asked as
Mehrunnisa reached her and touched her mother's arm softly.
Mehrunnisa wrinkled her nose. "The mulla doesn't teach me
anything I don't already know. He doesn't seem to know
anything." Then, as a frown rose on Asmat's forehead, she asked
quickly, "Maji, when are we going to the royal palace?"
"Your Bapa and I must attend the wedding celebrations next week, I
suppose. An invitation has come for us. Bapa will be at the court
with the men, and I have been called to the imperial
They moved into the house. Mehrunnisa slowed her stride to keep
pace with her mother. At eight, she was already up to Asmat's
shoulder and growing fast. They passed noiselessly through the
verandah, their bare feet skimming the cool stone floor.
"What does the prince look like, Maji?" Mehrunnisa asked, trying to
keep the eagerness out of her voice.
Asmat reflected for a moment. "He is handsome, charming." Then,
with a hesitant laugh, she added, "And perhaps a little
"Will I get to see him?"
Asmat raised her eyebrows. "Why this sudden interest in Prince
"No reason," Mehrunnisa replied in a hurry. "A royal wedding -- and
we shall be present at court. Who is he marrying?"
"You will attend the celebrations only if you have finished with
your studies for the day. I shall talk to the mulla about
your progress." Asmat smiled at her daughter. "Perhaps Khadija
would like to come too?" Khadija and Manija had been born after the
family's arrival in India. Manija was still in the nursery, too
young for classes and not old enough to go out.
"Perhaps." Mehrunnisa waved her hand in a gesture of dismissal, her
green glass bangles sliding down her wrist to her elbow with a
tinkling sound. "But Khadija has no concept of the decorum and
etiquette at court."
Asmat threw her well-groomed head back with a laugh. "And you
"Of course." Mehrunnisa nodded firmly. Khadija was a baby; she
could not sit still for twenty minutes at the morning lessons.
Everything distracted her -- the birds in the trees, the squirrels
scrambling for nuts, the sun through the peepul leaves. But
that was getting off the topic. "Who is Prince Salim marrying,
Maji?" she asked again.
"Princess Man Bai, daughter of Raja Bhagwan Das of Amber."
"Do princes always marry princesses?"
"Not necessarily, but most royal marriages are political. In this
case, Emperor Akbar wishes to maintain a strong friendship with the
Raja, and Bhagwan Das similarly wants closer ties with the empire.
After all, he is now a vassal to the Emperor."
"I wonder what it would be like to marry a prince," Mehrunnisa
said, her eyes glazing over dreamily, "and to be a
"Or an empress, beta. Prince Salim is the rightful heir to the
throne, you know, and his wife, or wives, will all be empresses."
Asmat smiled at her daughter's ecstatic expression. "But enough
about the royal wedding." Her face softened further as she smoothed
Mehrunnisa's hair. "In a few years you will leave us and go to your
husband's house. Then we shall talk about your wedding."
Mehrunnisa gave her mother a quick look. Empress of Hindustan! Bapa
came home with stories about his day, little tidbits about Emperor
Akbar's rulings, about the zenana women hidden behind a
screen as they watched the court proceedings, sometimes in silence
and sometimes calling out a joke or a comment in a musical voice.
The Emperor always listened to them, always turned his head to the
screen to hear what they had to say. What bliss to be in the
Emperor's harem, to be at court. How she wished she could have been
born a princess. Then she would marry a prince -- perhaps even
Salim. But then Asmat and Ghias would not be her parents. Her heart
skipped a beat at the thought. She slipped a hand into her
mother's, and they walked on toward the dining hall.
As they neared, she said again, pulling at Asmat's arm, "Can I go
with you for the wedding, Maji? Please?"
"We'll see what your Bapa has to say about it."
When they entered, Abul looked up, patted the divan next to him,
and said to Mehrunnisa, "Come sit here."
Giving him a quick smile, Mehrunnisa sat down. Abul had promised to
play gilli-danda with her under the peepul tree later
that afternoon. He was much better than she was at the game,
managing to hit the gilli six or seven times before it fell.
But then, he was a boy, and the one time she had tried to teach him
to sew a button he had drawn blood on all his fingers with the
needle. At least she could hit the gilli four times in a
row. She clasped her hands together and waited for Bapa to signal
that the meal had begun.
The servants had laid out a red satin cloth on the Persian carpets.
Now they filed in, carrying steaming dishes of saffron-tinted
pulavs cooked in chicken broth, goat curry in a rich brown
gravy, a leg of lamb roasted with garlic and rosemary, and a salad
of cucumber and plump tomatoes, sprinkled with rock salt, pepper,
and a squeeze of lemon juice. The head server knelt and ladled out
the food on Chinese porcelain plates. For the next few minutes
silence prevailed as the family ate, using only their right hands.
When they were done, brass bowls filled with hot water and pieces
of lime were brought in so they could wash their hands. A hot cup
of chai spiced with ginger and cinnamon
Ghias leaned back against the silk cushions of his divan and
looked around at his family. They were beautiful, he thought, these
people who belonged to him. Two sons and four daughters already,
each special in an individual way, each brilliant with life.
Muhammad, his eldest, was a little surly and sometimes missed his
classes on a whim, true, but that would change as time passed. Abul
showed the most promise of becoming like his Dada, Ghias's father.
He had his grandfather's even temper and a small streak of mischief
that made him tease his beloved sisters. All the more reason he
would continue to love them deeply when they were older. Saliha was
becoming a young lady now, suddenly shy of even her own Bapa.
Khadija and Manija -- they were children yet, unformed,
inquisitive, curious about everything. But Mehrunnisa...
Ghias smiled inwardly, letting his eyes rest on her last. She was
his favorite child, a child of good fortune. He was not normally a
superstitious man, but somehow he had the feeling that Mehrunnisa's
birth had been a good omen for him. Everything good in his life had
come from that time after the storm at Qandahar.
Eight years had passed since their hasty escape from Persia.
Sitting here in this safe room, Ghias was suddenly transported to
that moment before his introduction to Emperor Akbar in the
darbar hall by Malik Masud. They had entered past the
forbidding palace guards into the blinding sunshine of the
Diwan-i-am, the Hall of Public Audience at Fatehpur Sikri.
The courtyard was crowded. The Emperor's war elephants stood at the
very back in a row, shifting their weight from one heavy foot to
another. Their foreheads were draped with gold and silver livery,
and mahouts were seated atop their thick necks, knees dug into
their ears. Next came a row of cavalry officers on perfectly
matched black Arabian horses. Then came the third, and outermost
tier, for commoners. The second tier around the imperial throne was
for merchants and lesser noblemen, and this was where Ghias and
Masud took their places, behind the nobles of the court.
When the Emperor was announced, they bowed low from the waist.
Ghias glanced behind him to see the elephants lumber to their
knees, tilting the mahouts to a sharp angle, and the horses and
cavalry officers bend their heads. When they rose from the
salutation, he gazed with awe at the figure on the faraway throne
across a sea of jeweled turbans.
They all stood silent as the Mir Arz, in charge of official
petitions, read out the day's business in his singsong voice. Ghias
watched and listened to the proceedings in a daze. The cloud of
sandalwood incense, the richness of the Emperor's throne with its
jasper-studded beaten gold pillars and red velvet cushions, the
sleek gray marble floor in front of the throne -- all overwhelmed
him. Finally, Masud was called forward. Ghias went with him, and in
unison they performed the taslim, touching their right hands
to their foreheads and bending from the waist.
"Welcome back, Mirza Masud," Akbar said.
"Thank you, your Majesty," Masud replied, straightening.
"You had a good journey, we trust?"
"By the grace of Allah and your Majesty," Masud said.
"Is this all you have brought us from your travels, Mirza Masud?"
Emperor Akbar asked, gesturing toward the horses, and the plates of
piled silks and fruits from the caravan.
"One more gift, your Majesty," Masud nodded to Ghias. "If I may
humbly be allowed to introduce Mirza Ghias Beg to your
"Come forward, Mirza Beg. Our eyes are not as good as they once
were. Come forward so we may see you well."
Ghias finally straightened from his taslim and took a few
steps forward, raising his eyes to the Emperor. He saw a stout,
majestic man with a kind face, a mole on his upper lip. "Where are
you from, Mirza Beg? Who is your father?"
Stumbling over his words, Ghias told him. Every sentence he spoke
echoed in his ears. His throat was dry, his palms damp with sweat.
When he had finished, he looked at the Emperor anxiously. Had he
"A good family," Akbar said. Turning to his right, he asked, "What
do you think, Shaiku Baba?"
Ghias then saw the child seated next to the emperor, a little boy
perhaps eight or nine years old, his hair slicked back, wearing a
short peshwaz coat and trousers of gold shot silk. Prince
Salim, heir to the empire. Salim nodded solemnly, the heron feather
in his small turban bobbing. Trying to mirror his father's tone of
voice, he said in his clear, childish voice, "We like him, your
Akbar smiled. "Yes, we do. Come back to see us sometime, Mirza
Ghias bowed. "Your Majesty is too kind. It will be a great honor
Akbar inclined his head to the Mir Arz, who read out the name of
the next supplicant from his scroll. Malik Masud gestured to Ghias
and both men bowed again and backed to their places. They did not
talk. When the darbar was over, Ghias left the hall in a
stupor, the Emperor's kind words singing in his ear. He had gone
back to the court the next day, waiting for hours until the Emperor
was free to talk with him for five minutes. After a few days of
conversation, Akbar had graciously granted Ghias a mansab of
three hundred horses and appointed him courtier.
The mansab system was used by Mughal kings to confer honors
and estates. The mansabs translated into parcels of land
used to support the upkeep of cavalry or infantry for the imperial
army, so Ghias's mansab could support, from its produce, a
cavalry of three hundred horses. All this Ghias had to learn anew.
The Mughal courts were different from the counts at Persia.
As the years passed, Ghias made himself indispensable to Akbar,
accompanying him on hunting parties and campaigns and entertaining
him with stories of the Persian courts. Akbar replied to Ghias's
efforts in kind, granting him the land and building materials for
two splendid houses: one at Agra, the other at Fatehpur
Today, they sat down to their midday meal at a rented house in
Lahore. A few months ago, a new threat had reared its head on the
northwestern frontier of the empire. The Emperor's spies had
brought news that Abdullah Khan, king of Uzbekistan, was planning
to invade India. Fatehpur Sikri, though nominally the capital of
the empire, was too far southeast for the Emperor's comfort. Akbar
wanted to be closer to the campaign mounted against the Uzbeg king,
and he gave orders for the move to Lahore. The entire court had
traveled with the Emperor, leaving the newly built city of Fatehpur
Allah had been kind to his family, Ghias mused as he stroked his
bearded chin. Opulence surrounded them, a far cry from the
destitute manner in which they had entered India. Thick Persian and
Kashmiri rugs were piled on the stone floors. The lime-washed walls
were hung with paintings and miniatures framed in brass. Little
burnished teak and sandalwood tables held artifacts from around the
world: Chinese porcelain statues, silver and gold boxes from
Persia, ivory figurines from Africa. The children were clothed in
the finest muslin and silks, and Asmat wore enough jewelry to feed
a poor family for a year.
He still could not believe the blessings that had come his way and
how much they had gained in the past years. The children had
flourished here, strong and resilient, taking to the country and
its people as though their own. Abul, Muhammad, and Saliha had been
diffident at first about learning new languages and customs and
playing with the children of the neighboring lords and nobles.
Young as they were, they remembered much of the long, traumatic
journey from Persia. For Mehrunnisa, everything was new and
wonderful. The dialects in Agra had come more easily to her mouth.
The blistering dry heat of the Indo-Gangetic plains did not seem to
bother her; until she was five she ran about the house in a thin
cotton shift, balking at having to dress up for festivals and
occasions. She took their position for granted as promotions came
to Ghias and they moved from one house to a bigger one until Akbar
gave them a home of their own. This was the only life she had
known. Ghias had worried most about Asmat, anxious about uprooting
her and bringing her here. When her father had entrusted her to his
care, he surely would not have expected that Ghias would take her
away from her family.
Ghias looked at her, warming with pride and love. Asmat was in the
early stages of yet another pregnancy, visible only by a slight
rounding of her stomach. The passing years had not diminished
Asmat's beauty. Time had painted some gray in her hair and etched a
few lines on her face. But it was the same dear face, the same
trusting eyes. She had been brave, giving him strength at night
when they lay beside each other in silence, darkness closing around
them, and during the day when he was home working or reading, and
she passed by, her anklets chiming, her ghagara murmuring on
the floor. Islamic law allowed four wives, but with Asmat, Ghias
had found a deep, abiding peace. There was no need to even look at
another woman or think of taking another wife. She was everything
A sudden movement caught his eye. Mehrunnisa was sitting at the
edge of her divan, her eyes sparkling with excitement, smoothing
the long pleats of her ghagara with impatient fingers. He
knew she wanted to say something and could not keep still. He
looked at her, thinking again of these past eight years, of how
they would have been different if she had not been with them. A
huge gap would have opened in their lives, never to be filled no
matter how many children they had. How he would have missed her
musical "Bapa!" when he came home and she flung herself into his
arms with a "Kiss me first, before anyone else. Me first. Me
Ghias bowed his head. Thank you, Allah.
Then he put down his cup and said, "His Majesty was in a good mood
at the darbar this morning. He is very happy about Prince
Salim's forthcoming marriage."
"Bapa -- " Both Abul and Mehrunnisa spoke simultaneously, relieved
that the enforced silence during lunch had finally been broken.
Asmat and Ghias were very strict about not speaking during meals: a
sign of good manners. And only when Ghias spoke could the rest of
the family join in.
"Yes, Mehrunnisa?" Ghias hushed Abul with a hand.
"I want to go to the royal palace for the wedding," Mehrunnisa
said. Then she added hastily, "Please."
Ghias raised an eyebrow at Asmat.
She nodded. "You can take the boys. Mehrunnisa and Saliha will be
Mehrunnisa tugged at her sister's veil. "Can you see
"No," Saliha said, her voice almost a wail. Just then, one of the
ladies in the zenana balcony elbowed them to one side,
allowing the crowd to swarm to the marble lattice-worked
Mehrunnisa craned her neck, standing on tiptoe until the arches of
her feet hurt. It was of no use. All she could see were the backs
of the ladies of Akbar's harem as they stood exclaiming at the
scene below in the Diwan-i-Am.
She fell back on her heels, her foot tapping impatiently on the
stone floor. The day of the wedding had finally arrived, and she
had not been able to catch a glimpse of the ceremony or of Prince
Salim. It was unfair that her bothers were allowed to be present at
the courtyard below while she had to be confined behind the
parda with the royal harem. And what made it all the more
unfair was that she was not even old enough to wear the veil, but
for some reason her mother had insisted on keeping her in the
Mehrunnisa jumped up and down, trying to look over the heads of the
zenana ladies. At that moment, it did not strike her that
she was actually in the imperial palace. Everything, every thought,
centered on Salim. When the gates had opened and the female guards
had eyed them with suspicion before letting them into the
zenana area, Saliha had bowed to them in awe. Mehrunnisa had
ignored them, her eyes running everywhere, not seeing the rainbow
silks or the luminous jewels or the flawlessly painted faces. Her
only thought had been to find a good spot at the screen to see the
prince. And now they had been pushed to the back because they were
younger and smaller than all the other women.
"I am going to push them aside and take a look."
"You cannot do that. This is the Emperor's harem; they are the most
exalted ladies in the realm," Saliha said in a horrified whisper,
holding Mehrunnisa's hand tight in hers.
"With very bad manners," Mehrunnisa replied, her voice pert. "I
have been pushed out of the way four times already. How are we
supposed to see Prince Salim? They are not made of water that we
can see through them."
She pulled her hand out of Saliha's grasp and ran to the front of
the balcony. She tapped one of the concubines on the shoulder and,
when she turned, slipped through the opening to press her face
against the screen, her fingers clutching the marble.
Mehrunnisa blinked rapidly to adjust her eyes to the blinding
sunshine in the Diwan-i-Am and gazed at the figure seated on
the throne at the far end. Akbar was dressed in his magnificent
robes of state, the jewels on his turban glittering as he nodded
graciously to his ministers. The Emperor's eyes were suspiciously
bright when he looked at his son.
Mehrunnisa shifted her gaze to Prince Salim and held her breath.
From here she could only see him in profile. He held himself with
grace, shoulders squared, feet planted firmly apart, right hand on
the jeweled dagger tucked into his cummerbund. Princess Man Bai
stood next to him, head covered with a red muslin veil heavily
embroidered in gold zari. If only the princess would move
back a step so she could see Salim a little better, Mehrunnisa
thought, her face glued to the screen. Perhaps if she leaned over
to the right...The Qazi who was performing the ceremony had just
finished asking Prince Salim if he would take the Princess Man Bai
to be his wife. He now turned to the princess.
Mehrunnisa, along with the rest of the court, waited in silence for
Man Bai to respond. Just then, someone rudely pulled her by the
shoulder. She turned around to see the irate concubine glaring at
"How dare you?" the concubine hissed between clenched teeth, her
face twisted in anger.
Mehrunnisa opened her mouth to reply, but before she could, the
girl lifted her hand and slapped Mehrunnisa's face, her jeweled
rings cutting into her cheek.
Mehrunnisa raised a trembling hand to her face and stared at her,
eyes huge in a pale face. No one -- no one -- had hit her
before, not even her parents.
Tears sprang to her eyes as she glowered at the woman, spilling
down her cheeks before she could stop them. Mehrunnisa wiped them
away with the back of her hand. The concubine leaned over her,
hands on hips. Mehrunnisa did not flinch. Instead, she bit her lip
to keep back a retort, the slap still ringing in her ears. Suddenly
she was terribly lonely. Somewhere in the background she saw
Saliha, her face drained of color. But where was Maji?
beg your pardon." Asmat had come up behind Mehrunnisa. She put an
arm around her daughter and pulled her away from the furious
concubine. "She is just a child -- "
"Let her be!" a rich, imperious voice commanded.
Mother and daughter turned to look at the speaker, Ruqayya Sultan
Begam, Akbar's chief Queen, or Padshah Begam. Sensing conflict, the
ladies around them turned from the Diwan-i-am to the drama
in the zenana balcony. Their faces were tinged with
excitement. So rarely did Ruqayya interfere in squabbles that this
child must be special. A path cleared from Mehrunnisa to the
Padshah Begam, and all eyes turned to Akbar's main consort.
She was not a beautiful woman; in fact, she was quite plain. Her
hair was streaked with gray, which she made no effort to conceal
with a henna rinse. Inquisitive black eyes glittered out of a
round, plump face.
Ruqayya's importance to Akbar was far more than the brief physical
satisfaction his mindless concubines could provide him. He valued
her quick mind, sharp wit, and comfortable presence. Her position
in the zenana secure, Ruqayya made no further attempt to
beguile the Emperor -- a waste of time in any case, when every day
a fresh, new face appeared at the harem. So she left the
satisfaction of Akbar's physical needs to the younger girls while
she made sure that he came to her for all else. That security lent
her a calm demeanor, an arrogance, and a self-assurance. She was
the Padshah Begam.
Ruqayya beckoned to Mehrunnisa with a plump jewel-studded hand.
"Come here." Turning to the concubine, she said harshly, "You
should know better than to hit a child."
The girl subsided mutinously to one corner, her kohl-rimmed eyes
Her mouth suddenly dry, Mehrunnisa walked up to the Padshah Begam.
She wiped clammy hands against her ghagara, wishing she were
anywhere but here.
The scent of ketaki flowers wafted to Mehrunnisa's nostrils as the
Empress put a finger under her chin and tilted her face. "So you
like to watch the wedding celebrations, eh?" Ruqayya's voice was
"Yes, your Majesty," Mehrunnisa replied in a low voice, head bent
to hide the gap in her teeth.
"Do you like Prince Salim?"
"Yes, your Majesty." Mehrunnisa hesitated and looked up with a
smile, the gap forgotten. "He is...he is more beautiful than my
All the ladies around them burst out laughing, their laughter
carrying down into the courtyard.
Ruqayya held up an imperious hand. "This child thinks Salim to be
beautiful," she announced to the ladies. "I wonder how long it will
be before she finds him handsome." Laughter swept through the room
Mehrunnisa looked around, bemused.
The wedding ceremony had just been completed, and the Qazi was
registering the marriage in his book. The ladies shifted their
attention to the Dwian-i-am, and Mehrunnisa escaped
thankfully into her mother's arms. Asmat pushed her daughter toward
the door, signaling Saliha to join them.
As they were leaving, Ruqayya said, without looking in their
direction, "The child amuses me. Bring her to wait upon me
Mehrunnisa and Asmat Begam bowed low to the Empress and let
The wedding parties continued for almost a week, but Mehrunnisa,
frightened after her encounter with Ruqayya, refused to go for the
festivities. The concubine had merely made her angry; the Empress,
with her glittering eyes and her aura of power alarmed Mehrunnisa.
Asmat Begam and Ghias Beg went every day to pay their respects to
Akbar and his queens and to take part in the rejoicing.
A few days later, Ruqayya sent an imperial summons commanding
Mehrunnisa's presence at the royal zenana.
Excerpted from THE TWENTIETH WIFE © Copyright 2002 by Indu
Sundaresan. Reprinted with permission by Simon and Schuster. All