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Ponniyin Selvan Part V (38 – 41)

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

38. That was a Drama?

Nandhini’s sad laughter followed the sound of the sword accidentally falling and hitting the floor.

Excitedly she said, “God’s will seems to be different. Let the sword be here. Hurry now and hide yourself!”

Without listening to her Vandhiyathevan bent down to take the sword.

As he tried to lift it from its sharp end, Nandhini placed her foot on its handle.

“Don’t! The prince would have heard the sword falling down. If it’s not here he will be suspicious. Already he has doubts about you! Just like you magically disappeared once before from here, go now!” She said.

The sword’s sharp tip left a small cut on Vandhiyathevan’s hand. Leaving the sword he rose. Nandhini saw the blood oozing from his palm.

“I will fulfill the promise I made to you. I will not kill my sibling with my hands. You save yourself. If he sees you here …”

“Please go! Go at once!” Manimekalai also pleaded. The footsteps were sounding closer and closer.

Against his wish Vandhiyathevan turned towards the storage room with the musical instruments. He opened the door of the kalanghium and disappeared into it. The footsteps were now very close, pausing at the doorstep.

“Sister! You also hide yourself! Hide behind the curtains around the bed! While we are talking, leave without his knowledge!” Nandhini said to Manimekalai who was staring behind Vandhiyathevan where he had just disappeared.

The second following Manimekalai’s disappearance behind the bed curtains, Athitha Karikalan and Kanthamaran walked in.

Karikalan looked around as he approached Nandhini. He noticed the bed curtains moving. But he pretended not to.

When he was close to Nandhini he saw the sword that lay shimmering on the floor. He then studied Nandhini’s face carefully.

Unable to bear his intense scrutiny, using the sword as an excuse Nandhini bent down to take it. Reading Nandhini’s mind Karikalan swiftly picked up the sword in his hand beating her to the task. He examined it carefully from handle to tip. He noticed the fresh blood stain on its sharp end.

Then he looked up at Nandhini. “Devi! So it is the sound of this sword falling down that we heard from outside. It must have slipped from your hand! Were you planning a welcome for us with sword in hand?” He said.

“Isn’t it the proper welcome for brave young tigers and crafty lion cubs,” said Nandhini.

“The ruthless tigers and lions need sharp nails and teeth. But god didn’t give those to the free spirited antelope, did he?”

“The antelope also needs to use its antlers at times! There may come a moment when the kalaiman will thank god for those antlers. Now please give me that sword,” pleaded Nandhini.

“No, no! This is not meant for your hands. How can these tender hands that Brahmadevan created for picking flowers and making garlands carry a sword,” said Karikalan.

“Great son of the king! There was a time when this beggar’s hands eagerly plucked flowers and lovingly turned them into a garland. There was also a time when she waited in vain for the man who would wear her garland. Eons have gone by since the days of such daydreaming. Now the need has arisen for this orphan’s hands to seek the companionship of the sword. Sir! Please don’t snatch my partner from me,” said Nandhini.

“Devi! How can you say this? You are calling yourself an orphan of no means? There are so many young men waiting to take on their heads the orders you toss with your feet! Don’t you know that?”

“If by accident my feet should touch these scoundrels I will have to cut off my leg, Sir! Now, for that I will need the sword, won’t I?”

“Aiyo! What harshness? We must cut off the feet that ought to be in a palace – shaming the swans – learning the gentle walk to the melodious chiming of anklets? If the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar hears this how tormented he will be!”

“Sir! Who is worriying about him. How the young tigers, who will run and hide at one growl from that old lion are now boldly roaming free! Isn’t it the news that he has drowned in the Kollidam flood that has emboldened these young tigers now? To safeguard myself from those tigers I have this weapon with me. I sought its help to protect the reputation of that great man who brought me from the dump and gave me a life of luxury and status. As you said, with these flower gathering hands I have learned to wield the sword …”

“Devi! Is that the truth? Is it to save the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar’s honor that you keep this sword in a trunk worshipping it holding it against your softer than petal cheeks? Or is it to keep away the stupid men who approach you with their silly smiles? Was there no other reason?”

“What other reason can there be, Sir?”

“Why? There can be so many. There may be the desire to carry out your promise to take the life of the savage who rejected your tearful and humble plea and left you with an everlasting wound in your heart!”

Nandhini hung her head down and exhaled a deep sigh. Then she looked up at the prince. “Son of the king! It is true that I had this intention at one time. I worshipped this sword for precisely that reason. I yearned for that moment to arrive. Yet, when the time came my hands turned powerless; my heart is also powerless. Now I will use this sword only to protect my virtue and my husband’s honor. Please give it to me!” She said.

“Devi! Can’t I take on that responsibility? Can’t I fulfill the obligation of punishing the savage who meant to harm you and your husband,” said Athitha Karikalan.

“You cannot do it. Can you punish your lifelong friends for the sake of this orphan from nowhere?”

“Why not? Certainly I can! Nandhini! I did not believe entirely what you said about Vandhiyathevan the other day at the lake. Later I found out from Kanthamaran that there was truth in it. Even if you are willing to forgive that savage I am not. Tell me where he is! … Won’t you! … Don’t! I am not blind … Look!” Angrily shouting Athitha Karikalan moved towards the curtains covering the bed.

Nandhini got in his way touching his feet and raising her palms together pleading. “Son of the king! Don’t! Don’t!” She said.

“Nandhini! Save your mercy for someone else! Don’t show mercy to the traitor who acts like my friend only to betray me!” Leaving Nandhini aside Athitha Karikalan marched on!

Nandhini looked around helplessly. She looked at Kanthamaran who was standing like a statue near the door. “Aiyo! Please stop him,” she cried. The statue that was Kanthamaran came to life. But he did not move. After responding with a silly grin he promptly returned to his statuesque stand. Wielding the sword with one hand Karikalan walked to the curtain and raised it with his other hand.

‘kreech’ – With her small knife in hand Manimekalai let off a shrill cry from behind the curtain.

For a moment Athitha Karikalan stood in shock with the sword raised in his hand. Then he ripped the bed curtain lengthwise with the tip of the sword.

“Aha! It is this female tiger who is here? Apapah! It has got some very sharp nails!” He laughed, “Ha! Ha!”

He said to Kanthamaran then, “Friend! Take your sister and leave her with your mother! Who knows how many tigers she will bring forth into this world! If she had succumbed to Veera Pandyan’s sword how many brave sons and daughters Cholanadu may have lost?”

Manimekalai had in fact hissed like a tiger a short time ago. But Athitha Karikalan’s words made her feel self-conscious. Even before Kanthamaran approached her she turned on her heels and was ready to leave the room. Once brother and sister left Karikalan told Nandhini, “Devi, I staged a drama to make them leave. At least now, can we speak from the heart, the truth?”

With genuine surprise Nandhini gazed at Karikalan. “Sir! That was a drama? Then it was an incredible performance! I too was deceived thinking that it was real,” she said.

“Nandhini! It is my belief that no one else excels in acting like you do. If you have been fooled, then certainly my acting prowess ought to be applauded! Yet, when I went there wielding my sword, you did not stop me! Why? Were you watching so that I can add woman-killing to my other sins,” asked Karikalan.

“Sivasiva! In this world she is the only person I truly love today. Will I just let her die? As soon as you pushed the curtain I knew that you will find out …”

Karikalan laughed.

“Why are you laughing,” said Nandhini.

“That reason alone is sufficient for me to slaughter Manimekalai,” said Karikalan.

“I don’t understand!”

“Whoever becomes the object of your affection becomes my primal foe. Don’t you know that?”

“I do. I know that I am thus cursed. But I never thought that your wrath will extend to an innocent little girl!”

“Or …, your motive may have been something else. You might have thought that if I kill Maniumekalai then Kanthamaran would seek revenge on me. Or …, before I kill her, she would throw her small knife at me and kill me, you might have reasoned …”

“Aiyayo! What unnerving imagination!”

“Imagination! Far worse than my dreadful imagination you are of a truly terrifying nature. Tell the truth! Don’t fan the fire that is already blazing in my heart! Why did you invite me to this Kadampoor palace? Why did you make Pazhuvertaraiyar leave for Thanjai? Don’t tell me that you were trying to bring reconciliation by dividing the Chola empire; – or to enjoy watching me wed Manimekalai! I won’t believe those stories. If I had, I wouldn’t have come here …”

“Then why did you come, Son of the king! With what hope did you come here?”

“Hope? I have no hope. My heart is without desire; it is filled with distrust. I want to leave this country as well as this world. I came to see you and bid you farewell before I leave. Once you asked me for something. You fell at my feet and begged me. Holding up your palms together you pleaded with me. I didn’t give in to you because of my rage and stubbornness. After that I have been regretting it every minute. If there is any penance I came to do it before leaving. Nandhini! Tell me! If I can make up for my behavior in any way, tell me!”

To Karikalan’s words delivered in a tone full of remorse Nandhini replied, “Son of the king! There is no penance. The dead are dead! No one in this world has the power to bring the dead back. It happens in stories and epic poems. We have not seen it.”

“The dead cannot be brought back. That is true! But retribution can be sought by giving up one’s life for the life lost! … Look here! Don’t hide from me any longer. Why did you come here, why did you ask me to come here, why did you send Pazhuvertaraiyar to Thanjai – Don’t think that I don’t know why! From when we were small I have had the ability to read your mind. You pleaded for Veera Pandyan’s life only to aggravate me and provoke me into committing an immoral act. You married the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar and came to Thanjai only to torment me. You could not bear to see me waiting peacefully in Kanji. That is why you brought me to the Kadampoor palace. You have come here with the goal of seeking revenge, to kill me with Veera Pandyan’s sword. By all means fulfill your promise. That is why I got rid of Kanthamaran and his sister. Here! Take the sword! End your revenge,” Karikalan held the sword out.

Nandhini accepted the sword. Her hands were shaking. Her entire body was shaking. Her eyes filled with tears. Heartbreaking sobs emanated from her.

“Nandhini! Why are you discouraged? Why are you faltering? You were raised in the pattar family, but you were born into a brave and valorous tradition. Growing up among the sheep does a lion cub lose its nature? Look here! I know your heart. Don’t let Kanthamaran or Parthipenthiran or Vandhiyathevan carry out your revenge. Don’t make me angry at them. You carry out your goal! Seek your revenge with your own hands! Someone might turn up here any second. Kanthamaran will return after leaving his sister with his mother. It’s also time for Parthipenthiran and Sambuvaraiyar to return. My grandfather Malaiamman may also come with them. I doubt that Pazhuvertaraiyar would have drowned in the Kollidam flood. He also may turn up here suddenly. To finish your revenge, no better time will ever come. By killing me you won’t be doing any harm to me! Indeed you will be doing me a great service,” he said.

Suppressing her sobs Nandhini said, “Son of the king! I did not hide anything from you. I don’t want to. Everything you said about my motives for coming here is true. That is why I wanted you to come. But when the opportunity presents itself, my hands have lost their strength; my heart its courage. Even as I heard your footsteps outside the sword slipped from my hand and fell to the floor. Look at my hands holding the sword! Look at the way they are shaking!!”

“Yes, yes! I see that. But I cannot fathom the reason for it. I know how strong willed you were at one time. I used to think that Brahmadevan after making the vajrayutham for Devendran made your heart out of the remaining alloy. What is the reason for such a heart to soften like this! …”

“The news that your friend Vandhiyathevan brought.”

“Aha! You mean his discovery that you and I are siblings? The other day when we were speaking by the lakeside you said that you did not believe it! You said that it was a hoax spread by someone to separate us again!”

“I did not want to believe it. I tried not to. But what he said today completely destroyed my resolve.”

“Aha! What is that? Some new conjecture? What has he added new?”

“He spoke about the mother who gave birth to me. He said that he saw her in Ilankai island. There is no reason for me to refuse to believe it. Son of the king! I once asked for a favor. You did not grant it. You said that you regret your decision even today. I am asking you again today. Will you at least grant me this?”

“If you tell me what it is then I can say whether I will or not.”

“Son of the king! It is true that I vowed to take revenge for Veera Pandyan’s death. Either I will kill you with this sword bearing the fish emblem or I will kill myself, I vowed. To kill you, I have no strength in my heart; nor in my hands. To kill myself and die in front of you, my hands may fail me even there. I worry about the consequences if I fail in my attempt and my life still lingers. Sir! Please help me to see my vow come to fruition. Take this sword, and end my life with your hands! Then my promise will be fulfilled. Not just in this birth, but I will be grateful to you in the next and the following ones also!” When Nandhini extended the sword Athitha Karikalan took it in his hand.

“Ha Ha Ha!” His laughter rang out threateningly in a voice that echoed throughout the palace.

39. Darkenss Surrounded!

Goosebumps shot up on Vandhiyathevan’s skin when he heard Athitha Karikalan’s frenzied laughter while hiding in the lute storage room. His instinct told him that disaster was around the corner. The shadow of yamatharmarajan with noose in hand loomed across that room.

He was waiting for the moment to throw the noose. But, on whom? Whose life is he going to take? Karikalan’s? Or, Nandhini Devi’s? Or perhaps death is approaching both of them? Will the brother kill the sister? Or, will the sister kill the brother? Or, will the two kill each other? The junior stateswoman sent him urgently to prevent just this sort of tragic occurrence. Both were told of their relationship. Both had their hearts softened. Yet, will there be any use? Is it at all possible to prevent either the frantic Karikalar or the mad Nandhini from violence? Is there any point in his interfering now? Perhaps if he gave up his life in front of the two of them will their anger go down? Ravaged by such thoughts Vandhiyathevan’s mind was in a turmoil. Not wanting to make matters worse by going out he bit his teeth and waited.

Once Karikalar’s frenzied laughter stopped the conversation continued.

“Sir! I have not done anything during my lifetime that made you happy. At least when I am dying I am happy to see you laugh,” said Nandhini.

“Yes, Nandhini! Today is a happy day for me. There will be an end to what you have put me through all these years. When I left Kanji this time I had resolved to be strong. I was afraid that my mind will weaken after I see you. Leaving no room for that, you have handed the sword itself to me!” Karikalan laughed again.

“Son of the king! Today is a good day for me as well. There will never be a sweeter death for me than to die by your hand. Once upon a time I dreamed that you will adorn me with a garland of flowers. That was not to be. Let me at least adorn myself with your sword on my neck. Sir! Time is running, why are you waiting,” said Nandhini.

“We waited so many years. There is no loss in waiting for a few more minutes. Nandhini! Look at me a little! For the last time look at me and answer my question! With this hand that was meant to garland you why should I lay a sword on you? If it is true that you once had such romantic dreams then why shouldn’t they come true now? Who is the obstacle, tell me! Instead of killing you I will kill them,” said Karikalan.

“Don’t, Sir! Don’t! May a million blessings be upon you. From now on let no one die on my account! No one is an obstacle. It is my destiny that is the obstacle.”

“I will demolish that obstacle in no time. Don’t blame destiny! I will rewrite Brahma’s script! You shall see …”

Nandhini interrupted. “Brahma’s script can be rewritten. But can anyone change one’s birth,” she asked.

“What are you referring to, Nandhini? During our childhood days my family said that you are from the pattar tribe, and because of it I should not befriend you, – is that what you are referring to? No! You and I have always known that you were raised in the pattar tradition but was not born into it.”

“I did not mean that, Sir! Your beloved friend – Varnar tribe warrior – I mean the news that he brought. I am talking about the urgent message sent by Pazhaiyarai junior stateswoman. You have already forgotten that I am your sister?”

“Nandhini! When I told you about it the other day, you did not believe me. You said that it was another trick to keep us separated. Upon thinking about it I too came to the same conclusion. To verify it …”

“No! No! I have no doubts about it. Son of the king! I have no doubts about it. There is no blood relationship between us …”

“Then what is the obstacle, Nandhini?”

“I am married to Pazhuvertaraiyar who is like your grandfather. I am like your grandmother. Is that not enough?”

“Nandhini! Don’t try to cheat me with that story again. To the world you may be Pazhuvertaraiyar’s Ilaiyarani. But you are not really married to him. You have come to his palace for a reason. Once before, when I asked you in Thanjai that is what you told me. At that time I reminded you of our romantic dreams. In response you laid out to me some atrocious conditions! That I must end Pazhuvertaraiyar’s life, lock my father and sister in prison, and place you on the Chola throne, you said. Deciding that you were a fanatic monster, I went to Kanji. After that, did you leave me alone? No! Endlessly you tortured me with your presence in my waking hours and sleep. Sometimes you tormented me with your tears. Sometimes you tormented me with your beautiful smile! Sometimes you laughed like a madwoman and drove me also insane …”

“Son of the king! Why are you blaming me for your insanity? You reaped the rewards for the injustice and cruelty you dealt me. What can I do about it? You think that I did not suffer? Do you think that I was happy, enjoying the luxury of Pazhuvertaraiyar’s palace?” Anger and vitriol once again surfaced in Nandhini’s tone of voice.

Listening to her Vandhiyathevan was frightened. His body shuddered.

Athitha Karikalar’s temper also began to rise.

“You suffered? Then why do we have to waste time talking? Consent to going with me. We will leave immediately. For you, I am prepared to give up this grand Chola kingdom. I will leave my country, parents and relatives. We will go by ship. Across the seas there are many beautiful islands. We will go to one of them. To me this kingdom is not bigger than you …”

“Son of the king! You are prepared to give up this kingdom! But you will never consent to the idea of this lower birth woman ascending your ancient Chola throne!” There were fiery sparks in Nandhini’s laughter.

“Woman! Look at this in another way! Does the Chola throne mean more to you than me? All the affection you showed me from those days was merely a pretense, coming from your penchant for the throne and the tiara,” said Karikalan.

“Aha! You are right. What I want is the palace life, the royal status of the throne. This is why I married Pazhuvertaraiyar. This is why I tried to save Veera Pandyar …”

“Adee! You vile wretch! Why are you bringing up his name now,” roared Karikalan.

Before Nandhini could respond he continued. “Aha! I know. I see your plan now. If you mention Veera Pandyan’s name I will become angry. I will actually try to kill you. Immediately one of your young lions who are lurking about to do your bidding will come running and kill me! This is your secret plan. Adee, wicked witch! Where is that Vandhiyathevan? Where have you hidden him, tell! He is hiding here. Now I see why you are refusing to go with me! Yes, he is the reason! Your plan to run away with him is the reason! He’s the reason why you sent Pazhuvertaraiyar. You are both in this together. Aha! How I get cheated? Where is that traitor Vandhiyathevan? Where is your new lover …?”

Shouting frantically Athitha Karikalan began running here and there in that room wielding the sword. When he came close to the yazhkalangium Nandhini leapt to her feet. “Son of the king! Please listen! May a million blessings be upon you! After listening to me you may proceed as you wish. What you are saying about the Varnar tribe warrior is not true. Goddess of this earth will not tolerate it. If you harm him, my dear friend Manimekalai will kill herself. For that great sin, you will be forever cursed. Here, open my heart and take a look. Do it with Veera Pandyar’s sword. There is nothing there but your sacred self! This is the truth! The truth! The truth!” Nandhini started sobbing.

Athitha Karikalan seemed appeased. “Then why do you refuse to go with me? At least tell me that! Why are you asking me to kill you with my own hands,” he asked.

“Alright. I will. Other than you no one else has a place in my heart. Even thought it is the truth, I cannot come with you. I cannot marry you also. There is a big reason. I am even afraid to say it. Yes, Son of the king! Actually, I came here only to say it. I made you come  also. To say it and ask for forgiveness – that is why I came. I came to beg you to forget this unfortunate being and marry a woman of your tribe and status. Yet, I hesitate to say it. I am frightened to even try. I fear if it will heighten your anger, and what harm it may lead to. If you promise to be calm …”

“Tell, Nandhini, tell! However bitter the news is I will bear it. You asked me to forget you and marry another woman and be happy? I didn’t get angry over that, did I? How can anything else make me angry? But please do not fabricate …”

“Son of the king! My life is a fabrication. My birth is a fabrication. To prolong my life a little further, to finish the task I have undertaken, I had to on several occasions make up stories. There is no longer any need for that. I will end the lie that is my life, today. Only because I did not want to add to your heartache, even after I came to know some truths, I did not share them with you. I concocted many stories to make you hate me. I hatched dangerous schemes. I sanctioned many atrocious deeds. There was an endless battle in my heart. My duty, the vow I had taken, and my love for you were eternally at war. I cannot describe the impalpable sadness it caused me. Finally, the moment is here for this battle to end. I will tell you the truth about myself. After hearing it please kill me with your own hands! But do not harm anyone else. Don’t subject yourself to unnecessary blame and sin …”

“Blame! Sin! What more blame and sin can I attain? Yet, tell me, Nandhini! Tell the real reason that stands in your way of going with me, that stands in the way of our youthful romantic dreams! However dangerous it may be, please tell! My mind was restless when I knew that someone was hiding behind that curtain. While I was talking to you my mind was distracted by it. Once I found out that it was Manimekalai my dilemma ended. What I am saying is, only when the truth is not known there is fear, anger and confusion. However bitter the truth is, once it is known the mind will have peace!”

“Son of the king! May your heart truly attain peace by what I am about to tell. That is my prayer. But this information will prove that it is impossible for me to come with you, or marry you. It will show that death is the only avenue left for my life, the only solution for my sorrows. Varnar tribe warrior brought news about my mother. I know it is true. I know about the woman who roams about frantically in Eezhanadu. I know that she is my mother. Many others also know this. Because people can see the similarity in our appearance. Some even mistake me for my mother. But only a short time ago I found out the reason that turned my mother into a frenzied personality.

I don’t know if anyone else other than me knows this. I have until now not told anyone about it. You are the first person to hear this from me. Sir! I am going to tell you who my father is. Kindly remember the promise you made now. Do not give in to anger and vitriol.”

With this preamble Nandhini went very close to Athitha Karikalan and whispered in a trembling voice into his ear, “My father … he is the one!” Then she started to sob and cry.

As if stung by a thousand scorpions Athitha Karikalan jumped.

“No, no, no! Never! You are lying!, a lie, a big lie!” He shouted.

Next second his fury subsided. In a voice filled with agony he said, “Yes, Nandhini, yes. What you said must be true. Now I see it. I see the battle your mind has endured. I see how hurt you have been. I understand the reason for your confusion, reluctance and the seemingly outrageous request. I see how cruel it was that I refused your plea when you that day fell at my feet and begged me! Nandhini! There is in this world atonement for many offenses. But there is no atonement for I did. There is no way the barrier between us can fall. Aiyo! How did you bear this tremendous weight in your heart for so long? How did you tolerate this scoundrel’s presence on this earth? Good! There is only one solution for both our lives! Only one absolution! Here Nandhini! My relinquishment!”

* * *

Vandhiyathevan was listening to the above conversation from the yazhkalangium. Every so often when Karikalar’s frenzy escalated he considered intervening. But he hesitated wondering what calamity that may lead to. Their emotional discussion on the one hand left him paralyzed. He did not hear whom Nandhini called her father. But he had an inkling as to what she may have said. To say that it startled him would be an understatement. In a life full of twists and turns he had never faced this kind of twist.

Finally, when Athitha Karikalan spoke in a gentle voice cracking with emotion choosing his words carefully to agree with Nandhini, Vandhiyathevan’s anxiety broke its bounds. Vandhiyathevan was not afraid as long as Karikalan was shouting. Now he panicked. Overcome by fear he put his head out from the storage room. Nandhini and Karikalan were not within his eye span. But something else caught his eye. He saw it in the mirror on the wall. A grotesque face peered through the hole of the secret door to the hunting gallery. It was magician Ravithasan’s face! Then Vandhiyathevan saw the secret door to the hunting gallery slowly opening. He saw a tiger’s head and then its torso emerging through the door. At once, life surged into Vandhiyathevan’s body. His heart became energized. His limbs became mobile. He was about to leap out of the lute storage room when a hand gripped his neck like vajrayutham.

Vandhiyathevan looked up; a well built kalamuga figure towered over him. Aha! Who is this man? How did this man get here? What an iron grip? His neck is getting strangled! Breath is suffocated; eyes are bulging! In a few seconds life will be over … ! With the greatest effort Vandhiyathevan wrangled himself out of the iron hold and jumped out. The force of his effort left him splayed on the floor. He felt as if a huge rock was weighing over his head. For less than a fraction of a second  there were a million suns throwing out a zillion radiant rays in front of his eyes. Then they were gone. Darkness descended. Vandhiyathevan fell unconscious.

A grotesque kalamuga figure strode out of the lute storage room stepping over Vandhiyathevan’s body.

Nandhini turned hearing the commotion in the yazhkalangium. She saw the kalamuga man walking towards her with knife drawn. Her eyes widening she looked at the figure in astonishment. Her innards crunched up together blocking her chest and throat. Wiping her eyes she looked in front of her. She saw Karikalan lying on the floor with Veera Pandyan’s sword thrust into his body.

A feral sound of weeping and laughter rose from deep within her throat. It made even the inanimate bed shudder. “Adi! Traitor! Wretched being! Have you gotten your revenge?” The kalamugan said as he came closer.

At that instant under the cover of the tiger carcass Ravithasan also emerged through the hunting gallery’s secret door. When he saw the kalamugan he tossed away the tiger façade. The dead tiger struck the lamp in the room that had been providing a gentle light.

The lamp became untethered and fell down. Before it went out, for a second it illuminated the fear stricken face of Manimekalai.

‘kreech,’ screaming Manimekalai ran from there.

The room descended into darkness. From that darkness came the sound of deathbed groans, mournful weeping, frenzied laughter and footsteps running hither and thither.

40. ‘I Killed’

In the copper scripts of Thiruvalankadu while describing the Chola dynasty it is stated, ‘Athithan went down because of his insatiable desire to be in heaven. The world fell into a deep abyss of darkness called immorality!’ Thiruvalankadu copper engraving refers to the sudden death of the Chola empire crown prince who took the head of Veera Pandyan, – Athitha Karikalan.

At that time, Kadampoor palace where Athitha Karikalan lay dead was literally engulfed in darkness.

Briefly darkness had also entered the mind of Vallavaraiyan who had been pushed down by the kalamuga seeming man. Gradually when light seeped into that mind, and memory returned his eyes opened. Because of the surrounding darkness his eyes could not see anything. He could not make sense of where he was or what condition he was in.

His head hurt. There was pain in his neck. He found it difficult to breathe. Where did the headache come from? Why is there pain in his neck? Why is breathing so difficult? Aha! That kalamugan! Was he real? Why did he strangle his neck? To stop him from screaming? From moving? Why? Why? Why did he want to break loose from that iron grip so badly? Aha! Memory returns! To reach Athitha Karikalar! Aiyo! What happened to him? What happened to Nandhini? What did Ravithasan do? What did the kalamugan do? … Where is he now? In the dungeon? In the underground tunnel? Forcing his eyeballs out of its sockets Vandhiyathevan looked around. Nothing was visible. God, can there be such gloom, such darkness? … He remembered that he fell in Nandhini’s anthapura room near the yazhkalangium. Is he still lying there? Or has he been moved to another place? How will he find out?

He extended both of his hands and explored. He felt an object. What is it? Is it a knife? Yes; it is a knife! A screw knife with a cover! It is more powerful than ordinary knives! If it strikes anyone the person will be dead! He has seen this kind of special knife somewhere! Where? In whose hands? … Yes! In Idumbankari’s hand! One by one the events of that evening came to mind! How did this knife get here? Oh! The blade is moist! Why is it moist? Is it water, no! Oil? No! It is blood. Aiyo! Whose blood? Is it his own? Vandhiyathevan touched his scalp. He touched his neck. He felt pain, but no blood. There was no pain in his body pointing to a knife wound! … Then, after tasting whose blood, this penknife is lying next to him? He did not strike anyone with it. He hasn’t even touched it before! Then who has used it? Idumbankari? On whom? Was it Idumbankari who came in the kalamuga disguise? No! No! It cannot be! Idumbankari is neither tall nor well-built …

What is he hearing? Footsteps? Is someone coming? Should he be silent? Should he speak? Will they bring a light? At least he can find out where he is! Will they step on him in the dark? …

At that thought Vandhiyathevan bolted upright. With the small knife in hand he asked, “Who’s there?”

The sound of his voice caused him immense surprise. He did not recognize his own voice. It did not sound like him. It’s that kalamugan’s grip that has hurt his throat. It was impossible to produce any kind of meaningful sound.

Again he tried in a louder voice, “Who’s there?” That also came out as a grunt, not at all legible.

Again footsteps were heard approaching. Then they ceased. Perhaps the person turned back after hearing his voice, fearing it was a ghost or devil.

Vandhiyathevan tried to laugh at his own humor. The sound of his laughter was also disfigured.

Alright; there was no use in sitting here waiting. He will have to walk around to see where exactly he was. He stood up; his legs buckled. However he attempted to walk. He reached out with his hands but nothing came into contact. In the distance something shimmered. Aha! A mirror? A faint ray of light was striking it from somewhere! Vandhiyathevan remembered seeing Ravithasan’s face reflected in the mirror. Alright, alright! He is still in Nandhini’s anthapura room. But why is it dark here? Why is it so quiet? What happened to all those who were present here just a short time ago?

Perplexed Vandhiyathevan staggered about in the dark. He decided to find the main entrance to the room as there may be more light there, – or perhaps he can go out and find out what happened. His leg tripped by something, he fell again. Because the object was soft it did not hurt him anymore than he already was. He realized that the object was the tiger skin. He must have fallen on the tiger cover that Ravithasan brought.

When he fell the knife slipped away from his hand. He reached out with his hand to find it. His hand fell on something soft. Vandhiyathevan’s entire body froze. All of his hair follicles took a perpendicular stance. Fear entered his heart.

“Can it be?” He thought as he reached out again. Yes, it was a human body! What he felt was the man’s palm! He tossed away the tiger skin at once. Then he peered closely. The faint light that fell on the mirror was reflected and brought a little clarity to the body on the floor. Aiyo! Isn’t this Athitha Karikalar? Not him! It is his lifeless body! Vandhiyathevan’s chest heaved blocking his throat. Unbeknown to him tears welled in his eyes!

With trembling hands he touched different parts of Karikalan’s body. There was no room for doubt. This was an empty cage remaining after life’s departure.

The blood that had poured out from near the rib of that lifeless body wet his hands. He was reminded of Kundavai then. He did not succeed in the mission for which she had chosen him, he had become a complete failure! How will he ever face her? He had tried his best. Yet, it was of no use, fate won ultimately! He gathered the lifeless body of the prince and laid it on his lap. He didn’t know what else to do. He had lost the ability to think. He had lost his voice to scream or cry.

“The prince is dead; I did not succeed in the mission I undertook; I can never face Kundavai again!” These thoughts passed through his mind again and again. He did not know how long he sat there ruminating. Only when he saw some people entering the room with flame torches he hazily returned to the immediate present.

Placing Karikalan’s body on the floor he stood up. Ten or twelve people entered through the front door. Two carried flame torches. A few others held spears. In front of everyone was Kanthamaran and next to him behind was the elder Sambuvaraiyar. Everyone’s face showed fear. In the light of the flambeau they looked like they had received a beating form the devil.

Anger and fury occupied Kanthamaran’s face alone. As soon as he saw Vandhiyathevan he roared, “Aday! Traitor! Murderer! Friend-betrayer! Enemy of the kingdom! You did not run away! I thought that you had escaped!”

Then he looked at the elder Sambuvaraiyar. “Father! Look at this murderer! Look at this vengeful traitor who acted like a friend! Look at the wretched fellow who has brought eternal infamy on our tribe! Look how the horrendous crime he has committed is written all over his face!” He said.

Without a word Sambuvaraiyar went straight to Athitha Karikalan’s body. After sitting down and staring at it for a few seconds, “Aiyo! Fate! Must this happen in my house? Do I have to bear the shame that I invited the king for a feast only to murder him?” – he wailed beating on his head repeatedly with his hands.

“Father! That disgrace will never fall on our family! We have caught the murderer here hand and body. Look at the knife lying there. Look at the blood on it! When I came before, he was not here! The knife was not here! He tried to run, failing that, he has returned! Perhaps he came to see if there was still life left in the prince. Perhaps he thought that the stabbing wasn’t enough and returned to strangle him as well. Father! How can anyone punish such a villain? – a vengeful enemy? Nothing will suffice …” Karikalan went on.

Vandhiyathevan’s speech was already incapacitated. Karikalan’s words stunned him. He realized only then that he was in a situation where others could easily take him to be the murderer. Kanthamaran is laying the crime of killing the prince on him? Before he had accused him of stabbing him in the back. Now he says that he killed the prince! His predicament was such. Anyone will be suspicious. Aha! This is what that Pazhuvur enchantress, the venomous serpent … Is this why she spared his life a few times! This is how she has settled her vengeance with Kundavai! Aha! Where is that beautiful female devil? How did she escape? Once the job was done she has run away through the underground tunnel with Ravithasan and others? …”

Vandhiyathevan’s thought train took a sudden turn. He did not kill Athitha Karikalar, it is certain. But, who did? Nandhini? Ravithasan? Kalamugan? Or, perhaps it was Manimekalai who momentarily appeared before he lost consciousness? Or, was it Idumbankari with the screw-knife? Or, is it Kanthamaran who has carried out this atrocious crime and now placing the blame on him? Or, after hearing the secret that Nandhini shared, did Athitha Karikalar blame himself and commit suicide?

“Fat pigs! Why are you standing idly? Seize this assassin!” Only when Kanthamaran shouted, Vandhiyathevan once again remembered his predicament.

His eyes brimming with compassion and grief, he looked at Kanthamaran. Willfully injecting some life into his throat and voice he said, “Kanthamara! What on earth! Do you really believe that I would have carried out such a horrendous act? Why should I? What is the gain to me? Friend! …” Kanthamaran did not allow him to go on. “Cheechee! I am not your friend. Your tongue ought to be ripped off for saying it. You want to know what gain you will reap? Why not? Your hope that at least now Nandhini will throw even a sideways glance at you! Aday! Where is that Pazhuvur enchantress now,” he said.

“Kanthamara! I truly don’t know. I was lying here unconscious. I woke up just before you came. I don’t know what happened to Nandhini. She may have left through the tunnel. Her people – Veera Pandyan’s goons – were waiting in the hunting gallery, Nandhini may have gone with them.”

“Oho! So she left you in the lurch. But don’t maintain that you don’t know anything. Who will believe that? Don’t I know that you are in her lascivious net, ready to do her bidding. Athitha Karikalar himself has vouched. Nandhini has also said the truth about you. Her instigation, or, your conclusion that it will please her – you have done this atrocious deed! It is a sin to even sight you!”

“Kanthamara! I swear. I did not kill the prince. From Pazhaiyarai junior stateswoman I took on the responsibility of safeguarding his life …”

“This is what you said to fool the prince! Then you betrayed him and killed him! Or else, how did you enter this room? Why did you?”

“Kanthamara! Because I knew that the prince was in danger I came to protect him. I lost in my mission. But it is not my fault. You can ask your sister Manimekalai. She is the one …”

“Cheechee! Don’t talk about my sister! Don’t even mention her name. Careful! If you talk about her …? I will strangle your neck right now!”

Kanthamaran jumped on Vandhiyathevan, took hold of the rings of rope around his chest and shoulders and shook them violently.

Then he turned to Sambuvaraiyar who was seated by Athitha Karikalan’s body grieving. “Father! Tell me what to do with him. Please tell me what to do with this murderous scoundrel who had thrown our family into unending scorn and infamy! If you give me permission I will this minute chop him into pieces,” he shouted.

Sambuvaraiyar who was seated touching Karikalan’s body as if in a trance looked up when he heard Kanthamaran shouting. His glance traveled farther than Kanthamaran. He saw the curtain over the bed moving. Next second he saw someone emerging from behind the curtain. Because his eyes were filled with tears he did not immediately recognize the person. When the person came closer he saw that it was his beloved daughter Manimekalai. His surprise and disapproval at seeing her there were apparent on his face along with his grief.

“Manimekalai! How did you come here?” His words made Kanthamaran turn and look behind him.

“Father! I was here already. Please ask brother not to harm him. He is not at fault,” she said.

“Father! Do you see? How this scoundrel has spoilt my sister’s mind? Do you see? ‘He is not at fault,’ she says!” Kanthamaran hissed.

“Yes, Brother! He is certainly not at fault,” Manimekalai stated firmly. Anger on the one hand and embarrassment on the other ate Kanthamaran.

“Sister! Shut your mouth! Who asked you here? You should never have come here. Your mind is not well. Go up front at once! Go where the other women are,” Kanthamaran shouted.

“No, Brother! My mind is well. It is your wit that is shaken. Or else you won’t accuse him of killing the prince,” said Manimekalai.

“Imbecile! Why are you pleading the case of this murderous scoundrel?” Kanthamaran said.

“He is not a murderous scoundrel, that is why!” Manimekalai answered.

“If he is not a murderous scoundrel, then who is? Who killed the prince? Did you?” Kanthamaran asked with an angry sneer.

“Yes! I am the one who killed him! With this sword I killed!” Manimekalai said.

Stunned by her words everyone looked at each other in astonishment. Aghast Kanthamaran stood still for a moment. Then he ran to Manimekalai and grabbed the sword from her hand. He looked at its pointed end.

“Father! Listen to her. She cannot even lift this sword. She says she killed the prince with it. If it had pierced his body, would she have been able to draw it out? Look at the tip. It has been wiped clean! She is telling this to save Vallavaraiyan! Why does she care about him so much? This rascal has spoilt her mind to this extent. He has cast a spell over her that has her swooning. Look at his face! His guilt is plainly written on his face,” he said.

Vandhiyathevan’s face was actually taken over by incredulity, shock and grief. After remaining silent until then he opened his mouth. “Kanthamara! You are right! I am the guilty person. It is to save me your sister is concocting this. Princess! Thank you! Even after life has left my body I will not forget your brotherly love for me. But now, please listen to your brother! Please go to the anthapuram,” he said.

Upon hearing this Kanthamaran’s enmity reached its peak. His already reddened eyes were now spewing fire. “Aday! It has reached the point when you have to speak on my behalf? She cannot listen to me, but she will to you? She has that much of brotherly love for you? Was she born with me? Or, you? She has more respect for you than for me? Why is that? What magic have you cast on her that has ruined her mind like this? Isn’t this enough for me to kill you? Here, I will send you to yamanulakam this minute, before anything else! I will kill you with the sword that your beloved sister had in her hand. That will make you happy, won’t it?” Shouting in this manner Vandhiyathevan raised the sword and jumped on Vandhiyathevan.

41. Fire is Spreading!

Sambuvaraiyar who was seated motionless until then jumped up and grabbed Kanthamaran’s hand.

“Aday! Fool! What are you trying to do?” He said.

“Father! What is wrong with killing this friend-betrayer?” Kanthamaran said.

“What is wrong? Because of it, you and I and this ancient Sambuvaraiyar tribe will be destroyed. If you kill him, then they will accuse us of killing the prince along with him! Can’t you see that,” his father said.

“Who will dare to blame us like that? After accusing us in that manner can a fellow keep his life,” asked Kanthamaran.

“Aiyo! Foolish child! Must you display your courage and chivalry here? This tragedy happened in our home only because I listened to you. From the start I left it to you … You are the one who invited the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar and the petty kings to this house. It is because of you Mathuranthaka Thevar came here in secret. Everyone came to know about it because of your beloved friend here. Then, again, it was you who brought Athitha Karikalar here from Kanji! Aiyo! I never thought it will end up like this! Malaiamman – our tribe’s old enemy – is coming with a large garrison. What am I going to say to him? … Pazhuvertaraiyar has also chosen this moment to go back home! …” Sambuvaraiyar repeatedly hit himself on his head.

With tears in his eyes Kanthamaran said, “Father! Please don’t agonize in vain. I will suffer for the tragedy I brought. Whatever you order, I am prepared to carry it out!”

“First, take this girl and leave her in the anthapuram! If she blurts out anything tie her up and stuff her mouth with cloth,” said Sambuvaraiyar.

Manimekalai trembled at her beloved father’s ferocious appearance.

She also understood that Vandhiyathevan was not in any imminent danger.

“Father! Forgive me! I will behave as you order. Kanthamaran need not touch me. I will at once go to the mothers in the anthapuram!” She began to walk away fast. Kanthamaran followed her.

Once they left Sambuvaraiyar ordered the men who were with him, “Tie him to that bedpost, firmly!”

When the men approached Vandhiyathevan he remained calm. When he was tied to the bedpost also he did not object. Once he was tied he said, “Sir! Please think a little! I am Karikalan’s confidential friend. What am I gaining by killing him? The scoundrels who really killed him have escaped through the tunnel. Please follow them and try to catch them. I have seen them. If you untie me, I will go with you and help to catch them! I swear on god! I will not try to get away from you!”

“Aday! If what you are saying is the truth, then what were you doing while Karikalar was being murdered? Were you having fun watching them,” said Sambuvaraiyar.

“Sir! When Pazhuvur Rani and Karikalar were talking the murderers entered suddenly. When I tried to stop them a man appearing to be a kalamugan began to strangle me. I fell unconscious. When I came to my senses I saw Athitha Karikalar lying here, lifeless,” said Vandhiyathevan.

At this time loud noises began to be heard from outside the palace wall. It sounded like the angry cries of a thousand people.

Sambuvaraiyar listened intently. He told Vandhiyathevan, “Alright! Alright! Even if you are speaking the truth, wait here for a while. You keep your beloved prince company! First I will see what that commotion is about. Then I will come and hear your side fully!” Then he left taking his men with him. Following his order they locked and bolted the door from outside.

Once again the room was surrounded in darkness. In Vandhiyathevan’s heart there was an impalpable pain. He reminded himself of all that had happened in the few months since he first visited Kadampoor Sambuvaraiyar’s palace. He reminded himself of the thoomakethu he had seen in the sky and the people’s comments about it. Everyone thought that Sundara Cholar’s end was near because of the long tailed comet in the sky. It was natural for people to think that as Sundara Cholar had long been bedridden and ill. This led the people to talk about his successor to the throne. Even in this palace the petty kings held a meeting to discuss it. But while they anticipated one event, something else has taken place. The young Athitha Karikalar, a heroic warrior has fallen. His lifeless body lies right here in this room. The ailing Sundara Cholar is still alive. But will he live long? Will he be alive even after learning of his beloved son’s untimely death? Aiyo! How eager the father was to see his son? Karikalan built a golden palace for his father in Kanji! Without ever having the pleasure of entertaining his father in that golden palace, the son has gone! Who can say what other calamities will stem from this? The entire Chola empire is going to sink into a flood of grief. Not only that. Who knows what sort of infighting will begin? A big fight among the petty kings is a given. The noise outside must have come from Malaiamman’s soldiers. Why were they shouting? Are they going to attack the Kadampoor palace? Why? Has the news about Karikalar’s death reached them? Aha! How will Sambuvaraiyar deflate this? He will try shifting the blame for Karikalar’s death on him. But will Malaiamman believe it? Even if he does, because it happened in Sambuvaraiyar’s palace will he leave him alone? Malaiamman must know about the conspiratorial gathering that took place here earlier. Even if he did not Azhvarkadiyan has traveled there and warned him. That is why he is here with his troops. Vandhiyathevan knew very well how very fond of his grandson Malaiamman was. Who knows what he will do when he hears this news? He might destroy Sambuvaraiyar’s family and completely destroy this palace also.

A pity! Kanthamaran! A good boy! How friendly he was to him? All of that friendship has turned into hatred. All because of that Pazhuvur mohini. Upon considering, her story is also sad. How can anyone blame her? In the end it is simply fate’s cruel dalliance …!

Fate! Fate! What about Manimekalai’s fate? Why should she show so much affection to him? To save him she stepped forward saying, ‘I did the killing!’ What can equal this kind of love? What can he do in return …

Vandhiyathevan laughed to himself. What lunacy is it to think about returns. Is there any meaning in his feeling sorry about anyone? There is no one who is in a more dangerous and pitiful situation than him! They are going to charge him with the crime of killing Athitha Karikalar. There is no witness who can prove that he did not. Nandhini and Ravithasan and crowd have left. No one tried to go behind them or catch them. Even if they are caught how can it be proved that he was not one of them? It’s not possible!

What sort of punishment will they give the enemy who killed the crown prince? They will not simply take a life for the life lost! They will institute a penalty of torture to ensure that no one in the future will even dream of doing such a thing. Let them give whatever punishment. Pazhaiyarai junior stateswoman and Ponniyin Selvar will think that he killed Karikalar. What punishment can be more cruel than that? God! In the last three or four months he has escaped so many dangers, only to be subjected to this horrifying disgrace …?

In this way Vandhiyathevan’s mind was bombarded with one wave of thought after another. He did not know how long it had been. When a small film of smoke started to spread in that room his chain of thought wafted away. What is this smoke? Where is it coming from? He began to wonder. In a short while a little light also made its way. In that light Athitha Karikalar’s body could be seen. Doors remained shut. Therefore it cannot be the light from a lamp. Then what is it? He looked around curiously. He saw that the smoke and light were coming from the direction of the hunting gallery. Why is smoke coming from the hunting gallery …? Is there fire? Those who went in the tunnel did they on purpose start a fire? Or, is it the lamp that he and Manimekalai took into the hunting gallery that caused this accident?

In time there was more smoke. The heat was also more intense. Very soon there were tongues of flame darting in through the joints of the wooden planks making up the wall between the hunting gallery and that room. A while more and the lord of fire had entered that room exploring with his brightly lit arms.

Vandhiyathevan watched with wide open eyes the entry of the lord of fire. He felt happy. ‘Agnibaghvan is going to end all my worries. Athitha Karikalar and I will be cremated in the same place,” he thought. But his happiness was not for long. He didn’t want to leave this world bearing this accusation. ‘He is the one who killed Karikalan,’ Sambuvaraiyar and his son will tell the outside world. Some people will even believe it. Whoever believes or does not, Ponniyin Selvar and Kundavai Devi must not. He must prove to them that he is innocent. Not only that, is this the final salutation that the heroic Karikalar’s body will receive? – he cannot allow it. Shouldn’t his parents and kin at least see his lifeless body …? Yes, yes! Even if his life was lost, his body must be preserved. He must find a way to make sure that the emperor’s son is laid out to rest in an honorable way …

Until then Vandhiyathevan did not try to free himself. He did not pay any attention to how securely he was tied. Now he took notice. They had tied his hands together and then with the same rope they had bound his body to the bedpost. He could neither bend nor straighten up. With all his might he tried to break loose; he tried biting the rope with his teeth; nothing worked. As he struggled he noticed the bed moving with him. He had an idea. Dragging the bed he moved towards the hunting gallery’s secret door. It wasn’t easy. Inch by inch he made progress. Whenever the bed moved the ropes cut through his skin. Yet, bearing the agony he continued. When he finally reached the door the flames were darting through the gaps in the closed door. He held the knot of rope tying his hands to the flame. The rope caught fire. At the same time the flame scorched his skin and caused incredible pain. Yet, bearing it he waited patiently until the ties came loose. He then hastily freed himself from the rest of the rope tied around his body. Before he freed himself fully the curtains around the bed had caught fire. Smoke filled the room. Vandhiyathevan felt a sensation as if his whole body was on fire. First he felt his eyes burning. Then tears filled them. His vision began to dim.

What? What? He can also die and perish here with the prince. In a way this is good! He could not save the prince. He will at least have the honor of dying with him. Cheechee! What an attitude? Never mind that he will die. But if the body of the prince burns into ash here, he will bear eternal blame. Those who know him will curse his memory! Why should he die leaving himself open for such disgrace? He will carry the body of the prince out of here somehow. He will hand it over to his grandfather Malaiamman. He will assure him that he did not kill the prince, and he will find the killers. If he dies after carrying out his promise, then there is no harm. Until then he must live.

Vandhiyathevan was now free of all the ties. But what is this? The bed is on fire! The heat is unbearable! It’s impossible to keep his eyes open. Even with the eyes open nothing is visible in the thick cloud of smoke! … Yet, he must find the body of the prince. Crouched on the floor Vandhiyathevan crawled about in desperation reaching out with his hands. Minutes ran into eons. Finally his hands found the dead prince. He hauled the body up over his shoulder. Only then he wondered how he will go out. It was not possible to go through the hunting gallery! Aha! All the animals Sambuvaraiyar has long collected there would have now turned into dust! … He reached the main entrance to that room. He pushed the door with his hand. He kicked it with his leg. He threw his entire body against it. “Fire! Fire!” He shouted. Nothing worked. Cheechee! What stupidity! He will have to go through the yazhkalangium! Aiyo! By now it should not have caught fire! He had wasted a lot of time.

The room was now brightly lit. But that was of no use because the smoke filled it. He could not open his eyes at all. Even if he tried he had lost all sense of direction. On a blind hunch he ran towards where he thought the yazhkalangium was.

‘danar!’ – his foot struck something on the floor. Aha! It must be the penknife he saw lying near him when he regained consciousness. There is a mystery surrounding that knife. He will take it with him. If he is stopped by anyone on the way the knife will be useful …

So he bent down and took the knife. At that instant the crackling and burning bed threw a spark on his shoulder. Brushing it off he ran to the yazhkalangium. All the while he was holding the body of Karikalar draped over his shoulder with one hand. But it will be impossible to climb the kalangium’s steps carrying him over his shoulder. In addition the door in the ceiling was closed. So he stood Karikalar’s body down and climbed up and opened the door. From half way up the kalangium he bent down and lifted the body up. God! By then the fire was in the kalangium. A few minutes more and this path also would have closed! …

After heaving Karikalar’s body up on the loft when he also climbed up he was half dead. After boiling in the fire and smoke for so long his body was now touched by a cool breeze. He considered lying there and resting for a while. No, no! He cannot delay even a minute! Who knows when that burning building will come down crashing? Again throwing Karikalar’s body over his shoulder he hurried through the loft. As he had done once before, he went past balconies, rooftops and pinnacles. But because he was alone on that occasion he could climb down from the palace rooftop, cross the piazza, scale the wall and climb down to the other side. Can he do that now? Not only he is worn out, he has to carry Karikalar also!

At that moment his attention was drawn to the noise coming from outside the palace. Aha! What is this? Malaiamman’s soldiers have begun to attack the fortress? They seem to be breaking down the front gate! So many soldiers are scaling the wall and jumping in! Has Malaiamman ordered an attack on Kadampoor palace after hearing about the assassination of the prince? If that is so, what will the soldiers do when they see him coming with Karikalar’s body? Why? They will think that he was the assassin! They will massacre him! Therefore he must proceed with caution. He mustn’t be seen by anyone. He must find Malaiamman and hand his grandchild’s sacred body over to him. What happens after that, he did not care …!

So Vandhiyathevan kept under the cover of the pinnacles and pillars and the long dark shadows they cast as he went crouching and pausing. In the end he found himself on the same spot from where he had on his first visit witnessed the petty kings’ secret meeting below. When he looked around wondering how to make his way down he saw a ladder propped up against a wall. Not only that; there was a figure standing beside the ladder. Who can it be? With the ladder what is he waiting for? What will happen if he went down that ladder? Whatever happens, fine! He will have to use the ladder! Fortunately he has a knife in hand! Whatever happens, he will be prepared.

At that moment the commotion at the front entrance seemed to escalate. Perhaps to find out the reason the man next to the ladder drifted away. Finding this to his advantage Vandhiyathevan hurried down the ladder. Just as he placed his foot on the ground the man returned.

Sami! You took so long!” When the man spoke Vandhiyathevan knew that he was Idumbankari. He also guessed whom Idumbankari was waiting for.

When Idumbankari got closer he exclaimed, “Aday! It’s you! Whom are you carrying on your soldier?”

“Yes, appan! It’s me! Kalamuga samiyar’s disciple! He sent me ahead with ranapathrakali’s offering. He is coming behind. He asked you to wait here with the ladder! Here, look! He asked me to show you this knife for identification!” Vandhiyathevan showed the screw-knife.

Idumbankari with apprehension said, “You did not tell me all these days. Never mind. Samiyar is taking so long! How are we going to go out from here? Thirukovalur soldiers have surrounded the palace, they have even started to come in!”

“So what? The bigger the crowd the easier it will be for us to leave. We don’t have to teach the big samiyar! He will find his way. You wait here until he comes. Tell him I will go and wait in the garden,” said Vandhiyathevan.

Without waiting for Idumbankari’s response he hurried on. Once he was out of Idumbankari’s eye range, he started walking towards the front entrance tower of that palace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ponniyin Selvan Part V (34 – 37)

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

34. ‘Please Leave!’

Vandhiyathevan ran in the direction of the frightened cry, “Aiyo! Ghost!” In rapid succession the following thoughts traversed through his mind. ‘Isn’t this Manimekalai’s voice? Why is she here at this time? What made her scream like this? It cannot be a ghost. What is it then? There was genuine fear in her voice! My appearance there now, – will it lead me into trouble? Her brother of course wants to eat me alive. Athitha Karikalar is in a state of frenzy. What perfidy the Pazhuvur Rani has on her mind, no one knows! …’ Because he was thus preoccupied, his attention was compromised. While running he stumbled over the root of a paneer tree and fell down. One end of his shawl was caught in a nearby flower bush. He managed to stand up. He gently tried to take his clothing back. What so many enemies and troublemakers could not accomplish, this little tree had achieved! It brought him down! Is this a bad omen? Or, has this root slowed me to keep me away from some real danger – Vandhiyathevan smiled to himself at this last thought.

At that time, “Madam! Madam! Where are you,” a voice was heard. It was Chandramathi’s voice.

“I am here, Girl! By the water-lily pond! Hurry,” said Manimekalai’s voice.

Footsteps sounded to the accompaniment of ankle-bracelets melodiously jingling.

The alli pond that Manimekalai refered to was the small marble pond in the shape of an alli flower situated at the center of that flower garden. It had a few alli and chenkazhuneer vines. It had some flowers also. Vandhiyathevan was familiar with this particular pond. He has fallen somewhere near it! Fortunately the two women did not see him. If there was daylight and if they had seen him falling they would have mirthfully laughed and shamed him. Now that Chandramathi was here to keep Manimekalai company, he can slip away unobserved.

Meanwhile, their conversation reached his ears.

“Madam! What were you frightened of? Why did you scream like that,” said Chandramathi.

“Hey! Look at that parapet wall! There was something above it. There was a head full of dreadlocks, a face with mustache and beard. On its neck – this was scary – it had on a necklace of skulls! As soon as I screamed it disappeared,” said Manimekalai.

“Fantastic, Princess! This is your nervous state of mind. There is no ghost, or devil! No one can be seated on that wall. It is so high for anyone to climb,” said Chandramathi.

“No, Girl! Even in my nervous state I never envision ghosts …”

“Oh, yes! Its always the handsome face of the young man who appears in your dreams day and night!”

“Cheechee! Even now you want to joke?”

“Then, when do I joke? In this twilight hour you are waiting by the lily pond. The air is thick with the fragrance of jasmine … But what a pity. While you are waiting for the prince of vallam, a bearded and mustached ghost arrives to keep you company!”

“To top it, you are also here!”

“Maybe it ran away after seeing me? It is indeed known all over the world that even ghosts, goblins and ghouls take a hike once they encounter the Kadampoor palace maid Chandramathi!”

“Chandramathi! What I don’t need now is your humor. I really saw a grotesque figure seated on that wall. If you don’t believe me, well and good! Tell me if you succeeded in what you had to do?”

“I did not, Princess!”

“Why? Why?”

“Only the Kanji prince and Kadampoor prince were there talking. There was no sign of the prince of vallam.”

“Perhaps they have sent him also somewhere?”

“That is also unlikely. Only your father and Pallavar have gone to bring Malaiamman king. I asked Idumbankari. It seems this afternoon Karikalar lost his temper with vallathu prince! …”

“He is insane. He loses his temper with everyone. Then what? …”

“Karikalar told him, ‘For the rest today, stay out of my sight! Come back tomorrow morning,’ and sent him away.”

“Where would he have gone,” said Manimekalai.

“He must be walking up and down within these walls. That is why I said perhaps it was him trying to scare you by acting like a ghost.”

“No; I know there are many actors in this palace. But he is not one of them …”

“This is how naïve women like us trust men and get fooled.”

“Be that as may. You go look again! He must be inside the walls of this palace. Tell Idumbankari also to look!”

“Princess! I cannot bear the sight of that Idumbankari, he gapes and gapes. I am even afraid of his …”

“The woman who doesn’t fear ghosts is afraid of Idumbankari? Never mind; best not to involve him. You go and search once more!”

“Until then …”

“I will wait here …”

“If the ghost returns? …”

“I will tell your name and chase it away!”

The soft jingling of ankle-bracelets indicated that Chandramathi was leaving.

Many thoughts coursed through Vandhiyathevan’s mind as he eavesdropped on their conversation. Who can be the devil that peeked from above the wall? He remembered Azhvarkadiyan donning the kalamuga costume to save him. Can it be that brave Vaishnavan? Is he here with some important message for him? Has he disguised himself so that no one will recognize him?

Why does Manimekalai want to see him? Why has she sent her friend to look for him? He had some inkling about Manimekalai’s state of mind where he was concerned. Because of it he kept away from her. He did not also want to aggravate Kanthamaran’s hatred further. Yet … she has sent for him while waiting here alone in the garden. If it’s not important she would not have started this. A Pity! Is she also in trouble? Or, has Nandhini sent a message through her? God! Each inhabitant of this Kadampoor palace seems to be hiding something. What Manimekalai said is very true. All are actors. This foolish girl is lost caught among them. Who knows what atrocity the Pazhuvur Rani is planning to use this girl for. Yes; Manimekalai suspects something. She thinks there is danger. That is why she is looking for him.

Vandhiyathevan remembered the day when this innocent girl had helped him. If she is seeking his help for some real difficulty, then, to refuse will be ungrateful. In any event this is a good moment to find out the truth. Chandramanthi has gone. Manimekalai is alone. Who knows? he may need her help again. By her kindness, if he can leave this palace, then that is also good. In any case he must go now and find out the truth from her.

Manimelkalai was seated on the marble pavement bordering the alli pond. Just as a few stars glittered from here and there in the cloudy sky, in the alli pond a few flowers thrust their heads up through the dense mat of leaves. The whiteness of those nocturnal blooms stood in stark contrast against the surrounding darkness. Away from the alli pond the half opened flowers and buds on the jasmine bushes appeared as pearls embedded in a blue canopy.

Hearing footsteps, Manimekalai who was absorbed in her surroundings turned. Seeing someone close behind her she tried to stand up. In her hastiness she lost her footing and stumbled.

“Rajakumari! It’s me!” Vandhiyathevan held her from falling.

Manimekalai’s body trembled. Self-consciously she tried to push his hands away and free herself. But her hands did not have the needed strength! In her effort she further leaned behind.

Vandhiyathevan held her even tighter and turned her to face him.

With the greatest effort Manimekalai regained her composure. “Let me go! Don’t touch me,” she said in an angry voice.

Releasing her Vandhiyathevan said, “Rajakumari! Pardon me!”

In a voice that was still shaky Manimekalai asked, Why should I pardon you?”

“For suddenly appearing and startling you in this manner!”

“Alright, you are here! But why do you have to touch me?” Manimekalai’s voice indicated that she was fully in control of herself now.

“So that you won’t fall into the pond.”

“Very nice. You didn’t have this concern when I fell into the lake the other day? Now you come running to save me from this knee-deep water?”

“I am guilty of that!”

“You are not guilty of anything. It is my mistake.”

“How can that be? You are not at fault. Because you are angry at me for some reason you are saying this!”

“Once you suddenly appeared in my room by way of the hunting gallery. You startled me on that day as well. I should have screamed and handed you over to my father!”

“That day you saved me from great danger. I will never forget that.”

“I will never forget the way you thanked me for it! Among the ungrateful lot I have never known anyone worse …”

“Princess! This is a big accusation! How am I ungrateful! Tell me!”

“You lied saying that some murderers were on your trail. By the time I went in the hunting gallery to take a look and returned you had run away like a thief!”

“… I ran away like a thief?”

“I should not say, ‘like a thief!’ You are a thief!”

“Princess! You don’t know the predicament I was in that day …”

“If I didn’t know, you could have explained. Who was stopping you?”

“Your friend Chandramathi. When you went in the hunting gallery Chandramathi came in through the main door. To hide myself from her I hid with the musical instruments.”

“Then you magically disappeared from there.”

“No; I escaped going up stairs, jumping over rooftops and scaling walls. Princess! If anyone had seen me that day, my mission would have been ruined; you also would have faced reprimand …”

“You are so concerned about this foolish woman!”

“I truly am!”

“Then why did it take so long for you to come back here? You could have provided me an explanation for running away sooner.”

“I have been waiting for the right moment …”

“Why, Sir? Why all these empty words? You never even glance in my direction!”

“Sister! …”

“I am not your sister!”

“You are my friend Kanthamaran’s sister, that makes you my sister also.”

“Kanthamaran is not my brother; and he is not your friend. He is arch enemy to both of us …”

“Princess! So, you know that! Until a few days ago Kanthamaran was my best friend. Now he is a different person altogether. He is waiting for the moment when he can throw my head into the furnace. Athitha Karikalar on the other hand changes from one moment to the next. One minute he speaks caringly, next minute he flies off the handle. I live in uncertainty. Under these circumstances, when I come in search of you to offer my gratitude …”

“Sir! I am very happy that you are so committed on saving your skin …!”

“Princess! I don’t care about myself. I don’t care about my life also. I care that no harm should come to you because of me.”

“You are wasting away in all this caring. Chandramathi says that all men are dishonest. Only now I realize how true that is.”

“Let people say whatever. As long as I have life in my body I will not forget you! I will not forget your help!”

Manimekalai remained thoughtful for a few seconds. Then she said, “Sir! What you said just now, please repeat that!”

“I will repeat it a thousand times. As long as I have life I will not forget your help!” Vandhiyathevan said reassuringly.

“What is the use in repeating it a thousand times? You must try to prove it!”

“How can I prove? Tell me, Princess!”

“Your gratitude is good only as long as you are alive. So you must first protect your life. If not for your sake, do it for mine!”

“Princess! What do you mean? …”

“Sir! Tell the truth! Were you listening to my friend and I talking a short while ago?”

“Forgive me, Princess! I came running when I heard you cry, ‘Aiyo, ghost!’ Before me your friend Chandramathi got here. It so happened that I overheard your talk.”

“Then you know that I sent her to find you and bring you here?”

“Yes, I do. That is why I am here …”

“Otherwise you won’t come anywhere near me. Adada! What concern? Never mind. However stone hearted you may be I cannot help myself. I cannot turn the other way if you are in danger.”

“Princess! I know the dangerous situation I am in. Is there something new that I am not aware of?”

“Sir! Please leave from this palace at once!”

“You are telling me to turn my back and run?”

“In the battlefield, you should not. But to escape from insidiousness, is it wrong?”

“Who is insidious?”

“Who else? Kanthamaran and Parthipenthiran.”

“I cannot run away from the palace, threatened by them.”

“I cannot bear if any harm comes to you because of my brother.”

“Princess! How are you responsible for Kanthamaran’s actions?”

“It’s because of me that Parthipenthiran and he will harm you.”

“If I suffer because of you I will consider it an honor. I will consider it my return for your help …”

“Nandhini Devi was indeed correct!”

“Aha! What did Pazhuvur Rani say?”

“That you won’t listen if you are told to safeguard yourself. She said that we must resort to other ways. Sir! Please come with me. Pazhuvur Rani wants to see you about an urgent matter.”

“You know what this urgent matter is, don’t you?”

“Yes; news has arrived that when Pazhuvertaraiyar was crossing Kollidam his boat overturned …”

“I heard that as well!”

“You must find out if it is true. You must leave immediately. This is what Pazhuvur Rani will ask you.”

After a moment of thought Vandhiyathevan said, “Didn’t Pazhuvur Rani warn you not to tell me this beforehand?”

“Yes!”

“Then why did you tell me?”

“My mind is disturbed, that is the reason, Sir! Until a few days ago I was just an innocent girl. I never doubted anyone. Even if my friends found fault with anyone I did not believe it. Now I am doubting everyone; everything!”

“The most auspicious outcome of meeting me and knowing me?”

“In a way that is true! Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani asked me to find you. While I was speaking to her I had no doubts. It seemed perfectly logical … Later I am doubting even her.”

“What is your misgiving, Princess? What are you suspecting Nandhini Devi of?”

“I am wondering if she is also colluding to harm you.”

“Why? How can she harm me?”

“I don’t know the answer. But if I think of her words and actions I feel suspicious. Oftentimes I see her holding a long sword in her hand and talking to it.”

“I am not afraid of a sword that lies in a woman’s hand. More than that …”

” …you will fear a woman’s eyes that cut as swords. It’s the usual story, Sir! I am not asking you to fear only Nandhini Devi’s sword. Please remind yourself of the first time you came into my room from the hunting gallery …”

“I remember it well …”

“You said some murderers were following you. At first I did not believe. Later on I went into the taxidermy room. I felt as if there were people hiding behind the animals there. I could not decide at that time if they came to kill you, or if they were with you. That is why I did not tell anyone about it. If I talk about them then I will have to mention you also!”

“Only now I realize the magnitude of the help you rendered.”

“I didn’t bring this up now for gratitude. A while ago Nandhini Devi sent me to find you. Moments later I went back to ask her something. The door was locked. Inside, from the hunting gallery I could hear voices. Sir! I will tell you of my suspicion. I think there are people hiding in the hunting gallery. I suspect that there is some connection between them and Pazhuvur Rani.”

Only now Vandhiyathevan realized the seriousness of the situation. His instinct has been telling him that something untoward was about to happen that day. Manimekalai’s account confirmed it.

“Princess! You must do me a favor urgently!”

“Tell me what it is!”

“There is a way to go out from the hunting gallery using the underground passage. Where Nandhini Devi is now, that room has an entrance to the gallery also. Apart from these two is there a third way?”

“Yes; there is a servants entrance. Usually my father takes guests who are new to the palace by that way.”

“Princess! Take me now to the hunting gallery by that way!”

“Why?”

“To find out who is hiding there, what their intention is …”

“I came to save you from danger. You are asking me to lead you into it.”

“I always carry a knife tucked away in my waist, Princess! It is easy to fight against a known danger than an unknown one. It is better for us to face the danger right on.”

“I will take you if you agree to one condition.”

“What is that?”

“I will have to come with you; I also have a small knife in my waist!” Manimekalai took her knife and showed him.

Vandhiyathevan agreed.

“Then follow me quickly. We should go before Chandramathi returns,” she said.

Manimekalai took Vandhiyathevan past the garden. Then she led him by the side of the palace where the palace walls cast dark shadows. Then she entered the palace and took him along deserted walkways and gutters. Then she stopped at a doorstep where the door was closed. Leaving Vandhiyathevan there she hurried away and came back with a lamp. When she opened the door and held up the lamp a narrow passage with stairs appeared. Both went down those steps. After a short time Manimekalai who was in front paused and said in a low voice, “Stop! It sounds like footsteps, can you hear?”

35. Monkey Grip!

Vandhiyathevan listened carefully. There were footsteps. Then it stopped suddenly. Again, it resumed. But it seemed to be receding.

“Sir! Shold we keep going? Isn’t it better to turn back?” Manimekalai asked.

“Princess! I am not one to take back the step I have placed forward!” Vandhiyathevan replied.

“If you set your mind on something, it’s a monkey’s grip, you mean?”

“Didn’t your friend Chandramathi once call me ‘monkey face’? So my grip would be just like my face!”

While talking Vandhiyathevan tried to overtake Manimekalai who in turn tried to stop him.

In their struggle Manimekalai’s lamp fell to the floor. It rolled down a few steps and the flame went out. Darkness surrounded that uneven passage.

“Princess! What have you done,” said Vallavaraiyan.

“Why did you try to overtake me,” said Manimekalai.

“In the face of danger it is not my custom to have women lead the way,” said Vandhiyathevan.

“It will be better if you let me know beforehand what is customary for you and what is not. I can behave accordingly.”

“Alright, Madam! When there is time I will.”

“There is plenty of time now. Come, let’s go back to the garden. We can sit there leisurely while you talk.”

“If you are frightened of the dark, please feel free to go back! …”

“When I have a warrior like you beside me why should I be frightened?”

“Then, come, let’s go! What is the use in stopping midway?”

When Vandhiyathevan took a step forward he stumbled. Manimekalai held him and prevented him from falling.

“Sir! This passage is not even. In the dark it is difficult to see where the steps are and where the ground is flat. I have been here many times. I know where the steps are and where the bends are. Therefore, however brave you are, it is best that you take my hand and come behind me. Or, you will not be going to the hunting gallery. You will end up lying here with a fractured leg,” said Manimekalai.

“Princess! I will do as you command, thank you!” Vandhiyathevan said.

In the dark Manimekalai took one of Vandhiyathevan’s hands. She saw that his hand was ice cold. ‘He is fearless of enemies; fearless of perfidy; why is he so afraid to hold a woman’s hand,’ she mused.

For a short distance both walked in silence. Vandhiyathevan often lost his footing. To keep him from falling each time Manimekalai had to hold onto his hand even more tightly.

“As dark as the path to hell!” Vandhiyathevan observed.

“Oho! You have been to hell and back then?” Manimekalai said.

“I have not been to hell, or heaven; what the elders have said …”

“… is what their elders told them!”

Vandhiyathevan marveled how this girl who was shy to come in front of people only a short time ago became so talkative.

“The path to hell is dark. What about the path to heaven,” said Manimekalai.

“It would be very bright, like a thousand suns!”

“In that case I prefer the path to hell! One sun is enough to dazzle one’s eyes. A thousand suns will leave me blind!”

“The path to hell can lead only to hell!’

“Following a brave man like you, even the path to hell can take one to heaven,” said Manimekalai.

“Holding the hand of a princess like you, even hell can turn into paradise,” said Vandhiyathevan.

He bit his lip at once. ‘Why did I speak in this way? This girl is going to misconstrue,’ he worried.

“The way your hands are chilled no one can think you are in paradise. Your body is shaking as if you are being taken to the execution ground,” said Manimekalai.

“Princess! Who knows, there may only be the execution ground for me at the end of this journey?’

“You are the one who is adamant that you won’t take back your forward marching step! Who knows how many murderers are waiting in the hunting gallery?”

“They can be as many as they like. I am not afraid of them. If Kanthamaran sees us holding hands in the dark … that is what I am worried about.”

“Sir! As long as I am alive no harm will come to you from my brother. Half of my dream has come true now; perhaps the other half also will. Who can say,” said Manimekalai.

At this time both were startled by the sound of a door closing.

“We are almost at the hunting gallery,” Manimekalai whispered.

Meanwhile a faint light began to appear at a distance. Gradually it became brighter as if someone was coming towards them. Letting go of Vandhiyathevan’s hand Manimekalai moved slightly apart from him.

Next minute with lantern in one hand and a sharp knife with an ornate handle in the other, Idumbankari appeared in front of them.

Seeing them he stood as if shocked by their presence. But both knew that he was pretending.

“Madam! Sir! What is the matter? Why have you started alone in the dark? If this servant was told won’t I have brought a lamp? Where are you going,” he asked.

“Idumbankari! There is news that Malaiamman is arriving with troops! So I set off with the vallathu prince to make sure that all gates and underground passages are safely locked,” said Manimekalai.

“What a coincidence, Madam! That is what I just did,’ said Idumbankari.

“That is what I surmised. When we were coming, on the way the lamp fell down and the light went out. There was some light here. We guessed that it was you and kept walking.”

“The young master asked me to check the doors; so I took care of it. Underground way is bolted and locked. Shall we go back, Madam?”

“Give us your lamp and you carry on. The prince here wants to help himself to a spear from the hunting gallery. His spear was lost in Kollidam. There may be war …”

“Yes, Madam! There may be war. Therefore it is better not to take strangers into the hunting gallery. There is nothing I can say that you don’t know.”

“That is true, Kari! But he is no stranger. After all he is the young master’s best friend! Newer ties may be on the horizon as well. You give the lamp and go,” said Manimekalai.

Against his will Idumbankari gave the lamp to the princess and went off. Vandhiyathevan and Manimekalai proceeded to the taxidermy gallery. From out of the blue came the cry of an owl.

“What is this? How did an owl get inside the palace,” Manimekalai said surprised.

“Perhaps the dead owl in the taxidermy room has resurrected itself? Once before upon seeing the princess, didn’t the dead monkey come back to life,” said Vandhiyathevan.

The hunting gallery was locked from the outside. Manimekalai undid the lock with the key she had brought. Then she gently pushed the door open.

Both went in.

At first only the grotesque bodies of the dead elephants, bears, tigers, deer, crocodiles, hawks and owls could be seen around them.

When they looked more carefully holding up the lantern a few figures could be seen half hidden and half exposed behind the animals.

Right then the door they had entered through slammed itself shut.

Vandhiyathevan turned to see who, if any had slammed it so fiercely. Right at that moment he was pushed hard from behind. He banged himself headlong into the same tailless monkey that he had hidden behind once before.

Two hands took possession of him firmly. Only then he realized how strong a ‘monkey grip’ actually was. He had no success trying to take the knife that was tucked in his waist. He could not turn this way or that.

The monkey’s hands, – or rather, the human hands that came entwined with the monkey’s held him so tightly.

Two other hands removed the knife from his waist.

The knife was thrust at the chest of Manimekalai who came running towards him crying, “Aiyo!”

“Do not shout. If you remain quiet, listen to what we say, – then your lives won’t be in danger. If you make a noise both will have to die. First, this loudmouth of a young man will fall dead,” said a voice.

Vandhiyathevan knew that it was Ravithasan’s voice.

“Princess! Please be still! Let’s find out what they have come for, what they want to say,” said Vandhiyathevan.

36. Pandimadevi

The man who tied Vandhiyathevan to the tailless monkey tied Manimekalai to the antlers of the stag mounted on the wall next to him.

“Magician! I am your enemy, but why are you tying the Kadampoor princess? Let her go,” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Be patient, Brother! Be patient! Many times you have interfered with our work. Each time we left you alive. But you have not stopped following us,” Ravithasan told him.

Vandhiyathevan laughed.

“What appan! You are laughing? You are so tickled by the tailless monkey’s embrace,” asked Ravithasan.

“No! I am laughing at what you said!” Vallavaraiyan answered.

“Which part of what I said made you laugh?”

“You said that I am following you. I can say that you are the ones following me, can’t I? I can say that you are the ones interfering with my work, can’t I? Now, look! I am accompanying Kadampoor Rajakumari on an important business. You have interfered tying me to this monkey!”

“Oho! Is that the matter? Let’s acknowledge that we have interfered in your affairs. But this is the last time this will happen. If you survive today, you will never see us again!”

“In that case I must try to keep my life. Magician! You teach me a trick to stay alive,” said Vandhiyathevan.

“By all means. Whatever happens in this room and the adjacent one, just be quiet. Don’t do anything in haste! Your life will be safe!”

“Why are you so fond of me? Why are you letting me go?”

“Good question! Out of plain stupidity! But it happens to be our Devi’s order!”

“Who is your Devi?”

“You still don’t know? Pandimadevi indeed. Veera Pandya emperor’s brave spouse Nandhini Devi who dwells in the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar’s house!”

“Brave spouse indeed!”

“Chee! Evil brat! If you insult our Devi you will lose your life! Careful!”

“You are the one insulting the Pazhuvur Rani! Why do you call her Veera Pandyan’s Devi, when she dwells in another man’s house?”

“So what? Didn’t Raman’s spouse Seethai live in Ravanan’s house for a time?”

“Well, Ramar went and brought Seetha Devi back, didn’t he?”

“We have also come to take back our Pandimadevi. For whatever reason she imprisoned herself in the Pazhuvur palace, but that is coming to an end today …”

“Aha! How is that?”

“Be patient for a while! You will find out. If you show your vileness not only you, this girl also will face a tragic end!”

With that Ravithasan was about to go to the other side of the room.

“Magician! Tell me one more thing before going,” said Vandhiyathevan.

Ravithasan turned. “Brother! Do not call me, ‘Magician,’ anymore,” he said.

“Then how should I address you?”

“You must with all due respect call me, ‘Chief Minister!'”

“Sir! Of which great kingdom are you the chief minister?”

“Don’t you know? Pandya kingdom’s chief minister! You witnessed the coronation near pallipadai!”

“I did. But I thought it was my imagination …”

“That is why you didn’t tell anyone about it?”

“I told one or two people; they called me insane. They said that I must have had a bad dream …”

“Aha! Let them think that. We also allowed you to live knowing that no one outside will believe your story! …”

“Magician! Is that the only reason that you set me free?”

“Why else?”

“Didn’t your Rani speak on my behalf?”

“So what?”

“Even now she will take my side.”

“Until that time wait patiently.”

“Magician! Your Rani sent the Kadampoor princess to bring me urgently. That is why we were coming tohether …”

Appan! There is another way to the Rani’s room! Why take this path?”

“I don’t have to explain that to you. If the Rani asks I will tell her …”

“Wait patiently until the Rani comes and asks you!”

“Magician! Tell them to untie me and Sambuvaraiyar’s daughter immediately! Or else …”

“What will you do?”

“I will scream so loud as to make the walls of this room shudder!”

“The moment you scream there will be three spears heading your way. Careful!”

Vandhiyathevan looked around him.

Yes; three marauders were waiting with spear in hand.

“Brother! You are an intelligent boy. At one time I even wanted to enlist you to our camp. But you became trapped in that Pazhaiyarai mohini’s love net. Never mind. Now, be smart! If you shout you are sure to die!”

After warning Vandhiyathevan, Ravithasan went towards the elephant head that was affixed to the opposite wall. For a while he pressed his ear to the wall and listened. Then he turned the elephant’s long tusks. A small opening appeared. Light from the adjacent room entered the hunting gallery in the shape and gentle radiance of a full moon.

Vandhiyathevan turned to his side. He knew that Princess Manimekalai had taken the small knife from her knife and sawed off the ties that bound her.

In a corner of the taxidermy room the lantern that Manimekalai had borrowed from Idumbankari was flickering. Its light did not fall on Manimekalai. In addition because the marauders were watching Vandhiyathevan they did not pay any attention to the Kadampoor princess, Manimekalai. Vandhiyathevan noticed that Manimekalai had untied herself and was free. He pursed his lips and cried like an owl.

The three marauders were dumbfounded. Ravithasan who was peering in through the open hole also turned startled.

“Aha! Your work?” He rushed towards Vandhiyathevan. When he removed his hands from the elephant tusks the hole in the wall disappeared. Again darkness surrounded the hunting gallery. The three saboteurs came running at Vandhiyathevan with spears in their hands.

One of them was attacked by the deer with long and curly antlers. An enormous bear fell on another man and pushed him down. The crocodile with the gaping teeth and wide open mouth jumped on another one. A giant bat fell, ‘plop,’ on the head of Ravithasan.

During the one minute that the men stood inactive by these sudden attacks, Manimekalai undid Vandhiyathevan’s ties. Vandhiyathevan took the tailless monkey that had held him until then and flung it at the saboteurs. The four men pushed away the dead animals and slowly got up. Meanwhile Vandhiyathevan had possession of one of the spears. He stood poised to attack anyone coming at him.

At that time Nandhini Devi’s bedroom door opened fully. Light entered the hunting gallery followed by Nandhini Devi herself. “Magician! What foolishness? What are you rummaging about here,” she asked.

37. Iron Heart Softened!

Nandhini Devi was startled to see Vandhiyathevan and Manimekalai in the hunting gallery.

“Oho! How did you come here,” she asked.

“Devi! I came because your friend here advised that it was your order. After coming here I knew that I should have had reservations about a woman’s wit,” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Sister! I did not advise him; I begged him to come with me to see you,” said Manimekalai.

Nandhini hid her initial shock and smiled.

“My dear friend! When women beg men it is akin to giving advice,” she said.

“Giving advice! Call it ordering, Devi! Saying that you wanted to see me, the princess dragged me here by hand. As a result I am in the hands of these murderers,” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Sir! Looking at what is going on here, it does not seem as if they are the murderers! If I did not come here now it seems as if you are the one who would have done the killing!’

“Sister! They are murderers! Just now they tied him to the tailless monkey …”

Laughing Nandhini said, “Manimekalai! You said on a previous occasion he was hiding behind the tailless monkey! Somehow these men seem to know it!”

“Not ‘somehow.’ Sister! I have said that I saw them the day before your arrival, in this hunting gallery; these are the same men! That day they were chasing him. Fortunately he escaped from them …”

“Today, why have you brought him to them again, Manimekalai? Why did you bring him by this way?”

“Sister! Just a while ago Kanthamaran saying that he was coming to see you. I chose this way so we’ll be out of his sight; which turned out to be good. Or, these murderers …”

“Sister! They are not murderers. They did not come to kill him either. Two or three times he has got caught to them alone. Yet, they have left him alive. You can verify this by asking him.”

“In that case, who are they, Sister! Are they telling the truth? Do you know them? Have they come to take you?,” Manimekalai asked in surprise.

“yes, Friend! They have come to save me. I will explain to you. Both of you, come with me into the adjacent room! Let them be here,” said Nandhini.

Then she told Ravithasan, “Magician! If you hurt either one of them, I will consider it an affront personally. If, hereafter, you happen to see them anywhere, under whatever circumstances, you must treat them with respect!”

“Devi! Pardon me! This young man knows our voice signal. It was he who cried like an owl now,” said Ravithasan.

“can’t you see that he is one of us? Magician! Where is your intelligence? Never mind. Now, no more noise from here until you hear from me,” said Nandhini.

Nandhini, Manimekalai and Vandhiyathevan entered Nandhini’s room through the elephant head entrance. The door closed immediately.

“Sister! You are very intelligent! It was good that you brought him through the hunting gallery. Your brother just now left from here. He has gone to bring Athitha Karikalar. Before that I should send you both away. I must say goodbye,” said Nandhini.

“Sister! What on earth? You said that you are going to send him to find out the truth about your husband! You want to say goodbye to us?” Manimekalai asked.

“After I spoke to your brother I changed my mind, Thangai! Whether Pazhuvertaraiyar is alive or not, I can no longer stay here. It is dangerous for this warrior also. Sir! Please leave this place immediately. Even if you don’t care about your life, for the sake of this girl, please leave at once,” said Nandhini.

“Sister! If he is leaving please ask him to take me with him. After botth of you are gone I cannot wait here locked up in this prison of a palace,” said Manimekalai.

“Princess! You did not understand Pazhuvur Rani. She means that if I go from here, then you can marry Athitha Karikalar and be the queen of Thanjai empire,” said Vallavaraiayan.

“No, I did not mean that. I will not wish the misfortune of wedding Athitha Karikalar on any woman. Certainly not my dearest Manimekalai! Sir! You are on purpose misrepresenting my intention. If you escape now, later on someday you may be fortunate to marry this woman! Manimekalai! If your love for him is real, then tell him to leave immediately from here,” said Nandhini.

“Rani! I am prepared to leave. I would like to have something in your possession. If you give me that I will go at once,” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Sir! What among my possessions do you want? Tell me!”

“You have a sword that is engraved with a fish emblem. If you give me that I will go. You know that I lost my sword in the Kollidam flood,” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Sir! There are so many swords and spears in the hunting gallery. Help yourself to as many you want. Why would you want the one weapon that a woman like me has to protect one’s self?’

“Devi! Is it only to protect yourself that you keep that sword worshipping it? Please tell the truth!”

“I also keep it to protect my virtue that is more valuable than my life.”

“Devi! Isn’t there no other reason?”

“What other reason can there be?”

“Perhaps to avenge Veera Pandyar’s death?”

“I thought that while Manimekalai is here you will not raise that subject. I need not hide any longer. Thangai! You can find out. Find out the reason for my visit to this Kadampoor palace!”

While speaking Nandhini Devi picked up the sword with the fish emblem in her hand from her bed.

“I didn’t come here to resolve Chola empire’s internal conflicts. I also did not come here to divide the kingdom between Mathuranthaka Thevar and Athitha Karikalar. I did not also come to feast and be entertained at Kadampoor palace! Thangai! I did not come to arrange a marriage for you also. I came to take revenge on the scoundrel who plucked the head of Veera Pandyar. This is the sword of the Pandya tribe! I have sworn on this sword. I came to carry out that promise. Tonight I will either fulfill my promise, or I will end my life!” Nandhini spoke in a frenzy and then paused.

“You are asking me to leave because you know that I will be an obstacle! You are trying to scare me by saying that my life is in danger,” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Aha! You will be an obstacle to me? Wonderful! Why not? Why not tell your master about this and stop him from coming to see me?”

“Devi! Because I cannot. I cannot stop him. That is why I came to you. I came to even fall at your feet and beg you to not go on with this immoral act …”

“Aha! Immoral act! What is immoral? Let’s ask my friend. Manimekalai! Tell me. You have given your heart to someone. When he is wounded and helpless his enemy comes to help him. You fall at the enemy’s feet and beg him not kill your lover. Without listening to you he does the killing anyway. Will you call it immoral to avenge that kind of savage, my Darling!”

“I never will, Sister! But I also won’t fall at his feet and beg him. I will take the sword and kill him myself,” said Manimekalai.

“Princess, suppose … that enemy is your own brother?” Vandhiyathevan asked Manimekalai.

“Brother, or anyone else, – it makes no difference to me,” said Manimekalai.

“Tell him, my Darling,” said Nandhini.

“The princess is speaking without thinking. Whatever crime her brother Kanthamaran commits against her, will she have the heart to kill him?” Vallavaraiyan asked.

Nandhini and Manimekalai looked at each other.

Nandhini turned to Vandhiyathevan. “What is this useless question? I am not going to kill my own brother. When you first met me you brought up the name of my brother Thirumalai. That is why I became fond of you. Because you were Azhvarkadiyan’s friend I helped you several times to escape from danger. Sir! Today if I cannot fulfill my vow and lose my life, please ask Thirumalai to forgive me. Even though I did not act according to his wishes I did not completely forget him; you must tell him this,” she said.

“Madam! Why prolong this charade any longer? Azhvarkadiyan is not your brother; you are also not that brave Vaishnavan’s sister …”

“Then who is my brother? Whose sister am I?”

“Your brother is Athitha Karikalar. That is why I am begging you not to commit the sin of sibling murder. I am begging you to please hand Veera Pandya tribe’s murderous sword to me!”

“You have shared with me this extraordinary figment of your imagination that Karikalar and I are siblings. But did he believe it?” Nandhini asked with a sarcastic smile.

“It did seem so; but I cannot vouch for what lies in his heart …”

“I know what’s in his heart. He is shocked by what the Pazhaiyarai mohini is capable of conjuring …”

“Madam! This isn’t fiction. It is not at all Pazhaiyarai princess’s imagination. I saw in Eezhanadu with my own eyes …”

“What did you see?”

“I saw a goddess who was unable to speak through her mouth. This goddess saved me and Azhvarkadiyan and Arulmozhivarmar from great danger; when we were walking past an old palace on Anuradhapuram’s streets at midnight she summoned us from the opposite side. When Arulmozhivarmar and we moved towards her the roof of the house that we had stood in front of collapsed. Ponniyin Selvar worshipped this queen of a woman his tribe’s goddess …”

“Sir! How does this story relate to me? You may have told this to the junior stateswoman who wants to see Arulmozhivarmar on the Chola throne; she would have marveled and rejoiced. Why are you telling me? …”

“There is a reason. When I saw this queen of a woman from a distance in the dim streetlight of Anuradhapura I wondered, ‘Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani, whom I left in Thanjavur, how did she come here?’ There is not an atom misplaced between you and her. If you remove your jewelry and makeup and let your hair down you will look exactly like her …”

“Why should I believe you? I know that you have a good imagination. Why should not this be one of your wild tales?”

“Devi! I swear.”

“However much you swear I cannot believe this!”

“Rani! When you say ‘I cannot believe,’ I know it is a lie. You know that I am telling the truth. Even before we found out, you knew about this. You have used this knowledge to your advantage. The very first time I was speaking to you at Thanjai palace, this magician came shouting like an owl. You told me to hide. I hid in the treasury room that happened to be open. I witnessed some strange encounters that night …”

“Aha! What sort of strange encounters?”

“I saw Kanthamaran escorting Mathuranthaka Thevar through that underground cellar …”

“So what?”

“A few minutes later you appeared with the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar. I did not know then where you were going. It was later on that I figured it out. I found out that you were going to torment the emperor by pretending to be your mother’s ghost …”

Nandhini who was until then stoically standing suddenly overcome by fatigue sat down on one of the seats.

“Sir! What else did you find out?”

“When you were going with the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar, Kanthamaran returned. He said something to Pazhuvertaraiyar, who in turn gestured to the guard who was with Kanthamaran carrying the flambeau …”

“What sort of gesture?”

“You must know what it was. Pazhuvertaraiyar ordered the guard to stab Kanthamaran from behind and kill him. I intervened and saved Kanthamaran’s life. As a result I ended by being accused of stabbing Kanthamaran …”

Nandhini turned and looked at Manimekalai. “Sir! Why are you disturbing this girl’s mind with your stories,” she said.

“Devi! I have not told anyone this until now. If you give me the sword that you have in your hand, then I won’t ever tell anyone …”

“I cannot give the sword, Sir! Why should I? You can tell whoever. Use your imagination and elaborate further. Why? Please go now to Karikalar and stop him from coming here! Why are you troubling me? Please go!” When Nandhini spoke tears welled in  her eyes.

“Madam! I know very well the prince’s nature. I cannot stop him. If I tried his stubbornness can only increase. That is why I came to beg you …”

“What right do you have to beg me? Let all what you said be true. Let’s assume that you saw my birth mother in Eezhanadu. Why should I give up my promise for that? The emperor has done great harm to my mother. Why should I show mercy to him and his children? This only further validates the reason why I should seek revenge!”

“No, Arasi, no! Please think of whether your mother will approve of your vengefulness. That elderly lady considers the emperor’s children her own. Please think whether she would want one of them to be killed by your hands? Never. If she knows what you did she will hate you. As long as she is alive she will curse you. Even after death she will haunt you as a ghost. She cannot speak through her mouth. But her eyes alone will forever subject you to a punishment worse than hell …”

Tears were welling up in Nandhini’s eyes. Wiping her tears she looked up. As if she witnessed a sad scene up there her face turned grim.

Ammah! Ammah! Isn’t it enough that I am chased by Veera Pandyar’s head and torso? Do you also have to haunt me?” As if unable to bear the sight she covered her eyes with her hands. For a while Nandhini’s sobs were the only sound heard in that room.

Manimekalai looked at Vandhiyathevan. “Sir! I did not know that you were capable of such cruelty,” she said.

Removing her hands from her eyes Nandhini said, “He is not at fault, Thangai! He is doing it for my good. He is saying this to save me from a grievous sin! Yet it hurts me so!”

She looked at Vandhiyathevan with tearful eyes. “Sir! You have done what no one else could do before. You softened my iron heart. Here, I will give you the sword as you wanted, take it!” She held the sword out.

When Vandhiyathevan extended his hand to take the sword, Nandhini again backed off.

“Wait, please wait! Before taking the sword tell me if you can do me a favor. If I leave from here without keeping my promise, those in the hunting gallery will not leave me alone. They will burn me alive. I am not afraid of that. But before I die I want to see my mother once … Varnar tribe warrior! I said that I did not believe your story. That is not true! I believe what you said about my mother who roams the jungles of Eezhanadu. I believe every word. I have also seen her …”

“In my childhood days during sleep I would suddenly wake up startled. I would see a woman’s figure bending over me staring into my face. As soon as I opened my eyes it would disappear. It gave me both fear and wonder. Even then I was very fond of looking at my face in the mirror. Therefore I had a clear vision of my face. It astonished me to see this face bending over me look just like mine. We looked the same. I have heard of lives transferring from cage to cage. I would wonder if my life had left my body and was standing apart bending over me. Sometimes, I would wonder if I had died and the sleeping figure was my lifeless body. I would agonize wondering if any of this was real, or if it was a dream, a hallucination, or if I had mental breakdown. After I was older I was certain on account of a variety of reasons that what I saw was real. Especially when I saw the confusion that Sundara Cholar experienced at my sight. Owing to several other indications and Azhvarkadiyan’s sometimes misplaced statements I grew certain that there was a mother who had a strong resemblance to me. I yearned to see her at least once, to lay my head on her lap and cry. Sir! Your words today have increased that yearning ten times. If you are taking me to my mother, I will give up the intention of seeking revenge. I will give this Pandya tribe sword to you now,” said Nandhini sobbing.

Vandhiyathevan fell to thinking.

“What anticlimax! It’s like digging a well only to see a monster sprouting out?” He thought.

“Sir! I too beg you. Please promise that you will fulfill sister’s wish,” said Manimekalai.

Reluctantly Vandhiyathevan said, “I will try my best!”

“In that case we must leave immediately. We should leave before Athitha Karikalar gets here. How can we leave from here? The front door is dangerous, we might run into Kanthamaran and Karikalan,” said Nandhini.

“I will take you through the underground passage in the hunting gallery, come!” Vandhiyathevan said.

“Sister! I will also join you. Please take me also,” said Manimekalai.

Without paying attention to her Nandhini said, “I don’t want to go into the hunting gallery. Ravithasan and his men won’t leave us alive …” she said.

“Madam! Just give the sword. I will take care of those four,” said Vandhiyathevan.

“No! That will lead to many difficulties. Manimekalai! Is there no other way to go from here,” asked Nandhini Devi.

Manimekalai crunched her eyebrows and thought. “Sister! I can’t think of any other way. But please ask him. Once before he disappeared from this room magically. Ask him how he went,” she said. Nandhini looked at Vandhiyathevan’s face.

“Yes, Madam! There is another way. I discovered it quite by chance. But it is not easy. One has to jump from rafter to rafter, then from balcony to rooftop. After that one has to scale the wall and jump. I doubt that you can do it. It is easier to take care of the magician and his men and take the underground passage,” said Vandhiyathevan.

At this point Manimekalai interrupted in a startled voice to say, “Aiyo! It looks as if they are here!”

Both listened intently. Yes; footsteps were heard coming from the palace towards their room.

“Sir! Go quickly into the hunting gallery,” said Nandhini Devi.

“I have another good place to hide. Devi! Please give that sword here,” said Vandhiyathevan.

Nandhini held the sword out to give him. By accident it fell down on the floor producing a sound that rang out, ‘jana jana gana gana.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ponniyin Selvan Part V (30 – 33)

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

30. Immortal!

However fast Poongkuzhali ran the spear overtook her. Before she could reach Manthahini the spear had gone through her. ‘veel!’ – Manthahini cried eerily before falling down. A chorus of mournful cries rose from those present in the room.

As everyone rushed to the fallen woman someone was heard rummaging about in the loft. Earthenware came flying in all directions.

One fell on the brightly burning lamp next to the emperor; the light went out. The room was engulfed in darkness. The anthapura room and the surrounding corridors turned into a scene of confusion and chaos. People ran here and there.

“Lantern! Lantern!” The younger Pazhuvertariayar’s gruff voice roared.

“Aiyo! Aiyo!” A woman’s voice was also heard wailing. Everyone’s heart missed a beat. Because it was the queen’s voice. Without missing her mark Poongkuzhali ran straight to her aunt only to realize that someone else already had her on their lap.

Heartbreaking sounds of sobbing and crying fell in her ears.

From the entrance, “Who is that fellow? Do not run! Stop,” shouted the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar.

Poongkuzhali knew who the running man was. At the same time two maids entered the room with lamps.

No one could believe their eyes at what they saw in the now lit room.

The emperor who had lain in bed for three years, Sundara Chola king who had lost the use of his legs completely, had walked from his bed to Manthahini and was seated next to her on the floor. The prince sat next to him.

Blood was dripping from the tip of the spear that had pierced Manthahini on one side of her body and exited through the other.

Malaiamman’s daughter Vanamadevi stood next to the emperor’s bed. A sharp knife lay thrust on the pillow where the emperor’s head had been moments ago.

When the room was illuminated by the lamps, the queen stared at the empty bed, and then with great astonishment at the emperor who was seated on the floor. Ponniyin Selvar gently raised Manthahini’s head and lay it on the emperor’s lap.

Quiet tears poured from Prince Arulmozhivarmar’s eyes. The emperor on the other hand was sobbing and crying.

Poongkuzhali’s eyes took the scene in a fraction of a second. Instantly her mind summed up what had happened there.

The fellow who threw the spear from above had seen Manthahini stopping it. At once he had taken aim at the lamp with whatever earthenware that lay up there.

In the dark he had jumped down and tried to stab the emperor before running away. He had pushed the queen aside who rushed to the bed knowing that the emperor was in danger. It was then that the queen had cried, “Aiyo!”

The intruder must have run past the entrance knocking the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar who was just walking in.

Knowing what had happened Poongkuzhali wanted to run behind the man who had escaped after committing such a heinous act. At the same time she was also acutely conscious of the fact that her aunt’s life was at an end. She did not care that it was the emperor who held Manthahini on his lap. She sat down next to him and cried, “Athai! Athai!”

“Aiyo! Your words have come to pass! Wretched woman that I am, I left you alone here,” she wailed. But Manthahini had no time for her. Her eyes were fixed on the emperor’s face.

Why, she didn’t even have time for the prince who held her hand as he cried softly. How can she notice Poongkuzhali?

As Poongkuzhali went on wailing, the prince suppressing his sobs said, “Ocean Princess! What on earth! Have you forgotten yourself? Have you forgotten where you are,” as he stood up.

Feeling embarrassed Poongkuzhali also rose to her feet.

“King! There is no one else in this world for me other than my aunt,” she sobbed.

Wiping the tears that poured from his eyes the prince said, “Poongkuzhali! She is your aunt! But to me, she means ten times more than my own mother! She sent you to bring me! But she has not even looked at my face. Do you know why? My father and mother who separated from each other thirty years ago are once again together today. Who are we to stand in between them? …” The prince looked pointedly at everyone in the room including the queen.

Again he spoke to Poongkuzhali. “Girl! You have helped me before a few times. None of that matters. You gave me today the luxury of seeing my mother and father together! I will never forget this, Ocean Princess! Think of your aunt’s triumphant act today! She saved my father from the vengeful spear of the enemy! She took it herself. She sacrificed her life in order to save the emperor’s life. Not once; twice. The sight of your fallen aunt gave my father his legs back. He came running from his bed. Because of it his life was saved a second time. The avenger knowing that he had missed his mark knocked the lamp out and came running to stab the king again. Because the emperor had left his bed the saboteur’s mission failed. There, my birth mother, Malaiamman’s daughter stands in astonishment. My birth mother saw the spear striking your aunt. Knowing the avenger will strike again she came running. She hoped to make the same sacrifice that your aunt made. She wanted to cover my father’s body and bear the next assault herself. “Aiyo,’ she screamed because she did not see my father on the bed. If my father had remined on the bed either my father, or my mother would have died today. Ocean Princess! Do you realize what a great service your aunt performed today for Chola tribe and Cholanadu. If the emperor had died by the avenger’s weapon the Chola empire would have broken into pieces. The Pazhuvertaraiyar tribe would have faced eternal blame. Your aunt did not only save my mother and father’s lives. She also saved the Pazhuvertaraiyars’ honor. She saved Cholanadu from a great tragedy. She became the Chola deity. Poongkuzhali! I will not shed anymore tears. You also need not cry. No one has to mourn her! Who can have such an immortal parting? Who can be so fortunate to sacrifice their life for the sake of a spouse after thirty years of separation? Who can be fortunate to lay her head on that spouse’s lap and peacefully go?” The prince once again looked at those present in the room.

He saw that everyone was listening. He went on.

“Poongkuzhali! Don’t be afraid that you will be an orphan because of your aunt’s death. I will never forget your help today. I will forever be grateful to you. Even if I forget, the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar will never forget. Your aunt and you did a great service to him today. If the spear or knife had struck the emperor, what would the world have said? The conclusion would be that the Thanjai fort commander was also in collusion. Kodumabalur Velar is waiting outside. This would be reason enough for him to destroy the Pazhuvertaraiyar tribe. Why go that far? If I didn’t with your help today enter the fort, I too would have doubted the fortress commander. Therefore more than anyone else, it is the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar who is indebted to you. Whatever reward you seek he will give you. Even if you ask for half of his wealth he will not say no!”

The prince had his eyes on the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar as he spoke. He wanted him to realize that he had failed in his duty. The distressed face of the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar was proof that he heard the prince. His majestic countenance had deserted him. The nonchalant arrogance of his daredevil personality was no longer present.

He had the shameful face of a soldier caught red handed while fleeing a battlefield.

At the mention of an award, Poongkuzhali, whose heart was mellowing as she listened to the prince, became the outrageously indignant ocean princess.

“Prince! I don’t need anyone’s gratitude; or award. The ocean king is my sanctuary. My boat is safely tucked away at the pier by the canal. I am leaving now. If … in case … my aunt survives, – No, that is a vain hope. My aunt said already this morning. She knew what was coming. She is not going to survive. I have nothing to do here. If one day you should come with the Kodumbalur princess to Kodikarai …,” Poongkuzhali’s glance traveled in Vanathi’s direction. Seeing that girl watchin her and the prince with wide eyes she said, “Cheechee! How covetous of me! I am leaving,” and began to walk away.

Until then Vanathi had stood immobile as if in a trance. She was suddenly jolted back to life. She caught on with Poongkuzhali and said, “My dear friend! Where are you going? Just like you, I am also an orphan! …” Before she could continue Poongkuzhali interrupted. “Devi! You are not an orphan. And I am not your dear friend. Very soon Pazhaiyarai junior stateswoman will be here,” she said.

Only then Vanathi remembered the junior stateswoman. “Aiyo! Sister does not know what happened here. We must send word to her,” she said.

“Must you worry about it? Your uncle is at the entrance. If you ask him he will send word!” With this response Poongkuzhali gently moved Vanathi out of her way and walked on. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar who stood at the doorway stopped her.

“Girl! I heard what Poniyin Selvar said. It is the truth. You saved the Pazhuvertaraiyar tribe from eternal abomination. I am forever in debt to you. Whatever reward you seek …,” he said.

With a sad smile Poongkuzhali said, Colonel! Some here are happy that the emperor is alive. Some are happy that he regained his ability to walk. Some are happy that the Pazhuvertaraiyar tribe escaped infamy. It does not appear that anyone is sad about the tragic death of my aunt. Shouldn’t I at least mourn her? I am going to find the man who killed her! Please allow me to pass!”

Fortress commander Kalanthaka Kandar was astounded by Poongkuzhali’s words.

“Girl! I lost to you. Letting the murderer escape I am standing here idly. If I don’t find him I will still face blame – though the emperor is safe. I was wrong to distrust you! Where would the murderer have gone? He pushed me and ran. Yes, yes! he would have gone to the underground passage. Come! Come and help me! I don’t want to take anyone else! Once he gets caught, see what I will do!”

With Poongkuzhali’s hand held in his iron grip the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar sped to the sculpture gallery.

* * *

No one else moved. Knowing what the prince wanted no one went near the emperor. But all eyes were on the emperor and the great lady whose head lay in his lap.

But Sundara Cholar and Manthahini were united as one. There was no room in their hearts for anyone else. In whatever way experts in psychology may generalize the predicament of living through thirty years in a matter of minutes, there is no doubt that Sundara Cholar and Manthahini lived a long life together in those few minutes. All that could have been spoken between them in thirty years was said. Manthahini’s eyes did the talking. Sundara Cholar understood her completely. In the few months he lived a heavenly life in poothatheevu he had studied her sign language. Therefore even though Manthahini spoke only with her eyes he instantly knew what was in her heart. Manthahini after all did not say much.

“I have no regrets about you. Where is the emperor of this world? Where am I, a deaf and dumb, fisherman’s daughter? It was I who was hiding from you. I satisfied myself with occasional glances from afar. I have been blessed to take my last breath lying on your lap! What more do I need,” this is all she said. Her heart and eyes repeated this message again and again. Her face glowed in happiness. There was no sign of pain on her face after having a spear penetrate her body. She had lost awareness of her body. At its moment of leaving why would the bird care about its cage?

Sundara Cholar had also lost all awareness of his physical self. That is why he was able to run to Manthahini forgetting his disabled legs.

But unlike Manthahini, Sundara Cholar was not satisfied with a few words. He kept on speaking. What his eyes expressed his lips verbalized. Not a word was coherent. But Manthahini understood him. She nodded her head in affirmation when she agreed; she shook her head in defection when she disagreed; she expressed happiness when happiness was called for; she consoled when comfort was needed.

“The love of my life! You are dying for my sake! How many days longer do you think my life will last? I am indeed a stone hearted sinner; I agree. Those who are fated to rule must turn their hearts into stone. If not how can ruling proceed? My first mistake was abandoning you in poothatheevu. Because of it many mistakes followed. How happy we were in that paradise of an island? We were not lucky enough to have it last! God let us down! My kin let us down! Once I was crowned as prince I was about to come to you. I came up to Kodikarai. The wretched folks there said that you had jumped into the sea. Even Aniruthan whom I considered my best friend duped me. … Yes, yes! I hear you. You are saying that it is true that you jumped into the sea. And that you were saved by someone afterwards. Aniruthan knew that. But he did not tell me. Look at the tragedy that followed because of it! Whenever I saw you I assumed that it was your ghost. I believed that you were haunting me for revenge. I believed that you pushed my little child into Kaveri when in fact you saved his life. Aha! If only I knew that you were alive, how different my life would have been? Do you think that I would have given you up for this empire? Never …!”

Sundara Cholar verbalized in this manner the avalanche of thoughts that surged through his mind. In the end he said, “Two days ago when you came I threw the lamp at you. I showed disgust when I saw you again. You must forgive me for that. For so many years I believed that your ghost was haunting me. You appeared in this very room at midnight and spoke to me. I believed that you were cursing my children. The hatred I developed then did not leave me even when I saw you in person. In truth you have come to us as our goddess! You came to prevent harm to me and my children! I did not understand that. Only after my daughter Kundavai explained, I understood. Aiyo! What a blunder I made! Please forgive me. How will I now show the love I have for you? You have made it impossible! You told me not to crown my sons. I understand the reason now. Why are you shaking your head? You said that for the wellbeing of myself and my family. There is nothing wrong in that. But the people here are driving me insane with their tales. They tell me that you gave birth to a child. If it is true please tell me. If you have a son please tell me. I will find retribution for the wrong I did to you through him …”

When Sundara Cholar spoke these words Manthahini became visibly excited. Her eyes looked around and then came to rest on Ponniyin Selvar. The prince immediately came to her and sat down.

Manthahini touched the prince with her hand. When she looked at the emperor her answer was abundantly clear. Her eyes said, “He is my son!”

In this manner Manthahini looked at the emperor and Ponniyin Selvar alternatingly a few times. Her eyes then closed. Her head that was propped up on the emperor’s lap slid to the side.

Manthahini’s life left her body. Until that day no one had seen or heard Sundara Cholar cry. Those who saw him that day howling, “Oh,” were stunned.

Prince Arulmozhivarmar alone remained calm.

He told the emperor, “Father! You should not regret my mother’s death. She did not die. She has become a goddess! She will be our family’s deity for eternity!”

But Sundara Cholar’s crying did not stop. Did he cry over Manthahini? Who can say if he cried for Manthahini, or if he felt the tremor in his heart of another sad event far away that took place at the same time?

Prince Arulmozhivarmar’s consoling words on the other hand would become true. Later on when Ponniyin Selvar ascended the throne as Raja Raja Cholar, he built a temple in Thanjai for Manthahini Devi whom he called ‘Eezhathu Rani.’ For some time it was famously known as Sinhala Nachiyar,’ temple. In time the name morphed into ‘Singhachiyar Kovil.’ Visitors can inquire about a tiny old temple that exists even today in a part of Thanjai city by the same name.

31. ‘The Time is Here’

It would be best if this story can be ended here with the events described in the previous chapter. Readers may even expect it. But it is not possible. We are obliged to describe the atrocity that took place in Kadampoor Sambuvaraiyar’s palace on the same day at about the same time.

* * *

All alone Nandhini paced back and forth in her anthapura room. Her face mirrored the turmoil in her heart. Her eyes had a strange sparkle flickering as they darted between the various entrances to the room. Her ears listened for footsteps. “The time is here,” her lips kept mumbling. At times her lips quivered; her brows twitched, her entire body shuddered like that of a tantric dancer.

Curtains hung all around her ornately appointed bed hiding the bed completely. Nandhini raised the curtain at one end slowly. She looked at the murderous sword that lay lengthwise on the bed. It shone as if cast out of the very fire in a blacksmith’s kiln. It was a wonder that the silk mattress and curtains did not catch fire. Only this fact proved that the sword was metal and not burning hot coal.

Nandhini picked up the sword in her hand. She admired it as it sparkled even more catching the light of the lamp. She hugged it against her chest. She held it against her cheek. She spoke to it. ” Divine Sword! The time is here for you to do your work! You will not let me down, will you? No! You won’t! It’s my hands that will let me down,” she said.

Then she looked at her hands. “Hands! Will you hold steady? Cheechee! Already you are trembling! When the time is here what will you do? Yes, yes! There is no use relying on you. I must look elsewhere,” she said.

All of a sudden Nandhini’s body shuddered. She looked up through eyes that were blazing hot. “Aha! You are here? Come! Come! You came at the right time! My love! My king! Come! Veera Pandyan’s Head! Why are you waiting on the ceiling? Come down! There is no one here! No one except your servant! Why are you staring? Open your mouth and speak! ‘If you survive this hurdle then I’ll put you on the Pandya throne,’ you said. I have not forgotten that. I have not forgotten the promise I made to you. The time has come to fulfill it. How long have I waited patiently for this? How many disguises I put on? You kept watching. Even now, keep watching. Don’t bat your eyelids. You never sleep, anyway! You have turned me also into an insomniac! If I seek revenge for you today then you will let me be, won’t you? You will let me sleep after that, won’t you? … You will leave only after seeing me on the Pandya throne? If I keep my promise, you will keep yours, you are saying? … No, no! I don’t want any throne or crown. A little boy was brought as your son. He was crowned. If I seek revenge, you will be satisfied. You will leave me alone after that! You will go to the same warriors’ heaven as all others who die in war. There will be other women like me. One of them …? No …? God! You want me to go with you? Alright, alright! Let’s discuss this later, my love! I hear someone, hide yourself! … I will hide this vengeful sword …”

There was someone at the door. As Nandhini was placing the sword back on the bed Manimekalai walked in.

Nandhini regained her composure at once. Calmly she said, “Is that you Manimekalai? Come, come!”

“Sister! What on earth? You are forever holding that sword,” said Manimekalai.

“If not? When the men are so vile we must seek the help of the sword!”

“Devi! I am here to help you. You don’t trust me?”

“If I did not trust you, would I confide in you, Manimekalai? In this world you are the only one I trust. Yet, even you cannot go against your brother!”

“Sister! He is not my brother, I have decided …”

“Why do you say that? Whatever the matter, he is your brother  …”

“Brother! Sister! I have come to realize that such felicitation is just an illusion. Kanthamaran wants to force me into a marriage against my wishes for his own gain! Will he do that, if he really cared about his sibling? …”

“Sister! He may still have your interest at heart …”

“Yes; he has suddenly discovered my interests and disinterests! Actually he did not consider my wellbeing at all, Sister!”

“Isn’t it for your wellbeing that your brother wants to see you as queen on the Chola throne that extends from Eezham to Vadapennai?”

“Not at all! It’s the temptation that he can be chief minister, or treasurer like the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar, if I were the Thanjavur queen … that is the reason, Sister! Sister …!” Manimekalai was reluctant to go on.

“Tell me, Manimekalai! Whatever is in your mind you can speak to me freely. You meant it when you said that you were fond of me …”

“Sister! Please do not doubt that. In this world I love only two people. You are one of them …”

“Who is the other person?”

“You know the answer. Why do you question me …?”

“Sister! I thought that it will make you happy. Haven’t you seen in literature and novels? If a woman falls in love isn’t it natural that she will want to talk about it to someone? What is the use of having a friend …?”

“That is true, Sister! I have confided in you. But the reason I came to you now is about something else. A rather worrisome matter, Sister!”

Startled Nandhini asked, “What? What?”

She was gripped by the fear that her plans will face some new obstacle. It showed on her face.

“Sister! Treasurer Pazhuvertaraiyar has not reached Thanjavur still. On the way …”

“What happened on the way? Did he change his mind?” The news did not seem to diminish her fear.

“It would have been better if he had returned, Sister! The storm that took us by surprise the other day at the lake, it was more severe in Kodikarai and beyond. When Pazhuvertaraiyar was on the boat crossing Kollidam the storm blew in …”

“Then,” Nandhini asked excitedly. But she was now visibly less worried.

“The boat had toppled when they were about to reach the other side!”

“Aiyo!”

“Those who managed to come ashore had searched the shore. Your husband was not found,” said Manimekalai.

She was ready to console Nandhini as she expected her to breakdown and cry upon hearing this news. But Nandhini had no such reaction. “How did you know about this?” Nandhini asked in a tone that held more disbelief than distress.

“One of the men who was with Pazhuvertaraiyar came. He was speaking to my brother. I heard him with my own ears, Sister! My brother did not know how to break this news to you. He was seeking the advice of the prince. I came running to tell you no matter …”

Overcome with grief Manimeklai began to cry. Nandhini embraced her. “My Darling! I know now how fond of me you are, but don’t be sad for me,” she said.

Manimekalai looked at her astounded. ‘She has a heart made of stone,’ – Nandhini read her thought.

“Sister! You came running to give me the sad news and console me. Now I have to console you. You should not be sad. I am certain that nothing happened to my husband. If it had I would have known it in my heart. That is why I am not worried. But please tell me exactly what you heard! I have a suspicion …”

“What is it, Sister?”

“I wonder if your brother and that Pallava Parthipenthiran have a plan to hurt my husband. They may have fabricated this news as part of their plan …?”

“I do not understand, Sister! Why will they harm Pazhuvertaraiyar?”

“You are like a child, Manimekalai! Didn’t I say that your brother and Parthipenthiran have evil designs for me? Didn’t I say that is the reason I keep this sword next to me at all times? …”

“You did; and that is why I asked you not call Kanthamaran my brother. Even so, why should they harm Pazhuvertaraiyar?”

“Sister! You do not fathom? Unhappy in a marriage to an old man, I will be happy if he is gone. Then I will submit to their desires. That is why. If I knew your brother’s character I will not have cared for him in my home treating him like my own brother. I will not have saved the man who was at yamalokam’s doorstep …”

“Sister! Hereafter I will not leave you alone even for a moment. If any of these two come here I will kill them with my own hands!”

“Manimekalai! You don’t need that worry. I will protect myself. If Kanthamaran and Parthipenthiran approach me I will teach them a lesson that they will never forget. I am not afraid of them. Only the reckless prince makes me shudder. Fortunately you have saved me from that danger!”

“I saved you? What do you mean?”

“You have stolen the prince’s heart, Manimekalai! Don’t you know that? Why else would he have pushed away the Varnar tribe warrior and carried out from the lake? I have been observing him ever since. You don’t realize that, Manimekalai?”

“Why not? Indeed, I do. Even thinking about him makes me afraid. If he comes near my body trembles. That savage who calls himself my brother is also endlessly haranguing me …”

“That you must marry the prince?”

“Yes; if he sees me alone for one moment he starts preaching to me. To be rid of his harassment …”

” … you have decided to marry the prince?”

“Even you have reached that conclusion?” Manimekalai started to sob. Tears poured from her eyes.

Nandhini comforted her. “I was only teasing you. Do you really have to cry like this,” she asked wiping Manimekalai’s tears.

When Manimekalai was a little consoled, “My Darling! Look deep into your heart and tell me. Don’t you really want to marry the prince? Don’t you want to marry him and be the queen of Chola empire,” said Nandhini.

“Whether you ask me just once or a hundred times the answer will be the same, Sister! I have no such desire.”

“It is true that you have lost your heart to Varnar tribe Vandhiyathevar?”

“Yes, Sister! But who knows where his heart is?”

“What does it matter where his heart is? When we don’t know if he is alive …”

Startled Manimekalai said, “What do you mean, Sister?”

“Manimekalai! You don’t know the truth yet. You have not comprehended your situation or your loved one’s. You worry about me. You worry about my husband. You should not worry about us at all. I know my husband. If he utters one word this entire country will shudder. Sundara Chola emperor will not cross the line that he draws. He will not listen to the chief minister’s word against my husband’s. He will not listen to his women. Fools like your brother make fun of Pazhuvertaraiyar thinking that he is an old man. Yet, in one breath he can knock down your brother, Parthipenthiran and a hundred other young men. Therefore, no one can harm Pazhuvertaraiyar. My Darling! I know how to take care of myself also. I have faced more difficult situations than this. It is you I am worried about now. ‘This girl is so fond of me. No harm should come to her,’ I am thinking. It was you I was thinking about when you walked into this room …”

“I don’t understand, Sister! What harm can come to me?”

“Foolish Girl! What is more dangerous to a woman than marrying someone she does not like?”

“That is never going to happen.”

“Your brother has decided to marry you to the prince; your father has also agreed.”

“How can their decisions affect me? Don’t I have to agree?”

“You are speaking like a child! Do petty kings need consent from their daughters to give them away in marriage? Moreover, if the eldest son of the emperor who rules the three worlds, – the crown prince, – wants to marry you; who can stop that?”

“Why? I can. I will tell the prince myself.”

“What will you say?”

“That I do not want to marry him.”

“If he asks why?”

“I will tell the truth. I will tell him that my heart is with his friend Vallavaraiyar.”

“Foolish Girl! You don’t have to tell that. They already know that.”

“If they do, why are they trying to coerce me? If they persist, here, I too have a knife, Sister!” Manimekalai showed the little knife that was safely tucked away in her waist.

“My beloved Sister! On the one hand I want to laugh at your foolishness; on the other hand I want to weep.”

“What have I blabbered now, Sister?”

“You think that they will try coercion? You think that they will ask for your permission? They will do no such thing. They will simply eliminate the reason why you will not marry the prince!”

“What are you saying?”

“I am saying whomever you have given your heart to his life is in danger …!”

“Aiyayo!”

“Your brother already loathes his old friend. He is angry that he had told the prince about the secret meeting that was held by the petty kings in this palace a few months ago. Moreover, he is accusing him of stabbing him on his back. For a different reason Parthipenthiran is very angry at your suitor …”

“What will their anger do to him, Sister! He is a true warrior, isn’t he?”

“What does it matter? If one is suddenly surrounded by murderers what can an unarmed warrior do?”

“Aiyo! Are you saying that they will kill him?”

“They won’t. They will cut him into pieces and let the foxes and dogs feast on his flesh …”

“Aiyo! How savagely cruel!”

“Even talking about it you feel the brutality. If it really happens how devastated you will be?”

“Sister! I am tormented already. Will they really do it? He is a close friend of the prince!”

“Haven’t you heard of close friends becoming arch enemies? Little Sister! Your brother and Parthipenthiran have been fawning to the prince …”

“Demons! You seem to …”

“How do I know about this, you want to know? In the afternoon today Parthipenthiran came to see me on the pretext of saying goodbye …”

“Where is that scoundrel going?”

“Not very far. You heard about Thirukovalur old man Malaiamman making his way here with his troops?”

“I did. I was wondering why.”

“That is also on account of you! Today in the afternoon the prince announced I was told, ‘If Manimekalai is not given in marriage to me, as soon as Malaiamman’s troops arrive this fort will be razed to the ground!’ Your brother apparently said, ‘We are not the ones standing in the way; it is your pal Vandhiyathevan!’ The prince had asked, ‘Can’t you remove the obstacle?’ ‘With your permission, it can be done,’ was your brother’s answer. My dear sister! I found out a few more details from Parthipenthiran. It is certain that your dear lover’s life is in danger. If you don’t act now you will lose your husband even before you are married,” said Nandhini.

It is no surprise that Manimekalai’s entire being felt the agony of this crushing news.

“Aiyo! He must somehow be warned!” She said in anguish.

“He can be warned. But you just said that he is a true warrior. Is he going to run away if he knows that his life is in danger. Probably not. He will only become more stubborn,” said Nandhini.

“Please tell me what to do. My head is spinning. I don’t know what to do,” said Manimekalai.

“This is what I was worrying about when you came. I too cannot fathom. Fortunately you brought some news. Now I have an idea to save Vallavaraiyar.”

“I brought some news? What is it?”

“You said that after Pazhuvertaraiyar’s boat overturned there has been no news about him.”

“Yes.”

“I will beg Vandhiyathevar. I will ask him that he should go and find out about my husband for my sake. You also plead my case. That warrior will not refuse two helpless women. The way to save his life is to send him away from here immediately. There is no other solution. After he leaves you can talk to your father and brother freely; boldly. I will also speak on your behalf. ‘To force a girl against her wish is not becoming of those born in the Chola tribe,’ I will say.”

“If they won’t listen to you also, then I do have the knife in my hand!”

“Alright, alright! First let’s get your lover away from this palace. You know where he is? If you cannot see him yourself, then send your companion Chandramathi. Or else, send Idumbankari, and bring him here somehow!”

“Even if he agrees to leave from here, how will he go, Sister? If my brother stops him …?”

“Why should your brother know? Manimekalai! Think of how he made a sudden entrance here, surprising you, the very first time. We can send him through that same underground passage! Go quickly, Sister! Every minute that Vandhiyathevar spends in this fort his life is in more danger. How can we know when the murderers set by your brother will attack him?”

“I am going, Sister! I will somehow bring him,” said Manimekalai as she departed.

When her footsteps faded Nandhini heard someone knocking on the secret door to the hunting gallery. She went to the secret door and opened its inner door. In the dark the outline of a grotesque face presented itself.

“Magician! Have you arrived?” Nandhini said.

“I have arrived, Rani. The time has also arrived,” answered Ravithasan.

32. Final Step

After pulling the bolt and locking the main door to her room Nandhini with lamp in hand entered the taxidermy gallery through the secret door.

Magician Ravithasan’s face was already grotesque. The wounds on his head made it even more grotesque.

Nandhini asked, “Magician! What happened? These are fresh wounds on your body!”

“Rani! What is the surprise? You think that we spend our time feasting on gourmet meals and lounging on silk mattresses? It is a wonder that Parameshwaran and I escaped alive today. It is the late Pandya emperor’s ghost that saved us …”

“No! Ravithasa! No! His spirit is with me at all times. Even a nazhikai ago it appeared before me and asked if I was going to keep my promise or not.”

“Rani! What answer did you give?”

“That I will fulfill my promise today or I will kill myself, I said.”

“In that case it was good that we came here running. After all this time what is the use to anyone if you killed yourself? We must finish what we undertook! If you cannot …”

“Who said I cannot? I will fulfill my promise. After that I will take my life …”

“No, no! After carrying out your promise there is so much else that you can do. We must crown Veera Pandyan’s beloved son in Maduarai for the world to see …”

“You can take care of the rest. Tonight my work will be over. My life will also be over …”

“Rani! All the wealth hoarded up in Pazhuvertaraiyar’s treasury must reach malainadu. Your help is needed for that!”

“Even after I fulfill my promise, you want me to live in deception of my husband, Magician?”

“Madam! Who is your husband?”

“I mean the innocent man who married me for the world to see, ignoring the country’s ridicule, who facilitates every promise and oath of mine.”

“Rani! Pazhuvertaraiyar is not your husband. Every night Veera Pandyar appears in my dream and commands me to treat you as his queen …”

“Magician! Let’s not talk about him. You did not tell me how you suffered these wounds?”

“Yesterday night an old tiger attacked us in the Kollidam jungle. For an old tiger its teeth and nails were rather sharp …”

“How did you escape?”

“Where we crowned the Pandya prince …, we pushed that pallipadai temple’s dilapidated tower over the tiger … and we escaped …”

“Aiyo! What a pity! You could not stand against even an old tiger and win …!”

“Yes, Rani! We agree. So, how can we stand against a young tiger like Athitha Karikalan? That is why we have to use magic and chicanery. Devi! If we miss today we are never going to have another opportunity. After news of Sundara Cholan and Arulmozhivarman gets here, Athitha Karikalan will be beyond our reach …,” said Ravithasan.

“Magician! What about them? Do you have any news about them,” asked Nandhini.

“By now their lives would have ended, no doubt …”

“You said the same thing when you and Thevaralan went to Eezham.”

“There, that dumb lunatic harassed us nonstop. That is why we could not …”

“You said that Varanar tribe warrior has drowned in the sea. He has also escaped and is here …”

“We did have an opportunity to take care of him in the pallipadai jungle. But you stopped us.”

“I told you that there was good reason for that …”

“I know nothing of this good reason. He is now here protecting Athitha Karikalan like an iron glove.”

“You need not worry about it.”

“I have to. If not today, then it’s never! Devi! What have you planned? What are we to do?”

“At the moment the biggest help to me would have been if none of you had turned up here …”

“No, that is not true.”

“You don’t trust me …”

“We are here because we trust you. We are here to take you away safely once the job is done. If there are any unexpected hurdles, we are prepared for that also. Any moment you can summon us for help.”

“In my plan there is no room for hurdles. After the job is done I don’t want to live.”

“That cannot be. You must come with us. Or else …”

“Magician! After my promise is fulfilled I will stay in Pazhuvertaraiyar’s house even for a minute …”

“In that case you come with us!”

“How will you take me?”

“The underground passage ends at Aiyanar temple. In the woods there, we will have the Pazhuvur Rani’s palanquin. To prepare it for the journey Idumbankari has already brought it out. We will carry the goddess who avenged the man who took Veera Pandyan’s head. Before dawn we will be in Kollimalai.”

“How many of you are here?”

“Four!” Ravithasan clapped his hands softly.

Men hiding behind the dreadful and dead animals in that gallery looked out showing their heads.

“Where is Parameshwaran?” Nandhini asked.

“I have left him outside. A kalamugan was conducting pooja at Aiyanar temple. Getting rid of him was not easy. I have left Thevaralan at the temple entrance to to make sure that the kalamugan does not come back …”

“Why should we worry about kalamuga men? Magician! Did you hear any news about the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar?”

“News?”

“He left for Thanjavur, didn’t he? On the way while crossing Kollidam the boat capsized. Sambuvaraiyan had received word this evening that Pazhuvertaraiyar did not make it to the shore; that he had drowned!”

“God! Was that his fate? You did not mention this all this while?”

“I did not believe it, Magician! I don’t think that Pazhuvertaraiyar would have died drowning in Kollidam.”

“I also have no faith in this rumor, Rani!”

“What if he has swum to this side of Kollidam? If supposing he comes here tonight? … This is what concerns me …”

“Rani! You need not worry. I remember now. On Kollidam’s other side on Thanjavur road I saw a well built gentleman last night. He was not clothed in silk or jewelry. Because it was dark I did not recognize then. Now looking back, that man on the road could have been the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar!”

“Then, he certainly won’t return here tonight?”

“No! You can be sure of that. What are your orders for us now?”

“Magician! You must wait here patiently! Whatever seems to happen in my room, however many voices you may hear, don’t barge in. It will only spoil matters. When you hear me call, come!”

“Rani! How will you call?”

“Magician! You know that it has been many years since I laughed out loud! You probably have never heard me laugh!”

“Devi! Just once, when you were speaking to that wretched young man Vandhiyathevan, I heard you laugh …”

“Aha! You have that in memory! Good! Today, if you hear me laugh, open the secret door and come in. That is the signal that the job is over. It may be Vandhiyathevan again that I will be laughing at. You need not be surprised by that …”

“Devi! I am beginning to understand your plan …”

“If you can be patient for just a while longer, all will be clear. If there is some unexpected hurdle, you will hear me crying. Come immediately …”

“We will do just that, Rani. But I don’t want to hear your crying. I want to hear your laughter,” said Magician Ravithasan.

33. “Aiyo! Ghost!”

At the same time, Vandhiyathevan was lethargically pacing back and forth in the palace garden. The garden was situated along the outer wall. Nocturnal blooms were just then beginning to unfold their petals. The north wind blew the scent of paneer, parijatham, mallikai, and mullai onto his face. ‘Aha! If only this were the Pazhaiyarai palace garden! If only it were the ankle bracelets on Kundavai Devi’s feet that I hear!’ His mind wondered. ‘I am here in this Kadampoor palace! Defeated in serving this reckless prince!’ He thought. He was hurt by Athitha Karikalar’s angry outburst that evening: “For the rest of the day, do not come before me! When the sun comes up tomorrow I will tell you my decision about you!” The prince had lost his temper as never before. A pity! What is the use of finding fault with him? His mind is so rattled. When he considered the man’s situation Vandhiyathevan felt sorry for the prince.

* * *

That day Athitha Karikalan’s frenzy had reached new heights. Excitement and lethargy, anger and joy, friendship and arch enmity – these opposing emotions kept him swinging. He in turn kept everyone around him dancing. Unable to predict what he would do next those around him were in a state of shock.

The news that arrived at sunrise that day helped heighten his agitation. It was Sambuvaraiyar who came with the news that Thirukovalur Malaiamman was getting his troops ready. He voiced his objection and criticism of it.

“Malaiamman is an old man from antiquity. He is over eighty. Why are you afraid of him,” asked the prince.

“Sir! We come in the line of Kollimalai leader Valvil Ori. We do not know what fear is. I am hesitating because of your presence here. If only you would give permission …”

” … You are ready to battle with the old man. That’s it! Sambuvaraiyar! I am the one who asked my grandfather to bring the troops!”

“Why, Prince!”

“I am caught here alone among you! If anything happens to me here …”

Komahan! If you have doubts of that nature even the size of an atom … this very second …”

” … You will ask me to vacate the premises?”

“Aiya! This is your kingdom. This is your palace. Tiger flag flies on top. Who am I to ask you to leave? If you give permission my family and I will leave the palace. You can have miladudaiyar Malaiamman here and be safe.”

“Oho! Are you pointing out that you as the descendant of Valvil Ori is fearless and I, from the Vijayalaya Cholar tribe is a coward.”

“The chivalry and strong will of the prince is known all over the world. At the age of twelve you entered the battlefield, massacred the enemy and earned the name ‘heroic warrior.’ Again at eighteen, you chased the warring Veera Pandyan to his hideout and returned with his head …”

“I know, Sir! I know! I know how you made fun of me. That I am the brave tiger who chased a man in the running, that I brought back the head from an already dead Veera Pandyan; I am also aware that the Pazhuvur female devil is the cause of these rumors!” Athitha Karikalan laughed menacingly.

Sambuvaraiyar regretted engaging this fanatic prince in talk.

“Son of the king! Nothing I can say can be right. Please do whatever you wish. I will take my leave.”

“You jolly well may. But give up the thought of leaving the fort. I also will not leave until I find out the truth about the treacherous meeting that was held here a few months ago,” said Athitha Karikalan.

Sambuvaraiyar’s lips quivered. His body trembled. Tears welled in his eyes.

Parthipenthiran saw this. He addressed the prince.

“Son of the king! Just as the Chola tribe is famous in their chivalrous tradition they have also earned their name for fairness. You are not doing justice to this elderly person. You are wounding his heart with your words. Sambuvaraiyar has already provided an explanation for the petty kings’ meeting that was held here and you have accepted it. Because you have been saying that you don’t want the kingdom, because you are refusing to go to Thanjavur, the petty kings with the wellbeing of the Chola kingdom in mind discussed the succession to the throne. If you are willing to take on the burden of the kingdom why would they have to concern themselves? When they have brave Athitha Karikalar who is famous all over the world, would they consider – even in their dreams – Mathuranthaka Thevan, who has never seen the battlefield? …”

Athitha Karikalan interrupted. “Yes, yes! While I am alive it is impossible for another man to ascend to the Chola throne. That is why you are trying to get rid of me!” He laughed again in an outrageously loud tone.

“Parthipenthira! You thought that I don’t know that you have joined them? You thought that I didn’t know, when we went hunting the other day how Kanthamaran and you followed me taking aim at me with your spears? If my true friend Vandhiyathevan had not by god’s will arrived here, wouldn’t you have by now sent me to yamanulakam,” he added.

Parthipenthiran glared at Vandhiyathevan as if he intended to kill him with his eyes. “Sir! This villain has spoiled your mind with his talk. If he can prove, that I wronged you even in my thought, then this very second …” he said.

“Appan! Who can prove the guilt of your mind? Answer my question! You and Kanthamaran brought me here lured by Pazhuvur Rani’s charms? Do you disagree?”

“I do not, Prince! There is no need to disagree. I am very confident that Pazhuvur Rani has the best of intentions. Her goal is to bring you here, get you married to Kanthamaran’s sister and prevent any internal turmoil in Cholanadu. There isn’t anything that can make us all happier than to see the Chola crown on your head. I will tolerate anyone insulting me. But if anyone insults the Pazhuvur Rani, I will this very second make him fodder to my sword!” With is eyes on Vandhiyathevan, Parthipenthiran drew his sword.

“Aha! My Brave Friend! Put back the sword! I will tell you when the time comes. Then you can take it out. Vandhiyathevan did not malign Pazhuvur Rani. He is also like you smitten with her beauty. In fact, he is swearing that Pazhuvur Rani is my sister. He came running to give me this news. He has cast blame on you as well. He is telling that you brought my brother from Eezhanadu in your ship and drowned him in the sea on the way. What is your answer to that,” said Athitha Karikalar.

“I will answer that,” said Kanthamaran who walked in at that time.

Komahan! I have brought good news. The young prince did not drown. Ponniyin Selvar  has been hiding in Nagaipattinam Soodamani viharam all these days. When the sea rose following the storm and inundated Nagaipattinam, he had to come out. He is on his way to Thanjavur now surrounded by thousands of people,” Kanthamaran said gaily.

If he envisioned that the news will place Karikalan in a better state of mind, disappointment awaited him. Karikalar’s wrath now turned in a different direction.

“What? What? Arulmozhi is on his way to Thanjavur? Surrounded by thousands of people? Why? Vallavaraiya? What did you tell me? What is going on now? You told me that Arulmozhi will remain in Nagaipattinam until he knows my opinion. Why is he now going to Thanjavur? …”

Vandhiyathevan interrupted. “Sir! That is what the junior stateswoman told me. I do not know what happened afterwards. If necessary I will …”

“Aha! You want to leave also? Good, good! All of you have become my enemies. I understand your perfidy. I know why Arulmozhi is going to Thanjavur. This is that Kodumbalur periya Velan’s trick. That old man’s wish is to tie his brother’s daughter around my brother’s neck and have them on the Chola throne. I heard that Kodumbalur Velan is also heading to Thanjai with the southern battalion. My sister, the junior stateswoman is also involved in this perfidy. Yes; you too …”

“Prince! Pardon me! Neither Ponniyin Selvar nor the junior stateswoman have any such thought. That is the truth, if you wish, I will go and find out the truth,” said Vandhiyathevan.

“You also want to join in their perfidy! Kanthamara! If there is an underground dungeon in this palace take him and lock him there,” hearing Athitha Karikalan’s command, Kanthamaran with much happiness went to seize Vandhiyathevan.

Karikalar immediately changed his order. “No, no! The chola tribe never goes against the law. They will not punish until proven guilty. Vallavaraiya! Do not sight me for the rest of the day! That is your punishment! I will tell tomorrow whether you are going to Thanjai or the dungeon. Go! Go! Don’t wait here another second,” he said.

Vandhiyathevan looked at Karikalar’s face. It seemed to tell him, ‘This is just horseplay!’ But in an instant deciding that it was better not to be near the fanatical prince Vandhiyathevan said, “Sir! Your wish is my honor!” Then he left.

Later that day in the afternoon Vallavaraiyan Vandhiyathevan found out that acting on the prince’s order, Sambuvaraiyar and Parthipenthiran had departed to meet Thirukovalur kizhar and bring him with them.

He also knew that the prince and Kanthamaran had a long private conversation.

These events had exhausted Vandhiyathevan’s mind. What will the prince order the following day? Will he order him to go to Thanjavur? Will he tell him to stop at Pazhaiyarai on the way? How nice that will be? He did not at all like the life in Kadampoor palace. No one here seemed happy. Forever they behaved as if they have lost something. When darkness descended the palace did not at all seem like a place of human habitation. It looked like an old manor inhabited by ghouls and goblins. How and when will he leave this place? …

While Vandhiyathevan was thus absorbed in his thoughts, “Aiyo! Ghost,” a woman’s cry cut into his stream of consciousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ponniyin Selvan Part V (25 – 29)

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

25. At the Entrance to the Fort

Leaving his tent Poothi Vikramakesari leapt onto the horse that was waiting outside. He hurried to the north entrance of Thanjai fort. He noticed an elephant that was also making its way to the north entrance. On the elephant were the elephant-keeper and two women. The elephant-keeper blew the horn that he held in his hand. Then he announced in a high pitched voice, “Make way for the beloved daughter of Paranthaka siriya Velar who died in Eezham; the adopted daughter of Kodumabalur periya Velar Colonel Poothi Vikramakesari; the beloved friend of Pazhaiyarai junior stateswoman Kundavai Devi; Vanathi Devi! Parak! Parak!”

When he reached the trench surrounding the fort he blew his horn again. Before its echo faded he spoke again in the same high pitched voice: “Kodumbalur Princess Vanathi Devi has a message to the emperor from the junior stateswomanr. She is bringing an important message to the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar from the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar! Open the gates to the fort! Parak! Parak! Make way for Kodumabalur Princess and her friend Madam Poongkuzhali! Open the gates!”

Colonel Poothi Vikramakesari’s astonishement at hearing these words cannot be described. The elephant-keeper’s voice sounded familiar. Who is he? Does it matter who the elephant-keeper is? He must first make sure that it is Vanathi who is on the elephant! He must stop her from entering the fort! If it is her, then it is for the best! Until these problems are resolved it is best that the child remains with him …! With these thoughts the colonel rode his horse to the elephant. Among the soldiers hastily following him and trying to keep up with him, one held a torch in his hand. From the light of the torch it was apparent that the two women atop the elephant were indeed siriya Velar’s daughter Vanathi and Poongkuzhali.

“Child! Vanathi!” Before he could continue the elephant-keeper sounded his horn again. How to stop this fellow? Fortunately the women on the elephant saw the men approaching on horses.

After telling the elephant-keeper to be quiet Vanathi said, “Periyappa! Is that you? What I heard is true?”

“Yes, Child! It is me! You are carrying messages? Junior Stateswoman cannot employ anyone else? Under such conditions …,” said the colonel.

“Yes, Periyappa! Because the situation is so dire, she sent me. News arrived that you have surrounded Thanjai fort with troops. She was afraid that your troops may not let anyone in; and even if they did, those inside the fort may refuse to open the gates. Therefore she felt that I could be of help in both situations. Poongkuzhali was also sent to help me …”

“Yes, yes! The boatwoman is very smart. I am aware of that. But, what is this message that you have? So urgent, that it must be delivered in the night?”

“The news is urgent, Periyappa! I have brought news about Ponniyin Selvar to the emperor.”

“Aha! News about Ponniyin Selvar! What do you know about him?”

“Why, I know a lot – the heroic warrior, mighty trickster, Kaveri will not drown him, nor the ocean, beacon to those who seek sanctuary, never forgets a good deed owed, devoted to mother and father, will not cross the sister’s word, no inclination for ruling …”

“Enough! Enough! I didn’t ask for any of that. Is the Prince alright? Do you know where he is now?”

“He’s alright, Periyappa! I know where he is now. But I cannot tell!”

“What? Cannot tell? Even to me? Vanathi, is that you who is speaking?”

“Yes, Periyappa! It is me. I have promised not to tell anyone where the prince is.”

Colonel Poothi Vikaramakesari was frothing. “Girl! I believed that if I sent you to the junior stateswoman she will bring you up properly. But she has turned you into this stubborn woman! Enough of you being at Pazhaiyarai. Get down! Let me send you to Kodumbalur …,” he said.

Periyappa! I do not wish to step on this Thanjavur soil. That is why I remain seated on the elephant. This elephant has a case of rutting. This morning it threw down a man. Therefore, please don’t come too close. After I deliver my message I will come back to you. You can send me to Kodumbalur. Or, send me to where my father is. But don’t stop me now,” said Vanathi.

Poothi Vikramakesari was pensive for a moment. “Alright, Child! I won’t stop you. What will you do if the fortress gates don’t open,” he asked.

“Periyappa! You are here with this big battalion. What for? If the fortress doors won’t open, order your soldiers to break them open,” said Vanathi.

Poothi Vikramakesari beamed with pride. “Child! You spoke like a Kodumbalur king’s daughter. If necessary I will do exactly that. But that will not be necessary. Who is this sinna Pazhuvertaraiyan to stop you who has brought a message from the junior stateswoman to the emperor? He will never do that.

But please deliver a message to sinna Pazhuvertaraiyan from me also! Tell him that if you are harmed in anyway while you are inside the fort that I will wipe out his tribe without a trace! Tell him that my friends and I have come to hear the emperor speak! Let him know that by sunset tomorrow if he doesn’t offer us a meeting with the emperor that we will start to attack the fort,” he said.

“Alright, Periyappa,” said Vanathi. Once again the elephant-keeper sounded the horn. “Make way for the Kodumbalur Princess! Open the fortress gates!” He bellowed.

26. Vanathi’s Entrance

Inside the fort, he younger Pazhuvertaraiyar was having a mental breakdown. In valor he was not inferior to anyone else. But in other matters he was used to functioning under his brother’s counsel, so today in this difficult situation his mind fluttered like a bird with a broken wing. Since dawn he had received bad news one after another.

He received news that it was more than three days since the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar had started for Thanjai from Kadampoor Sambuvaraiyar’s palace. He also heard that on the day of the storm, many boats while crossing river Kollidam had sunk. A short while after a man who was on one of the boats with the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar turned up. He said that their boat also capsized and that he reached the shore after much difficulty.

Another spy came with the news that Prince Arulmozhivarmar had come out of hiding in Nagapattinam Soodamani Viharam. A large crowd of people were escorting him to Thanjai. While the prince stopped at Thiruvarur for the night, the spy had journeyed through the night crossing towns that were a wilderness of floodwater.

A short time after that a man sent by Sambuvaraiyar himself arrived. Sambuvaraiyar sent word that Thirukovalur Malaiamman was gathering his troops, and that Athitha Karikalar’s recklessness was increasingly on the rise, and because of it Sambuvaraiyar would like the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar to return immediately.

The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar on the other hand, was not in Thanjai. How can he return immediately? Would Kollidam’s flood have stolen that brave old man whom even Yaman dared not to meddle with? The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar was devastated.

Next arrived like thunder the news hastily delivered by spies from the south. They brought news that rows upon rows of soldiers were marching down on all three roads that led to Thanjai from the south and that Kodumbalur Poothi Vikramakesari was with them.

It was when he heard this news that the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar ordered all gates to be closed. He blocked anyone from entering or leaving the fort.

As usual he had the velakara soldiers guarding the emperor’s palace and his own men, the fort. He wanted to let the emperor know of these developments.

Before he embarked on that he wanted to consult with the chief minister, Aniruthar. Even though he didn’t have much faith in Aniruthar, he felt good about having him in Thanjai at that time. In this way, Aniruthar cannot do anything without the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s knowledge! It was better to even pretend that the chief minister’s counsel was being sought. In this way, no one can blame the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar if anything goes wrong.

Instead of going to visit the emperor alone, it was better to take Aniruthar also with him. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar believed that Prince Arulmozhivarman and Poothi Vikramakesari – who wanted to forge an alliance with the prince by giving his niece in marriage, – have conspired together to take over Thanjai, and this was the reason that the two men were advancing from both sides. This information will be difficult for the emperor to believe if it came from the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s mouth. Having Aniruthar by his side will lend credibility!

For his part, chief minister Aniruthar was also shaken up. He did not like the fact that the junior stateswoman Kundavai departed from Thanjai that morning. His peace of mind was already compromised by the disappearance of Eezhathurani and Poongkuzhali. “Where would they have gone? How could they have gone? Why” – raking his mind perpetually in this manner did not shed any light. The news that Poothi Vikramakesari is coming with troops completely unnerved him.

Yet, he advised the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar that the emperor need not hear about these developments.

“I hear that the emperor’s mental woes are on the rise today. The queen’s private maid was sent to inform me. If we break the news about Poothi Vikramakesari he might burst a vein in his brain that may end up fatal. Already the rumor in Thanjai is that the emperor has passed away. Think how damaging it will be if it turns out to be true. The rumor then will be that you have killed the emperor. That will make it very convenient for your enemies. Therefore, let’s wait before making a decision. First, let’s find out what Poothi Vikramakesari’s intentions are. Meanwhile we may hear more about the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar and Ponniyin Selvar. Until then please be patient,” he said. Kalanthaka Kandar thought that this was prudent.

“In that case I will leave you the responsibility of informing the emperor. I will deal with the safety of the fortress,” he said. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar then took his leave from the chief minister.

From then on he concentrated on tightening the security around the fort. He concentrated on being prepared for a protracted attack that may last days. If the Kodumbalur troops entered by breaking the fortress gates or by climbing over the fence he wanted to be prepared to defeat them by placing soldiers at strategic points. If the fortress wall is damaged in places he must have it repaired.

While the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar concentrated on these efforts his mind continued to think about ways to get information from the outside.

Thanjai fort had only two underground passages. One went out from the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar’s palace through the treasury cellar. It opened on the side of Vadavaru which was high with floodwater at the time. Opening it will only let the flood surge into the cellar. So no one will be able to use this passage for a few days.

The other underground passage left from chief minister Aniruthar’s palace. But no one can enter or exit from it without the knowledge of the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar. Where it crossed the fortress wall the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s guard was posted. He planned on sending his private aides via this underground passage at the close of the second jamam that night. He will send men to Kadampoor and Pazhaiyarai to gather reliable information about the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar and Ponniyin Selvar.

Just as Kalanthaka Kandar arrived at this decision, a soldier hastily entered and told him that two women have arrived on an elephant at the north entrance and that the elephant-keeper was yelling for the gates to be opened. When he heard that one of the women was Vanathi the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar was surprised. How dare she ask for entry when her periyappa has camped outside the fort with his troops. At first he thought that he should firmly refuse to open the gate. But by the time he reached the north entrance, his mind had changed.

“Refuse to open the gate because of a little girl? How pitiful? That will damage my valorous reputation,” he thought. He was also curious about why this girl wanted entry into the fort in this manner.

He looked out at the entrance from the tower of the fort. Beside the elephant-keeper, there were two women on the elephant. He recognized one of them as Vanathi. He saw Kodumbalur periya Velar speaking to her. Fragments of their conversation also reached his ears. He surmised that periya Velar was asking Vanathi not to enter the fort, and Vanathi was adamantly taking the opposite view. Therefore his notion of opening the gate for Vanathi gained more ground.

Once periya Velar moved away he saw the elephant taking a few steps to come and stand at the edge of the trench that bordered the outer wall of the fort. Just as before, the elephant-keeper blew his horn and announced, “Open the door for Kodubalur Princess! Make way for Vanathi Devi who is bringing messages to the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar from the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar, and from the junior stateswoman to the emperor!”

When he heard this all remaining traces of indecision and uncertainty left the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s mind. Indeed it was strange that the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar should send a message through Vanathi. There may be some foul play her. If there was, won’t he detect it? Can this little girl survive after deceiving him? Let’s see!

To the sound of the elephant-keeper’s horn a response came from the tower. Light from a torch appeared. The pointed ends of spears could be seen glittering in the light. Arrows could be seen mounted and ready, on bows curved and taut. From among them a figure emerged.

“The gates will open for the Kodumbalur Princess. If anyone else other than the elephant and those on the elephant tried to enter, they will no sooner go to yamanulakam!” The figure announced in a voice that roared like thunder.

When they heard it Poothi Vikramakesari and his men moved away slightly. The gates of the fort opened. The bridge over the trench was lowered. As the elephant crossed, the bridge shook. Vanathi felt fear. But there was no danger. The elephant crossed the trench and entered the fort through the open gates. Next minute the bridge was pulled up again; gates were shut.

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s elephant came and stood next to Vanathi’s. “Princess! Welcome! Welcome! I am very happy that against your uncle’s objection you have agreed to be my guest! Please don’t be afraid that you are in any kind of danger here!” The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar said in a majestic voice.

“Sir! I am not afraid. After I deliver the messages I have, I won’t care if you should even lock me up in the dungeon,” said Vanathi.

27. ‘Stop Here!’

To the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar talk about the dungeon brought back old memories. Forgetting conventional pleasantries he said, “Yes; you have been to the dungeon at least once. You went with the junior stateswoman. You went seeking information about the fellow who escaped after getting caught for spying!”

“No, Sir! That is not true. We went to the dungeon that day not to find out about the spy. We went to find out about the message sent by the crown prince Athitha Karikalar.”

“That’s what you thought. How could you have known whether he was a spy or a courier. You are an innocent little girl. There is no use arguing with you. So, after getting there, did you find out anything about him?”

“No, the person we went to see, he was released, even without your knowledge. Pazhuvur Ilayarani’s order preceded us. Alas! What can you do?”

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar bit his lips. His elder brother’s indulgence in Ilaiyarani’s excesses against his many warnings is being criticized even by this young woman! Hiding his feeling of shame, “For your part, you also helped free a half madman,” he said.

“Sir! You are calling Senthan Amuthan who delivers flowers to the temple a half madman. You will be surprised if you knew the great service done to Cholanadu because of his release that day!”

“Girl! There is nothing that will surprise me any longer. I am tired of standing in awe of whoever and whatever on behalf of Cholanadu. Even you are here now to do great service to Cholanadu, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Sir! If it’s not important would your brother have sent me? An ignorant and helpless woman?”

“My brother is indeed getting smarter by the day. It’s obvious from the fact that he chose you for this task. Quickly tell me your message!”

“He said to tell you that it was a mistake to have ignored the Pandyanadu troublemakers. Veera Pandyan’s aides are in fact engaged in dangerous activities. They have marked today as the day to avenge the Chola tribe. He said that the emperor must be given the utmost protection …”

Kalanthaka Kandar laughed. “This is the important news? I thought it had to do with your uncle arriving with troops. If he can keep an eye on the Kodumbalur garrison from outside, I can take care of the emperor inside the fort. Neither he, nor the junior stateswoman or you need worry about it,” he said.

“Knowing that you will take this nonchalant attitude, he also gave another message. Apparently you have warned him about a magician who frequented Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani’s palace; he did not want to listen, he was angry at you over it. ‘Brother! I have committed a grave mistake. That magician Ravithasan is the Pandyanadu saboteur. Head of Veera Pandyan’s emergency squad, who has vowed to destroy the Chola tribe without a trace. Today, one of his men will try to take revenge on the emperor. Don’t be naive. Take all precautions!’ – This is the message sent by the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar. I have done my duty …”

Kalanthaka Kandar was indeed startled. No one other than his elder brother could have sent this message.

“Girl! If this is true, why is he not here? Why has he sent you …?”

“He did not send me. He asked the junior stateswoman. She sent me. Danger awaits Athitha Karikalar also today. He has gone to protect him.”

“From where? Where did he see you?”

“He saw us at Kudanthai astrologer’s house. If you are still suspicious please listen to this. When your brother was crossing river Kollidam the boat capsized. After he scrambled on to the shore and was sleeping at pallipadai, he heard the saboteurs talking. Sir! Do we still need to stand here chatting? Or can we go to the palace?”

“Girl! Let’s assume that all what you said is true. However artful, no saboteur can go past the palace guard. Because you are a woman I let you in …”

“Why must anyone come from outside? What if the saboteurs are inside the fort …?”

“Impossible …”

“Alright! That’s your responsibility. My duty …”

” … you have fulfilled. You can return now.”

“No, Sir! I have fulfilled only half of my duty. If I give the emperor the junior stateswoman’s message then my task is complete …”

“You can give me that news also.”

“No. The junior stateswoman ordered me to deliver this news directly to the emperor. Here is the junior stateswoman’s signature ring! …”

“Ah! Anyone can produce a signature ring. What is the guarantee that the junior stateswoman gave you the ring? Your uncle has the fort covered. How are you to be trusted? …”

“What is the danger that you are fearful of that this helpless woman can cause?”

“Girl! Members of the Pazhuvur tribe do not know the meaning of fear …”

“In that case let me proceed to the palace. You also come with me …”

“The emperor’s mind is very disturbed today …”

“I have brought news that will relieve his mind, Sir! If you know what it is you will regret stopping me …”

Surprised the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar asked, “Girl! Perhaps you have brought news of the young prince?”

“Yes, Colonel!”

“Aha! Is the young prince alright? Where is he now? He …. the saboteurs …”

“Yes; He was also a target of the Pandyanadu saboteurs. But by the grace of god no harm was done. He is well. You are happy to hear this?”

“Good question! Of course I am happy to hear good news about the prince. Come, come! I don’t want to waste time. Come to the palace and speak directly to the emperor!”

With this final remark the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar rode away on his elephant. He was eager for news of the prince. He never thought of Arulmozhivarman as a competition for his son-in-law Mathuranthakan and the Thanjai throne. He knew that was not the emperor’s plan. Arulmozhivarman was also not the kind of person to cross his father’s word. His worry was that Kundavai should not interfere and make trouble. Has she started some conspiracy now? Keeping Arulmozhivarman by her side would she have sent some disturbing news to her father? If this Kodumbalur girl has really brought news of the prince to the emperor he will not stand in her way. If he knows what Arulmozhuvarmar’s intention was then he can make his plans accordingly! At the same time he can also let the emperor know about Poothi Vikramakesari’s treacherous move to surround the fort with his troops.

The two elephants stopped at the palace entrance. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar slid down from the elephant with ease. The other elephant rolling like a hill folded its legs and lay down. The two women and the elephant-keeper stepped down. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar whispered something in the palace guard’s ear. He opened the doors to the palace.

The message Vanathi claimed to have brought from his elder brother was lurking in the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s mind. Even if he tried he could not ignore it. Especially the news about magician Ravithasan took away his peace of mind altogether. He had always known about Veera Pandyan’s emergency squad. But he had no idea that they had a foothold inside the Thanjai palace itself. He believed that Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani’s consultations with the magician were mainly for the sake of drawing the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar more and more into her spell. He also believed that her intention was to turn the two brothers away from each other. But the news that this girl delivered was indeed threatening. Yet, what magician or saboteur can do anything? Without his permission not even a fly can enter the emperor’s palace. The emperor never ventured outside. In any case it is wise to further tighten the security around the palace. The last two days had seen too many people flocking in, citing the storm and flood as excuse or on the pretext of seeing the chief minister. No one knows if all of them did exit the fort. It was good that the gates were shut today without warning. If anyone suspicious was hiding inside they can be caught ….

Preoccupied by these concerns the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar beckoned his men who were always present at the palace entrance. He ordered them to search inside the fort for anyone suspicious and bring them to him.

He wanted to have the velakara troops to forego sleep and guard the palace through the night. So he sent for their leader. Then he turned to see what had become of the women on the elephant. They had just crossed the piazza and were about to go inside. But … but … who is he? The other person behind them? He is wearing a turban like the elephant-keeper! Aha! Why is the elephant-keeper following them? What has the elephant-keeper got to do in the palace? What business has the elephant-keeper got with the emperor?
As if struck by lightening his mind reverberated igniting his fury. Is there some perfidy here? Is this fellow the saboteur? The women were fooled because of the fellow’s elephant-keeper disguise? Has he been fooled? Right in front of his eyes Veera Pandyan’s emergency squad is marching into the emperor’s palace? Is Kalanthaka Kandar that much of a fool? Or is this part of Poothi Vikramakesari’s conspiracy? Whatever it is, it will be exposed right this second!

In four quick strides he was across the piazza standing beside the elephant-keeper. “Aday! Stop here!” He barked.

“Why are you going in? What business has the elephant-keeper got inside the palace?” The elephant-keeper’s arm lay in his vajrayutham like clenched fist.

Hearing his angry voice the two women in front turned. Their faces reflected a medley of feelings – excitement, anxiety and fear. At the same time smiles broke out as well. Vanathi began, ” Sir! … He … he … ” and then hesitated.

Consumed by anger younger Pazhuvertaraiyar did not want to see her or hear her. The elephant-keeper’s confusion confirmed his suspicion. He wondered if this was the Varnar tribe young man who once escaped after deceiving him. Has he dared to fool him again? …

Tightening his grip on the man’s arm the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar said, “Ada! Tell the truth! Who are you? Are you the elephant-keeper? Or, saboteur? Are you the spy who got away from here once? This time you won’t escape!” While speaking he turned the man’s face towards him. The lamps that were burning in the front hall of the palace shed some light on the stately face of the elephant-keeper.

“Colonel! I am an elephant-keeper also. I have never run away from you. I am here to hand myself over to you!” The elephant-keeper answered.

Kalanthaka Kandar looked at the face. He heard the voice. He felt as if all seven worlds had collapsed over his head. Dazed, he stood like a statue. It didn’t even occur to him to loosen his grip. His hand came undone on its own and freed Prince Arulmozhivarmar.

28. Cheer Broke Out!

The youthful enchantment of Prince Arulmozhivarmar’s face cannot be described in words. There was no frown. There was no sign of anger. He stood apologetic like the Kannan who got caught after stealing butter. He showed no trace of animosity against the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar.

Yet, the fearless, strong willed Kalanthaka Kandar’s limbs were shaking. Perspiration beaded on his face. Unaware of what he was doing he held his palms together in greeting. “Ponniyin Selva! Brave warrior who captured Eezham! The long awaited son of Cholanadu! In this condition? What is this travesty? What have I done to be punished in this manner? … You must kindly forgive me for my mistake. Please say, ‘I forgive you!’ Even with my two good eyes, I turned into a blind man …,” he said in a trembling voice.

As he proceeded to ramble on in this manner the prince stopped him. “Colonel! What is this? You made a mistake? This ignorant little boy must forgive you,” he said.

“Even cutting off this hand that grabbed you will not suffice. Ripping the tongue that called you will not …”

“Your words are molten lead to my ears. Enough! Stop! You did your duty. What’s wrong with that. The mistake is mine. That I would arrive in an elephant-keeper’s disguise …”

” … indeed, I did not expect that. How can you do this? Why? Is this any way for me to welcome the heroic warrior of Cholanadu? Shouldn’t I be hosting a royal welcome with victory drums echoing in all eight directions? …”

“That is why I came in this disguise. This is not the time for celebration. Don’t you know, what the Kodumbalur Princess said about the saboteurs – it all seem credible to me as well …”

“Prince! Have you banded me also with those saboteurs?”

“God! I am so pleased with your arrangements to protect my father. Let me first see my father, then …”

“Sir! Did you think that I will stop you from seeing the emperor? If anyone had told you that I was such an evil …”

“I will never have listened, Colonel!”

“Then why this disguise?”

“How else could I have stepped into the fort, think about it! The troops from the south are all about the place. Periya Velar is also here. You probably know why he is here …”

“Isn’t it right that I ordered the gates shut? Is there anything wrong with that?

“Very prudent. Periya Velar has lost his mind. I came dressed like this knowing that he will be in the way. I brought his daughter also. Fortunately he did not recognize me. Your watchful eyes saw me …”

“My eyes were shut. That is why I didn’t immediately recognize you. Please forgive me for calling you an elephant-keeper …”

“Please don’t say that. I have never drawn a distinction between you and my father. You sent men to bring me back by force …”

“God! What is this talk? Bring you back by force? Because he wanted to see you immediately, your father the emperor sent …”

“Don’t I know that, Colonel! They came when I was in Ilanaki. ‘Not the emperor’s order; it is the Pazhuvertaraiyars …’ – those next to me said …”

“Our enemies will say that …”

“Just like my father’s order, the Pazhuvertaraiyars’ order must be honored,” I told them. I have come crossing the sea, withstanding rain, storm and flood. I thought of asking questions once inside the palace. I had no intention of seeing my father against your wish …”

“Prince! Are you still questioning my motives? What authority do I have over your actions? If you wish me to accompany you I will. If you wish me to stay here, I will! Whatever the Prince wishes, that is my crowning obligation!” The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar said humbly.

“Colonel! You probably will have to wait here. We have stood here too long talking. Look over there,” said the prince.

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar turned around. His men who were standing at a distance had all advanced closer. Not only them; the palace guards were also next to them. From among the velakara troops who were positioned even farther away, a few of the men were walking towards them.

Those who were in front stood there staring at Ponniyin Selvar in amazement. When the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar turned, the light fell directly on the prince brightly illuminating his face.

“Long live the prince, one of the soldiers said. “Long live the prince,” said another. “Long live the warrior who beat Mahinthan and conquered Eezham,” said yet another.

When they heard their voices the velakara troops came running forward. “Long live Ponniyin Selvar,” rose many voices in greeting.

Since this was the entrance to the palace, and in deference to the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar the voices did not rise very high. It was like the gentle breeze rustling the new Spring growth of the arasa tree. In time as days passed we will see in the chapters to come how this faint sound grew and became the loud chorus that beat even the roar of the thousands of waves crashing in the great ocean.

“Colonel! It was a mistake to stand here talking. Now you see why I didn’t want to reveal myself before I was well inside the palace,” said the prince.

“I see, Prince! I will pacify them. You should proceed,” said Kalanthaka Kandar.

29. Uncertain Adversity

After Ponniyin Selvar entered the palace Kalanthaka Kandar went to the velakara soldiers who were gathering at the entrance of the palace.

“What is this disturbance? Don’t you know about the emperor’s condition? Don’t you see the enemy soldiers around the fort?” He asked in a stern voice.

The leader of the velakara troops asked, “Sir! Are they enemies who have surrounded the fort? How did Kodumbalur periya Velar become an enemy?”

Keeping a lid on the furor rising inside him the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar said, “That question ought to be posed to him; if he is no enemy why has he camped outside with a garrison?”

“To crown the young prince, we hear,” said the velakara troop leader.

“You are in agreement with that,” asked the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar.

The velakara troop leader said to his soldiers, “Please answer!”

The soldiers immediately chanted, “Yes! Yes! Long live Ponniyin Selvar! Long live the prince who captured Eezham!”

This time their voices rose stronger than before.

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s face reddened; his mustache twitched. Yet, biting his teeth he asked, “Is this any of periya Velar’s business? Or yours for that matter? Is there no respect for the emperor’s wish?”

One of the soldiers asked, “Colonel! Is the emperor well? Is it true?”

“What kind of question …” Kalanthakar hissed.

“Rumors about the emperor are spreading. Today we also did not see him! So we are all very concerned about his health,” said the velakara troop leader.

“Didn’t I already give the reason for the emperor’s absence? The emperor is in a highly agitated mental state. He did not want to see anyone today. He did not come to the assembly hall also …”

“Why is he agitated? Why did he refuse to see us? Can we at least know that?”

“Good, let me tell you. The emperor was worried about the prince who went to Eezham. Now that the prince is here …”

“We want to see the prince. We want to see him properly in daylight,” said one of the soldiers. “Yes, we want to see him! Long live the prince who conquered Eezham!” All shouted in unison.

“The prince must first visit the emperor. Shouldn’t he? After that if he so wishes, he will see you also!”

“Is that true? Or will he be sent to the dungeon instead?”

On another day, under different circumstances, the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s men would have gone to war against the velakara troops for being rude and impolite. There would have been a riot. But perhaps seeing the charismatic face of the prince just a few minutes ago left the Kalanthaka Kandar’s men mute and passive. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s hand reached for his sword. For a second he was overwhelmed by the urge to slash the impudent soldier’s throat in one quick stroke. Next second, resorting to his countenance he laughed out loud.

“You heard the man’s question? He wants to know if the prince will be sent to the dungeon. Well, it is not under my authority to crown the prince or send him to the dungeon. It is the emperor’s prerogative. If the prince is sent to the dungeon, he will pass this way. At that time you can see him!” Kalanthaka Kandar spoke angrily. Without paying attention to the noisy response of the soldiers he turned to go inside.

He saw Poongkuzhali waiting alone by the entrance. “Girl! Why are you standing here? Did they stop you from going in?” He asked her.

“No one stopped me, Sir! I decided to stand here,” said Poongkuzhali.

“Why?”

“At a time when a father and son are seeing each other after being parted for so long, what business do I have there?”

“Never mind; at least you think that the emperor is alive! That makes me happy!”

“Not only do I think, I just came back after seeing the emperor with my own eyes.”

“Then tell that to the velakara troops over there! They seem to have doubts!” he said.

“There was no basis for any doubts up until this minute. But who knows if it will be true the next minute?”

“Girl! Are you trying to bully me also? Have you all lost your minds?”

“Colonel! People call me a madwoman! Even I call myself a ‘madwoman.’ But, only because of listening to this madwoman’s advice, the prince was able to enter the fort without incident today. He was able to see the emperor while he is still alive …”

“Aha! What is this? Have you also set an ultimatum for the emperor’s life? Are you also blathering like the foolish people and the silly astrologers? Or, do you have specific information?”

“Is it only the people and the astrologers who can set an ultimatum. Didn’t you hear the message sent by your elder brother?”

“What is the assurance that it is true?”

“Colonel! Why should the Kodumbalur Princess lie?”

“Who knows? Maybe she wants to be queen …”

“Colonel! That was my thought also. After hearing the oath that the princess took this morning I have changed my mind!”

“Girl! Perhaps you are harboring the same wish …” The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar smiled.

“Colonel! I am really mad! Otherwise would I have stopped to talk to you?” Poongkuzhali turned to go.

Kalanthaka Kandar’s demeanor changed. “Girl! Don’t be angry! Before leaving, tell me what you wanted to say!” He said.

“Yes, I must speak. Or else I too will regret later. You also will be sorry. Sir! If anything happens to the emperor the entire country will blame you. Even your troops will,” she said.

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar frowned. “If anything happens I will not wait to hear their accusations. Before their words reach my ears my life would have departed! These velakara soldiers have vowed before Durga Parameshwari but I was the one who took the first oath and led the way for others,” he said.

“What is the use of that? The Chola kingdom will lose the emperor as well as a great warrior! Instead of that isn’t it wise to take the necessary precautions?”

“Girl! Are you telling me that I have not taken the necessary precautions? Do you see the soldiers guarding the palace night and day? Why? Even Chief Minister Aniruthar cannot enter the palace without my knowledge! Did you know?”

“I know, Colonel! But danger may come from within …”

“What rubbish? Are you saying that the women in the palace will poison the emperor? … Or, do you mean … the Kodumbalur woman who went in now with the prince?”

“God! Nothing good will come to those who doubt that harmless woman. In fact she is not that smart even. Sir! There is an underground passage that leads into the palace …”

Startled the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar said excitedly, “Girl! How do you know about it? What do you know? Other than three or four people no one knows about it! Those who find it cannot leave alive!”

“Colonel! I found out only this morning. I also saw a Pandyanadu saboteur armed with a spear hiding there …”

“God! This is alarming news … That passage … that passage … do you know where it ends?”

“It goes through the treasury room,” said Poongkuzhali.

“Aha! There may be truth in what you are saying. This is the work of that bewitching imposter masquerading as a woman! This is the work of the female devil that has enslaved my brother. Aiyo! How many times did I warn him? Girl! Is this really true? Did you really see? How did you find out about that passage? …”

“When my aunt took me this morning I found out …”

“Who is your aunt?”

“She is the one who was brought in the palanquin sent by you following the chief minister’s order, Sir! While we discuss this here …”

“True! I will go immediately to the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar’s palace and take care of this. Meanwhile you …”

“I will wait here and keep an eye …”

“Aha! How can I trust you? What is the guarantee that you don’t belong with the Pandyanadu saboteurs? Now that you have sidetracked me …”

“Colonel! In that case come with me! Bring a torch! We will both go and see! While we go I will tell the rest of what I know …”

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar at once called one of the soldiers and said something to him. Poongkuzhali guessed that they were going to the Pazhuvur palace. The colonel took a torch from one of the soldiers.

“Girl! Now lead me! I can see if what you said is true!” Kalanthaka Kandar said.

He still harbored doubts about Poongkuzhali. Maybe the woman had hatched up this fiction to deceive him, who knows? Maybe she wants to find the underground passage, who knows? Maybe this is a trick to let the Kodumbalur men into the fort, who knows? … He will not be deceived so easily. If she has any of these motives she must be properly punished. Can I be fooled like the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar? No! Regardless, let her walk in front. I must first find out if she really knows where the underground passage lies. Then let’s see if the story about the saboteurs hiding there is true. If it is … God! How dangerous! Fortunately, stopping them is not difficult. They will be killed like the fox caught in its hole! …

With such thoughts the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar walked behind Poongkuzhali. He marveled at her speed.

Yes, Poongkuzhali was pulsing with energy. Her walk reflected the state of her mind.

Lately for a period Poongkuzhali’s life had seen some rather strange events. But none compared to what she had witnessed that day. Very early in the morning her Manthahini woke up noiselessly and prodded Poongkuzhali to rise. There was a grotesque face peeking from the balcony of the anthpuram where they were sleeping. Just as soon it had disappeared. Poongkuzhali followed her aunt to the sculpture gallery. The same face that they saw in the loft appeared for a second between the heads of Ravanan and the Kailayankiri his hands were holding up; then it disappeared. Both took a closer look at the statue. Poongkuzhali saw that an underground passage opened up between the hands of Ravanan. First Manthhini, then Poongkuzhali entered the passage. At first Poongkuzhali could not see at all. The passage lay buried in darkness. Stumbling and falling she went holding her aunt’s hand for support. When they went up a few steps from the passage it felt as if they had entered a wider space. It was dark there also. With only their hands to guide them it was difficult to walk without knocking on pillars and walls. After a short while a ray of light began to seep through from a small lattice opening above. Poongkuzhali guessed that the sun had risen. She also knew that they were wandering about in a treasury cellar. But it did not seem likely that the man her aunt Manthahini had come in search of was going to be caught. There were so many places to hide in that dark cellar. Who knows where he is hiding? Before we find him he can find them and stab them from behind killing them; in this cellar no questions will be asked, no court or inquiry will follow.

While Poongkuzhali was thus pondering Manthahini began shrieking in her – neither human nor feral – voice. On its heels came a frightened human cry. The shadow of a figure began running wildly knocking into pillars and walls. Poongkuzhali decided that was the man whose face appeared in the loft. She guessed that he was terrified of her aunt’s cry mistaking it for a ghost or devil. The thought was a source of amusement to her. After a few minutes aunt Manthahini repeated her eerily pitched sonic assaults making the man run around fearfully. In the end he knocked himself against a wooden door. He knocked on the door loudly. After about four or five attempts the door opened. A woman stood at the door. The man said something to her. The woman appeared to hesitate and the man appeared to threaten her. She turned and went back. The man remained at the door peeking outside. In a short while the woman came back with a lamp. Both entered the cellar. Taking Poongkuzhali by her hand Manthahini went and stood behind a large pillar. They had a good look at the man’s face in the light of the lamp.

The woman carrying the lamp walked with the man to the interior of the cellar. “What ghost and what devil? Why should a coward get involved in this type of work?” Poongkuzhali heard the woman saying. Poongkuzhali did not quite understand what was meant by ‘this type of work.’

Once they disappeared into the cellar Manthahini dragged Poongkuzhali by the hand and walked out through the open door. They crossed the footpath and entered a big garden. There in a secluded area Manthahini communicated to Poongkuzhali what she had to say. “My end is near. Before I close my eyes I want to see the prince one last time. You must give this message and bring him back with you,” she gestured.

We know how fond Poongkuzhali was of her aunt. She did not have the heart to leave her at a time like this. But she could not disobey her also. Anyway the thought that this new development provided her another opportunity to see Ponniyin Selvar prompted her to arrive at a quick decision. She took leave of her aunt. After climbing over the wall of the palace, and when she was leaving Thanjai fort, at the entrance she met Azhvarkadiyan. She learnt that following the chief minister’s order he was also on his way to see Ponniyin Selvar. With the help of that brave Vaishnavan her journey proceeded comfortably without obstacles. 

Throughout the day luck was on her side. They saw the junior stateswoman’s chariot in front of Kudanthai astrologer’s house. To find out if Kundavai Devi had any news about the prince they went in. There they found out about the Pandyanadu troublemakers who were hiding in the treasury cellar. She was troubled by the knowledge that the prince was also a target. Vanathi’s promise provided some consolation. When she went to save Princess Vanathi she met the prince also.

What was most satisfying to her? The prince’s acceptance of her idea of going to Thanjai! She knew about the prince going about in Ilankai under the disguise of an elephant-keeper. She had not forgotten him racing from the seashore alone on an elephant leaving the colonel and soldiers behind. Therefore, she suggested that it was best that the prince use the same tactic , that he cannot enter Thanjai fort on his own, and that if he took her and Vanathi he would be allowed in as their elephant-keeper.

“Ocean Princess! That is a good idea. You are fit to serve as the chief minister!” Her mind reveled in the memory of what the prince had said.

But, even if everything had happened according to her plan, what was the use? As she had expected Manthahini aunt was not in the emperor’s room! She didn’t even ask anyone there about her. She felt a tightening in her chest each time she recalled her aunt gesturing, “My end is near.” Her heart cried, “What is the use of having gone to all this trouble, speaking smartly and bringing the prince here? Manthahini is not here!” Was she still in the cellar? Perhaps she had been murdered there by that murderer – the thought broke her heart.

She wanted to go through the underground passage to the cellar. But because of the arrival of the prince the palace was in an uproar. Women kept hurrying here and there. They came in small groups to peak inside the room where the emperor lay. Amidst this mayhem what will anyone think if she is seen going to the sculpture gallery alone? If that troublemaker is there it wasn’t wise to go there alone. Even the bold and daring Poongkuzhali was afraid of the impenetrable darkness that inhabited that underground cellar.

Therefore she decided to confide in the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar and ask for his help. Much time was wasted explaining and arguing with Kandar. That is why she was now racing. Her instinct told her that the worst was about to happen. She did not care about her own safety. She wished with all her heart that her aunt be not harmed in any way.

While entering the art gallery she felt a shadow sweeping in from the palace balcony. A figure appeared to be moving along the wall. She paused to see if it was real or not.

“Girl! Why are you stopping? Are you afraid that your lie will be exposed?” When she heard the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s words, she proceeded to go in.

Inside the art gallery Poongkuzhali showed the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar the entrance to the underground passage that lay between Ravanan’s heads and Kailayankiri.

“Alright! Now, go in,” said the fortress commander.

For some reason Poongkuzhali hesitated. Her body trembled.

At the same time a shrill otherworldly cry was heard. Poongkuzhali realized that it was her aunt Manthhini’s voice. She also knew that the cry came from the emperor’s bedroom in the palace. At once her hesitation left her.

Without paying heed to the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar she ran to the palace anthapuram. The piercing cry was heard again and again. When Poongkuzhali entered the emepror’s room the scene she saw sank into her heart like a picture in a gallery.

The emperor sat up in his bed holding the hands of his son. Manthahini stood in front of them wailing. On one side stood Vanathi and her would-be mother-in-law Malaiamman’s daughter. Everyone was looking at Manthahini who was screaming like a madwoman.

No one saw the long spear that came speeding from the loft. In one swift leap Poongkuzhali reached her aunt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ponniyin Selvan Part V (21 -24)

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

21. Life Dangled!

Sometimes a second can stretch like an eon. Vanathi was experiencing one of those moments. It was probably only a few seconds on that swirling tiled roof when she closed her eyes and prayed to Durga Parameshwari. When her whole being was shaken up by a collision she opened her eyes. She knew that the roof had crashed into the tree at the riverbank. But fortunately Vanathi’s body had got caught among the low hanging branches of the tree. She escaped hitting the roots or trunk of the tree. Realizing what had happened she held firmly to the branches. Her legs were in the water. The flood pulled her legs with such force it felt as if they might get torn off any moment. The loose end of her sari also pulled her into the flood.

At that moment from out of the blue a resolve and boldness took possession of her. Biting her teeth, with all her strength, she brought her knees up and pulled herself up to the branch. Reaching over the low hanging slender branches she perched herself squarely on a bigger branch. She squeezed the water out from her sari.

Hearing the sound of water getting sloshed around she remembered the crocodile. When she looked down she saw only its tail beating about. The rest of the body was covered by the broken pieces of the roof. Gradually wiggling through the wreck it emerged. Perhaps to express its delight it opened its mouth wide. It seemed to be telling Vanathi, “Come, come! No matter, you will eventually fall into my mouth!”

Vanathi was also jubilant at the way she had survived. “Oho! Is that right? You are going to gobble me up? Crocodile! Your gimmicks are nothing to me! There is no use showing your teeth to me. Don’t rely on me to relieve your hunger! Look somewhere else!” Vanathi told the crocodile. Hearing the sound of her voice the crocodile stared at her wide eyed.

“Oho! You are still tempted!” Vanathi looked around her. She was in a precarious place. Branches from that large tree hung low on the side of the water. On the side facing the shore the branches did not go down. If she climbed down the main trunk, there was the crocodile waiting camouflaging among the roots. If she were to jump straight into the water from where she was, the rippling current of the river was ready to pull her deep down into the abyss. Even looking down at the swirling water made her head spin. “Even if the branches are not low, let me try to jump on the ground,” thought Vanathi. She got up to walk along the branch to the other side.

After being in the water for so long her legs were chilled to the bone. When she tried to stand, her legs began to shake. “Cheechee! Legs! What has happened to you?” Vanathi sat down again. “Who is more patient? The crocodile? Or me? …” She will have to test this out.

At that time Vanathi was startled by the sudden noise of Gajendran bleating. The elephant that had crossed the river a short while ago was returning. At the same time she saw a boat along the shoreline. There were two people in the boat. Yes, yes; of the two one was the astrologer’s disciple; the woman was Poongkuzhali! In the end has it got to be Poongkuzhali, who must come to rescue her?

The boat came to the base of the tree. Poongkuzhali saw Vanathi on the tree. “Princess! You found a good place to hide. Come down quickly! Do you know who is on that elephant there?” She asked.

The answer hit Vanathi in a flash.

Yet to make sure she asked, “No. Who is it?”

“The very person you went in search of! It is the prince,” said Poongkuzhali.

Vanathi stared at the elephant in disbelief. She felt that she should no longer be sitting on the branch. She decided to climb down as Poongkuzhali suggested.

But the boat, unable to withstand the tug of the water, was moving away. She saw Poongkuzhali jumping out. Aiyo, what is this? Didn’t this girl see the monstrous crocodile lying there? Nine thousand thoughts flooded Vanathi’s mind in that second. Words tumbled out incoherently from her mouth.

Poongkuzhali only heard the word, ‘Crocodile!’ She turned. Yes; next to her was the enormous crocodile with its wide open mouth. It slapped its tail vehemently on the water.

Poongkuzhali is no coward! She had come through many dangers. But what is courage while standing ten feet away from the open mouth of a crocodile? One missed step meant death. How to escape? She will have to get on the boat again!

Poongkuzhali therefore jumped into the water. The boat had by then gone a long way. The astrologer’s disciple seeing that he cannot stop the boat there decided to go a little farther down along the shoreline to find a place to stop. He didn’t see Poongkuzhali’s predicament. Using her long and deft strokes Poongkuzhali started swimming towards the boat. She soon realized that the currents in the Kaveri floodwater were more challenging than the turbulent sea that she was accustomed to. The water pulled her down. She felt the crocodile encroaching from behind. In addition her sari got caught in the branches adding one more hurdle.

Vanathi was watching from the branch above. Poongkuzhali’s bitterness against her, her own vow just a short time ago in response to Poongkuzhali’s harsh words, her rejection of Poongkuzhali’s hand and thereby falling into the water – in lightening speed Vanathi’s mind reprocessed these events and emotions. She also remembered that it was Poongkuzhali who saved Ponniyin Selvar from the sea and took him to Soodamani viharam, and the gratitude owed to her by Cholanadu as well as herself. There, he is coming on the elephant. How would he feel if Poongkuzhali falls into the crocodile’s mouth before he gets here? What will he think of Vanathi? In fact, isn’t this girl in this predicament because she came to save Vanathi?

These thoughts appeared in Vanathi’s mind in one hundredth of the time it took for readers to read about it. Mind is faster than the wind – these aren’t mere words. Of all transmissions mind is the fastest. In that one hundredth fraction of the time Vanathi also decided where her obligation lay. She lowered herself to the next branch. Lying horizontally on it she extended her hands down and grabbed Poongkuzhali’s hair. Poongkuzhali looked up. She could not get away from Vanathi’s hold. She put her hand out. Vanathi grabbed that hand. She began to pull Poongkuzhali up. Latching onto a branch with her other hand Poongkuzhli pulled herself up from the water. She climbed up to the same branch as Vanathi. Unable to bear both of their weights the branch bent. Without letting go of Poongkuzhali’s hand Vanathi moved to the branch directly above. When Poongkuzhali also tried to go up her legs stumbled. Next second she was dangling between the branches and the river’s flood. Her one hand alone lay caught in a tight grip between Vanathi’s two hands.

In those few seconds the crocodile slowly crept out from among the roots. Out in the open seeing the dangling figure from the tree it opened its mouth wide. Poongkuzhali’s body and life hung in the open.

Vanathi’s tired hands were at the breaking point from bearing the weight of Poongkuzhali’s diamond hard body. The fear that at any moment Poongkuzhali would slip from her hands and fall into the crocodile’s mouth pounded at Vanathi’s heart. If that happens she cannot ever face the prince. When Poongkuzhali falls she may as well fall with her. That was it.

The elephant is here. The prince is on top. Will these hands do their work until he comes for her rescue …? The elephant stood at the foot of the tree. Again it brayed. The crocodile turned and looked at the elephant. Whatever thought crossed its mind – it went back and lay among the roots.

Vanathi also bent down and looked at the elephant. She looked at the man on top. Yes; he was the prince! Ponniyin Selvar!

“Elephant-keeper! Elepohant-keeper! Just like you saved those little birds the other day, save these foolish women today!” She said to herself.

No; she can no longer bear the weight of this boatwoman! Just a minute’s delay will tear her arms out of its sockets! Apapa! She calls herself Poongkuzhali! But her body weighs like iron!

“Elephant-keeper! Elephant-keeper! Hurry up, will you? …”

‘kreech!’ – Poongkuzhali screamed. Fear gripped Vanathi’s heart. She closed her eyes tightly.

The weight became heavier on her hands. Thinking it was the crocodile pulling Poongkuzhali down, with closed eyes she tried harder to pull her up.

“Let her go! Let her go!” The voice of the prince reached her ears like ambrosia. Without a second thought she let go of her hands. She opened her eyes.

She saw Gajendran winding its trunk around Poongkuzhali and lowering her to the ground. Poongkuzhali’s eyes were closed. She must have screamed when she felt the elephant’s trunk around her.

Vanathi remembered fainting once in the same manner. It is a wonder that in this situation that is ten times more dangerous she is able to remain fearless and conscious!

It’s a pity that the junior stateswoman is not here to applaud! No harm. One day she will find out. What is her fate now? Will the prince take Poongkuzhali and leave her on the tree?

If he did that it will be proper punishment for her foolishness! No, no! Gajendran’s trunk is reaching for her. Vanathi closed her eyes again. When she opened her eyes she saw herself standing next to Poongkuzhali on the riverbank.

Overcome by affection she eagerly embraced the boatwoman. With tears in her eyes Poongkuzhali said in a voice filled with emotion, “Princess! You saved my life today. I came to rescue you from the flood. Instead you saved me from the crocodile’s mouth. I will never forget this.”

“Poongkuzhali! I saved you? It’s the elephant-keeper who saved both of us. You should thank him!”

“My life really does not matter. My aunt sent me with a message to her beloved son. I didn’t want to die without delivering that message,” said Poongkuzhali.

Vanathi looked at the prince seated on the elephant. At that moment she was gripped by a giddy exuberance. “Elephant-keeper! Elephant-keeper! Will you take us on the elephant?” Peals of merry laughter followed her question.

22. Happy and Sad!

Hearing Vanathi’s mirthful words the prince smiled as he climbed down from the elephant.

“Aha! Being on an elephant is a difficult task. It is similar to being on a throne. Climbing atop an elephant is hard! Being seated there is hard! Climbing down is harder than all else. Yet, there are times when a man has to endure these difficulties,” said Ponniyin Selvar.

“Some take on these difficulties for absurd reasons. There are those who will bring an elephant to save little birds,” said Vanathi.

“You still remember that, Vanathi! Since it never came up until now, I thought that you had forgotten the incident!” said the prince.

“Those who go around the world performing heroic deeds can forget. What else is there for me who waits aimlessly inside the palace? I remember you coming on an elephant that day; I also remember you leaving with a frown soon after hearing that I am the Kodumbalur girl!”

“There was good reason for that then, Vanathi!”

“The same reason is still present, Sir! You are the son of the emperor who rules the world, Ponniyin Selvar the apple of the eye for Cholanadu. I am the daughter of petty kings, born and raised in the rural wasteland; moreover, the orphan daughter of a soldier who was felled in the battlefield! …”

“Vanathi! You are not being fair to me! Your words are unreasonable! Never mind! I have to go to Thanjai urgently. Tell me quickly! How did you end up here? Why are you alone? You were floating on a roof? Why is this girl here? How did she end up in this dangerous situation? …”

“I am glad that you remembered my presence. If I am given a minute alone I can say what I have to say and then leave,” said Poongkuzhali.

Coming face to face with the prince under such extraordinary circumstances had made the two women unusually bold and talkative.

“Ocean Princess! You think I have forgotten you? How can I? It was you who kept driving the boat while I kept calling you! I can never forget the sight of you who came in such a hurry dangling between the tree and the open mouth of the crocodile!” The prince laughed.

“I cannot also forget Vanathi’s plight trying to hold you. But how did you two end up here? Why? One of you, please hurry up and tell me!”

“Ponniyin Selva! Your beloved sister and I came to stop you from going to Thanjavur. The junior stateswoman is afraid that if you come to Thanjavur at this time there will arise a big war. She wants to meet you and talk to you …”

“Where is the junior stateswoman now?”

“In Kudanthai …”

“How did you come here alone?”

“On the way we stopped at Kudanthai astrologer’s house. It was then that Kaveri’s breach washed the astrologer’s house away. Prince! They say that Mother Kaveri has protected you from when you were a baby. I also know that you are very fond of River Ponni. But to think of the hardship caused by the river to the towns, villages, the people, their cattle – it is frightening. It makes one believe that Mother Kaveri is viscious …”

“Vanathi! Do not cast blame on Mother Kaveri! This great lady loves our Cholanadu. When that love overflows it breaks its bounds. Those who don’t know that will blame Mother! Why? Some blame even the ocean king for rising over his limits. But Poongkuzhali will never blame the Ocean King!”

“Forgive me! I will stop blaming Mother Kaveri! When your sister and I were at Kudanthai astrologer’s house Kaveri let her love flow abundantly. Your sister and others were able to climb to the top of the temple tower. Because of my stupidity I fell into the water. I latched onto the roof of the astrologer’s house and floated all the way here …”

“So, to save you Poongkuzhali followed in the boat. Very nice! This Gajendran had to come to save both of you. The elephant’s intelligence is incredible. It picked both of you up delicately like flower petals and placed you on the ground without a wrinkle or crinkle. Whereas this morning the same elephant picked up the elephant-keeper who came late running with goad in hand, and threw him a great distance. If the man survives, that will be a miracle!”

“Aiyo! What was that about? I was going to ask about it …”

“What did you want to ask?”

“I wanted to ask if you were hurt in anyway by the elephant-keeper or the goad.”

“It was true that I was in danger; how did you know about it? Did the astrologer foresee it? This mad affliction of relying on astrology is still with the junior stateswoman?”

“The astrologer did not see it coming. Even if he did, we won’t have believed it. We heard from the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar!”

“What? What? What did he say?”

“Yes, Prince! It was the treasurer, the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar who told us. When we were at the astrologer’s house he suddenly barged in. He told about the danger you were in. He told about the poison soaked goad …”

“Aha! This is a wonder! How did he know? Has he become an astrologer also? Or, perhaps … did he set this up?”

“No, Prince! He did not. He happened to eavesdrop on the Pandyanadu troublemakers. That is how he found out …!”

“Oho! What else did he say?”

“I am frightened to even think about it, let alone say it. He said those saboteurs have a plan to send you and your father and elder brother Athitha Karikalar to yamanulakam on the same day. To save Athitha Karikalar, he hurried off to Kadampoor. He asked the junior stateswoman to warn you and the emperor …”

“Aha! Since the news turned out to be true in my case, it must be for others also. Ocean Princess! You had something to say?”

“Yes, Prince! Eezhathurani asked me to bring you to Thanjai immediately …”

“Aha! I forgot to ask you about that. It is for the sake of Eezhathurani I came in such a hurry. Someone abducted her by force and brought her to Thanjai, I hear. Is it true?”

“It is, Sir! But Chief Minister Aniruthar had good intentions …”

“Oho! It was Aniruthar’s work? He must have wanted my father to meet her. Poongkuzhali! Did the chief minister succeed? They … the emperor and Eezhathurani – did they meet?”

“Yes, they did!”

“My life’s dream has been fulfilled. No other news can give me such happiness. As long as my aunt is near him my father’s life is safe. You know that great lady has an extraordinary talent for seeing the future, Poongkuzhali!”

“Yes, I do. As long as Eezhathurani is there the emperor is not in danger. But …”

“But, what? Why do you hesitate, Ocean Princess?”

“I cannot say this, my tongue fails me. … Eezhathurani thinks that her final days are here. Before she closes her eyes she wants to see you once!”

“Oh, God! What are you saying? You give me good news and then like thunder deliver this terrible news also! I cannot be delayed even a moment longer, Vanathi! Ask the junior stateswoman to forgive me,” said Prince Arulmozhivarmar.

23. Troops Arrive!

The great city of Thanjai was in an upheaval that day. The people had completely forgotten about the rain, the storm and damage that they have incurred. ‘The heroic warrior who conquered Eezham, Prince Ponniyin Selvar who reigns in the hearts of Cholanadu people is in Nagaipattinam; he is on his way to Thanjai; a big crowd is following him with the intention of placing him on the throne and crowning him as emperor,’ – such news first floated as rumors in the wind.

Later, it was repeated by more people who had actually seen him in Nagaipattinam. The news brought a storm of feelings, just like the one that had wreaked havoc a few days ago – in the hearts of the people of Thanjai. They decided to give the prince the sort of grand welcome that the city had never seen before. They began to decorate the streets outside the fort. They stood in little groups on the streets talking. Instruments such as drums, cymbals, trumpets and tabors were gathered. Those who were good in singing and dancing began practicing so that they could use the occasion to showcase their talents. Mothers and young girls began dreaming about how they will present themselves. Some who were impatient by nature proceeded to the outermost parts of the city so that they will be the first to receive the prince. Others made fun of them.

If the outside showed such excitement soon there were signs that important events were expected from inside the fort also.

The fort opened as usual in the morning. Curd and buttermilk sellers, vegetable venders, employees of the palace entered the palace as on any other day. A few arrived to complain about the damage caused by the storm. They also went inside the fort. As usual the velakara troops also entered the fort.

After that the gates were slammed shut. Outsized bolts were drawn up. Padlocks were slung through and slammed shut noisily. Those who came afterwards were stopped by the guards outside the gates. While the people wondered aloud about the reason for such unusual measures so early in the day, the bridge over the ditch that surrounded the fort also was lifted and closed. After that, no one could even go near the entrance.

Those who came to the main entrance in the north inquired about the west and south entrances. They were astonished to hear that these gates were also closed and the bridges drawn.

“What is going on? There is no war! There is no enemy troop marching here! Enemies who are capable of such action are not even close to any of these entrances. Even if Irattai Mandalam troops were to come, they still have to cross Kollidam, Kaveri and other rivers. And those rivers are flooded!” The people exclaimed as they gathered on the outskirts of the fort. Some raised the question whether these measures were intended to bar Ponniyin Selvar from entering the fort and proceeded to answer it as well. “That must be why,” they said. As the rumor spread the people’s anger grew. “Who are these Pazhuvertaraiyars to stop the prince who was born in the Vijayalaya Cholan line from entering the fort? If the Pazhuvertaraiyars would do that, then it is time to break the walls!” – there were those who took this attitude also.

How does the monster of rumor start? How does it spread? The mechanics of this mystery is still under discovery. Suddenly another scary rumor began to spread. It was that the long expected death of Sundara Chola emperor had finally taken place. “The emperor is dead? Is it true?” They asked at first. Some who had witnessed the long-tailed star fall to its death that morning after shining brightly for a minute, took that as proof and confirmed Sundara Cholar’s death. “If this is true, what is going to happen now?” Isn’t this kind of anxious discussion the next natural development. Will there be trouble regarding the throne? Would the petty kings divide into two and fight with each other? Will the Chola empire dissolve into smithereens because of these internal disputes? Will enemy garrisons invade the empire that has been flourishing for over hundred years?

While the people were thus talking, “There, the troops are coming,” a cry arose. People ran here and there. They climbed on tall trees and buildings to see. What they saw shocked and surprised them.

There were three roads that went west and south west from Thanjai in those days. One was going to Rameshwaram from Kodumbalur; the other went to south Pandyanadu via Madurai; the one going to Karoor and Seranadu through Uraiyoor was long and wide. Late that afternoon there were troops advancing on all of these three roads. People first saw the soldiers marching in front. Row after row followed. The end was never in sight.  Soldiers kept coming and coming.

Fortunately tiger flags were being carried by those in front. This ruled out any notion of an enemy invasion. They were Cholanadu troops. But why? Where are they coming from?

When they came nearer the smaller signs on the flags could be made out. From these signs it was apparent that they were the Paranthaka Chola troops from Kodumbalur, the selected kaikolar troops from south Pandyanadu, and the Arinjaya Chola garrison from the Eezham war. Within a short time people in Thanjai found out that it was the southern commander Poothi Vikramakesari who was behind this development. In a sense they were now able to guess what was going on. It was well known in Cholanadu that Kodumbalur periya Velar, Poothi Vikramakesari wanted to give Vanathi, the beloved daughter of siriya Velar who died in the Eezham war, in marriage to Ponniyin Selvar and place her on the Cholanadu throne. Therefore it was fitting that while Prince Arulmozhivarmar was being brought from the east by a crowd of enthusiastic citizens, Colonel Poothi Vikramakesari should arrive at the same time from the west with a large garrison.

The people were aware that the Pazhuvertaraiyars and their cronies, the petty kings, were trying to crown Mathuranthakar. Therefore, Thanjai citizens understood that Kodumbalur Poothi Vikramakesari has arrived with his troops to place their beloved Ponniyin Selvar on the throne. Their enthusiasm went overboard. They got ready to welcome and host the soldiers who kept arriving like the waves of an ocean.

In those days in Thanjai there were many inns run by commercial enterprises such as Kodumbalur manikramathar, Thirupurampayam Valanchiar, Uraiyur tharmavanigar and Nanathesathisai ayirathu aignootuvar. Arrangements got underway in these inns to provide food for thousands of people. This news was warmly received by the people of Thanjai. They roamed about the streets congregating in groups to talk. Because they were one hundred percent behind Arulmozhuvarmar they did not have to be secretive. When the soldiers started pitching their tents near Thanjai the people walked over to them engaging them in pleasantries.

At sundown three sides of the city were occupied by the soldiers. Access to one side of the fort was barred because of Vadavaru that ran alongside the fort and the flood. The troops did not consider this an impediment to their plans. We have seen the main north entrance of Thanjai fort. This was where Vandhiyathevan entered the fort the very first time following Nandhini Devi! Colonel Poothi Vikramakesari’s tent was set up within sight of this entrance.

As the first quarter of the night was ending the colonel returned to his tent after inspecting around the fort. About a hundred people were already gathered inside. Among them were Veleer troop leaders, Kaikola troop leaders, heads of Pandyanadu and Kongunadu. Many leaders who brought victory in the Eezhanadu war were also there. Besides them there were also many heads of commercial groups; especially the leaders who had famously earned the name all over the world as ‘global thousand fivehundred,’ were there. They were wealthy men who were in the shipping trade with foreign countries. They had the means to send armed ships to safeguard the vessels that transported goods. Apart from these men, Thanjavur city’s aimperunkuzhu and enperayam leaders had been invited and were present in that tent.

24. Strategic Discussion

After the usual exchange of greetings Kodumabalur periya Velar addressed the group:

“Almost everyone I had sent an invitation to is here. Except Thirukovalur elder Malaiamman king. There must be a good reason for his absence. We are here to discuss a matter that many consider dangerous. The world knows how devoted we are to Sundara Chola emperor and the Chola family. We have proved this on many occasions in numerous affairs. Yet our enemies may claim that we are here against the emperor’s wish. They may even say that we have come with troops to battle with the emperor. But we have not had an opportunity to find out in person what the emperor wants. We cannot see the emperor alone. We are denied even a moment alone with the emperor. Everyone knows why. It has been said that the emperor remains in Thanjai because of his health. In truth I am of the opinion that the Pazhuvertaraiyars are keeping him imprisoned. I am not sure what you think …”

When the colonel paused many voices arose saying, “Yes, yes,” “That is the truth,” and “They are keeping the emperor as a prisoner!”

“Your answer in the affirmative implies that all of us are united in sentiment and intent. Chola empire has reached this preeminent position because of the thousands of soldiers who have sacrificed their precious lives since the time of Vijayalaya Cholar. We are proud to say that we are from Cholanadu. We are here to protect the Chola tribe and the empire from harm; not conspire against the emperor. The enemies of the emperor have kept him in prison for three years. They say that he is not in good health. Vijayalaya Cholar bearing ninety six battle scars on his body entered the battlefield at eighty years of age. With a sword in each hand he chopped the enemies’ heads in whichever direction he turned heaping them as mountains! Is it credible if Sundara Cholar who was born in that warrior’s tribe refuses to come outside because of ill health? It appears that the evil minded have robbed him of his sanity through sorcery. If he was sane would he even consider crowning Mathuranthakan who has never ever sighted the battlefield, when he has two great warriors like Bheemarjunan for sons? …”

In response, many voices rose as one. “How do we know that this is the emperor’s wish?” They asked.

“Indeed we do not know firsthand. It may be a tale hatched by the Pazhuvertaraiyars. But even our Chief Minister Anirutha Brahmarayar believes this …”

“Aniruthar also may have joined them. Who knows,” said one person.

“May be. Finding out the truth is one important reason for our meeting here. You would have heard the rumor that is going around in Thanjai city today. I did not believe it. I believe that we will be able to see the emperor alive. When we see him we will find out directly from him his wish about the crown. If in case the emperor says that he wants to crown Mathuranthakan, will you all accept it? …”

“We will not! We will not!” Voices rose loud and clear.

“I also will not. Because, if the emperor was in his right mind he will never say that. This is a matter settled during emperor Paranthakar’s time. I heard with my own ears when the king in his deathbed said that it will be Sundara Cholar and his descendents who will ascend the throne. Many who heard this are probably here. The late Kandarathithar tried to raise his son so as to not instill in him a desire for the throne. We all know that his beloved wife the elder stateswoman, Chempian Madevi, the saiva devotee, is adamantly opposed to the idea of crowning Mathuranthakan. There must be an important reason for this. So why is Sundara Cholar eager to crown Mathuranthakan? I will give another example to show that his mind is not sane. After Veera Pandyan was killed and the Pandya garrison was destroyed my brother set off to punish the Eezha king who helped the Pandyan. Because we failed to send adequate troops and armaments to aid him, he was killed – heroically – in the battlefield. To be rid of the shadow of disgrace cast on the Chola tribe, Ponniyin Selvar and I went. We destroyed the Eezha troops. We captured Anuradhapuram. We drove Mahinthan into hiding. You are aware that treasurer Pazhuvertaraiyar did not cooperate with us. The businessmen among you sent us food and helped us a great deal. Yet, our soldiers underwent much hardship. Inspite of it, how was it possible to destroy Mahinthan’s troops? Because of the leadership of the greatest of all great Cholanadu warriors! Ponniyin Selvar! How did his father, the emperor, honor this great warrior? By charging him with the felony that he betrayed the kingdom; by ordering him imprisoned! Can anyone in his right mind give such an order …?”

“Colonel! Again you are speaking about the emperor’s order. What is the proof that the order came from the emperor,” asked one person in the crowd.

“There is no proof. We are here to find out the truth about this also. If this order came without the emperor’s consent, think what a dangerous position Cholanadu is in. Think of everything that happened after. The soldiers who went to imprison the prince refused to do it. The prince voluntarily gave himself up. Obeying the emperor’s order he started his journey back in Parthipenthira Pallavan’s ship. On the way it appears that the storm broke out. Then came the rumor that the prince had drowned in the sea. I never believed it. I strongly believed that the ocean king will not have taken Ponniyin Selvan. When all others from that ship are alive how can the prince alone have drowned in the sea and died? Therefore, once the prince came ashore there must have been a conspiracy to arrest him. The prince somehow sensing trouble had escaped and remained safe somewhere; I believed that he will emerge at the right time. Many of you also expressed that was your hope as well. Our hope triumphed. We know that the prince came out on the night of the storm in Nagaipattinam, and that Cholanadu people are bringing him to Thanjai in a victory celebration. We came here to be of support to them. But the saboteurs have once again played their hand …”

“What? What?” Many asked in a concerned voice.

“Just a few minutes before this meeting the news arrived. When the prince was just about to leave Thiruvarur this morning, the elephant began to rut. It had thrown down the elephant-keeper violently. Then it had torn off in a wild run. In the ensuing turmoil the prince had gone missing!”

“Aiyayo!” “What is this calamity?” “Is god aiding the evil-minded?” Many began to fret in this manner. The colonel raised his hands asking them to be quiet.

“When I heard the news I was also devastated. I pulled myself together and came for this meeting. Just as Prince Arulmozhivarmar is an exceptionally gifted warrior, he is also intelligent. He will not easily fall into the saboteurs’ conspiratorial trap. I am waiting for some good news any second now. In the meantime, I want to know your opinion about what we should do, how we should behave in these testing times!”

When the colonel concluded his remarks in this manner, the others expressed their opinions. On most counts they were unanimous. They differed in certain minor points. Many were of the opinion that their representatives in that tent should request a meeting with the emperor the next day, and if granted they should clearly tell the emperor, “We don’t want Mathuranthakan taking the throne.” Some insisted, “One, the emperor should remove the Pazhuvertaraiyars from their autocratic positions; or, the emperor should leave Thanjai and go to Pazhaiyarai.”

“Because Athitha Karikalar has already been crowned as prince, he is the one entitled to the throne; if he voluntarily steps down, then the next in line is Arulmozhivarmar. We must without a doubt make this clear to the emperor, and make him also agree,” said some others. “If there was no chance of meeting the emperor, if the gates to the fort remain shut, there is no choice but to use force,” said some others. “What force? We simply tell the soldiers to break open the gates and the walls,” some said. Some thought that it would be better to wait until news of the prince arrived, and that Athitha Karikalar ought to be informed and brought to Thanjai also.

“What’s the use in waiting? The Chola garrison under the control of the Pazhuvertaraiyars are on the other side of Kollidam. Because of the flood in Kollidam and other rivers those troops cannot come here now. Therefore, this is the right time to break into the fort and free the emperor from the Pazhuvertaraiyars’ prison,” insisted some others.

While this argument was taking place a soldier who was guarding in the front entered the tent hastily. He whispered something in the colonel’s ear. “I’ll be back. Keep talking,” the colonel told the men in the tent. Then he left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ridiculously Insane

So I will not be buried in the same cemetery as F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. (Anyway) this thought had crossed my mind as I sat in an airplane waiting to take off. Ahead the monument rose piercing the sky scape. Within seconds a plane flew over it challenging my ‘state of awe.’ (Anyway) the person or thing who first caught my attention was the burly man who came driving around the corner balancing the cargo in the little cart effortlessly taking the mental space between me and the horizon. The bags were still getting loaded. This was months ago. The plane eventually flew and we landed in another place. (Another chapter in the pioneer saga. My understanding of the word ‘pioneer’ was that a person moves to a new location out of necessity, fights the elements and settles down to eternal happiness. But the new version is that pioneer is a breed that can uproot itself, move and settle in new places, adjust itself, morph and be progressive. More like gypsies to my mind. (Anyway.) The land is vast. We reside in pockets and corners all over. We text, phone, and once in a blue moon, skype. The last one can be startling and unsettling because we don’t do it often enough. But we move on. We bury our thoughts. So, from this new place we boarded our bags again into the trunk and headed to yet another airport. The sky is the only land that moves with us everywhere. Unless too many buildings have been built to hide it from view. Or make it less of a presence. A gorgeous sunset presented itself from yet another airplane in the glorious hues of purples and violets and indigos and grays. Like an earthquake unwinding up in the sky. As we landed I slammed the car door on my palm. The pain – I cried softly opening my mouth. Handkerchief! – no thanks, I don’t need it. No tears fall. I cry softly opening my mouth. The crying felt good. Even without the tears. The pain – nerves and bones all mangled. Here – Oh, ice. Oh, my god! the ice. lifesaver. ‘So how do you all like the place so far?’ the ice – my god – the ice. lifesaver. Overnight in a new land the hand mended itself. Sunrise, and then a sunset. So on. That is when the flashes in the left eye started. My eyes are the driest. I have no more tears!

Ponniyin Selvan Part V (18 – 20)

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

18. Fooled Elephant-keeper!

According to one contemporary scholar, “Opportunity is a name for God!” When god does not want to reveal his actions he would it seems go by the pseudonym ‘Opportunity.’ Of the most celebrated heroes and scholars who have accomplished incredible feats in the history of the world,  their biographers often point out that they have been aided by circumstances. Some would say that god took special care of them by sending opportunities their way. There are also those who would teach that the glory lay in one’s time of birth; the strength of one’s horoscope, what Brahma has deemed, or the blessings earned in a previous birth – as reasons to explain the happenstance of life’s favorable circumstances.

In our time – if Mahathma Ghandhi did not go to South Africa, would he have reached the pinnacle where his life is celebrated today among humanity’s best and preeminent? We know that life’s circumstances played a significant role in the lives of Chandrakupthan, Vikramathithan, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Duke of Wellington, George Washington, Joseph Stalin and other great men. It will be a mistake to conclude that god favors some and not others. Besides the famous heroes and scholars we encounter in history books, god also keeps sending opportunities to numerous others.

Leaving god aside, making use of these opportunities also depends on man’s ability to think and make the right decision at the right time. Those who allow opportunities to slip, leave this world at the end of an ordinary life without achieving fame or status. Those who make correct use of opportunities leave their name forever engraved in history.

How can we explain the disparity in the lives of people born on the same day at the same time?

* * *

Such an opportunity crossed Prince Arulmozhivarmar’s path that day. The opportunity arrived when the elephant violently threw the elephant-keeper down and when the crowd shouted, “The elephant is in rut!” If he did not make use of that opportunity history would have taken a different course; in the history of Tamil Nadu Rajaraja Cholar may not have risen to fame and glory.

Fortunately he had the intuition and intelligence to recognize the opportunity and make use of it. He reminded himself of the story that boatman Murugaiyan had related the previous day. In a second he surmised that the man who approached the elephant was not the real elephant-keeper but someone who had come with a devious motive and that is why the elephant hurled him into the air. If he tried to find out who he was, and what his motive was he will lose the opportunity that came his way. He cannot make use of the commotion that arose following the cry, ‘the elephant is in rut!’ His main goal at that time was to escape from that crowd as fast as possible and reach Thanjai.  To achieve it there will not arise a better time.

Therefore, he called Murugaiyan. He whispered something in Murugaiyan’s ear. Then standing on Murugaiyan’s shoulder he climbed onto the elephant’s back. At the same time he knocked down the howdah that was on top of the elephant. The howdah rolled to the ground. Then he whispered in the elephant’s ear. The elephant tore off in a frenzy, bleating as it went. Soon it was running in a maddening gallop.

At the same time Murugaiyan shouted in a loud voice, “Run! The elephant is in rut! Run at once!”

The people became even more frightened. They scattered and ran in all directions. They ran into nearby alleys and nooks. They ran inside houses that were open and hid themselves. Even a brave warrior, even if armed, cannot fight an elephant in rut. What can people, unarmed men, women, children and the elderly do when faced with a rutting elephant – other than to run?

Once the prince crossed Thiru Arur town, instead of taking the road to Thanjavur, he took the elephant in a north-westerly direction. Earlier, he had thought of stopping at Pazhayarai and seeing his beloved sister if she happened to be there. Now, he will do just that. It will seem natural for a rutting elephant to stray off from the main road. If he went on the Thanjai road people are likely to follow him. If the elephant ran off in a direction to nowhere, then no one will follow him.

Thinking fast and acting on it he directed the elephant through fields, embankments, irrigation channels, rivers and their branch rivulets. The elephant marched on without a care. The prince felt as free as a bird in the sky. His instinct told him that he was nearing a turning point in his life.

When the elephant started to run Murugaiyan also ran shouting, “The elephant is in rut!” He aimed straight to the spot where the elephant-keeper had landed after being thrown down by the elephant. Near the Chola palace where the prince had stayed was a famous pond called Kamalalayam. He went there and looked around. Many who were afraid of the elephant had gathered around the pond. Some had even stepped into the water. Unsteady on his feet, a man was coming out. Murugaiyan recognized the magician who had taken the elephant-keeper and Rakamaahl the previous night. Lucky fellow! He was alive even after being hurled by an elephant! He was the same man who had come running with goad in hand claiming to be the elephant-keeper …! The goad was nowhere to be seen. Did it fall into the pond?

Murugaiyan went to him and said, “Elephant-keeper! Fortunately you are alive! Where is the goad?”

Kiramavithan known as Thevathasan looked Murugaiyan up and down. “What are you asking, Friend? Who are you? I am just coming out after a bath,” he said.

“Oho! Is that right? You are not the elephant-keeper? Didn’t the elephant pick you up and slam you down? Then, where is the elephant-keeper?” Murugaiyan asked.

Displaying more disbelief Kiramavithan said, “How do I know? Why are you asking me?”

“Magician! Why are you trying to fool me? Last night you took the elephant-keeper to the crematorium and warned him, ‘The royal elephant will be in rut!’ But you yourself forgot the warning and got caught to the elephant today! Well, that is your problem! Where is the elephant-keeper? Where is my wife Rakamaahl,” asked Murugaiyan. Kiramavithan’s face showed more disbelief and alarm.

“Elephant-keeper and Rakamaahl? Are you mad?” Kiramavithan turned and looked around him.

“That’s right! Just like the elephant, I have also lost my mind! Just tell me where the elephant-keeper is! Or else …” Murugaiyan tried to sound more authoritative.

Revathasan who was looking around now smiled at Murugaiyan. “You are calling me a ‘Magician.’ You seem to be a bigger magician than me! You seem to know everything! So there is no use in keeping anything from you. ‘The elephant will rut! Don’t get on the elephant,’ I came to warn the prince. This is what I got in return. Your wife and the elephant-keeper are in a house over there. If you want to see them I will take you to them. Was the prince harmed? Is he alright,” he said.

“The prince is alright. He is the one who ordered me to bring you and the elephant-keeper …”

“You must get me a good award from the prince, alright? Really … isn’t it true that I saved him today? Ah! Look over there …!” The magician exclaimed in surprise.

Where the magician pointed there appeared to be a spear jutting out from among the oleander bushes. “Ah! The goad!” The magician cried as he ran towards it. Running faster Murugaiyan overtook him. Bending down through the oleander plants he cautiously plucked out the goad holding it from its base.

When he turned around the magician was nowhere. “Adada! I got fooled!” – he ran here and there looking. It was of no use. Entering the large crowd gathered at the pond, Magician Kiramavithan had mysteriously disappeared.

After the elephant ran away in a frenzy Murugaiyan saw that the people were again returning to the Chola palace. But he was not going to linger.

He tried to remember where he had seen the magician the previous day and walked in the direction of that house. On the way along the royal thoroughfare people were standing in groups talking. Some who had seen the elephant running said, “It seemed as if a person was on top.” Others rejected that notion. “How can that be? The elephant started running after plunging the elephant-keeper down! Who could have got on it?” They said. Arguing in this manner the people were walking back towards the Chola palace. They were eager to make sure that their beloved prince was not harmed in any way.

Murugaiyan went in the opposite direction. He was soon at the alley branching off from the royal thoroughfare. The place was deserted. It wasn’t easy to find the house that he had seen only at night. Murugaiyan kept searching as he walked. There was one house that had a lock on the outside. From inside came the sound of someone moaning. Next to it was an old dilapidated house. Murugaiyan entered the old house, climbed on the roof of the adjscent house and jumped into the yard. Just as he had expected the elephant-keeper was there. He was not sane. Not only his hands and legs were tied, he was also tied to a pillar. He was trying desperately to undo the ties with his teeth. In between he gave up trying and shouted in a loud voice.

His face gained some sanity when he saw Murugaiyan. He had seen Murugaiyan at Nagaipattinam. He knew that he was with the prince. So he cried excitedly, “Murugaiya! Untie me! Untie me! The traitors have fooled me! The prince is not in any danger, is he?”

While unfastening his ties Murugaiyan briefly related the events of that morning. Then he asked the elephant-keeper what had happened to him. Stumbling he answered, that he was brought to this house to be given a magic vest for his safety in the event the elephant began to rut, and that the magician began chanting while burning incense, and that he had become drowsy and fallen asleep, and when he woke up he found himself tied to the pillar.

Both men left the house and hurried to the Chola palace. When they arrived they saw a bigger crowd of people there than before talking in anxious voices.

The people were concerned because the prince was missing. No one there knew what had become of him. Some said that they had seen someone on the elephant. They thought that it was the prince.

It was public knowledge in Cholanadu that the prince was an expert in training elephants, and that he even spoke their language. Some confidently stated their belief that Ponniyin Selvar had rode off on the elephant to tame it and to avert any danger to the people.

It was at this time that Murugaiyan and the elephant-keeper arrived there. When the people found out what had happened to the elephant-keeper the night before their astonishment and disbelief increased ten fold.

The immediate assumption was that the man who came running with the goad after tying up the elephant-keeper was sent by the enemies of the Chola tribe. When some people said, “Perhaps he was sent by the Pazhuvertaraiyars,” many believed them. Their anger at the Pazhuvertaraiyars increased. In a furious rage many set off to Thanjai at once. While some made inquiries about the direction that the elephant had run off and tried to follow in that path others headed furiously on the road that led directly to Thanjavur.

19. Thirunallum

Vanathi, while holding on tightly to the tiled roof of the astrologer’s house as well as her own life, kept floating in the breach water of the river Kaveri. The floodwater carried her east, sometimes slowly, and at other times pulling her with force. Sometimes the roof got caught in currents turning in place over and over.

Sometimes it went over ground that was not far beneath. The depth could be gauged by looking at how far the water was up a tree or a partly submerged building. Before Vanathi could make up her mind about jumping off, the current carried her off to deeper areas.

In any case Vanathi was not very keen on jumping off. Because, she had decided that River Ponni’s floodwater was taking her to Ponniyin Selvar. She was acutely aware of the danger awaiting the prince that Pazhuvertaraiyar had vaguely pointed out. She believed that river Kaveri was taking her to save him from this danger.

Aha! The nerve of that Poongkuzhali! She flaunts such familiarity with the prince! Yet, one must admit, there is good reason for her behavior. Isn’t the prince alive today because of Poongkuzhali? – No, not at all! What did the Kudanthai astrologer say? It is the stars the prince was born under! There will be many dangers; but none will take his life! What can the pitiful sea, storm or floodwater do to someone who has been destined to rule the world. Someone will be the alleged cause. Poongkuzhali was fortunate to be chosen for that role! How can she act familiar, just because of that? For a long time Vanathi had longed in her heart for such an opportunity.

Once when the roof was simply swiveling in one spot Vanathi saw a boat at a considerable distance. She saw a woman and a man in the boat. She could not tell who they were. Because it was the woman who was rowing she wondered whether it was Poongkuzhali. Was she coming to rescue her? Did the junior stateswoman send her? Enough, enough! The woman had the prince already in her debt. She also must not be under obligation to Pongkuzhali! No! She must not be rescued by Poongkuzhali!

At times the boat appeared to be getting closer. Then the roof sped away leaving the boat far behind.

During one of those instances when the boat was thus out of sight, the roof appeared suddenly to change direction heading south. It traveled a long way on this course. It passed Kaveri’s south bank and was in a floodplain that resembled an ocean. Finally the boundary of this floodplain was also within sight. Aha! Isn’t this a riverbank? Yes, yes! It is arasalattankarai! Kaveri’s breach water has submerged many a places and finally fallen into this river. Because its southbank is a little elevated it is being contained and flowing through it. This riverbank, its tree covered vista is familiar, like a thread of memory from a previous incarnation. No, no! It is in this lifetime that she has been here two or three times! She is nearing a sacred place called Thirunallam. In memory of her beloved husband Kandarathitha Cholar, Mazhavaraiyar’s daughter Chempian Madevi was keen to renovate the temple here and rebuild it in granite. On the riverbank was a Spring resort used by the Chola family. Once when Chempian Madevi took the junior stateswoman there, Vanathi had accompanied her! How eager at that time she was, to listen to the birds singing in the gardens surrounding the palace! Aha! What happened there once was unforgettably etched in Vanathi’s mind.

20. Young Chicks

When Vanathi first came to Pazhaiyarai from Kodumabalur, she was amazed by the water resources of Cholanadu. There were no rivers in Kodumbalur; there were only ponds. During the rainy season the ponds would be jostling with water filled to the brim. They would dry up during the Summer. There was no moving waterway drawn by currents like rivers and canals. In Vanathi’s birthplace one did not see tanks abundant with lotus and water lily. Therefore Vanathi was enchanted by the natural beauty of her new home. Unaware of time passing by, she would watch drops of water scatter like pearls on the lotus leaves that spread like umbrellas for the fish in the water; the humming beetles that circled over the blooms of lotus and lilies.

Once Vanathi and Kundavai had gone to Thirunallam on the invitation of Chempian Madevi. They stayed at the vasantha maligai. Chempian Madevi and Kundavai would engage in lengthy discussions about the lives of Hindhu scholars and their poetry that was rich in devotion. Chempian Madevi would also relate stories of her travels with her beloved husband Kandarathithar whose pilgrimages had taken him to temples in the west. Vanathi’s interest lay elsewhere. She was more eager to hear the birds singing in the gardens of the Spring palace and the busy humming of the beetles around the lotus flowers that filled the tanks. She was more eager to watch the current swirling in the river that ran alongside the palace, and the bright red koomba flowers that swirled in these currents. Because Kodumbalur lacked such pleasing and harmonious scenes.

One day Mazhavaraiyar’s daughter and the junior stateswoman were having a lively discussion. “Vanathi! Go see the gardens! I will be there shortly!” Dispatched to the outdoors with this curt dismissal Vanathi happily sauntered away. After wandering at will in the garden she ended up at the lotus pond. Bordering the pond were tall towering trees reaching up to the sky. Among them was an illupai tree. It was the flowering season for illupai. Its flowers covered the ground like a mat. Their fragrance filled the air. Vanathi sat at the base of the tree on one of the big roots leaning against the trunk. The singing of the birds swept through her ears like ambrosia. She felt her mind and body relax. Vanathi had not until that day imagined that life could offer such unconditional bliss.

From the ground the river was visible through the gaps between the trees. Off and on Vanathi’s eyes captured the moving water in the river. During one of those moments the figure of a young man came into view. Vanathi’s eyes were drawn to the spectacle of the olive sheen of his body contrasted against the ochre tint of the  water as he swam with half his body submerged and half out in the open. Cheechee! How stupid it is to be attracted to a strange young man’s appearance? Vanathi who considered modesty and artlessness as part of her inheritance was embarrassed by her thoughts. Her eyes however were beyond the control of her mind; they kept returning to the river. In time she became angry and irritated at herself.

Just as Vanathi considered leaving the place something else happened. From above her head she heard the panic-stricken cries of newly hatched young birds. She looked up. What she saw was frightening. At the fork of a branch sat a bird’s nest. A few chicks had their heads out. ‘kreech, kreech!’ – they cried. They were frightened. They were appealing for help. On the branch was a wild cat slowly making its way towards the nest.

Vanathi shouted, “Aiyo! Aiyo!” Someone shouted back, “What? What?” Then she heard footsteps. She saw the young man leaving the water and running towards her.

At the same time two adult birds flew in from out of the blue. They circled the nest and roused a racket cawing. They were the parents; woodpeckers with lengthy beaks. As one of them kept circling, the other one tried to threaten the cat as if to peck the animal with its beak. The bird really wasn’t a threat to the cat! If it got caught in the cat’s mouth it will only end up in its belly. Yet, to save its young ones the bird bravely put up a fight. Having lost both her parents at a young age, Vanathi empathized with the scene.

The cat after being still for a while put out one of its paws. It even managed to touch the tip of the nest. Vanathi again howled. By then the young man was standing next to her. She was too shy to look at him. She could not speak. She pointed to the nest.

Until then the young man had thought that it was the woman who was in danger. He looked up. Again he smiled at Vanathi. His smile and glance melted Vanathi’s heart making her forget even the birds.

But the young man ran to the cat. Standing underneath he threatened it with verbal assaults. It looked down and growled. “Troublesome cat!” He said as he picked up a stone and threw it at the cat. Missing the cat the stone struck the branch. The cat jumped to the next branch and then another tree and disappeared without a trace.

Meanwhile, another problem had arisen. When the stone struck the tree, the nest already dislodged when the cat put its paw on it, became even more shaken. It started slipping from its secure corner where the branch forked. If it had slipped completely, the chicklets that escaped the cat’s mouth would have hit the ground and died. Fortunately, one end of the nest remained attached to the tree. From there the nest swung precariously with the birds inside. The lives of the young ones also swung with it. The woodpeckers were more alarmed now and cawed louder while circling the nest. If the wind gathered even a little more speed the nest will fall to the ground. It was unlikely that the chicks can survive a fall from such a height.

The young man was taking stock of the situation. He seemed to consider climbing up the tree. Then he changed his mind.

“Girl! Come and wait here. If the nest falls try to catch it with the loose end of your sari. I will be back!” He said and ran from there.

He returned just as he had said. But he did not come back walking. He came on an elephant. Vanathi knew his intention. She walked to the lotus pond and sat on the steps lining it. From there she watched what the young man was doing.

As the elephant paused under the tree, the young man took the nest in his hands and carefully placed it back in its nook at the fork between the two branches. The parent birds shouted louder. But this was a cry of joy.

The young man looked around. “Girl! Where did you go?” He shouted. Vanathi felt shy. She remained silent. Getting down from the elephant the young man started to look for her.

A thought entered Vanathi’s mind that made her forget herself and laugh out loud.

Hearing her laughter the young man turned and walked to the pond. “Girl! Why are you laughing? What has happened to make you laugh so heartily?” He asked.

The young man’s voice again melted Vanathi’s heart; she felt more self-conscious than before. She studiously averted her eyes from him. “Girl! Why did you laugh? Won’t you speak?” The young man asked again.

Keeping her countenance Vanathi said, “Nothing. Just that you seem such a brave warrior – you brought an elephant to fight with a cat – it made me laugh!” The young man also laughed hearing her answer.

“A cat? The way you screamed I came running to battle a tiger!” He said.

Vanathi felt bolder now. Her shyness disappeared.

“Aha! Is that right? In Cholanadu where the tiger flag flies high why should anyone be afraid of a tiger? Are you from Pandyanadu?” She said.

The young man smiled brighter than before. “Girl! I am not a foreigner; I am from Cholanadu; I have been to battlefields also on the elephant. Who are you? Where are you from? You are very talkative!” He said.

“Elephant-keeper! Be respectful! What does it matter who I am? Why do you want to know,” said Vanathi.

“Alright. I will not ask. You seem to be well connected. I am leaving!” The young man started going up the steps.

Again in a playful voice Vanathi said, “Elephant- keeper! Elephant-keeper! Will you take me also on the elephant?”

“Alright, I will. What will you pay me?”

“Pay? I’ll talk to my uncle and get you a job at Kodumbalur palace. Or, I’ll make you the commander of the elephant army,” said Vanathi.

“Oho! You are Kodumbalur Princess!” The smile disappeared from his face. A frown appeared.

“Is it so bad that I am the Kodumbalur princess? I cannot go on your elephant?”

“No, no! There are plenty of elephants in the Kodumbalur stall; plenty of elephant-keepers too. Why me?” The young man walked away brusquely.

Vanathi waited hoping that he will turn and look at her. But he went away on the elephant without turning even once.

This incident remained deeply buried in Vanathi’s heart. The elephant-keeper, his smiling face and pleasant voice lingered in her memory invoking a happiness that was previously unknown to her. The memory of him coming to the aid of the young birds on an elephant was forever a source of amusement. She would laugh to herself. Then she would be overcome with embarrassment. She would grow hostile thinking about his pride, his frown and abrupt departure upon hearing the word Kodumbalur. All in all, the elephant-keeper was a recurring presence in her thoughts. The uncertainty whether these thoughts were improper was also a source of worry.

There was talk in the palace that Ponniyin Selvar will be visiting his sister in Thirunallam. Just like all the other women in the palace Vanathi was also eager to see the prince who was the apple of the eye for Cholanadu. But the opportunity did not arise. There was only talk that the prince had arrived, but he never stepped inside the anthapuram.

Vanathi who was shy by nature did not make the opportunity to see the prince like the other women. Only on the day when the prince was leaving Vanathi happened to see Ponniyin Selvar from the palace balcony. He was on his elephant. That Vanathi did not believe her eyes, is not just a manner of speech. When she saw that the young man whom she dared to tease and order around as the elephant-keeper was the celebrated prince of the land, how can Vanathi trust her eyes? She verified the fact many times with the women standing next to her. The resulting heartache and embarrassment cannot be described.

The memory of her offering the man born to rule the world the job of head elephant-keeper at Kodumbalur brought her laughter! At the same time tears welled in her eyes. She perpetually bemoaned her foolishness. ‘Elephant-keeper!’ – she had called him. She  believed that it was the reason for his frown. He would have thought that she was a woman without shyness, without modesty, diffidence or delicacy. There was no measure for the pain this thought caused her. On many occasions she thought of jumping into a river or pond and killing herself. On many occasions she tried to tell the junior stateswoman Kundavai Devi about her blunder. But she could not summon the courage; her tongue invariably failed her. If the prince had mentioned it Kundavai Devi would have told her. Since Kundavai Devi did not ask her, she decided that the prince had not talked about the incident. Amidst much heartache this thought provided her some consolation. She decided that she would kill herself one day after asking Ponniyin Selvar for forgiveness in person. But she could not summon the courage for that either.

After returning to Pazhaiyarai, whenever there seemed to arise an opportunity to see the prince, she ran and hid herself. She thought of killing herself rather than going in front of the prince. Not knowing what had happened at Thirunallam the junior stateswoman and her friends could only raise their eyebrows and exclaim, “This girl is so incredibly shy!” They decided that this was a part of her timid nature.

Vanathi soon found out that there was another reason for Ponniyin Selvar to dislike her. Just like the countless number of people who believed that Prince Arulmozhivarmar would one day become the emperor who will rule the world, folks in her hometown also subscribed to this notion. Vanathi was vaguely aware that her uncle had therefore planned on marrying her to Arulmozhivarmar. Kundavai Devi’s companions often hinted that this was the reason why Poothi Vikramakesari had sent Vanathi to Pazhaiyarai. Sometimes they would tease Vanathi directly. “That is why you are refusing to go in front of the prince! Don’t we know your tricks,” they would say. Their words poured as molten lead in Vanathi’s ears. So this explained the frown that appeared on the elephant-keeper’s face when he found out that she was the girl from Kodumbalur.

It was during this time when Vanathi’s young heart and mind were thus caught in a turmoil, Ponniyin Selvar left for the war in Eezham. Arrangements were made for all the maidens in the palace to present themselves with oil lamps in hand and bid the prince success as he departed. This was one occasion Vanathi could not refuse to participate. She was also eager to see the prince who was leaving for war. She also hoped that even if she were unable to speak perhaps her face and eyes would do the work. But events unfolded contrary to her expectations. When the prince came over and looked her in the face she dropped her oil lamp and collapsed to the floor unconscious. The readers know the rest of the story!

* * *

These thoughts paraded through Vanathi’s mind as she approached Thirunallam on the tiled roof that served as a vessel. She knew that Ponniyin Selvar had sympathy for her. He had let her know that himself; and through the junior stateswoman as well. But there was an obstacle for his kindness to turn into love. She knew what it was. The prince knew that others were trying to arrange their marriage based on the belief that he will one day be the emperor. He had good reasons to believe this. Vanathi’s uncle had on many occasions stated it. Why? Even the junior stateswoman Kundavai Devi was a part of this conspiracy. Many others also knew about it. Even the boatwoman Poongkuzhali was being sarcastic! Therefore, it is no surprise that this thought has become wedged in the mind of the prince as an obstacle for his love!

But when the prince hears about the vow Vanathi made a short time ago, that obstacle will be removed! Will he come to know about it? Why not tell him herself? Foolish Vanathi! You who become tongue-tied in his presence! Taking him for an elephant-keeper in this Thirunallam, you talked endlessly and earned from him the name ‘talkative girl!’ After that, you have not been able to look him in the face or speak in front of him! Orphan Vanathi! When you see the prince again, don’t be a fool! Boldly state what’s on your mind! ‘Even if you ascend the throne, I will not. I have vowed! If you were just an elephant-keeper and take me once on the elephant with you I will consider that to be paradise!’ Tell him so!

This is all well and good. But is there going to be an opportunity to say any of this? Where is this flood taking her? Is she going to drown without ever seeing the shore? No! There, the shoreline is within sight! The glittering dome of Thirunallam palace can be seen. Aha! It feels as if it was yesterday that the prince came on his elephant and saved the little birds and spoke to her so kindly!

What’s that? An elephant! An elephant-keeper seated above! The elephant is charging, rolling like a hill nonchalantly, across this floodwater. It is already at the shoreline. It is heading west along the shoreline! Who is seated so majestically on the elephant? Perhaps … Cheechee! What a silly idea! Why would the prince be here on an elephant? All alone?

Just because she mistook the prince for an elephant-keeper once, all elephant-keepers are not going to morph into a prince! How foolish? Regardless, even if this man is just an ordinary elephant-keeper, he may be able to help her, won’t he? He can rescue her from this rooftop and floodwater and take her to the shore. If she says who she is he may even take her to Ponniyin Selvar!

“Elephant-keeper! Elephant-keeper!” Vanathi shouted. Whether it fell on his ears, or whether he simply decided to ignore her cries, his elephant did not stop; the elephant-keeper did not even look behind! The elephant strode on. Soon the elephant and the keeper disappeared around the bend in the river.

Before Vanathi could even fully realize this disappointment there came a more frightening realization. The roof had gathered speed. Yes, yes! The floodwater was moving rapidly. The shoreline with its tall overarching trees and their exposed outsized roots were fast approaching her. When her roof boat reaches the corner it is certainly going to crash into those roots. Once it crashes it will break into pieces and sink into the water. What will be her fate then? Can she scramble to the shore? Or, will she be caught in the current, smash herself against the roots and die?

Aiyo! What’s this? There is a crocodile among the roots grotesquely opening its mouth! Is it real? Or, fake? Or, is this all another delusion of hers?

The shore is here! The tiled roof is about to collide with those roots. Vanathi closed her eyes tightly. “Mother! Durga Parameshwari! You are this fatherless, motherless, orphan girl’s destiny! I surrender myself at your feet!” She prayed.

Ponniyin Selvan Part V (13 – 17)

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

13. Kundavai’s Request

When Pazhuvertaraiyar entered the astrologer’s house, Kundavai and Vanathi were also there. Ever since Eezharani went missing that morning, Kundavai had been restless. Poongkuzhali’s disappearance at the same time added to her anxiety. She went in search of the chief minister.

It was at this time the news about Arulmozhivarmar reached the palace. Kundavai heard that the prince was forced to leave Nagaipattinam because of the storm and that throngs of people were accompanying him to Thanjai trumpeting their joyous victory. This became the tipping point for Kundavai. She believed that this latest development signaled trouble. She wanted to meet Ponniyin Selvan on the way. If he were to enter the Thanjai fort surrounded by a large crowd of people, Pazhuvertaraiyar’s people would try to stop him. She had also heard that Poothi Vikramakesari was at Kodumbalur with a large garrison. The two sides may end up clashing near Thanjai. It will disturb her father’s mind. The news may even kill him. Who knows what else will happen? Because of the storm the people were stretched thin. The slightest provocation can trigger a civil war that will destroy Cholanadu. When that happens there will be no way to contain it! Isn’t it better to stop it before it starts than afterward? If not all the effort that has been undertaken up to now will be wasted! Therefore she must meet Arulmozhi Cholan on the way and have him wait at Pazhaiyarai for a while. She must bring the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar from Kadampoor. Only after informing the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar that Arulmozhi had no desire to rule, she must bring him to Thanjai …

After arriving at this decision Kundavai left with Vanathi without telling even her father, only informing her mother and Aniruthar. Before going to Pazhaiyarai she wanted to see the astrologer in Kudanthai. In times of trouble isn’t it human nature to want to know what lay ahead?

As always the chariot was parked near the Amman temple. Not long after Kundavai started expressing her woes to the astrologer, they heard a commotion outside. Pazhuvertaraiyar’s loud voice turned the tiniest follicles on her hands rigid. Only the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar could produce such a stately growl. He appeared on the verge of marching in pushing aside the astrologer’s disciple. How did he get here? Why? At this time?

Aha! Perhaps he is seeking the astrologer’s counsel. If she can eavesdrop she may be able to gain some insight into his thinking. At this difficult juncture it would be helpful if she knew what lay in his heart. Now, here was an opportunity! And, who knew what his reaction would be if he sees her and Vanathi here? No doubt, he would jump to the wrong conclusion! Therefore it will be better to stay out of his sight …

With a tilt of her head indicating to the astrologer her intention, Kundavai dragged Vanathi by her hand and quickly disappeared into the adjacent room.

The instant their door closed Pazhuvertaraiyar walked in. After intently looking at the astrologer who excitedly rose to greet him, he looked around. His face showed surprise and disappointment. Only for a second. Keeping his countenance he said, “Astrologer! Do you recognize me? Treasurer Pazhuvertaraiyar! Why do you stare? Is my appearance that bad? I am in need of something very important. You must help me. First of all, bring me something to eat; I am very hungry. I’ll talk while I eat!”

Finding it difficult to be coherent the astrologer mumbled, “Sir! What help can you need from this poor fellow? It is my ancestors’ good deeds that have brought you here to this hut. I cannot provide a meal worthy of your status. But everything here is yours. Please sit down, you are standing? I am in shock. I have failed to welcome you properly. Aha! There isn’t even a proper seat for you in this simpleton’s hut. Please be kind enough to take that palakai.” He showed the low wooden seats that were occupied by Kundavai and Vanathi a few moments ago.

Pazhuvertaraiyar, after taking a look at the seats and the flower petals lying on the ground nearby said, “Astrologer! No, I have no time to sit down. If you have anything to eat wrap it in a leaf and give me. I must send a letter urgently to Thanjai … to my brother Kalanthakakandan … Can you give me a palm leaf and a style? … No! There is no time to be writing. I will give my signature ring. Can you go at once to Thanjai with it? Or, there is your disciple at the door. A rather well built man, can you send him at once?”

“Whatever you command, we will oblige. My disciple and I, we both can go, But, Treasurer! You must please sit down and have a meal that this poor fellow can offer!”

“Astrologer! Why do you call yourself a poor fellow? A simpleton? I have heard that kings and princesses come in search of your house. I am the only person who has not sought your counsel. I now realize that it was a mistake. Perhaps if I have come to you these awful events may not have taken place …”

“Sir! Your words alarm me. What has happened? Who is hurt? I was right to be shocked when I saw you in this state. Were you caught in the storm and the flood? I heard that Kollidam broke off. Perhaps, because …? Treasurer! … Is Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani well?” The astrologer’s query produced a menacing laughter from Pazhuvertaraiyar.

“No, no! Nothing happened to Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani. She did not drown in the Kollidam flood. As far as I know she is safe at Kadampoor palace. But I cannot be certain that she will be alive at this hour tomorrow. Astrologer! Can you tell? I have heard that you keep the horoscopes of every person in the royal household. Is it true? Nandhini, the devil I married foolishly in my old age, – do you have her horoscope?”

Even more agitated than before the astrologer answered, “Treasurer! What are you saying? Are you testing me? I don’t have Ilaiyarani’s horoscope. If you tell me her date of birth and time, then I will be able to write it.”

“No need, no need. I will write Nandhini’s horoscope. I have decided to end her life with my own hands. If you know about the future of others, tell me! What is the emperor’s future? What about his two sons? Aha! You are shaking your head! You won’t tell me. You think that I am testing you. Or, perhaps your astrological science is just humbug, rolled up prevarication, who knows? Astrologer! Astrology aside – do you know that the thoomakethu that has been apeearing for sometime now, fell to the ground this morning and disappeared? What does that mean? Is that an evil omen pointing to anything in particular? Is it an indication of impending doom for the emperor or his children? If you refuse to answer even this then your astrology is mere humbug!”

“Treasurer! Do not come to that conclusion. As a profession we are bound by tradition to avoid using astrology in matters of government. I did not see with my eyes thoomakethu’s demise this morning. Amazed at the bright light outside I ventured out too late. I saw that Thoomakethu, whose tail has been diminishing these past few days, was no longer present. It is said that the appearance and disappearance of the long tailed comet portends disaster for the royal clan. But that is not based on astrology. It is an ancient belief of the people. I don’t have faith in it. Even this morning the emperor is alive and well, I happen to know.”

“That is our good fortune. Nothing should happen to the emperor tonight. If he is alive until tomorrow, then we don’t have to worry. Do you have any news about Ponniyin Selvan? …”

“Late last night I heard that the prince was finally in Thiruvarur. Treasurer! Ten to hundred thousand people are around him, I hear. They are bringing him to Thanjai against his wish.”

“Aha! If only they can take the prince to Thanjai … that will be good. But, can they? Even if hundred thousand people are around, can Yaman be stopped? Tell me, Astrologer, tell me! Even if you don’t want to predict – let me tell you! Danger awaits the emperor and his two sons today. Yamatharman is approaching them. The emperor’s Yaman is hiding in the underground cellar of the Pazhuvur palace. Arulmozhi’s Yaman is hiding in the elephant keeper’s goad. It is your responsibility to stop these two men and save the emperor and Ponniyin Selvan. Let your disciple take my signature ring and go to Thanjai. You must go to Thiruvarur and warn the prince. Will you do it? Will you leave immediately?”

The astrologer was dumbfounded. He wondered if Pazhuvertaraiyar was in his right mind. But he could not question Pazhuvertaraiyar’s sanity. His statements appeared to match the astrology. Even if he spoke angrily and in haste, he seemed to be telling the truth. The junior stateswoman was listening also. He must find out her opinion. In any case he must send the old man away from here now.

“With Durga Parameshwari’s blessing, I will carry out your order as best as I can.”

The astrologer’s answer was accompanied by the sound of ankle bracelets that were usually worn by women.

“Aha! With the sound of her ankle bracelets Durga Parameshwari has shown her approval. Now, I can go to Kadampoor, I will leave right away …”

“Treasurer! You said that you were hungry! After having something to eat …”

“No, no! My thirst and hunger have taken a flight. I too must fly to Kadampoor. The chariot beside the temple … whose is it, Astrologer? I will have to take it. Once I reach Kollidam riverbank, I’ll send it back. I will take the boat …”

“Sir! The chariot … the chariot … please have mercy on me and don’t take it …”

“Astrologer! Don’t worry! I am taking the chariot to save the life of the crown prince of Cholanadu. Durgadevi will allow me that. If she graciously sounds her ankle bracelets again then I will know that I have her goodwill. There, listen …”

While the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar was speaking the door to the adjascent room opened. The junior stateswoman walked in her ankle bracelets chiming along. The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar did not appear surprised.

“Madam! I knew that you were in there. I didn’t have the courage to face you. So I spoke in a loud voice so that you may be informed. Did you hear what I told the astrologer?”

“Sir! Pardon me! You must forgive me. I could not be certain that it was indeed the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar calling on the astrologer. So I have had to eavesdrop on you. Please forgive me,” said Kundavai.

“Madam! There is no reason for forgiveness. In fact it is I who should be asking for your forgiveness. I am not sure if I am worthy of it. If I reach Kadampoor tonight and save the crown prince from danger, then I would be deserving of your forgiveness. For three years, lust had drawn a curtain over this old man’s eyes. You tried to make me see. You made so many references but my ears were deaf. My brother Kalanthakakandan also tried to open my eyes. His efforts also were not successful. Yesterday by the grace of Durga Parameshwari I happened to overhear two Pandya saboteurs speaking. I learnt the truth then. I fed milk and pampered that venomous snake in my palace. She turned me into an enemy of my people; my country. She took the wealth from Cholanadu treasury and gave it to the Pandya saboteurs. If I do not kill that treacherous Nandhini before tonight with my own hands the fire blazing in my heart will not be put away …”

While Pazhuvertaraiyar rambled on Kundavai did something that he did not expect at all. She fell in one swoop and touched his feet in a show of respect.

Pazhuvertaraiyar stood helplessly in amazement. Standing up Kundavai said, “Sir! You must kindly grant my wish!”

“Princess! You are testing me. Don’t! I have realized how unforgivable my sins are. I am trying to atone. Before that we must save the three Chola men from today’s impending doom. No harm should come to your father and brothers today. Please help me. Let’s get through today. Tomorrow I will come to you myself and ask, ‘What is my punishement? What is my penance?”

“Sir! I will not attempt to punish you or issue any penance. You are like my grandfather. You hold my father’s admiration. I am truly seeking a favor from you …”

“In that case, ask me now, Child! There is no time for chatter now.”

“Promise me that you will grant my wish!”

“There is nothing that I can give that will make up for the harm I have done for you and your family. I will grant you anything that you ask. Do it quickly!”

“You must promise me that you will not harm Ilaiyarani Nandhini in any way. That is my request!”

“Child! Are you playing with me? Is this a time to be playing? It is true that I behaved foolishly in my old age. For that, are you trying to turn me into a mad man? If I don’t deliver the punishment that this treacherous woman deserves then how can I punish the others? I am going to kill her with my own hands. I will bare my heart to her and show her that she cannot forever fool this old man. Then I am going to kill her with my own sword. Anything less cannot be justified. Then I will think of the appropriate punishment for myself. Go! Child! Go! Do what you can to avert the danger awaiting your father and younger brother today! …”

“Sir, I will! But don’t I have to protect my sister also? Ilaiyarani Nandhini is my sister. If you harm her, it will be a felony against the Chola tribe!”

Pazhuvertaraiyar was aghast. “Am I still dreaming?” His lips mumbled.

“No, no! You are not dreaming. What you are hearing is the truth. Think for yourself. Think about some incidents from the past. Do you remember how my brother Arulmozhivarman was saved from drowning in Kaveri by a woman? She is Ilaiyarani Nandhini’s mother. Do you remember the day you brought Ilaiyarani to the palace after your marriage? My father fainted that day. Because he mistook Ilaiyarani for her mother, a woman he believed was dead. That is why …”

Pazhuvertaraiyar could think of other incidents as well. He remembered taking Nandhini in front of the emperor at midnight; the emperor crying out at seeing her, and Nandhini’s twisted explanation for the emperor’s reaction.

“Child! I realize that you are not trying to humor me. It’s fate’s humor that astounds me. If Ilaiyarani is your sister, that makes her Athitha Karikalan’s sister. Are you the only one who knows of this relationship? Who else knows about this? Does the emperor know?”

“Until two days ago the emperor believed that my aunt was dead. Even day before yesterday when she appeared in front of him, he flung a lamp at her believing it was her ghost. Only later he realized …”

“I didn’t mean that, Child! Does Karikalan know that Ilaiyarani is his sister?”

“By now he must know. He sent me a letter through a Varnar tribe warrior. I sent word through this messenger …”

“Aha! You mean Vandhiyathevan Vallavaraiyan!”

“Yes, Sir!”

“It does not appear that he informed Karikalan. Even if he did, Karikalan did not believe him. Even I cannot believe it! How can he? Ilaiyarani does not know this. Even if she does, there is no use. The saboteurs will find other ways to carry out their plans. They will certainly try tonight. Madam! Your news adds more weight to my responsibility. I am obliged to save the Ilaiyarani from killing a sibling. I am leaving for Kadampoor immediately. I will take your chariot. It will be your responsibility to protect the emperor and Ponniyin Selvan!”

“Sir! Don’t worry! I will leave for Thanjai at once. I will get a chariot down from Pazhaiyarai. We need not worry about Ponniyin Selvan. The hour and day he was born will protect him!”

“Girl! Don’t be careless relying on horoscope! Astrologers, even if they know what’s coming, they will not spell things out. They will bury it in verbal ambiguity. Afterwards they will say, “I told you, didn’t I?” Even if you believe in astrology, do not trust the astrologers!” With this parting shot Pazhuvertaraiyar left.

Within seconds of his departure Azhvarkadiyan entered.

“Yes, indeed! I agree with the treasurer. You may place your faith in astrology, but never in the hands of astrologers,” he said.

14. Vanathi’s Promise

When Azhvarkadiyan suddenly materialized Kundavai exclaimed, “Thirumalai! How have you sprouted here? Why are you here?”

“Madam! It’s all because of this astrologer’s foolhardy forecasts. This morning I asked him, ‘Would my mission be successful?’ ‘It will be,’ he said. But I cannot even leave this place. How can the mission succeed? That is why I agree with Pazhuvertaraiyar. I came to find out if his astrology was a sham or whether he deceived me on purpose. When I heard Pazhuvertaraiyar’s words my suspicion about the astrologer was confirmed. But I was not expecting you here,” he said.

“No, you won’t have expected me here. Why are you here? What mission are you referring to? There is no secret, is there?”

“Is there any secret that you are not aware of? Following the emperor’s order the chief minister wanted me to leave for Nagaipattinam last night itself to bring the prince back. On the way he asked me to deliver a letter to Chempian Madevi also. When did you start from Thanjai, Devi?”

“We started shortly after sunrise. Why do you ask, Thirumalai?”

“I was wondering … if Kodumbalur troops have surrounded Thanjai fort?”

“What?”

“Yes, Devi! Don’t you know? Last night when the chief minister returned to his palace after seeing the emperor there were two messages waiting for him. One, – the prince has left Nagaipattinam; a large crowd of people are coming with him.”

“I heard that this morning. I came to stop my brother from going to Thanjai. What is the other news?”

Azhvarkadiyan pointed to Vanathi. “Madam! Why did you bring the Kodumbalur princess here,” he asked.

“She accompanies me always. Why do you ask?”

“I hesitate to give the other news in her presence.”

“Go on, Thirumalai! Don’t you know how close we are? Whatever I can hear, so can she …”

“Yet, … I am afraid that this news concerns the princess. The chief minister was delivered the news last night that the southern commander Poothi Vikramakeasari is approaching Thanjai fort with a large garrison. A letter arrived for the chief minister from the colonel also. It accused the Pazhuvertaraiyars of holding as prisoners, the emperor in Thanjai fort and the young prince somewhere in a secret location. It asked the Pazhuvertaraiyars to relinquish their posts as treasurer and commander, and to hand the prince over immediately. If not, the letter warned that Thanjai fort will be surrounded and will be under attack before tonight. Madam! Kodumabalur troops are already near Thanjai in the south and west! You are not aware of this?”

“No, the chief minister did not tell me this!”

“If he did, you probably won’t have left. He may have wanted the Kodumabalur princess to be away …”

“Why? What will happen if she was in Thanjai?”

“The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar may imprison the princess …”

“He will be so audacious? Are you serious?”

“Yes, Devi! If you hear the rest of the southern commander’s message perhaps you will understand …”

“What? What else?”

“That, Prince Arulmozhivarmar and the Kodumabalur princess ought to be wed immediately; as Athitha Karikalar does not want the kingdom, Arulmozhivarmar ought to be crowned immediately as crown prince; if these demands are not met, that he would raze Thanjai fort to the ground in three days. He says that the Chola people support him …”

The news unsettled Vanathi. She said, “Sister! Has my great uncle lost his mind?”

“Why do you say that, Vanathi? What many have wished in their hearts, your great uncle has openly said. Because Pazhuvertariayars have started the campaign, ‘Mathuranthakan must be crowned,’ Kodumabalur king and Thirukovalur Malaiamman are voicing their disapproval publicly.”

“Yes, Madam! Thirukovalur Malaiamman also must be near Kadampoor fort by now with a large garrison. From what he told me that is what I surmised. The chief minister has got word.”

“But they don’t know the news that I have just learned. I must speak to both and prevent an internal civil war. How am I going to do that? I don’t know.”

“Madam! The situation is beyond repair. There is going to be a great Bharatha war.”

“You correctly named it – Bharatha war, Thirumalai! If war happens now, it will be a war between siblings. It will be a war of annihilation between those of the same blood. Vanathi! Listen! My grandfather’s father, the former emperor Paranthakar married into the Pazhuvertaraiyar tribe. His daughter – my younger grandmother – married the Kodumbalur king. My grandfather Arinjayar married a Kodumbalur woman. My father married Thirukovalur Malaiamman’s daughter. So the three tribes are closely tied with ours. We are all mixed. Yet now they are all raising up their skirts, ready to battle! How can anyone be forewarned of fate! This enmity would destroy the Chola empire!”

“Sister! I am not worried about that. Let them fight and die. But why should my great uncle drag me into this? I feel like going there right now and having it out with my uncle …”

“What is the use, my darling! Your uncle will not listen to you. Even if the two of us pleaded it will not help. Old men like your uncle will not listen to little girls like us. This war can be prevented only by my brother Arulmozhivarman. Thirumalai! Why did you turn back? Where is Arulmozhi now?”

“Word is that they were planning to leave from Thiruvarur last night; because the entire route is a wilderness of floodwater they were unable to. I also tried to go past Pazhaiyarai; I could not. So I came back. Kudamurutti has broken and there is an ocean out there …”

“The floodwater will go down. After that Arulmozhi must come this way. We will have to wait until then. I am worried that in the meantime something terrible will happen in Thanjai. Thirumalai! Can you return to Thanjai now and take my message to Kodumbalur king? Will you inform him not to attack the Thanjai fort until Arulmozhi returns?”

“Sister! Shall I also go with him to Thanjai?”

“What will you gain by that, my darling?”

“I will fight with my uncle.”

“How will you fight? Will he halt the war listening to you?”

“Let him halt the war; or let him suffer the consequences if he does not. I will tell him not to drag my name into this.”

“They are dragging your name into this? Why is that?”

“Didn’t you hear this brave Vaishnavan, Sister?” Vanathi looked down bashfully.

“What did anyone say about you? Thirumalai! What did you say about the princess?”

“I told about the colonel’s insistence that the princess be married to Ponniyin Selvar. Perhaps that is what …”

“Vanathi! Are there any objections? Don’t you want to marry Ponniyin Selvar?”

“Whether I want to or not, what does it matter at this time? My objection is that my uncle is confusing my marriage with the coronation. It turns out as if this war that my uncle wants to wage is for the sole reason of putting me on the Chola throne …”

“It would seem that the Kodumbalur princess abhors the thought of being on the Chola throne!” Everyone turned to see who had made this biting comment. It was boatwoman Poongkuzhali.

Kundavai looked at her in surprise. “Girl! How did you come here? This morning we looked all over for you and Eezharani! Where is your aunt?” She asked.

“Devi! You must forgive me. My aunt dragged me by force through the Pazhuvur palace underground passage and threw me out in the open. She did not want me to be in the palace even for a day! I also don’t care for the palace life! When the Kodumabalur princess dislikes the throne so much why would people of my rank want to live in the palace?”

“Girl! If I ask you one thing, you talk of something else. It does not seem as if your mind is in proper working order!” ”

“Sister! Her mind is in proper order. She is insulting me on purpose. What she means is that I am dying to ascend the Chola throne; that is why I want to marry your brother, Ponniyin Selvar. I can read her mind,” said Vanathi.

“A snake knows the trail of another – says the proverb …,” Poongkuzhali shot back.

“Girls! Stop this! You don’t know what to say when! Poongkuzhali! Where is your aunt now?” Kundavai asked.

“She is in the treasury cellar at Pazhuvur palace …”

“Why?”

“A murderer armed with a spear is hiding there. Aha! How we scared the hell out of this guy this morning! He took us for a couple of female ghosts and started running all over the place …!” Poongkuzhali laughed.

Assured that the girl was slightly unhinged Kundavai said, “Go on! Who is he? Why is he hiding there? How did you come to know about it?”

“I don’t know all the answers, Devi! Even though my aunt cannot speak or hear, she has some unusual abilities that the rest of us don’t have. She found out – by whatever means – that this man is waiting there to kill someone in the palace. Devi! My aunt was trying to break the ten-headed Ravaneswaran’s hands. Do you know why?”

“No, you tell me!”

“All of you thought that she was insane. But my aunt is not a madwoman. Between the hands of that Ravanan lies the entrance to Pazhuvertaraiyar’s treasury cellar.”

“Aha! Is that right?” Kundavai exclaimed.

“Now we know how the dumb queen of Eezham came to be in the emperor’s palace!” Azhvarkadiyan said.

“We live in the palace and we have no idea of this passage. Never mind! Why didn’t you at that time tell us about this? Now, why have you left your aunt alone? Why are you here?” The junior stateswoman asked.

“The reason is my aunt’s stubbornness. She told me to leave saying that she can take care of the murderer.”

“Why? Why? Is there something more important? Did she send you for a specific reason?”

“Yes, Madam!”

“What is it, Girl?”

“Through her extraordinary ability my aunt must have found out that there is danger awaiting Ponniyin Selvar also. She told me to go to him.”

“Aha! You are looking for Ponniyin Selvar? Then, why did you stop here?”

“No, Devi. I’ll tell the truth. I have decided not to be a part of the affairs of the palace. I was going to Kodikarai; on the way this brave Vaishnavan saw me and brought me here! … If I knew that you were here I would not have come!”

“Girl! Why do you dislike the palace so much? Why don’t you like us? What did anyone do to you?” The junior stateswoman asked.

“No one did anything to me. I have no grievance against anyone. Just as how some people don’t like the throne I also don’t care for the palace life, that is all!” Poongluzhali directed a sideways glance toward Vanathi and smiled.

Singed, Vanathi furiously stepped forward. “Sister! Again she is insulting me. I am going to say this; please listen! I promise at your sacred feet. I promise in the name of the Sky-goddess and Mother Earth. If Ponniyin Selvar comes through this danger also, if he willingly takes my hand and marries me, if such good grace shall me mine – I promise I will never sit on the Thanjai throne. This is the truth! Sathiyam! Sathiyam!”

15. Roof Floated!

At that time no one had thought that Kodumbalur princess will make such a vow. All were stunned.

In a voice filled with anger and pity the junior stateswoman said, “Girl! What is this vow? Why did you make it? Is there anything more foolish than this? Caught in a rage you have let your mouth spill words!”

“No, Sister! No! I am not filled with rage. My mind is crystal clear. After thinking long and hard I have come to this conclusion. Today I said it publicly,” said Vanathi.

Before Kundavai could respond her attention was diverted to Poongkuzhali. Once and for all the girl appeared to have lost her mind. At first she laughed manically. Then she covered her face with her hands and began to sob. Then she abruptly stopped sobbing and began to sing in a faint voice,

“when even the sea with its waves is quiet
why does the inner sea heave so?”

Kundavai turned to Azhvarkadiyan. “These two women together will drive me insane. Thirumalai! You were on your way to see the prince. Why have you come back with this girl,” she asked.

“Devi! I was on my to see Ponniyin Selvar. I was stopped midway by the flood. I saw that this girl was faced with the same difficulty. She said that if I found a boat she would take me up to Thiruvarur. I decided to seek the astrologer’s help. When I saw outside your chariot equipped with a boat, I was so happy. I was thinking of borrowing the boat from you. But Pazhuvertariayar has taken the boat along with the chariot,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“What do you think? You heard Pazhuvertaraiyar’s words!” Kundavai asked.

“Yes, Madam! After that every minute I waste here seems to stretch like an eon. According to this girl also, it appears that the emperor is facing some real danger. Even the chief minister is unaware of it. Therefore, please take the Kodumbalur princess and go to Thanjavur immediately. If in case Kodumbalur troops surround the fort no one can go past them except you. If Vanathi Devi is there that will also help. I will pacify this boatwoman, find a boat and go to Ponniyin Selvar. I have already sent the astrologer’s disciple to get me a boat,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

Startled, Vanathi stood up. Her gaze was fixed on Azhvarkadiyan. “No, I won’t go! I won’t go! I will not go anywhere other than to Ponniyin Selvar! Even if I die I will die only at his feet,” she said.

Poongkuzhali responded in a clear voice. “Vaishnava! I cannot go with you! My lovers have summoned me to Kodikarai! My lovers who spit fire at midnight, are calling me! I have shown my lovers even to the Varnar tribe warrior, when he was carrying the letter for the princess. I must go to them!”

The astrologer who had until then been quietly listening in shock, interrupted. “Madam! Madam! Please! Everyone be quiet!” He shouted.

For a minute the sound of all talk ceased. Another sound that raised goosebumps over one’s skin – like the roar of the ocean during a storm – arose.

“Mothers! You chose this moment to visit this poor man’s hut! I foretold the fortune for all. But I didn’t send a warning to you!” The astrologer wailed.

“Sir! What is this? What new danger are we facing now?” Kundavai asked.

“Madam! My disciple did tell me this morning that the flood in arasalaru might break through the north bank. If arasalaru breaks, all that water will fall into Kaveri. If Kaveri breaks this poor man’s house will be submerged. This house is too close to Kaveri. Come! Come! Come outside!” The astrologer cried while he ran out.

Following him everyone ran out. Outside the frightened astrologer pointed, “There!”

In the southwest where he pointed, an otherworldly sight awaited them. They saw a verdant wall about half the height of a coconut tree – a wall that stretched long and curvy – roaring towards the house. In a second they knew that Kaveri bank was breached and the floodwater was advancing like a wall.

“Madam! Run! Run from here! We can stand on the tower of Amman temple. There is no other way! Fortunately Thirumalai had sent my disciple for a boat. Keep running!” The astrologer shouted as he ran.

Others followed him. Poongkuzhali’s aggression was no more. “Devi! Don’t worry at all. I have survived bigger floods!” She shouted as she ran. She reached the temple before the others and climbed to the top with ease.

In the meantime the flood had surrounded the temple also. Water was up to their knees. The astrologer and Azhvarkadiyan climbed up with difficulty. Kundavai and Vanathi alone were left below. Both tried to climb up. Poongkuzhali gave a hand to the junior stateswoman and pulled her up. Vanathi alone stood behind. Twice she tried to climb but her hand slipped on both attempts.

The two women on top tried to help her. Poongkuzhali took one of her hands and the junior stateswoman took the other. At that moment Vanathi looked up. She saw Poongkuzhali holding her hand. Immediately she flung her hand and freed herself from Poongkuzhali’s grip.

This agitation released her from Kundavai’s hold also. Vanathi went, ‘plop’ – into the water which was by then up to her neck. Her feet could not hold the ground; she floated in the water. The flood carried her along with it.

This happened in the blink of an eye. “Ah!” – those on top howled pitifully.

Within seconds the flood landed Vanathi on the astrologer’s roof. She held tightly to the roof. “Oh, good! This is safe!” She thought to herself.

Those on the tower also saw her on the roof. They also thought, “Good! She is safe. Once the boat arrives we will rescue her!”

“Don’t let go of the roof! Hold on tight!” They shouted. Vanathi held on tight. Within a short time it felt as if the roof was moving. “Adada! Is the house breaking?” Yes; the walls of the astrologer’s house were going down. But the roof did not go down. It began to drift with the flood.

Holding tightly to the roof, Vanathi floated. She turned and looked at the temple tower.

“Sister! I am going to see him. I am going to see Ponniyin Selvar. Mother Kaveri is taking me to him!” She shouted.

She hoped with her whole heart that the others, – especially Poongkuzhali – heard her.

The roof of the astrologer’s house kept moving with the floodwater. Vanathi rode along.

16. Poongkuzhali Leaped!

Those who have traveled in Cholanadu would have observed this special characteristic of its natural layout. When its rivers that make it the land of rice and abundance fill with water, the rim of the water is always on a raised plane compared to the ground on both sides. It is this topography that allows the rainwater to flow effortlessly toward the fields through irrigation channels.

In this situation, isn’t it a difficult task to make the floodwater stay within the riverbed? The naturally raised embankments on both sides must remain strong. Otherwise, the flood instead of going in the river’s path, will run like the rainwater that splatters forth in all four directions and turn Cholanadu into a useless waterlogged swamp.

In consideration of this, from ancient times the Chola kings were keen on the construction of sturdy banks for river Kaveri and her branch rivulets. Readers would know of history when Karikalvalavan brought prisoners from Eezhanadu after its loss in the war and engaged them in the construction of Kaveri’s bank.

To raise the level of water in Kaveri’s branch rivulets Chola kings constructed the stone-dam ten miles east of Srirangam. Because of the dam the water came up farther and was diverted into the branch rivulets.

In this manner the natural lay of the land was further enhanced by manmade design to turn Cholanadu even in ancient times into a place never lacking in water.

Just as nature endowed Cholanadu with such abundance, at times it also turned catastrophic.

Cyclones and storm winds appeared often in the sea east of Cholanadu. These winds traveled north along the eastern coast north to Krishnai – Kothavari estuaries, or Kalinganadu, producing rain that caused much damage. Sometimes the winds traveled directly overland westward. Incidents of devastating cyclones entering the interior between Kodikarai and Kollidam have been recorded in history. At times these cyclones grew fierce raising the tide and the sea, destroying the villages along the coast completely.

It is not fiction that Kaveripattinam known as Poompuhar was taken by the sea; it is an actual event backed by historical records.

When the river floods excessively sometimes the embankments do give in. Because the ground lay lower than the riverbed on both sides, when there was a breach the surrounding area would be inundated. The villages bordering the river would become submerged. At these times the temples nearby served as lifesaving shelters for the people.

History tells that Vijayalayacholan’s son Athitha Cholan erected one hundred and eight temples from the sakasya mountain where Kaveri originates to the place where the great river unites with the sea. Just as in ordinary times the temples serve as a place to worship god, Athitha Cholan may have wanted them to be lifesaving structures – so people could climb on the towers during times of flood and breach.

After a breach a river can also change course forever. From ancient historical records it can be seen that arisilaru, kudamurutti and such rivers have changed path and direction many times in this manner.

* * *

Now let’s get back to the time of our story. The cyclone that appeared when Parthipenthiran’s ship was returning to Cholanadu from Ilankai island, – after making Prince Arulmozhivarmar jump into the sea on account of Vandhiyathevan, proceeded along the coast to Kalinganadu and then disappeared.

But the cyclone that appeared while Arulmozhivarmar was staying at Nagaipattinam Soodamani viharam, after entering Cholanadu and wreaking havoc, went west. In one night, it made its presence known on both sides of Kaveri reaching Kongunadu the following day and then disappearing. Not only did it cause much damage in its path, it brought in its wake a torrential downpour. As it proceeded west the rainfall grew heavier. Therefore, beginning the next day flooding was excessive in Kaveri, Kollidam and their branch rivulets. Many broke their shores. The rain and the flood turned Cholanadu into a floodplain.

But these natural disasters did not leave the people of Cholanadu helpless and afraid. Since these disasters were common they were accustomed to dealing with them. For the time being they will climb on to a temple tower or other such elevated place to save their lives. Just as fast as the flood arrived it would soon drain also. After that they will carry on with their affairs. Those who lost their houses will soon rebuild with the help of their neighbors. They will not helplessly throw up their hands saying, “Aiyo! All gone!”

The people of Cholanadu in those days were self assured; they had no time for laziness or lethargy. Otherwise, how could they have constructed the wonders that even today are a source of astonishment for the world?

* * *

Everyone became worried when Vanathi slipped and fell into the water while trying to climb up to the temple tower. Soon their worries disappeared. When they saw her latching onto the roof of the astrologer’s house they were relieved. The junior stateswoman was excited. She always derived pleasure in placing Vanathi in difficult situations and assessing her reaction and performance. The junior stateswoman was keen that the woman who marries her heroic brother should not be lacking in courage or will power. To cultivate such a brave and daring personality Kundavai employed many tricks and trials. She was confident that her methods had delivered good results.

For instance Vanathi had of late overcome her fainting spells! Now a situation has arisen where Kundavai god-willing can test Vanathi’s courage without resorting to any of her tricks. Surrounded by water Vanathi remained perched on top of the roof. Is she afraid? Will she remain there without panicking until the astrologer’s disciple arrives with a boat? Yes; she will! No doubt! Won’t all the training of the past be of use now?

While Kundavai was thus contemplating Azhvarkadiyan said, “Madam! What is this? The roof appears to be moving!”

“There is something wrong with your eyes! The floodwater is moving; it makes it look as if the roof is moving,” answered Kundavai without conviction. She was having the same doubt and her face showed it.

“Madam! Look carefully!” Azhvarkadiyan said again.

“Aiyo! How dreadful,” cried the junior stateswoman.

“Astrologer! Will your disciple be here soon with the boat?” Azhvarkadiyan asked the astrologer.

“Enough! Enough! Enough relying on the astrologer and his disciple! Thirumalai! See if you can help Vanathi; or else, I will have to jump into the water! If anything happens to Vanathi, I will not live a moment longer!” Kundavai said.

“Madam! It is in times of trouble that we should not lose our patience. You are more than aware of this. To help the Kodumbalaur princess I am ever prepared to give my life; but it will have to produce results. If I start swimming without waiting for the boat, I can also latch onto that roof. Will the roof bear the weight of both Kodumbalur princess and me? Or will the roof go under taking both of us with it? We must think carefully …”

Poongkuzhali’s laughter broke through Azhvakadiyan’s monologue. “Before this brave Vaishnavar makes a decision, the life of Kodumbalur princess will be over,” she said.

When Azhvarkadiyan retorted, “If that happens this boatwoman will be very happy,” Poongkuzhali’s face exploded in anger.

Thirumalai continued. “But, Devi! Nothing of the sort will happen. Thirumal who slumbers atop a fig leaf while keeping the world safe will protect Vanathi also. Srimanthnarayanan who birthed himself as a fish, tortoise and swine to save this world will protect the Kodumbalur princess also! … There, see! The astrologer’s disciple is coming with the boat!”

There was really a boat where Azhvarkadiyan pointed. Against the thrust of the flood the boat was slowly making its way toward the temple. The roof where Vanathi was perched, on the other hand, was moving along with the flood. By the time the boat picked them up, she would have gone a long way, possibly disappearing from sight altogether.

Considering this outcome those standing on the temple tower shouted at the top of their lungs; they waved their hands trying to communicate with the astrologer’s disciple. Thinking that they are urging him to hurry the disciple rowed even faster.

Poongkuzhali turned to Kundavai. “Devi! Please allow me! I will swim up to the boat, turn it around and bring the Kodumbalur princess in it,” she said. Kundavai hesitated. She was aware that it was Poongkuzhali’s offer of a helping hand that landed Vanathi in the floodwater in the first place.

“Devi, trust me! It was my carelessness that left the princess in the water. Therefore, it is my duty to rescue her,” said Poongkuzhali.

“Girl! I trust you. It is Vanathi whom I don’t trust!” Kundavai responded.

“Aha! You mean that she might refuse to get into the boat with me? If that happens, once she is in I will jump off!” As she finished speaking Poongkuzhali jumped into the water. She sped towards the boat.

Kundavai looked at the astrologer. “Sir! Astrologer! I had so much faith in your science; today I have lost it!” She said.

“But it is today that I gained complete confidence. Devi! According to the Kodumbalur Princess’s horoscope, today she must face a great danger. I thought that perhaps it would be through Pazhuvertaraiyar. I was surprised when that did not happen. The danger took a different route. The princess will survive this calamity. Aha! Her otherworldly palm! Everything that I have said about her will take place. No doubt about that!” He said.

“Wonderful! Now, tell me – how is that possible? Even if Vanathi survives this calamity your prediction will not come true. Didn’t you hear her vow at your home a short while ago?”

“Whoever may make whatever vow, my prediction based on astrology will come true. If it does not, I will take all of my horoscope files and throw them into river Kaveri! This is my promise!” The astrologer vowed.

Azhvarkadiyan intervened. “Astrologer! Mother Kaveri did not wait for you to throw your files. She took them herself!” He said.

Stunned by the comical incongruity of his predicament the astrologer shook his head. “Yet, my prediction will come true,” he mumbled to himself.

17. The Elephant Pitched!

On the day before the incidents of the last few chapters took place, we left Prince Arulmozhivarmar as the guest of the Nagaipattinam people. After the festivities the prince set off on a decorated elephant. Countless number of people said, “We will come to Thanjai,” and followed him. That night the prince and the people accompanying him reached Thiru Arur.

Since the people of Thiru Arur had known about his visit, they gave him a royal welcome. People gathered in this ancient town from end to end. All four royal thoroughfares were filled with people to the extent that a grain of rice dropped from above could not land on the ground. Streamers made of palm fronds hung from doorframes. The officials had decorated Thiru Arur Chola palace also. They had prepared a feast not only for the prince but also for the people accompanying him.

The night before, Thiru Arur had also been on the path of the fierce storm. But the prince’s whirlwind of a visit had completely wiped out the memory of the previous day’s storm from the people’s consciousness. All over the streets there was singing and dancing, instruments playing, folk dance, puppetry, sword fighting and fencing – accompanied by wild cheering.

For the Chola tribe, the temple of Thiyagarajah temple in Thiru Arur ranked as next only to Thillaiampalam’s dancing Nadaraja Peruman temple. The tribe as such had lavishly provided for the temple. But Prince Arulmozhivarmar had not been to Thiru Arur until then. Therefore the temple administers insisted that he pay a visit to the temple. The prince did. As he was distracted by the circumstances surrounding him, his heart was not fully in the worship. Only when he was leaving at the end after receiving the devotional prasatham, he asked the temple folks, “How did this temple deity get the name Thiyagarajar?”

The temple men explained the hardships that the lord, Sivaperuman underwent for the sustenance of the beings of the three worlds. They told him about the travails that the Peruman who could make and break the three worlds undertook to aid his devotees. They told about the fasting and meditation in the graveyard. They told about him giving up that thavam and for the sake of the thevars marrying Umai. They told the story of god incarnating as a beggar, they told about him dancing at Thillaiampalam, and about him carrying mun for pittu and getting caned by the Pandya king.

They reminded Arulmozhivarmar that his ancestors once lived in this town of Thiru Arur where Thiyagaraja Peruman had taken residence, and about the miracle when Manu neethi Cholan sacrificed his own son for the sake of justice for a cow.

These tales made an impression in Arulmozhivarmar’s heart. The prince who had been marveling about the sacrifices of Lord Buddha now began to ponder about the histories that depicted Lord Sivaperuman as the ‘Thiyagamoorthi.’

He had also heard about the history in western nations of the man celebrated as the incarnation of god’s son being crucified for the wellbeing of the people. The more he thought the more he became convinced that man can attain godliness only through sacrifice. He became more and more disenchanted with the notion of those surrounding him to place him on the Thanjai throne. He started to think of a way to escape from their prison of affection.

After the visit to the temple the people of Thiru Arur honored the prince with a grand meal. Entertainment followed food. The prince pretended to enjoy their hospitality even though his mind was not fully there.

Around midnight the prince came to the Chola palace. Disturbing news awaited him there. Because of heavy rain west of Thanjai, there was flooding in Kaveri, Kollidam and their branch rivulets and there was breach of floodwater in many places. He was informed of the impossibility of continuing the journey across this land inundated with water. The suggestion was made that it was better to stay a day or two in Thiru Arur and resume after the flood drains. The prince disagreed. He was possessed by an urgency to reach Thanjai. Flooding and breaches could not place a damper on his longing. Yes; with this crowd of people and aids it will be difficult to travel. If he alone traveled by elephant the journey need not be postponed. There was no river on the way to Thanjai that was too deep for an elephant. Even if there was it was not a concern for the prince. He had never been afraid of water. River Ponni cared about him more than his own mother! Mother Kaveri who saved him from drowning when he was a child, won’t she now protect him?

The question was – how was he going to escape from this large crowd of people? Ponniyin Selvar was reminded of Ramar who chose the night to free himself from Ayothi’s adoring citizens. Why should not he also leave during the night? When people are sleeping! In any case he must inform the elephant-keeper to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

The prince ordered the palace guard to summon the elephant-keeper. The guard came back immediately with the news that only the elephant was tied in the front and the elephant-keeper was missing.

“He may have gone to watch the entertainment in the streets. Bring him here once he returns! Or, send someone to look for him!” The prince ordered.

“Alright, King! There is a boatman Murugaiyan waiting at the entrance. He is adamant that he must see you immediately,” said the guard.

The prince regretted having forgotten about boatman Murugaiyan. He might even help him to escape secretly. He ordered the palaceguard to send him immediately.

As soon as Murugaiyan saw the prince he fell at his feet and began sobbing. It was not an easy task to comfort this foolish disciple and gather information from him, but nevertheless it had to be done. Murugaiyan explained the reason for his unhappiness. In a nutshell – Murugaiyan separated from his wife in Nagaipattinam itself. After reaching Thiru Arur he roamed the streets wondering if she might also be there. After spending most of the night searching, he finally spotted his wife with the elephant-keeper who had accompanied the prince, at the top of a lane that branched off from the royal thoroughfare. As soon as they entered the lane they started walking fast. Murugaiyan also followed. In the end they paused in front of a house. A man waiting there joined them. The three started walking. Murugaiyan was overcome with doubts and suspicions. He even began to doubt his wife’s character. He was in a fury to know the truth. Therefore he kept following them instead of joining them. They went past the village, walking across fields and crossing irrigation drains finally ending up in a graveyard. Murugaiyan was terrified. Yet he resolved himself to follow them and hide himself behind a tree.

The man who joined Rakamahl and the elephant-keeper applied ash all over his body and began to chant in a frightening voice. Then he said to the elephant-keeper, “Tomorrow morning your life is going to be in danger! Take precautions and save yourself!” Terrified the elephant-keeper asked, “What sort of danger? You have to tell me, otherwise what can I do?”

“The elephant will suddenly lose control! When you go near it, the elephant will push you down and start running! The people will think that you are the cause for the elephant’s erratic behavior. They will grab the goad from your hand and stab you with it,” said the magician. “Aiyayo! How can I save myself,” asked the elephant-keeper.

“Tomorrow morning, don’t go near the elephant,” said the magician. “How is that possible? I will face royal punishment,” the elephant-keeper cried. “Alright, come to my house. I will give you a prayed vest, wear it and go! Don’t take the goad,” said the magician. “Alright. Sir! Will the prince be in danger,” asked the elephant-keeper. “How can I say that? I will know only if the prince comes and asks me,” said the magician.

Murugaiyan did not want to wait there any longer. He came back running to warn the prince about the elephant’s anticipated rut.

After his story Murugaiyan began sobbing again.

“Appan! Why are you crying? You have warned me in time. I will take care of this,” said Ponniyin Selvar.

“Sir! My wife’s involvement in this saddens me deeply. I don’t know what to think of Rakamahl. Old suspicions about her are now haunting me again,” said Murugaiyan.

“I will correct her. You don’t worry! Go back immediately! Somehow, find the elephant-keeper and bring him here,” said the prince.

After Murugaiyan left Ponniyin Selvar was immersed in thought. He tried to understand the significance of what Murugaiyan had seen and heard. He thought about what the junior stateswoman had said, about the Pazhuvertaraiyars’ motives, the Pandyanadu saboteurs’ conspiracy. This can be another of the saboteurs’ plans. Or it may be something absurd and insignificant altogether. Whatever it was he came to a decision about what to do the following morning. Then he slept peacefully.

The following morning he got up early and got ready for the journey. He came to the palace entrance. When the elephant saw the prince it raised his trunk and caressed him  affectionately. “The elephant will go crazy,” the magician had said according to Murugaiyan. There was no sign of craziness in the elephant.

“Where is the elephant-keeper?” The prince asked in a loud voice. Several voices responded at once with a shout of their own, “Where is the elephant?”

Like the prince people had gathered there early ready for the journey. The prince saw Murugaiyan caught among them unable to make his way to the front. When the prince raised his hand the people moved immediately and made way for him. Murugaiyan told the prince that after searching for a long time he finally found his wife the previous night, and that she completely denied going to the graveyard saying that Murugaiyan had lost his mind. He also said that he could not find the elephant-keeper.

“Don’t worry about it, Murugaiya! Undo the chain around the elephant’s feet!” The prince told him.

While Murugaiyan untied the elephant a voice was heard, “The elephant-keeper is here!” “He is here! He is here!” Several voices echoed.

The elephant-keeper came running with goad in hand. The crowd hastily made way for him.

“Oh, good!” Ponniyin Selvar exhaled a deep sigh as he turned and looked at the elephant-keeper.

Poor man! In one night how much he has changed! He appears so frightened!

With goad in hand the elephant-keeper went to the elephant and touched the animal with his other hand.

The elephant grabbed him by its trunk and swiveled him up. After bleating loudly to scare those around it flung the elephant-keeper vehemently. The elephant-keeper hit the ground at a considerable distance. The goad fell even farther away.

“A rutting elephant!” A frightening cry rose from the crowd. The people began to scatter and run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ponniyin Selvan Part V (10 – 12)

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

10. Eyes Open!

After getting beaten up first in the river and later in the breach water Pazhuvertaraiyar was exhausted. He slept like a log for a long time. After an adequate amount of sleep, vague recollections and dreams began to circulate in his mind. In one instance Durga Parameshwari stepped out of her temple statue and took four steps towards him. With fiery eyes she said to him, “Aday! Pazhuvertaraiya! You and your tribe have been for generations under my wing. Therefore I am warning you. You have brought a woman to your house. That Nandhini is a monster reincarnated! She has come to destroy your tribe and the Chola tribe. She is abiding her time. Get rid of her from the palace and your heart! Or else, the reputation of you and your tribe will forever be tarnished!”

After giving this warning the goddess nimbly stepped back into her statue …!

Pazhuvertaraiyar woke up startled. His body was shaking. He had a difficult time believing that it was a dream. But … he knew, it had to be!

Morning had broken. The storm’s fury was down. Rain had stopped. ‘Cho!’ – the noise however continued. He walked to the courtyard and looked outside. What he saw was not comforting.

The break on the shoreline was now bigger. About half the floodwater from the river was gushing through the breach. The east and the south were inundated. On the west the water rushed forth rippling and curling around the temple. Beyond it lay the jungle thick with shrubs and stunted trees. He guessed that it was the forest next to Thirupurampayam village and somewhere in the middle of the forest would be the old pallipadai temple built to honor the battlefield death of Kanga king Pruthiveepathi.

He was reminded of the great war that had taken place there a hundred years ago. He also remembered his ancestors’ valorous performance in that war. Would Nandhini really shame such a glorified ancient tribe? Was there some truth in what Durga Parameshwari said in his dream?

Whatever it might be, he must from now on be very careful. He must find out what Nandhini’s secret was. First, he must make his way safely from here. If he reached Thirupurampayam village he could get some help there. Like him, someone else from the boat might have made his way there. But how would he cross the floodwater and reach Thirupurampayam village?

The water surrounded the temple as it gushed forth. It had the force to drag even an elephant in rut! How can he cross this? The water was surely burrowing its way around the temple. Who knew when the temple would come down! Only Durga Parameshwari had the power to save it. Even so, how would he leave from here? Who knew how many days it would take for this water to drain?

Fortunately, there was a way. In front of the temple was a big neem tree. It had somehow survived the storm. But the breach water was around the tree as well; burrowing in with rip currents. The tree was certain to fall ahead of the temple. If it fell it might bridge the water to the wooded area in the west. Even if that did not happen, the flood will carry the tree and lay it on some land. If he got on the tree when it fell, perhaps there would be a way out of here.

Until then he would have to remain in the temple. By the grace of the goddess he had food for one more day. He would have to wait here patiently for either the tree to fall or the flood to drain. What else could he do?

There was no use in being impatient. Devi Jaganmatha had saved him from dying in the flood because there were still great things to be accomplished by him. Therefore, Durga Parameshwari would lead him to the next step also! The day went by. Another night and day also did. The storm after wreaking havoc all over its path moved to the west.

Even the drizzling had stopped. But there was no relief for Pazhuvertaraiyar who was trapped in Durga Parameshwari temple. Kollidam flood appeared to have gone down. But the breach on the embankment kept getting bigger. The floodwater coursing around the temple had not gone down. It appeared to be getting deeper. How could he measure its depth? Or, could he even dream of swimming across this torrent of breach water?

Finally, at sundown that day just as Pazhuvertaraiyar had expected the neem tree fell. Fortunately the tree fell to the west across the water. Pazhuvertaraiyar got ready to cross to the other side. For a moment he wondered how he would find his way through the forest in the night. But his hesitation did not last for long. Deciding to leave he approached Durga Parameshwari’s sanctuary to thank her. He fell in front of her and worshiped.

At that time he heard a voice that made his hair stand on end. His first thought was that it was Durgai Amman speaking. But the sound came from outside.

“Magician! Magician!”

Again the same voice called, “Ravithasan! Ravithasan!” The voice sounded familiar.

Pazhuvertaraiyar rose to his feet. Hiding behind a pillar he looked outside. Across from the breach water at the other end of the fallen tree he saw a figure standing. The cry, “Magician! Magician,” reminded him of what his brother once told him. He wondered if by Durgadevi’s grace he was about to know a secret that had evaded him until then. So, he stood immobile.

He saw the figure walking on the neem tree to cross the water. Pazhuvertaraiyar did something strange that he would never have done normally. He lay down in the entrance hall of the temple. He pretended to be asleep.

The desire to find out more about the magician called Ravithasan had seized him. He must be the magician who sometimes visited Nandhini in the palace. What was his real relationship with Nandhini? Who was looking for him here, in this place, at this time? Why? The answer to these questions might tell him if Nandhini was betraying him! If Ravithasan got caught to him he resolved to find out the truth before letting him go.

The man came near Pazhuvertaraiyar who pretended to be asleep. Again, “Ravithasan! Ravithasan,” he called.

Aha! This voice? Isn’t it the voice of the folk dancer who performed once at Kadampoor palace, who foretold the future? Should he strangle his neck and force the truth out of him? No! He should wait. It was more important to catch Ravithasan using this man.

“Magician! You are sleeping even before sunset? Or, are you dead?” The man turned Pazhuvertaraiyar’s body to look at his face. Pazhuvertaraiyar lay still.

In the haziness of the twilight hour when sunset and dusk mingled together Thevaralan – (Yes, it was him,) saw Pazhuvertaraiyar’s face. He wiped his eyes and looked again. In a pitiful voice that showed fear, horror, surprise and disbelief he howled, ‘Oohh! Oohh,’ Oh! Oh,’ Ah! Ah,’ and ran from there!

Before Pazhuvertaraiyar could open his eyes and sit up, Thevaralan had in two leaps passed the sacrificial altar in front of the temple and reached the fallen neem tree. Not wasting a second even to look behind, he sprinted across the tree-bridge to reach the other side. Next second he disappeared into the dense forest heavy with trees and shrubs. Without batting his eyelids Pazhuvertaraiyar stared at the running man. Once he disappeared he was overcome with doubt whether it was a mistake to let the man run away. So he also jumped up and ran. He could not run on the tree-bridge as fast as Thevaralan. He had to go slowly holding on to the branches every now and then.

On the other side he saw a footpath through the forest. He looked at it carefully. There appeared to be footsteps in the mud. Deciding they were Thevaralan’s he followed. Even though it was a waxing crescent moon, because the sky was covered with clouds the place was dark. From the wilderness rose all manner of sounds. The creatures that had made the forest their home, after having suffered through the storm and rain shouted out their joy at seeing the rain end from their dwellings in a multitude of tones, pitches and melodies.

The footpath ended after some time. But Pazhuvertaraiyar did not want to stop. Even if he had to comb the jungle the entire night he was determined to go after Thevaralan whom he hoped would lead him to the magician Ravithasan. So wherever he saw a clearing through the vegetation he went through it. After wandering in the forest in this manner for almost a quarter of the night he saw a light in the distance. The light was moving like a flame torch being carried by someone.

He walked fast towards the light. He almost caught up with it.

Finally, after being raised to shed light on an old building the light from the flambeau disappeared. Pazhuvertaraiyar knew that the building was Pirutheevapathi’s pallipadai temple in Thirupurampayam. He went close to the pallipadai. Standing next to a wall he tried to eavesdrop.

Yes; his expectations were not in vain. He heard two men talking. Because they were talking in a loud voice he could hear them well.

“Magician! Do you know for how long I have been looking for you? I was worried if you could not make it, or if Yaman had taken you also,” said Thevaralan.

Magician Ravithasan laughed out loud. “Why would Yaman care about me? He is on the trail of Sundara Cholan and his two sons. Tomorrow night their lives will come to an end,” he said.

Right then there was lightening that lit up both sky and earth.

11. The Tower Falls

When lightening struck, Pazhuvertaraiyar had a good look at the two men. He had seen the man called Ravithasan once or twice in his palace. Nandhini had said that he was an expert in necromancy.

His brother Kalanthakakandan had warned him about this same magician. The other man was Thevaralan who danced the velanattam at Kadampoor palace. Is this the first time he is seeing this man? What is his real name? … Is that possible? Is he Paramechwaran who was fired by him a long time ago from government work? … Never mind; he ought to pay attention to their talk.

“Ravithasa! This is what you have been saying for a long time. ‘The day is here,’ ‘Yaman is closing in,’ – you blabber! Yaman is taking all sorts of people! But he is not taking Sundara Cholan who is bedridden for three years. His sons – Yaman is terrified to even go near them. Didn’t we try so hard in Eezhanadu? …”

“Nothing lost, Appan! Yamatharman is much more intelligent than you and me! He is waiting so he can take all three in one day. Tomorrow is that day. Fortunately, you are also here! You are a good messenger of Yaman! Why are you shaking like this? Did you get caught in the Kollidam flood? Did you bring the boat?”

“I did. But it was a tremendous effort to save the boat from the flood and the wind! How long it has taken me to find you! Ravithasa! You want to know why I am shaking? I just came face to face with Yamatharman. No, no; I saw Yaman’s elder brother. I was horrified …”

“Paramechwara! What nonsense are you talking? Yaman and his brother? Why do you have to be afraid of them? They should be afraid of you!”

When Ravithasan called the other man ‘Paramechwara,’ Pazhuvertaraiyar was startled. His suspicion was right! He also knew that it was him that the man referred to as ‘Yaman’s brother.’ He ached to wring the man’s neck and kill him at once. Because he wanted to hear more he controlled himself. They had not mentioned Nandhini’s name yet. What did the magician mean by saying that Yaman would visit Sundara Cholar’s family the next day? Was he really reading from horoscope? Was everything Nandhini said about his magical powers true? If perhaps by god’s will his word comes true? It would make his work easy! There would be no necessity to divide the Chola kingdom! But this Paramechwaran? What is his involvement here? Yes; yes; twenty years ago before leaving he had threatened, ‘I will destroy the entire Chola tribe,’ …! Aha! The man was talking about him! He should pay attention!

“Just like you told me I came here this morning. But you weren’t here. I searched all over thinking perhaps you got caught in the wind and rain. There is a small temple near the Kollidam breach. It looked as if someone was lying there. I wondered if it was you who was fast asleep. So I went closer to take a look, Whom do you think I saw? The elder Pazhuvertaraiyan himself …!”

The magician laughed out loud. ‘kreech kreech,’ the birds in the jungle called back. The dumb owls grunted.

“Did you see Pazhuvertaraiyan? Or his ghost?” Ravithasan asked.

“No. Not a ghost. He was sleeping with his face down. I rolled him over and took a good look at his face. Ravithasa! Can Yaman have two brothers? Just like Pazhuvertaraiyan, same face, same mustache, same scars – can there be another man with all these?”

“It was Pazhuvertaraiyan you saw! No doubt. Yesterday evening Pazhuvertaraiyan was crossing Kollidam in a boat. As the boat neared the shore it got turned by the wind. His people who survived and made it to the shore are still searching for him along the Kollidam riverbank. They were thinking that he may have drowned in the flood and died. When I went to look at the breach I heard them talking. So it is possible that you saw Pazhuvertaraiyan. Maybe it is his corpse, who knows?”

“No, no. A corpse would have its eyes open! When I rolled him over his eyes were closed. He seemed to be dead tired! …”

“Fool! What did you do? You just left him there? Why didn’t you drop a rock over his head?”

“You don’t know about Pazhuvertaraiyan’s head. If I drop a rock on his head, only the rock will shatter!”

“Then, you could have at least dragged him into the Kollidam breach water?”

“Didn’t I say already? When I saw him it was like seeing Yaman’s brother. When I did the velanattam in front of him at Kadampoor my heart was pounding, ‘thick! thick!’ If he had recognized me …”

“Why are you shaking now? That was months ago!”

“As long as he is alive I will be scared. I regret now. Like you said I should have rolled him into the flood …”

“No reason to regret. In a way it is good that the elder Pazhuvertaraiyan is alive. Only then the Chola petty kings will fracture and fight with each other after Sundara Cholan and his children die. The Pazhuvertaraiyars and the Sambuvaraiyars will be on one side, Kodumbalur Velan and Thirukovalur Malaiamman will be on the other side. They will fight. It will greatly facilitate our goal. While they fight among themselves we can be secretly gathering troops in Pandyanadu.”

“Ravithasan! Your talk is like, ‘If athai grows a mustache she becomes chithappa!’ For the Cholanadu leaders to clash among themselves, first – Sundara Cholan and his two sons must meet their end tomorrow! What is the guarantee that it will happen? Did you hear the news? …”

“What news?”

“It seems that Arulmozhivarman is alive and well in Nagaipattinam! People have surrounded him and are clamoring that he become the Cholanadu emperor! Did you hear that?”

Again, Ravithasan laughed. “No, I haven’t heard that, but I knew it! Whom do you think brought Arulmozhivarman out of his hiding place, the Buddhist monastery? Boatman Murugaiyan’s wife, our Revathasa Kiramavithan’s daughter Rakamaahl!” He said.

“So what? What is the use in having Arulmozhivarman surrounded by thousands of people? Our attempts never succeeded even when he had only two or three people with him out in Eezhanadu,” said Thevaralan.

“Didn’t I say that it worked in our favor? When Yaman is coming for the three of them on the same day …”

“Ravithasa! How will Yaman go near the prince when he is surrounded by thousands of people? You didn’t explain that …”

“He will, my friend, he will! Yaman will be seated at the tip of the goad! At the right moment he will take the prince’s life! Paramechwara! Chola people will seat the prince on an elephant and parade him into Thanjai. On the way the keeper is going to run into trouble. Our Revathasa Kiramavithan will take his place on the elephant. You can guess the rest!”

“Ravithasa! I agree that there is no comparison to your insight. We can trust Kiramavithan to finish what he has undertaken. What about Sundara Cholan?”

“I have left Soman Sambavan in Pazhuvertaraiyar’s basement. He has a spear. From there a passage leads to Sundara Cholan’s palace. I have even shown him the exact spot where Sundara Cholan is sleeping. Even a blind man can throw the spear from this place that I have selected. I have also told Soman, ‘Don’t be in a hurry; wait until tomorrow!’ …”

“What for? Isn’t it better to finish it off if the opportunity arises?”

“Fool! If Sundara Cholan is killed earlier won’t the sons be on alert? What use is it anyway, a sick old man’s death? Never mind that; what news have you got? What’s about to happen in Kadampoor tomorrow is more important than anything else!”

“It’s all very festive in Kadampoor. With marriage talk, love is in the air. I just don’t like you relying on that Pazhuvur Rani so much …”

“Is she Pazhuvur Rani? Call her Pandimadevi! Have you forgotten that two days before he died Veera Pandyan made her his queen? Have you forgotten her promise to seek revenge for Veera Pandyan’s death? Didn’t she a week ago at this very place receive Pandya tribe’s victory sword from the Pandya son?”

“Yes, yes! But you should have seen your Pandimadevi yesterday, after spending an afternoon happily at Veeranarayana lake …”

“Instead of being happy, how else should she be? There is no one who has mastered the art of hiding their real self than Nandhini. If not, could she have survived in Pazhuvertaraiyan’s palace for three years? Could she have helped us from inside there? By the way, you said that you saw Pazhuvertaraiyan at Kollidam Durgai Amman temple! I also heard about his boat capsizing. When did Pazhuvertaraiyan start from Kadampoor? Why?”

“I am not sure. What I heard was that he would bring Mathuranthaka Thevar back with him. Pazhuvertaraiyan left yesterday morning. After he left the princes went hunting. The princesses went to Veeranarayana lake to bathe. You will not be so confident if you had seen the joyous sight of the princes and princesses returning …!”

“You don’t worry about it at all. The fact that Pazhuvertaraiyan was sent to Thanjai speaks volumes about Pandimadevi’s heart!”

“Who can be sure about a woman’s heart? The reason that old man was sent home could be for revenge, or romance …”

“What are you blabbering, Paramechwara? Nandhini has completely forgotten that old episode. She hates Karikalan like poison!”

“I am not talking about Karikalan. I am talking about his messenger, Vandhiyathevan. Have you forgotten that Nandhini let him escape more than once?”

The magician laughed out loud. “Yes; very soon it will be clear why Vandhiyathevan’s life was spared. When that comes out don’t think that you will be the only person in for a surprise! There are many more people who will be surprised! Especially, Sundara Cholar’s beloved daughter Kundavai will be surprised. Won’t she be, when it comes out that the handsome young man who stole her heart is the culprit who killed Athitha Karikalan?” He asked.

“What are you saying, Ravithasan? Is Vandhiyathevan actually going to do it? Is he on our side?”

“Don’t ask questions! Does it matter whose hand it is? The victory sword bearing the Pandya fish emblem is going to do the job. The blame will fall on Vandhiyathevan. What do you say now about our Rani?”

“Let the drama unfold. Ask me then and I will tell you!”

“Whatever may not happen one thing is certain. Tomorrow night Karikalan’s story will be over. Nandhini will finish what she has undertaken. We too must do our work …”

“What is our work?”

“Tomorrow night we must wait in the underground passage that exits from Kadampoor palace. Once the job is over Nandhini will come through that. Before the night is over we must reach Kollimalai with her. We will wait there and observe the turmoil in Cholanadu. If it is convenient …”

“If it is convenient …?”

“We must take all the treasure lying in Pazhuvertaraiyan’s basement room via the tunnel. How fitting it is to prepare for war against Cholanadu with money stolen from the Chola treasury?” Ravithasan laughed.

Paramechwaran who acted as Thevaralan said, “Alright, alright! Don’t go too high with those castles in the air! First, let’s cross Kollidam and reach Kadampoor. Let the Kadampoor saga unfold as you have planned. Then we will think about emptying Pazhuvertaraiyan’s treasury. What do you say? Shall we start? We’ll cross Kollidam in the night?”

“No, no! When the sun rises we will take the boat. The wind would have slowed by then. The flood also will be down a little.”

“Then, we will sleep in the pallipadai hall for the night?”

Ravithasan was thinking. From not too far away came the sound of foxes howling. Ravithasan’s body trembled.

“Ravithasa! Why do you shudder like this for some pitiful fox?” Thevaralan asked.

“My friend! You will not talk like this if you had been buried up to your neck in Kodikarai quicksand; and experienced the horror of a hundred foxes surrounding you waiting to feast on you! I do not fear the roaring lion or the elephant in rut. But when I hear the fox it is visceral. Come! Come! Let’s not spend the night in the graveyard. We will go to a temple or inn near a village. Or else, you mentioned the Durgai temple on Kollidam riverbank? We will go there. If that old man is still sleeping there we will drag him into the flood. We will be doing him a favor. If he happens to be alive day after tomorrow, he will have his heart broken!”

The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar was listening to them as best as he could. Every word of theirs went down his ears like molten lead. His heart fumed like a volcano about to erupt. He felt ashamed and hurt, knowing that the woman he fell in love with and married was there to avenge Veera Pandyan’s death and that she had deceived him for the past three years.

Pazhuvertaraiyar reminded himself of the relationship between the Chola tribe and the Pazhuvur tribe that had been forged over six generations. In fact, who exactly were Sundara Cholan and his children? After all, Sundara Cholan’s grandmother herself had come from the Pazhuvur tribe. It was only in recent times he had become aggravated by Sundara Cholan’s children. Just because of Athitha Karikalan’s childish behavior and his dislike of Malaiamman, what atrocious schemes he had lent his hand to? He had allowed the Chola tribe’s arch enemies, the Pandya saboteurs to work from the palace, using wealth stolen from his treasury! Aha! As these rascals said would there really be three gruesome killings tomorrow night? As long as he had breath in his body he would stop it. There were still sixty nazhikai left. A lot could be done. He ought to leave during the night itself, reach Kudanthai and send word to Thanjai and Nagaipattinam. After that he would go to Kadampoor. Before these scoundrels reached Kadampoor he ought to be there …

Why let them go to Kadampoor? Won’t it be better to finish these rascals off here? He had no weapon, so what? His hands were as good as vajrayutham. Why would he need any other weapon? These fellows would have knives tucked in their waist. He would strangle them before they could even reach for their knives.

But, was it prudent to fight with them here? “I have found out the information I was after. Our goddess Durga Parameshwari herself has toppled the boat and brought me here to reveal these terrible secrets. My most important duty is to protect the emperor and his sons from danger! And most of all, I must stop any harm to Karikalan in Kadampoor. If anything happens to him the blame will forever be on me and my family. All the past glory of Pazhuvur tribe’s service to the Cholars over so many generations will bite the dust. If Karikalan is killed by the monster whom I believed to be a woman and brought to my palace, nothing more shameful can ever happen to me!”

“Aha! Inside that beautiful form can there be such poisonous venom? Can such deceit be hiding behind that bewitching smile? Is it really true, what these rascals said?”

The saboteurs’ words that ignited an angry fire in Pazhuvertaraiyar’s heart, in a way provided him a little satisfaction also. Nandhini might be treacherous. She might have fooled him and betrayed him saying that she loved him. But she did not betray him out of some carnal longing for Karikalan or Kanthmaran or Vandhiyathevan! She did not care about those foolish little boys. She was only using them for her end!

This deduction subconsciously gave some satisfaction to Pazhuvertaraiyar. It was important to prevent the murder of Karikalan not only to protect his family’s reputation and his; but also for saving Nandhini from such a cruel misdeed. Perhaps it would be possible to change her mind. Because she was trapped by these saboteurs she could be going along with them! If these men were killed here perhaps Nandhini would have her freedom …?

Carried away by these thoughts the brave old man forgetting his surroundings cleared his throat. Like a lion’s roar the sound startled the two saboteurs.

“Who is there?” Thevaralan whose real name was Paramechwaran asked.

The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar stepped outside knowing that it was neither possible nor prudent to remain hiding anymore.

As the two saboteurs stood astounded by the sudden appearance of this tall large figure in that darkness of the rainy season, Pazhuvertaraiyar laughed savagely. The sound of his laughter shook the entire jungle. “It’s me, Yaman’s elder brother,” said Pazhuvertaraiyar.

Ravithasan and Thevaralan tried to run. But Pazhuvertaraiyar did not leave any room for that. With his long arms he grabbed both of them. His right hand held Ravithasan’s neck. His left hand held Thevaralan’s arm. His grip, stronger than vajrayutham left the two men helpless.

However strong his hands were Pazhuvertaraiyar knew that he could not fight both men at the same time. He pushed Thevaralan down, with his face to the ground. Keeping one leg on the back of the fallen man he began to squeeze Ravithasan’s neck with both of his hands. But Thevaralan did not just wait. Struggling, he was able to pull out a knife from his waist. He tried to stab the leg that was pressing him down. Pazhuvertaraiyar saw it. With his other leg he kicked Thevaralan’s wrist vehemently. The knife flew and landed far away. Thevaralan’s hand became limp and lifeless. But the leg that was pressing him down moved ever so slightly. In that fraction of a second Thevaralan wriggled himself out and jumped up. Making a fist with his good hand he began to pummel Pazhuvertaraiyar. His punches fell on a granite rock. It was Thevaralan’s hand that hurt. It seemed that it would end up like his other hand.

Meanwhile, Ravithasan tried hard to remove Pazhuvertaraiyar’s hands from his neck; it was of no use. The old man’s iron grip did not budge. Ravithasan’s eyes started to bulge. Feebly he cried, ” Thevarala! Quick! Hurry! Climb on the temple! Push the tower down!”

Thevaralan ran and climbed on to the pallipadai temple’s tower. They had already observed a wide crack on the temple’s tower. If that part of the granite moved even a little the tower would come down crashing. Following Ravithasan’s cue, Thevaralan pushed the cracked ledge of the tower with all his might. When the structure crashed it pulled down a tree also with it.

Pazhuvertaraiyar knew that the tower was about to fall. He took one of his hands from Ravithasan’s neck and tried to shield himself from the falling tower. With the greatest difficulty Ravithasan seized that moment to get away from his hold. The tree and the tower fell over Pazhuvertaraiyar. Hit on his head, Pazhuvertaraiyar became unconscious.

12. Thoomakethu Disappeared!

After a long time when Pazhuvertaraiyar’s memory slowly returned he saw that he was in a brutal battlefield. ‘Jana jana’ – swords clanged. From one side blared the victory trumpets. With them a thousand voices shouted, “Long live the great Rajathiraja Pandya king! Death to Pandya enemies!’

From another side thousands of voices cried, “Kanga king has fallen! Run! Run!” Some voices cried to stop those from running.

All of a sudden there was silence in the battlefield. Pazhuvertaraiyar looked around. Vijayalaya Cholan who had lost both his legs entered seated on the shoulders of a tall well-built man. He was carrying a giant sword in each hand.

“Chola warriors! Stop! Pallavar men! Don’t run! At six or a hundred, death awaits! Follow me! We will massacre our enemies,” he shouted.

The Chola and Pallava warriors stopped when they heard his words. Fear and fatigue disappeared from their faces. Hope and audacity returned. Those who were retreating began to advance. Pazhuvertaraiyar looked at Vijayalaya Cholan who had brought about this amazing change. He also looked at the soldier on whose soldiers he was seated. Wonder of wonders! He saw that the soldier was himself. That Pazhuvertaraiyar, with his one hand holding Vijayalaya Cholan and his other hand brandishing a long sword, penetrated the enemy front. Wherever the two went, Pandya heads rolled.

The war had completely changed. Pandya garrison scattered and ran. The Cholars and Pallavars won. Victory drums thundered. Vijayalaya Cholar was seated in front of the Pallava emperor! Pazhuvertaraiyar stood next to him. Pallava emperor told the Chola king, “Mighty warrior! Today defeat turned into victory because of you. From now on Cholanadu is free! You and your brave son Athithan and your descendants will forever rule Cholanadu as free kings!” Vijayalaya Cholar said to Pazhuvertaraiyar who was standing next to him, “Athan! We won because of you. I appoint you as the free Cholanadu’s commander and treasurer. Your descendants will be treasurers and commanders as long as they are loyal to the Chola tribe!” The scarred face of Pazhuvertaraiyar beamed.

Then suddenly the face turned angry. The old Pazhuvertaraiyar looked at the new Pazhuvertaraiyar. “You rascal! You wretched cutthroat! The axe-handle who came to ruin my tribe! You ruined the reputation that we had built over six generations! You betrayed your friend! You betrayed your master! You took into your house the arch enemies of the Chola tribe! You gave them money! It is you who has brought about the demise of the Chola tribe! May you perish! The shame that you have brought on yourself and your tribe will not go away until the end of time!” He cursed. Tears poured from the eyes of the Pazhuvertaraiyar who was being cursed.

After that several other Pazhuvertaraiyars appeared. Each one described his valorous acts. Each one cursed Pazhuvertaraiyar. Then all of them together cursed him. “Cutthroat! You betrayed your tribe and the kingdom! You ruined the fame that we earned sacrificing our lives! What were you thinking?” They said.

The Pazhuvertaraiyars disappeared. Kodumabalur Velirs and Thi\rukovalur Malaiammans appeared. They surrounded Pazhuvertaraiyar who stood alone. “Cheechee! Do you call yourself a man? You called yourself and your ancestors stalwarts of the Chola tribe! Now, what do you say? You have turned out to be their Yaman! Traitor! Where is your dignity?” They laughed boisterously.

The Chola citizens who gathered behind them began to throw rocks and dirt at Pazhuvertaraiyar. At that time emperor Sundara Cholar parted the crowd and came walking on his weak legs. He looked angrily at the Velirs, Malaiammans and others. “Cheechee! What are you doing? You are throwing rock and dirt on the heroic warrior, Pazhuvertaraiyar? You are calling him a cutthroat? My tribe and I will be destroyed by Pazhuvertaraiyar’s betrayal? So what? No one has the right to blame him! Treasurer! Come with me to the palace,” he said. The crowd dispersed. Sundara Cholar also disappeared. Brother Kalanthakakandar alone stood in front of Pazhuvertaraiyar. “Brother! The emperor trusted us! How can you betray him? Is it right to shelter the female demon who came to destroy his tribe?” He said. Then he also disappeared.

Vandhiyathevan, Kanthamaran and other young men surrounded Pazhuvertaraiyar. “Gray mustached old man! Why hasn’t your desire turned gray? Your lust for women has ruined you! What are your sixty four scars saying now? Are they the symbol of valor? Or, are the worm infested wounds the payment for betrayal?” They laughed out loud. Pazhuvertaraiyar tried to draw his sword out to kill them. But the sword was missing from its place.

Now, Kundavai appeared. She raised her hand to silence the young men. “Grandfather! Don’t pay any attention to their mockery. Chase that poisonous serpent who masquerades as a woman from your palace! Then all will be set straight,” she said. As the young men and Kundavai disappeared, women from Pazhuvertaraiyar’s tribe began to arrive. Ten, then hundred, then a thousand women from six generations surrounded him. “Aiyayo! Is this your fate? Did you have to bring this charge on our heads? We sent our husbands and brothers; our sons whom we carried in our wombs, to the Chola battlefields! They shed their blood and gave their lives to bring fame to the Pazhuvur tribe! In a second you have destroyed everything!” They wailed.

“Women! Please shut your mouths and go back to the anthapuram! No infamy will be caused by me!” Pazhuvertaraiyar answered with difficulty. The women pointed to Yamatharmarajan arriving on his bull with spear and noose in hand. He said, “Pazhuvertaraiya! Greetings! You helped me take the lives of Sundara Cholan and his two children in one day! Thank you very much for that!”

“No, no! I did not help you; I will not! I will stop you! Yaman! Stop! Stop!” Pazhuvertaraiyar screamed. He tried to chase Yaman. But something very powerful was holding him back. A great weight lay over him. He could not budge from where he was.

“You see! We were right,” the Pazhuvertaraiyar women wailed. The sound of their wailing grew louder minute by minute. Pazhuvertaraiyar could not bear it. He tried to speak. But his voice did not carry above the crying and the wailing. He tried to cover his ears. But he could not move his hands.

With the greatest effort he pulled one hand out. The effort forced his eyes to open. In a flash his memory returned. He realized that he was waking up from a nightmare. But the wailing however continued. He listened carefully. It wasn’t women wailing. It was the sound of foxes howling!

He remembered the conversation that took place when he laid there semiconscious.

“The old man is dead!”

“Look carefully! Pazhuvertaraiyan’s life is very sound. Even Yaman will be afraid to come near him!”

“But the foxes won’t be. Whatever life is remaining they will take care of it. When the sun comes up only the old man’s bones will remain.”

“You pushed the tower at the right moment. Or else, this here will be me. The old man would have killed me!”

“Where? Let’s see if this moves!”

Then, “Not a bit! From one enemy’s pallipadai we made the tomb for another.” The magician’s laughter had followed.

“Enough with the jokes, come! The boat is going to tear off with the river’s flow. After that we cannot cross Kollidam!”

***

Remembering this conversation Pazhuvertaraiyar took stock of his situation. Yes; a portion of the pallipadai tower was on top of him. It’s weight was pressing him down. But he was able to breathe! How?

Fortunately, the tree that fell with the tower lay over his shoulder while the tower was over the tree. It was the tree that had saved his life. If the tower had fallen directly on him his head and chest would have been flattened. The old man was astounded at the strength of his body. He realized that even after bearing this weight for so long his life persisted. But is it possible to continue, however sound his life may be?

Yes; he must by whatever means save his life. And then he must save the Chola tribe. If he did not, his tribe would forever carry the blame – that much was certain. His ancestors would curse him in the next world also. Therefore he must lift this tree and move from under the building. Aiyo! Who knew how long he had been lying here? The terrible events that he wanted to prevent, would they have happened already?

Meanwhile the foxes were coming nearer and nearer. He could hear their panting beside his head. Aha! Pazhuvertaraiyar had become weak even for these foxes? Let’s see! Pazhuvertaraiyar used both of his hands. Using all the strength that remained he tried to lift the tree. As the tree lifted up slowly, the tower lying over it began to slide. His grunts kept the foxes at bay.

After a half hour that seemed like an eon his work paid off. The tree and the granite budged a little, freeing him. Exhausted by the effort, he lay there staring at the sky exhaling deeply. Because several trees had been downed by the storm the sky was clearly visible from where he lay. No dark clouds covered it. Like sparks of diamonds countless number of stars glittered playing peekaboo while light clouds moving fast in the process of dispersing covered and uncovered the stars. As Pazhuvertaraiyar watched, his attention was drawn to the unusual shape of a star that suddenly appeared in the north. Adada! Had thoomakethu, that even a few days ago appeared with a long tail, shrunken to this state? On one end of the star was a hazy white extension that was about a foot long. Why was the tail that even ten days ago extended right across the sky from corner to corner now so small? …

Taking his eyes off from the sky he looked around him. He saw that the foxes had not gone away! There were about ten, or twenty, or fifty of them. In the dark their eyes lit like smoldering ember. Perhaps they were waiting for the old man to die! Let them wait! Let them wait! At least they are showing that much of respect towards Pazhuvertaraiyan! …

Suddenly the sky, the earth, and the entire forest area lit up. Pazhuvertaraiyar’s eyes were nearly blinded. It wasn’t lightening. What was it? He looked at the sky. He saw a brightly lit flame traveling diagonally across the sky. Its brightness overwhelmed his eyes. After closing his eyes for a second he opened them again. The flame had become smaller; gradually its light grew dim; and then it disappeared altogether. Once again darkness surrounded.

Wondering what this strange phenomenon was Pazhuvertaraiyar looked at the sky again. He looked at where the shrunken thoomakethu had been. It was not there any more. Aha! It was thoomakethu that fell. What did this mean? What was its significance? It was a sign that something terrible was about to happen in the world. It was a sign foretelling of danger to someone in the royal family. When a long tailed star fell the death of a member of the royal family would follow. This was a longstanding belief among people. There were those who denied it. The truth or consequence would be known tomorrow. Tomorrow? No! Today, it would be known …! The eastern sky was brightening! It would soon be morning! Before tonight three unbelievably terrible events might take place in three different places. He was the only one who had this information. He was the only one who had the power to stop these events. If he succeeded he would have won over even the bad omen of thoomakethu’s demise. If not … Pazhuvertaraiyar could not even imagine it. He ought to act! He ought to save the three Chola men.

His first and most important duty was to save Athitha Karikalan! If he was harmed the blame would fall directly on his head. Therefore he ought to cross Kollidam and reach Kadampoor at once. Before that he ought to go to Kudanthai and send a warning to Thanjai and Nagai. That was all that he could do. Beyond that, fate would play its hand.

Pazhuvertaraiyar tried to get up. His entire body was sore. There was an unbearable pain on his chest where the tree had fallen. He felt as if one of his legs was fractured. All over his body, there were numerous wounds.

The brave old man did not mind any of this. Clenching his teeth he stood up with great effort. He looked around. Fortunately by that time the foxes that had been waiting for his death had run away. Perhaps they were unnerved by the flood of light thoomakethu’s fall produced!

He tried to deduce in which direction the city of Kudanthai lay. Then he started walking carefully, firmly planting his feet. Fallen trees lay all over the way. A wilderness of floodwater awaited following the rain and the Kollidam breach. Without heeding these obstacles Pazhuvertaraiyar walked. His body’s troubles were overshadowed by his mind’s anguish. Two jamams after sunrise he reached Kudanthai. He did not want to go to the town’s center. People would be curious about the state of his appearance. They would surround him asking, what? – and why? He would not be able to do his work quickly or effectively.

Therefore, he ought to find someone at the edge of town, somewhere where there would be no crowds and send a letter to Thanjai and Nagai. Then he must find a ride and reach Kadampoor. He remembered the astrologer who lived near Durgai Amman temple. It was a rather isolated place without any houses nearby. The astrologer, a sweet natured man, would be the right person. The royal family and the chief minister knew him. Did that matter? Anyone would do this. Perhaps because he knew them personally the astrologer would be more eager to help. Aha! He could also test at this time if the astrologer really knew astrology, and if there was any truth in astrology.

Pazhuvertaraiyar walked towards the Amman temple. The big tall tree beside the temple had fallen down for the storm. Beside the tree and the temple was a chariot with two horses. Its design drew Pazhuvertaraiyar’s attention. The front part of the chariot was constructed like a boat. Such vehicles were generally used during a flood. If caught in a big river during flooding the boat could be disengaged from the chariot. Horses, untied would swim to shore. Those in the chariot would row the boat to shore.

Such vehicles were rare in Cholanadu. Whose was it? It ought to be from the royal palace. Or it could belong to the chief minister. Perhaps its occupants were inside the astrologer’s house consulting about their horoscope! Who could it be? Should he ask the driver of the vehicle? No! His appearance might unsettle him. It was best to simply go in. Whoever was inside, he could borrow their chariot. It would help him to reach Kadampoor!

When Pazhuvertaraiyar stood on the doorstep he heard a female voice coming from inside the astrologer’s house. It sounded like the junior stateswoman. The old man was astounded. Why would she be here? At this time … His disappointment soon gave way to hope. If he could explain the danger awaiting her father and two brothers that intelligent girl would take necessary action. The weight on his shoulder would be lifted. After that he would go peacefully to Kadampoor. His main responsibility lay there!

When Pazhuvertaraiyar entered the astrologer’s house, the guard – the astrologer’s disciple whom we have seen on a previous occasion – stopped him. In the state that Pazhuvertaraiyar was in, the guard did not recognize him. Therefore he sternly said, “Stop!” Pazhuvertariayar replied with a grunt and shoved the guard aside by his neck. The disciple took a sommersault and landed on the street. Sending tremors through the earth like an elephant in rut Pazhuvertaraiyar entered the astrologer’s house.

Ponniyin Selvan Part V (7 – 9)

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

7. People Rejoice

Boatman Murugaiyan was stunned by his wife’s cry. He shook his hands at her in vain to signal her to calm down. Exasperated he said, “Woman! What are you blabbering? Are you insane?”

“I am not insane. You are insane, your father is insane, your grandfather is insane. Don’t you recognize him? You can’t recognize the brave warrior who conquered Eezham, who drove king Mahinthan to the hills? You can’t recognize the emperor’s beloved son whom Chola citizens consider the apple of their eyees; the divine son whom Mother Kaveri brought back? If you can’t, why are you accompanying this man? Where are you going?” Rakamaahl said.

The prince interrupted. “Woman! You have mistaken me for someone else. I am a merchant from Eezhanadu. He is my guide. Who is he to you? Is he your husband? If you like, take him! Please don’t shout unnecessarily,” he said.

Meanwhile a crowd had surrounded them. Minute by minute it grew larger. Everyone was staring at the prince.

Rakamaahl shouted louder than before. “Ah! God! What is going on? Has Ponniyin Selvar lost his mind? When you drowned in the sea did you lose your memory? Or, have those evil Buddhist monks cast their magic spell and made you believe that you are someone else? Or – Aiyayoh! Can that be? After you died has someone taken possession of your body, playing the trick, jumping from cage to cage? That cannot be! Crown Prince! Think, please! You are not a merchant. You are the beloved son of Sundara Chola emperor. You were born to rule the world under one mantle. If you have doubts please take a look at your palm. There will be sankuchakra lines!”

Prince Arulmozhivarmar covered both of his ears with his hands. “Woman! Can’t you shut your mouth and be still,” he told Rakamaahl. To Murugaiyan he said, “What is this hassle? Can’t you stop her from screaming?”

Murugaiyan whispered in his wife’s ear, “Rakamaahl! Please bear with me! Be quiet! The prince does not want anyone to recognize him. He is going to Thanjavur dressed like a merchant!”

“Oh, you son of a sinner! Why didn’t you say so? You told me that the prince was not in the Buddhist monastery! You are pulling the same trick now! Aiyayoh! My blunder! I care too much, so I blurted out! The cursed Pazhuvertaraiyars are waiting to take their revenge on you. Knowing that, oh! – what have I done? I have made your presence here public! Prince! Please do not be afraid. The Pazhuvertaraiyars cannot hurt even an atom of your body. Like my husband and myself, thousands of people are on your side waiting to protect you,” she said. Turning to the crowd she asked them, “Don’t you all agree with me? Is anyone here on the side of the Pazhuvertaraiyars? Then, please come forward! Kill me first and then think of harming the prince,” she howled.

The crowd that was until then watching incredulously began to chant, “Long live Ponniyin Selvar! Long live the mighty warrior who conquered Eezham!” Hearing their voices more people joined the crowd. Among them was the enperaya leader of Nagaipattinam. Making his way through the crowd he said, “Prince! We heard that you were at this city’s Soodamani viharam. We did not believe the rumor, but now we know. Yesterday’s storm has wreaked havoc in this town. But it made you leave that Buddhist viharam. For that, we will forget all the tyranny of the storm. The city is fortunate to be graced by your presence!”

The prince saw that it was no use trying to hide himself any longer. “Sir! I thank everyone in this great city for their love. It makes me very happy. But I have to go to Thanjavur for an important reason. It is urgent. To avoid any delay I put on the disguise of a merchant. Please bid me farewell,” he said.

“No, no! The prince must wait and accept the poor people’s hospitality for at least a day,” a voice shouted from the crowd.

Following it a thousand voices rose. “No, no! The prince must wait here at least for a day,” they shouted.

“Crown Prince! Do you see the love and enthusiasm of my town’s people? You must be our guest and receive our homage. Aren’t we as deserving as the Buddhist monks? Yesterday, the people of this city, thinking that the Buddhist monks were keeping you hidden, were about to raze Soodamani viharam to the ground. The storm arrived at that time! It did what they failed to do. The viharam has crumbled to the ground,” he said.

“Sir! It is not right to blame the monks. The bikkus had me there because I needed them. When I was ill and pleading for dear life they saved me from Yaman’s loving noose. I am sorry to hear that Soodamani viharam succumbed. It is my duty to rebuild it,” the prince said.

“Aha! We had no idea about your illness! Now that we do, we will rebuild Soodamani viharam. Prince! You must be our guest before leaving,” said the enperaya leader.

“Yes, yes!” Tens of thousnads of voices echoed the leader.

“Prince! We can make up for the delay here. You have started out on foot. All the roads are blocked because of the storm. The rivers are flooded. On foot, when will you reach your destination? We will put you on an elephant and send you in a procession. We will all come with you and leave you in Thanjavur,” said the enperaya leader. While he was speaking more and more people were joining the crowd.

The prince was thinking. ‘The plan is ruined. The secret is out. Rakamaahl foolishly screamed and ruined the plan. Was it just foolishness? … Or, is there another motive? In any event, it is impossible to ignore these people. Their feelings will be hurt. In addition it may make matters worse. I must stay at least until noon and pacify them. I can also say a few words to alleviate the fears of those affected by the storm. Aha! The junior stateswoman Kundavai predicted that there will be turmoil in the country if they knew that I was alive! How accurate that was! There is no one as erudite as my sister in this world! They talk about Thanjai’s throne. Actually it is Kundavai who should have it! …’

While Ponniyin Selvar was thus contemplating he saw the crowd becoming bigger. He also saw how excited they were. They appeared to forget the storm’s devastating effects. From out of the blue elephants and horses; carriages and palanquins; banners, flags, and musical instruments such as kettle drums, trumpets and cornets appeared on the scene.

The prince decided to at least spend half the day there. He told the enperaya leader, “Sir! I don’t want to reject the people’s affection. I will remain here until late afternoon. Would you let me do that?”

The crowd was overjoyed when news spread that the prince had agreed to delay his journey. They took it on themselves to show their happiness. Music blared. On the streets people gathered in pockets around artists staging sword fights, fencing, folk dances and other entertainment. It became impossible to go back to the Chola palace through the crowd and the street festival. With the greatest difficulty they finally did.

In the palace the prince could not rest even for a minute. The news of his presence had spread to neighboring villages. People came in droves. All wanted to see the prince. He went outside often and inquired after their wellbeing. With genuine sympathy he walked through the crowd asking about their experience with the storm. He promised to make arrangements to help them as soon as he was in Thanjavur. He saw that the people weren’t really interested in their material loss. He heard the people asking one another, ‘Will the Pazhuvertaraiyars’ power come to an end?’ They spoke about the emperor’s declining health and who might succeed him to the throne in low voices, but clearly intended for the prince’s ears.

Meanwhile the city leaders arrived. Preparations got underway for a feast in honor of the prince. Arrangements were made to provide food for the crowd also. Whatever grain that did not get washed off with the storm was brought. There was no shortage of vegetables. From the fallen trees there were heaps of plantains and coconuts to feed a hundred thousand people!

***

The meal was over and it was time to leave. Holding his palms together in greeting the prince appeared on the front balcony. On the street a procession stood ready to take off. A decorated elephant arrived to take the prince. In front of it and behind stood horses and oxen. Beside musicians, flag bearers holding banners and flags lined up. Like the sea that spread the previous evening, people stood clamoring filling the space as far as eyes could see.

On the outside the prince looked cheerful. In his heart he was worried. He was eager for news about Eezha rani who had stolen his affection more than his own mother. He had hoped that he would get more information from Murugaiyan’s wife. But she had disappeared in the crowd. Only Murugaiyan took the effort to keep up with the prince and accompany him to the palace. He also did not know what had become of his wife Rakamaahl.

The prince had another concern also. The Pazhuvertaraiyars have already accused him of wanting to take the kingdom against his father’s wishes. The crowd’s behavior only seemed to prove it!

The prince simply wanted to free himself from the townspeople’s vortex of love. Meanwhile there was another development that he did not expect at all. When the prince held his palms together in a posture of farewell, the city leaders made their way through the crowd and stood at the entrance to the palace. As if foreordained the sound of drums and trumpets rose above the noise of the sea. When the music abruptly stopped there was silence. An elderly member of the city leaders stepped up to the podium and spoke eloquently.

“Ponniyin Selva! We have a request. A request on behalf of the people of Nagaipattinam and surrounding villages. We are concerned about the health of the emperor. We are also concerned about another news that we have been hearing. We hear that Pazhuvertaraiyars and several petty kings have decided to crown Mathuranthaka Thevar who had never seen the battlefield. If he ascends to the throne it will really be the Pazhuvertaraiyars who will have the reign. The petty kings’ word will become the law. Prince Athitha Karikalan has not been to Thanjai for three years. Several reasons are given. They say that he is not interested in the crown. In that case who should by law take the crown? It is the long awaited son of Cholanadu, the son whom Mother Kaveri saved, the mighty warrior who conquered Eezham … it is you! People! Do you agree with me?” When the speaker posed the question the response from the crowd shook the earth. “Yes, yes; we agree!” Tens of thousands of voices shouted. Following it a hundred thousand voices chanted, “Long live Ponniyin Selvar!” The noise turned into an incomprehensible roar.

When the prince began to speak as if under a spell the crowd became quiet.

“Sir! I am delighted by the love all of you have for me. But the way you have chosen to demonstrate that love is not proper! It appears that you have forgotten that my beloved father emperor Sundara Cholar is still living. ‘Long live the emperor!’ – you must join with me and pray. When the emperor is alive why worry about who will be seated on the throne next?”

The elderly chief of the city’s leaders had an answer for the prince. “Ponniyin Selva! From the beginning of time it has been the practice to choose the future king while the present king is still alive. Didn’t the warrior who conquered Madurai, emperor Paranthakar, who weaved a golden roof for Thillaiampala temple, line up those who will succeed in future generations while he was still alive? Isn’t that why your father asceneded to the throne?” He said.

“Yes, yes! Therefore, isn’t it the emperor who should decide who will take the throne after him? Is it proper that we should be having this conversation,” said the prince.

“Ponniyin Selva! We agree that only the emperor has the power. But it would be right if the emperor is able to make this decision on his own. At present the Pazhuvertaraiyars are keeping the emperor inside the Thanjai fortress like a prisoner. Prince! In addition, many of us even doubt if the emperor is alive. We want to come with you to Thanjai and see for ourselves. God willing, if the emperor is alive, we will tell him what we want. We will submit our request that it is you who should ascend to the throne after him. After that, let the emperor decide!”

The prince was very disturbed to hear someone having doubts about whether the emperor was alive. He experienced pain and fear that he had not felt until that moment. He was convinced that the emperor’s life was in grave danger and that he was too far away to do anything about it. And then there was the news about Eezha rani’s abduction by some scoundrels. He was anxious to leave for Thanjai without a moment’s delay. Within seconds the prince decided on a course of action. There was no use arguing with these people. It will only create more delays. If he agrees with them and gets started then on the way other solutions can be sought.

“Sir! I will not stand in the way of your wish. What you said about the emperor has made it more urgent than ever before to be near him. I must leave immediately. If you want to see the emperor, then by all means join me! Whatever the emperor says about the crown’s succession we will all listen and act accordingly!” He said.

In a short while the prince began his journey on the elephant. A procession of about thousand people followed him. As they proceeded more and more people joined them.

8. Pazhuvertaraiyar on the Boat

Readers would remember that it was in the morning of the day of the storm that Pazhuvertaraiyar departed for Thanjai from Kadampoor. He took the road up to Kollidam and then turned west along the Kollidam riverbank. He did not want a long journey through the Cholanadu villages. He wanted to go west and cross Kollidam at Thiruvaiyaru.

The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar was not traveling with hundreds of aids. He wanted to avoid anyone’s attention during this trip. So he took just ten people with him.

When Pazhuvertaraiyar reached Thiruvaiyaru at Kollidam’s northern shore water was abundantly flowing touching both sides. It would have been impossible to take the horse in the small boat waiting. There were signs that the wind was picking up speed. Therefore, leaving the horses on the north shore for the return trip, Pazhuvertaraiyar set off on the boat with the ten soldiers accompanying him. Midway in the river the storm turned severe. The two boatmen struggled to row. The flood pulled the boat eastward. The storm pushed it west. The boatmen tried to direct it to the south. Caught between these three forces the boat turned like a wheel.

In Pazhuvertaraiyar’s heart also there was a storm waging. When he was facing Nandhini his mind would generally fall into a stupor. Whatever she said would seem right. Something that he had abhorred all his life, if it is proposed by Nandhini, would become palatable. Even if some doubt lingered in his heart, his mouth would still say, ‘Yes, yes; we’ll do that.’ Once he had agreed to something, he never liked going back.

When Nandhini asked him to bring Mathuranthakar from Thanjai, he agreed. After beginning the journey doubts plagued his heart. He did not believe that Nandhini could behave immorally. Yet the thought that he had left her alone amidst three young men of her age haunted him.

He had reasons to feel hostile toward Kanthamaran, Vandhiyathevan and Athitha Karikalan. As if drawn with a hot rod of iron Kanthamaran’s remark, ‘your daughter’ – when he encountered Nandhini and Pazhuvertaraiyar in the underground cellar – had left its mark on Pazhuvertaraiyar’s mind. In the heat of that moment he secretly ordered his guard to kill Kanthamaran. Later, he rregretted it. Kanthamaran somehow survived. How he did, how the cellar guard succumbed, – Pazhuvertaraiyar still had not figured out the details. He could not forget that following the stabbing, Kanthamaran was a guest in his palace and Nandhini had attended to him with great care.

And, Vandhiyathevan was also at Kadampoor. He had not liked that loudmouth from the first moment he laid his eyes on him. His dislike grew when he heard that he had wanted to warn the emperor secretly and that he escaped from Thanjai fortress fooling everyone. He also remembered hearing from the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar that Nandhini may have helped Vandhiyathevan escape. That fib can never be true. Because it was known that Vandhiyathevan was the confidential messenger to Madam Kundavai and Prince Arulmozhi. That ruled out any connection to Nandhini. Yet whenever Pazhuvertaraiyar happened to see him with Nandhini he felt his steel heart blazing in a fire.

And then, there was Athitha Karikalan. He had heard that once he wanted to marry a temple pattar’s daughter, and that girl was Nandhini. Now they are meeting again. Nandhini took the initiative for it. Why? One thing was certain; Athitha Karikalan might be a rude fellow. He might not respect his elders. But he was born in the Chola tribe. No one in that tribe had committed adultery. Karikalan was also not that kind of man. Where women were concerned he was faultless. But Nandhini? Was it prudent to have believed her to this extent and gone along with her whims and fancies? Was Pazhuvertaraiyar certain that her behavior was faultless? He still did not know her history well. His brother Kalanthakakandar had warned him indirectly many times.

“Would my brother’s words become true? Would Nandhini fail him? Aha! This is good for fiction! Do such deceitful women really exist? Is Nandhini one of them? …”

If these thoughts fanned the flames of anger in his heart they also ignited his lust for her. To leave his agony behind Pazhuvertaraiyar shook his head and cleared his throat. The awareness that he was among ten other people was what kept him from smacking himself on his forehead. Long sighs escaped his being without his volition. Gripping the edge of the boat with both hands he vowed, “I will find out the truth in two days! I will never again make these mistakes!”

9. Shoreline Breach

The others on the boat had no idea about Pazhuvertaraiyar’s inner musings. They assumed that he was concerned about the boat in that stormy weather. His iron will was what the elder  Pazhuvertaraiyar was known for.

When they saw him unraveling fear took hold of the others also. Everyone began to think of a way to escape fearing that the boat may topple any moment.

After struggling for a long time the boat finally reached the coast about five miles east of their landing point. Thinking, ‘No more worries,’ everyone sighed. At that moment a tree that was swaying devilishly broke and fell. The wind carried the tree and dropped it in the water next to the boat. The boatmen tried hard to turn the boat away from it. It was of no use. The tree collided with the boat. The boat capsized. Next minute everyone from the boat was floating in the water.

Since they were all planning an escape route, when confronted with the necessity they were somewhat prepared. As the boat was close to the shore some started swimming. Others clung to the trees. Others grabbing whatever they could simply floated.

Because Pazhuvertaraiyar’s mind was preoccupied with other worries, he was the least prepared. When the boat capsized he drowned. The flood carried him a long way off. After gulping mouthfuls of water, his ears and nose blocked, when he made his way above the floodwater there was no sign of land or the men from the boat. Pazhuvertaraiyar realized that the flood had dragged him to the center of that vast river.

The old man’s age old valor sprang again in his heart. The great warrior who had fought victoriously in many wars decided to put up a fight with the Kollidam flood. He grabbed a log that was coming his way. Aiming at the shore he began to swim. Fighting against the wind and the water he swam. When his hands became tired he simply floated. Several times when he tried to crawl out of the water the slippery shore muddied by the rain pushed him back again into the river. He immediately grabbed back the log that he had momentarily let go of.

After fighting in this way for a good quarter of the night his feet finally touched the ground at a place where a reed colony had taken root. The tall grasses conveniently bent to his grasp and helped him finally climb on to the shore.

Darkness engulfed him. It seemed unlikely that there were any villages nearby. He was probably about fifteen miles east of the pier across from Thiruvaiyaru. Yes, yes! He was near the town of Kudanthai. Can he make it to Kudanthai for the night?

The storm had just reached its climax in that area. Its noise sounding like a hundred thousand devils deafened one’s ears. ‘chada chada!’ – trees were falling down. Thunder from above sounded as if the ends of the earth were exploding. Rain was torrential.

“Won’t there be an old building or temple somewhere? I will have to spend the night there. Only when the day breaks I can begin my journey.” With this decision he walked along the riverbank resolutely planting his otherwise trembling legs.

In the river the flood ran up to the brim. The rain dumped water on the shore as well. And the darkness – he had no words for it! So, when the brave old warrior was walking he did not pay attention to the water swelling over the bank. He hesitated when the water was suddenly touching his knees. When it rose up to his thighs he became alarmed. But his time for thinking had run out. In the next second he found himself tumbling and falling. The flood that rushed past, breaking the Kollidam bank, rolled him over and carried him along. Because the ground dropped beyond the embankment of the shoreline he felt being carried down deep into the abyss. When the boat capsized and left him in the torrential flood of the river he was able to go along with it. Now he could not. He kept rolling over and over, going deeper and deeper down. He could not see, he could not hear. He could not straighten himself and push upwards, or reach for air. A frightening monster kept thrusting his head under water, rolling him from head to toe over and over again towards an abyss.

“Aha! The flood is the monster that has broken the Kollidam bank and bursting forth through it! Can anyone escape its terrifying grip and its brutal somersaults? Feet won’t even skim the ground! Nothing to grab on to! I cannot breathe! Someone is strangling me! My ears are blocked! Durga Parameshwari! Goddess! Would I survive this catastrophe? Wretched Nandhini! See what happened to me because of you! … Aiyo! … Poor girl! I left you with those rascals and came! … Cheechee! What have I reaped by falling for your beauty, feeling sorry for your plight and marrying you? Other than losing my peace of mind, what else was there? In the end I am going to get caught in this Kollidam breach and suffocate to death! My body – that bears sixty four battlescars – there won’t be a tombstone or pallipadai over its burial place! No one will find the body! I am going to be entombed in mud somewhere! No one will even know what became of me! Or, the flood may cast me away on some shore! Foxes and dogs will feast on me! …”

These thoughts kept Pazhuvertaraiyar’s mind working for a few minutes. After that he lost consciousness altogether! …

‘thadar!’ – when his head knocked against something he briefly regained his senses. His hands were holding onto either the earth or a rock. A force brought him up and swung him over. He also used whatever was remaining of his will power and pressed his hands down and leaped. Next minute he felt himself lying on a hard granite floor. His eyelids were pressed down tightly. With difficulty he tried to open them. When they opened a little the light outside nearly blinded him. In the bright light Durga Parameshwari presented her divine face! “Goddess! Your mercy is endless! You decided to end my harried life on earth and bring me to your presence! …”

No, no! This is not heaven. This is the Amman temple on earth. It is Amman’s statue that is in front. He is lying in the room facing the sanctuary. Next to Amman a small flame was flickering. Its light was what blinded his eyes. ‘Cho!’ – outside the rain poured. Storm was also waging. Neither the rain nor the storm could not touch the flame flickering in Devi’s sanctuary! Is this a good omen? Is this a sign of Durga Parameshwari’s kindness to him? Is it a sign that however many dangers may come his life will not be dimmed? The mercy of jaganmatha is endless! All his devotion and poojas have not gone to waste.

The old man struggled to get on his feet. His body trembled. After being in the water for so long it was natural to feel cold! He took the cloth that served as a curtain in Amman’s sanctuary and wiped his body. Discarding his wet clothes he wrapped himself in the curtain.

At Amman’s sanctuary there were the coconut halves, fruits and rice that have been placed as offering. The priest and devotees who came to worship must have left in a hurry. What was the hurry? Was it the storm and the rain? Or were they aware of the Kollidam breach? Whatever it was, it turned out to be his blessing! Durga Parameshwari did not just save him from the flood. She was also waiting with food to relieve him of his hunger.

He would have to spend the night in the temple. There won’t be a better place. The flood would pass this way. It might damage the temple. Water would burrow in around the temple. It might damage the foundation. In any case it’s not going to topple in one night. Even if it did, so be it. There was no way he could leave this place tonight. There was no strength in his body; or mind.

Piously Pazhuvertaraiyar approached Devi’s sanctuary. He dined on the food to his satisfaction. He wrapped and saved the balance carefully. In front of the goddess he lay down in a pose of worship. His eyes were closing. Within seconds Pazhuvertaraiyar was fast asleep.