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Ponniyin Selvan Part V (48 -51)

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

48. ‘You are not my son!’

When Athitha Karikalar’s final procession proceeded along the Kaveri riverbank towards Thanjai, hundreds of thousands of Cholanadu citizens joined that procession. In those days in Thamilakam it was the habit of people to praise and celebrate warriors. In between for a while the Chola tribe had lost its popularity.

We saw that it came back up during Vijayalaya Cholar’s time. For a hundred years those born into that tribe outperformed each other in valor. Vijayalayan’s son Athithavarman put an end to the Pallava tribe’s glory and captured Thondainadu. His son Paranthaka emperor brought under his rule the entire south country including Madurai and Eezham. The four sons of Paranthaka emperor exceeded each other in valor. One of them died in the Pandyanadu war. The eldest son Rajathithan went to war in Thakkolam with Irattai Mandalam’s Kannara Thevan’s battalion that advanced like the rising ocean, and after defeating that outsized garrison was killed in the battlefield through foulplay and became known as the ‘lord who died atop the elephant.’ Even though Kandarathithar was a saiva prophet he did not lack for valor. Then there is ‘Arinjayan who died in Aahttur!’ Chola empire whose fame had lost its sheen following the war in Thakkolam, regained it during Arinjayan’s son Sundara Cholar’s reign.

All around the people’s consensus was loud and clear, that no one who came in this heroic tribe equaled Athitha Karikalan. His brave performance at the age of twelve in the Sevur battlefield dimmed even Arjunan’s son Abimanyu’s fame.

This heroic warrior had remained in Kanji for a few years. Rumors abounded. One was that the petty kings with the intention of crowning Mathuranthakan have conspired to keep Athitha Karikalan out of Thanjai. Another rumor was that Athitha Karikalan had vowed to follow in the footsteps of his namesake predecessor Karikal Valavan who in another time had invaded Vadanadu and had planted the tiger flag on top of Imayamalai, that he did not want to come to Thanjai without accomplishing this feat, and that Pazhuvertaraiyars were against him setting obstacles in his path.

Therefore, we need not go to any great length to explain the anguish and heartache that Cholanadu people felt when out of the blue news arrived that Athitha Karikalan had died, that he was killed brutally in Sambuvaraiyar’s palace! And there is no surprise that people came in the hundred thousnads to pay their last respect to this chivalrous gentleman! When the procession approached Thanjai the crowd was of oceanic proportions. Thanjai inhabitants and the soldiers of the southern battalion who had surrounded the fort also joined the crowd. Because the chief minister warned of trouble if this crowd was allowed into the place, the grieving emperor himself with his family came and waited outside the fort.

A roaring chant rose when that crowd saw Sundara Cholar. Stone engravings say that when Sundara Cholar ruled Cholanadu there wasn’t a sound, ‘not even a ‘Ha!” These stone engravings describe the situation before Athitha Karikalar’s death.
Today a hundred thousand voices rose shouting, ‘Ha! Ha,’ and ‘Aiyayo!’ Many recalled the Arjunan who lost Abhimanyu. But Abhimanyu had stood alone in the midst of enemies, and died after a heroic fight.

In the present situation on the other hand Athitha Karikalan was the target of perfidy because of Mathuranthakan’s mortal greed and the petty kings’ overbearing arrogance.
Athitha Karikalan’s body was kept outside Thanjai fort for everyone to see. All the people came to view and shed their tears. But Mathuranthakar never came; Pazhuvertaraiyars also did not.

The rumor began to spread that Pazhuvertaraiyars with their friends were getting their troops together. Therefore even after the final rites were carried out for Athitha Karikalar in a manner fitting a heroic death, and the emperor’s family had gone back inside the fort, the crowd lingered.

At first, ‘Down with Mathuranthakan,’ and ‘Down with the Pazhuvertaraiyars,’ – these chants were heard only faintly. Gradually the shouting grew more fierce.

Suddenly a part of the crowd broke down the gates of the fort and entered Thanjai city. First they went to Pazhuvertaraiyar’s palace. Standing outside they shouted, “Down with Pazhuvertaraiyar!”

Velakara troops following chief minister Aniruthar’s order had to disperse the crowd and make them leave.

In the meantime word spread that Mathuranthaka Thevar was hiding in Aniruthar’s house. The people surrounded Aniruthar’s house.

“Where is that coward Mathuranthakan? Tell Mathuranthakan to come outside!” They shouted.

At that time Mathuranthakan was actually inside Aniruthar’s house. Hearing the people outside he shuddered. “Chief Minister! By whatever means send me out. Send me out through the underground passage. I will go and join my friends outside who support me. If you can help me in this, when I ascend the throne I will retain you as chief minister,” he said.

“Sir! Why must we speak about the throne now? Emperor Sundara Cholar is atill alive,” said chief minister Aniruthar.

“Didn’t you see Sundara Cholar returning after cremating his son? Didn’t you notice how his face looked as if it had taken a beating from the devil himself? I was watching from the loft. He won’t be around for long. Either Arulmozhivarman or I must ascend the throne and rule this kingdom. Sundara Cholar wants to crown me. Why should you and my mother object,” said Mathuranthakan.

“Prince! Won’t your mother have a good reason? There, listen! Listen to the people shouting. Is it enough if only Sundara Cholar agrees? Shoudn’t the Cholanadu people approve?” Aniruthar said. Then he put his head outside the window and exclaimed, “Aha! What is going on?”

Instead of the old chant now the people were shouting,”Long live Arulmozhivarmar,” and “Long live Ponniyin Selvar!”

Arulmozhivarmar was atop a stately horse. As he rode the people followed him. Within a few minutes Aniruthar’s entryway was empty. Together with Aniruthar, Mathuranthakan was also watching. Jealousy turned his eyes as red as guava fruit. “Aha! What is the attraction with this kid?” He grumbled to himself.

“Prince! When the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar was chasing the fellow who killed Eezhathu Rani, what in the world were you doing in that underground passage?” Aniruthar asked.

“When Ponniyin Selvar came to the palace in the disguise of an elephant-keeper I was very discouraged. I did not want to be with him in the fortress at the same time. Pazhuvertaraiyar had shown me the underground passage. I was pacing in the palace garden wondering if I should get away when I saw a fellow come out from the underground passage. He walked up to me and said, ‘Prince! I came to see you. The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar and Kanthamaran asked me to bring you immediately. Big battalions are ready to support your right to the throne.’ His manner was suspicious. ‘If a big battalion is ready why should I go outside? Why don’t they come here and beat the Kodumbalur troops and put me on the throne,’ I said. ‘Prince! Not only that; there is an alarming mystery surrounding your birth. No one else will dare say it to you. I will,’ the man said. ‘In that case, come! Let’s go,’ said I. In response, ‘I have to deliver a message to chief minister Aniruthar. I will do that and come back. In the meantime please hide and wait in the underground passage,’ he said. So I was waiting in the treasury cellar. Chief Minister! Did he come and see you? What is the alarming mystery surrounding my birth,” said Mathuranthakan.

“Prince! Only your mother Chempian Madevi has the right to tell you. Even though I know something about it I cannot,” said Aniruthar.

Once again there was noise of a commotion outside. The chief minister put his head out and looked again. “Aha! Your mother is here,” he said.

In a short while Chempian Madevi after visiting with the womenfolk of Aniruthar’s residence came upstairs. Her face was filled with sorrow. Aniruthar rose to greet her. She sat down on the seat that Aniruthar offered. For a while she remained quiet staring at the floor. Silence reigned in that upstairs dwelling, outside the palace, and down on the street. Then Chempian Madevi looked up at Mathuranthakan and then at Aniruthar. “Sir! My husband placed this weight on my head and reposed to heaven. I am the one who erred. But if he was here now I won’t be facing such trauma,” she said.

With angry sparks flying from his eyes Mathuranthakan said, “Why are you toturing yourself? Why are you bringing up my father’s name always? It is certain that I am going to be on the Thanjavur throne. One obstacle is now dead. Arulmozhivarman on the other hand is younger than me. While I am alive they will never crown him. You must kindly not object, Mother! Has anyone heard of a mother who will let her child down? Saiva devotee that you are, why would you want to harm me?”

“My baby! A mother standing against her own child – it is a dreadful sin. But my husband has instructed me so. I am obliged to carry out his order. I will tell you, listen! Mortal desire is dangerous. Desire for a kingdom is even more dangerous. No one is more sorrowful than those whose heads are adorned with a crown. There is also no one who is more confused with no peace of mind than those seated on a throne. Wasn’t the crown on his head that cost Veera Pandyan his life? Sivan’s kingdom is much better than the kingdom on earth. Come, we will leave this town. We will visit sacred places, and go up to Kailayankiri. We will be in the mercy of Kailasanathar himself.”

“Aha! Your age is indeed ripe for a pilgrimage to kailasam, but I am not old. I have not experienced any of the trials and tribulations of this world. You have raised me like a madman to wander around with ash smeared all over my body chanting ‘SivaSiva.’ It is through the grace of that Paramasivan the kingdom is now within my reach. Why should I let it slip,” asked Mathuranthakan.

“Appan! The kingdom now within your reach is surrounded by many dangers. One obstacle for your ascension to the throne has disappeared. You said that Athitha Karikalan has died. Didn’t you hear the people just a while ago standing in front of this house shouting? Mathuranthaka! The people think that you are the reason for Athitha Karikalan’s death. How will they accept you as emperor?”

“Mother! People will soon forget all of that. Once I am seated on the throne they will accept me as emperor. I will tell you more, listen! Do you know who is responsible for Karikalan’s death? It is Arulmozhivarmar’s beloved friend Vandhiyathevan. In Sambuvaraiyar’s house where Karikalan was found lying dead the only person present was Vandhiyathevan. Sambuvaraiyar and Vandhiyathevan are in the dungeon. Arulmozhivarman made arrangements to kill his brother so that he can have the throne. Let the people find this out, we’ll see what happens then.”

Fire blazing from her eyes Chempian Madevi said, “You pitiful man! What are you saying about Arulmozhi who is the personification of kindness? He is prepared to house in the temple, and worship even someone as greedy as you. If you speak again in this manner about him you will burn. You will only end up in hell. You will have no liberation in this birth or the next.”

Upon hearing this Mathuranthakan jumped up furiously. “You devil! You are cursing your own son. You are blessing my enemy. Can you really be my mother? No, never,” Mathuranthakan said with anger and hurt.

In response, “Son! I never wanted to tell you this. By your stubbornness you have made me say this. In truth, I am not your mother. You are not my son either,” Chempian Madevi said.

His voice cracking Mathuranthakan said, “Aha! Then what I suspected is true. If you are not my mother then who is my mother? If I am not your son, whose son am I?”
Devi looked at chief minister Aniruthar. “Sir! Please tell him. Please don’t make me expose my own shame,” she said.

Chief Minister Aniruthar told Mathuranthakan, “Prince! You have hurt your mother who has raised you from when you were a tiny infant. You will nevertheless find out the truth one day. So, you may as well find out now.”

Soon after her marriage Chempian Madevi began harboring the desire to one day have a son and have that son become the emperor of Chola empire. When she became pregnant and was about to give birth her husband happened to be away traveling. At about the same time two deaf-mute women who were sisters had come to live in the palace garden. One of them was pregnant and was about to give birth. When Chempian Madevi was visiting a sacred station she had seen this pregnant woman who appeared to be an orphan and had brought her here. When she heard that the woman’s siter lived near Thanjavur she invited her to come and help the pregnant woman. Chempian Madevi had her child. Chief Minister Aniruthar hearing the news about the new heir to the kingdom came to offer his wishes. At that time Chempian Madevi wailed, ‘ko’ –  tears pouring from her eyes. She was grieving because the child she gave birth to lay like a lifeless log next to her.

“Sir! If my husband asks what will I tell him?” She sobbed. Unable to bear her sorrow Aniruthar had an idea. He knew that a set of twins, a boy and a girl were born to the dumb woman and told her through gestures that if she left her children here, then they will grow up in the palace. The dumb woman behaved like a madwoman caught in a frenzy. At first she refused to part with the children. Then after sometime she deserted the children and ran away. Aniruthar immediately made her sister bring the boy child to Chempian Madevi. He gave the lifeless infant to the dumb sister and asked her to bury it without anyone’s knowledge. He took the girl child to his house and gave her to his disciple Azhvarkadiyan and had her taken to Pandyanadu.

Chempian Madevi’s conscience was troubled by this exchange of babies. One day she told Kandarathithar the truth. That great man’s response was, “There is no harm in that! Woman! What does it matter who gave birth? It is a child given by Sivaperuman. Raise him like your own. But a child from another tribe cannot be on the Chola throne. That will be a betrayal of the tribe. Therefore we will raise him from a young age as a Saiva devotee. We will make him say, ‘I do not want the Chola empire. An empire of saiva devotion is sufficient!’ We should not in any way enable him to ascend the Thanjavur throne. When that time comes even if I am not around, you must be resolute and save the Chola tribe.”

“Mathuranthaka! You are not Kandarathitha Thevar’s son. Neither did Chempian Madevi give birth to you. You are the son of a vagrant orphan dumb woman. This goddess brought you up like her own child showering on you a hundred times more affection. Now, don’t act against her wish! Listen to the devi, it can only do you good,” said Aniruthar.

49. Unfortunate Being

Drained of all life Mathuranthakan remained seated for a while. Then he abruptly stood up and faced Aniruthar. “Chief Minister! All of this is your doing! I always knew it. You are fond of Sundara Cholar’s children, especially Arulmozhivarman. You want to crown him.

Because of that you have made up stories, and lied to my mother deceiving her innocent heart! Anbil Brahmarayar! What harm did I do to you? Why do you want to hurt me in this way? To satisfy your wish, do I have to cease to be my mother’s child? No one in this world has even dreamed of such perfidy! You who are a descendant of Vishnu devotees and ascetics, must you behave in this manner? No, no! You are not to be blamed. The junior staeswoman Kundavai and Arulmozhivarman have conspired to make you commit this perfidy,” he shouted.

Aniruthar tactfully said, “Prince! If I disliked you so much I will not have come to your aid when you lay under that tree in the pouring rain. And, please do not criticize Arulmozhi. Do you know what this warrior who conquered Eezham is doing at this minute? He is meeting with the people and soldiers surrounding the fort and consoling them with his words. He is trying to change their minds saying that it is not right for him to take the crown while his uncle – you – are alive, and that the people and the soldiers should not make such a demand.”

“Then … then, Arulmozhi does not know about what you just told me?”

“Arulmozhi does not know; in fact no one else knows!”

“Why should anyone know? Aniruthar! Please say that you will keep your mouth shut. The emperor has deeded you only fifty acres of a village! I will gift you the entire Pandyanadu …”

“Sir! You need not pay for my silence with Pandyandu. A word from your mother is enough!”

Mathuranthakan looked at his mother pitifully. “Child! Mathuranthaka! Aniruthar is right. He has known my secret for over twenty years; on that day he said, ‘Great Queen! This is your secret. Unless you tell someone no one will ever know this. It will never come out from my mouth. I promise!’ To this day he has kept his word. He who has taken the oath to be loyal to the Chola tribe, never mentioned this to the emperor. If I had consented to your ascendance to the Chola throne, he still would have kept quiet …”

“Yes, Madam! I would have. But I will not have served as chief minister while harboring a lie in my heart. I will be serving Sriranganathar instead,” said Aniruthar.

“But that won’t be necessary. Mathuranthakan will not take the throne. He will comply with my wish. He will say that he does not want the kingdom! Son! Please say yes!” The elder statewoman Chempian Madaevi said.

“Mother! That leaves you as my only obstacle. Let’s assume that I wasn’t born to you. You showered your love on me for twenty years treating me closer than a son born to you. Now, why are you letting me down? What harm have I caused you?”

“Child! You have not caused me any harm. I am the one who has caused great harm to you. After bringing you up like my own son all these years now I am about to say, ‘He is not my son!’ Don’t I realize the anguish and pain I will be causing you? I will never have done this. But I have to keep my promise to my husband. I cannot harm the Chola tribe into which I was born. I cannot place an outsider on the Chola throne. I cannot be an accomplice either. Do you think that this does not hurt me? My heart broke when I just now said, ‘You are not my son!’ Until the last minute I waited. My mind was in a turmoil. I went to Nambiyandar Nambi to find out what was right, and what was my duty. He clearly teased apart my moral dilemma. ‘All inhabitants of this earth are god’s children. You are a Saiva devotee who will not discriminate between your ‘own child’ and an ‘adopted child.’ You will give all your wealth to the son you raised. But the kingdom is a different matter. It is a sin to stop someone’s lawful entitlement through our lies. It is a betrayal of one’s tribe to place someone not belonging to the tribe on the Chola throne. It is only right that you tell the truth to the emperor and your son,’ he advised me. I took his advice and returned. Kumara! Is there any happiness for me in saying that you are not my son? Can I say this to the emperor with pride?”

Mathuranthakan abruptly rose and fell at his mother’s feet. “Mother! I don’t want the kingdom or the throne. If you tell me to remain here I will. If you ask me to go on a pilgrimage I will go. But please don’t say that I am not your son; that I wasn’t born to you! Please don’t tell anyone! If you do, it will break my heart and I will die of shame,” he cried.

With tears in her eyes Chempian Madevi eagerly gathered Mathuranthakan in her arms and seated him next to her.

“Kumara! It is to prevent you from such heartache I raised you as a Saiva devotee shielding you from the temptations of this world. I have lost. Men of evil have ruined your mind. Yet, not everything is lost. If you from the bottom of your heart declare publicly, ‘I don’t want the kingdom. Let Sundara Cholar’s son Arulmozhi rule,’ then I will not have to pronounce publicly, ‘You are not my son.’ It hurt me immensely to offend you now. Today, you say it to the chief minister. In three days the petty kings will convene for their assembly. Say it in front of that assembly also. ‘I have no desire to rule. I want to immerse myself in the service of Sivaperuman and temple work. It is the order of my father and mother as well! Please crown Arulmozhivarman!’ – Tell them this. ‘I will not do anything against the Chola kingdom. I will not listen even if some petty kings give me ill-advice!’ – Promise them so. If you do this neither the chief minister nor I will face the necessity of publicizing the secret behind your origin. You will remain forever as the apple of my eye. Both of us together will travel across this sprawling magnanimous Bharatha country. We will go from Kanyakumari to Kailasakiri. We will serve in temples. Arulmozhivarman is devoted to me. Like you, it is I who raised him more or less. He will never go against my word,” said Mazhavaraiyar’s daughter Chempian Madevi.

His head bent and his forehead resting on his two hands Mathuranthakan remained immersed in thought for a while. Then he said, “Aha! Since when I came of age some shadowy memories have haunted me. Now I understand the reason. Who can be more unfortunate than me in this world? I don’t know what inauspicious hour or horoscope marked my birth. In one day, in one second I have lost both my mother and father. I have lost my tribe and ancestry. I have lost a great kingdom. I have lost a throne and a heroic heritage going back a thousand years. I have lost all my friends. Yes; once this information leaks out who is going to be my friend? The petty kings who have sworn to sacrifice their lives in order to crown me will abandon me in a second! … Yes, from the beginning of time there could not have existed a more unfortunate soul than me. Ammah! My mind is disturbed; I cannot think clearly. Please give me two days, I will then tell you my decision!”

“Child! What is there to think? I had to turn my heart into a stone to say this. Either, you will voluntarily give up the kingdom; or I will publicly pronounce that I did not give birth to you. Either way, you cannot ascend the throne. What is there for you to think about,” said the elder stateswoman whom the world worshipped and celebrated as holy.

At that time Aniruthar intervened. “Madam! There is no harm in giving two days. There are three days remaining before the cabinet council and general assembly. Until then let the prince have some peace and think about this,” he said.

“Mother! Mother! Does anyone else other than you and the chief minister know about this secret?” All of a sudden Mathuranthakan asked eagerly. We will not know what evil thought or devious scheme had begun to germinate in his mind.

Mathuranthakan’s excitement surprised Mazhavaraiyar’s daughter. “Apart from us there are three people who know this secret. Son! Among them your father, the Saiva devotee and my husband who is forever alive in my mind, has passed away. The other two are a pair of deaf-mute women who are sisters. One gave birth to you. Two days ago she died tragically in Sundara Cholar’s palace. I thought of telling you this while her lifeless body lay there before being laid in its final rest. But I did not have the heart. I did not want to hurt you, so I let the moment pass. Son! If you want to weep over the death of your birth mother, please do! Other than giving birth to you she had nothing to do with you afterwards. She never tried to visit you. She lost her mind and became a madwoman. If you want to shed tears in her memory please do not hesitate,” said the Devi.

“No, no. I cannot think of anyone else other than you as my mother. Even if you had told me earlier I would never have gone near her. Who is the other person who knows the secret, Mother? Who is the other deaf-mute woman?”

“Her younger sister; she tends to a garden outside of Thanjai. She is the one who switched you for the infant whom I gave birth to that lay like a log. She is a born deaf-mute, so she cannot tell anyone. She has a son. Mother and son serve the Thanjai tahlikulathar temple supplying flowers. I support them with funds.”

“Aha! I know who they are. I know both mother and son. His name is Senthan Amuthan. He helped the spy Vandhiyathevan escape from here. Mother! Does that boy know anything about this?”

“He does not, Son! He does not! His mother has sworn to me that she will not tell this secret to anyone. You need not worry about this. Other than her, it’s just me and the chief minister!”

Mathuranthakan’s mind was besieged by many unsavory thoughts at that instant. He reasoned that if these two people left this world, then there will be no one who will expose the truth. He was in no way obligated to the chief minister. This lady is not really his mother. Why should he show them mercy? Aha! The fellow who promised him in Sundara Cholar’s garden that he will reveal the secret about his birth, who is he? He asked him to wait in the treasury cellar? If he meets this man? In his attempt to kill Sundara Cholar the man ended up killing the deaf-mute woman. The fellow cannot be blamed. They are saying that the dead woman is his mother. If she is his mother, who is his father? Perhaps … perhaps this treacherous old woman and this pretentious Brahmarayan are trying to fool him? Perhaps he, Mathuranthakan – is really Sundara Cholar’s son? … Aha! How can he find out the truth?

“Son! I will take my leave; think carefully and come to a decision soon. For over twenty two years I raised you with more love than any true mother. I will never give you ill-advice. Give up this mortal kingdom on earth! Find a way to reach the immortal Sivan’s kingdom,” said the elder stateswoman.

At this time to everyone’s surprise Arulmozhivarman walked into that room. He went directly to Chempian Madevi and greeted her.

“Devi! I shall take your advice to your beloved son as advice given to me also. If this Chola kingdom really belongs to me then I am prepared to give it up. With your blessing I shall surrender my will at the sacred feet of Sivaperuman. Allow me a small place near your spouse, the great Kandarathithar, in Sivan’s kingdom! Please grant me this blessing,” he said.

Both Chempian Madevi and the chief minister were astounded to hear Arulmozhivarman’s words.

“Devi! Forgive me, I happened to accidentally overhear your conversation with your beloved son. I was returning after escorting out the people surrounding this palace. I came in here to discuss with the chief minister our next course of action. When I heard that you were here I thought that was fortuitous. You were speaking louder than usual. Mathuranthaka Thevar was also speaking loudly. When I hesitated about coming in I overheard parts of your conversation. Devi! You were saying that among those still living only Senthan Amuthan’s mother, the chief minister and you know the secret behind Mathuranthakar’s birth. That is not correct. My sister, the junior stateswoman, and I also know about it. I happened to meet Manthahinidevi who saved the emperor’s life a few times in Eezhanadu. Through her paintings she let me in on this secret. I told my sister. Both of us came to a decision. It is my uncle who ought to be seated on the Chola throne. He has been brought up with more love than a biological son. He was born to Manthahinidevi who not only saved me from drowning in Kaveri, but many times after. Therefore, whichever way we want to look at this he has a right to the throne. If there is any doubt about his entitlement I shall solve it! I shall give up my right, lay it here at your sacred feet. So there is no need for anyone to know that Mathuranthaka Thevar is not your child. There is also no need for Mathuranthakar to give up the Chola throne!”

Ponniyin Selvar’s words further escalated the bewilderment of the three others present in that room. Aniruthar was the first one to regain clarity of his mind.

“Prince! Your words ought to be recorded in history and celebrated in literature. They ought to be engraved in granite, copper and gold. But those of us here cannot decide this matter. We must consult with the emperor and the petty kings. We also must consider what the people will say if the truth should come out someday in the future. Prince! There are only three days left before the general assembly. Until then let each one of us think about this carefully,” he said.

50. Kundavai’s Bewilderment

The junior stateswoman Kundavai was born and raised in luxury. She rivaled Rathi in beauty, Kalaimahal in knowledge and Thirumahal in fortune. From the emperor to the ordinary citizen, everyone celebrated her. In the palace many awaited to do her bidding. Petty kings vied to have their daughters serve as maids to her. Sons of many kings in Bharatha country yearned to take her hand in marriage.

The junior stateswoman who was thus endowed was drowning in a sea of sorrow. All the warnings she had sent to Athitha Karikalan had turned out to be futile. She had sent him an urgent message asking him not to go to Sambuvaraiyar’s palace. Her elder brother who had always respected her counsel went to Kadampoor palace ignoring her plea. There he met an untimely death in the most mysterious way. She believed that Nandhini was a sibling to Karikalan, herself and Arulmozhi. She also knew that for some reason Nandhini held a grudge against him. If Karikalan had died by Nandhini’s hand there could be no worse infamy and disgrace that could visit the Chola tribe. What became of Nandhini after Karikalan’s death, no one knew.

The loss of her beloved brother caused her unending sorrow. Three days had passed since his death but she could not erase his charismatic face from her thoughts. Aha! What dreams this warrior beheld? He was going to plant the tiger flag on Himalaya like Karikal Peruvalathan! And yet in half a nazhikai this warrior’s body was reduced to a handful of ash. It has become part of Cholanadu soil. From this soil will rise in the future thousands of heroic warriors. They will spread to the four corners of Cholanadu. They will travel to distant lands across the seas. They will fight victorious battles extending the boundaries of Chola empire. Wherever they go they will erect temples, their towers touching the sky. These will stand majestically trumpeting the glory of Cholanadu to the world. They will spread Tamil, Tamil culture and Saiva Vaishnava religions. Moovar devotional hymns and Azhvars’ pasurams will be sung in these distant lands. ‘Vetty Vel! Veera Veel!’ – these triumphant cries will be heard …

These are not merely dreams. These are possible. If the forecast by elders and astrologers about the extraotdinary timing of Arulmozhivarman’s birth was correct, then it is possible that Karikalan’s dreams may come true through Arulmozhivarman. But there are so many obstacles! Aha! No one knows what calamity will be wrought by infighting among the petty kings. Malaiamman and Velan are determined to place Arulmozhivarman on the throne. Pazhuvertaraiyars and their cronies are gathering their troops in support of Mathuranthakan. The emperor on the other hand is deep in the sea of sorrow following the two tragedies that came one after another. He is refusing to speak to anyone. He is mulling over the mistakes of his youth feeling sorry. No one has the courage even to comfort him. If his beloved daughter herself is afraid of approaching him, why talk of anyone else?

Arulnmozhivarman is prepared to give up the kingdom. He wants to crown Mathuranthakan and then travel across the seas with the Chola troops. But, an unexpected obstacle has arisen there as well. For whatever reason, the elder stateswoman Chempian Madevi, whom Cholanadu adores is objecting to crowning her son. She says it is the order of her late husband. No one knows how these complications are going to be resolved.

As if these worries over the Chola tribe and the empire are not enough another great concern tormented Kundavai. They have locked up her man, the Varnar tribe warrior in jail. They are trying to hold him responsible for Athitha Karikalan’s death. Pallava tribe Parthipenthiran is adamant about it. Grandafther Malaiamman may listen to her. But, how can she, a woman, interfere in the affairs of a man under suspicion? If it turns out that she was more concerned about the wayfarer Vandhiyathevan than her elder brother Athitha Karikalan, can there be anything more disgraceful than that? Parthipenthiran is capable of spreading such misconception. Parthipenthiran says that Sambuvaraiyar and Kanthmaran caught Vandhiyathevan in action right where Athitha Karikalan was lying dead. This may be true. But Vandhiyathevan might have been following her order that he could not leave Karikalan alone even for a minute. He must have tried to save Karikalan from the assassins and failed.

But, how is she to find out the truth? If she tried to see Vandhiyathevar or bring him here from prison, it will lead to unwanted suspicion and slander. No one will dare say anything about her. Even if they did it will not matter. But there are some people who are even blaming Arulmozhivarman for Karikalan’s death. She cannot act in haste flaming their suspicions.

God! Devi! Jaganmatha! What test you have placed before this woman who has not faced a single impediment in all her life?

Kundavai’s heart was torn by such thoughts. Ever since news of Karikalan’s death, and Vandhiyathevar’s involvement in it reached her the junior stateswoman was robbed of her sleep. She kept thinking of a way to resolve this difficult situation. She thought of many solutions only to reject them one after another.

She refused to talk even to her beloved friend Vanathi. Knowing her state of mind Vanathi also did not interfere. She followed Kundavai around like a shadow and like a shadow she kept her silence.

Vanathi who had been circumspectly kept out of Kundavai’s musings until that day suddenly came to her. When she said, “Sister! Sister! There is a girl here to see you. She is in tears. Looking at her I cannot help feeling sorry,” even Kundavai was a little surprised.

“Who is she? Did you ask her what she wanted.” she said.

“I did, Sister. You may not want to hear this. She says that she is Sambuvaraiyar’s daughter, Manimekalai. Sambuvaraiyar’s family is under custody in the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s palace. She has come running here without anyone’s knowledge. When I ask her she says that she will talk only to you. If you see her tearful face even you will feel sorry,” said Vanathi.

“What do you mean? Are you implying that my heart is made of stone?”

“It is, Sister! If not will you remain calm knowing that Vandhiyathevar is in prison,” said Vanathi.

“Alright then, ask that girl to come here,” said Kundavai.

Vanathi sprinted off like a doe and promptly returned with Manimekalai.

51. Manimekalai’s Request

As if in a deranged state of mind Manimekalai walked in looking all around her. As Vanathi said she looked pitiful. Her face and eyes were swollen from crying.

But curiously Kindavai did not empathize with her. She could not shake away the knowledge that the conspiratorial meeting held at Kadampoor Sambuvaraiyar’s palace was the root cause of the latest and most tragical blow that the Chola tribe had been dealt with. Most of all the thought that it was in her house her brother the heroic Karikalan was murdered kept her resentment raw.

At that time she was reminded of something else also. Her brother Kanthamaran and Varnar tribe warrior were old friends. It was because of that friendship Vandhiyathevar had gone to Kadampoor palace. There he found out about the secret and conspiratorial meeting. At one time Kanthamaran had wanted to give his sister in marriage to the Vallathu prince. This is her, then …

The thought brought a new interest in Kundavai about Manimekalai. Aha! Why has she come looking for her? Has she come to plead the case of her father and brother? When Sambuvaraiyar asked her brother to his palace there was also talk of marriage. Was this foolish girl attracted to Karikalan? Has she lost her mind because of his sudden demise? Is she here to talk about it? Or … Or, perhaps? Did Kanthamaran speak to her about his friend? Vandhiyathevar had visited her house before. He had stayed there. Now, he had been there for several days. Was she perhaps attracted to him? If that is the case, then there is no doubt that he would have rejected her. Is she here seeking revenge? Laying all manner of charges on him? …

These thoughts crossed Kundavai’s mind in a flash. Kundavai stared at Manimekalai as if to delve deep into her heart and know what was there. Unable to bear the intense scrutiny Manimekalai bent her head. From her eyes tear drops fell to the ground and splattered.

“Girl! Why are you crying? Isn’t your brother still alive? Isn’t it my brother who was brutally murdered in your palace? If anyone is crying shouldn’t it be me? But look at me! I am not crying, I am not shedding tears; it is not the practice of women born in the tribe of warriors to weep over those who have died a heroic death,” said Kundavai.

Manimekalai looked up at the junior stateswoman. “Devi! If my brother had died by a sword I too will not shed tears. But the one who died … died,” she sobbed hesitating to go on.

Kundavai began to suspect that her first hunch was correct. This girl must have lost her heart to Athitha Karikalan. Perhaps she is reluctant to talk about it. Aiyo! A pity! If that is the case she must be consoled.

“Girl! Steady your heart. Boldly speak what’s on your mind! The one who died is not your brother. He is my brother. Why should you weep for that? Perhaps you are feeling sad that a tragedy such as this happened to one of your guests! What can you do about it? There were many elders in the house. The responsibility is theirs …”

“No, Devi, no! The responsibility is mine. That is why I am unable to keep a lid on my sorrow. I cannot stop the tears pouring from my eyes. My heart breaks into pieces when I think that I killed that heroic warrior with the knife held in these hands …”

Startled Kundavai said, “Girl! Have you lost your mind? What are you blubbering?”

“No, no! I have not lost my mind. Not yet. I am telling the truth. It is this wretched being who killed Athitha Karikalar. I came to tell you the truth and receive the right punishment …”

“Cheechee! How insulting? Are you telling me to believe that my brother the heroic warrior died by a woman’s hand? Who asked you to say this …”

“No one, Madam! No one will even believe me. Even my brother and father are refusing to believe me.”

“Why are you then making up stories? They must have put you up to this. Or perhaps you are saying this to save your father and brother?”

“Devi! Why would I want to save them? They wanted to give me in marriage against my wishes. At first it was about Mathuranthaka Thevar. Then all of a sudden they turned to Athitha Karikalar. They said, ‘If you marry him you will be on the Chola throne!’ Why should I cover up the follies of people who were going to sacrifice me in this way? Why should I take responsibility for their crimes? Never,” said Manimekalai.

“Girl! Your stories are turning more and more ludicrous. While so many princesses were waiting in line to take my brother’s hand, why do you say that your father and brother were offering you as sacrifice? Why would you consider marrying into the Chola tribe such an adversity?”

“Princess! I have no sisters. I am speaking to you as one …,” said Manimekalai.

“You said that you killed my brother. How dare you speak to me as a sister?” The junior stateswoman asked angrily.

“I have the right. Your brother Karikalar treated me like a sister. He even wrote it down. That is why I feel so wretched that I have had to kill him. I came to you to find out how I can atone!” Manimekalai began sobbing again.

The junior stateswoman whispered in Vanathi’s ear, “A pity! The girl has lost her mind. You have brought her here now. What if her condition suddenly takes a bad turn?”

“Sister! I am also worried. Please don’t be angry. Let’s talk to her calmly and send her back,” said Vanathi.

Kundavai looked at Manimekalai. “Girl! What is done is done. It is the hand of fate! Do not worry! You can treat me like your sister. You wanted to tell me something. What is it? Or, if you like you can talk about it some other time,” she said to her.

“No, no! I will speak now. Sister! You are a woman. Therefore you will understand me. Men can never understand. Supposing a woman has lost her heart to someone; and when that person is unarmed and helpless, another person is about to kill him with a big sword. At that time, this woman, if her love is real, what will she do? Will she be idle …?”

Kundavai was reminded of Manthahini at that time. Tears welled in her eyes. “How can she watch idly? She will throw herself in the middle and save her lover’s life at the expense of hers!”

“Aha! It is a pity that I had no one to give me such good advice. I lost listening to Nandhini! With these evil hands I killed the innocent man who considered me to be his sister and was willing to unite me with my lover!” Manimekalai sobbed.

The junior stateswoman said to Vanathi in a voice, “The woman’s frenzy is escalating!”

To Manimekalai she said, “Girl! Don’t cry! Tell me what happened. Or do you want to tell me later?”

“No, no, I will do it now, Sister! My brother Kanthamaran had been telling me about a friend of his for a long time. A few months ago he visited our palace in Kadampoor. When I saw him for the first time I lost my heart to him …”

With a slight tremor in her voice the junior statewoman asked, “Who is the lucky fellow who stole your heart in this way?”

“Lucky? No. When my heart went to him, along with it my misfortune also did. He is today locked in the Thanjavur fort dungeon. Sister! The Pazhuvertaraiyar women told me. The dungeon here is death. No one ever comes back alive,” she said.

“That is not true, Girl! Even Vanathi, – who is here – and I have gone to the dungeon …”

“Devi! Can I go to the dungeon? Can I see him once?”

“You have not told me who this person is, Girl!”

“He is the Varnar tribe prince. His name is Vandhiyathevar!” Kundavai and Vanathi looked at each other. Then Vanathi intervened. “Why are you so worried about him? What is your relationship with him,” she asked.

“Who are you to ask me that?” Manimekalai retorted angrily.

Immediately thereafter she calmed down. “Please don’t be angry, Madam! Aren’t you Kodumabalur princess Vanathi? Isn’t your uncle today the commander of the fort? I beg you at your feet. Please grant me a favor! Talk to your uncle the senior Velar and free Vandiyathevar from the dungeon! In his place tell him to lock me up! I am the villainess who killed Prince Karikalar! While I am openly acknowledging my guilt how can they justify charging someone else? Devi! I am begging you as well. If Kodumbalur senior Velar cannot see reason I want to ask the emperor in person. You must help me,” said Manimekalai.

Subjected to various emotions Kundavai’s mind was as tumultuous as the ocean. She was reluctant to even visit Vandhiyathevar in the dungeon. This girl on the other hand is even willing to take on the charge of murder because of his love for him. But how much of her story can be trusted? How much is made up? Has she concocted this to save her lover? She did mention Nandhini’s ill-advice. Could she possibly have fallen for it and committed this atrocious act?

No, no. She could not have committed this horrendous act. She is only saying this to save Vandhiyathevar from the charge of murder. It is clear from the way she speaks. They will not release Vandhiyathevar relying on her story. Yet, there ought to be more that she can divulge. It is certain that Karikalan’s death is shrouded in mystery. Can this woman shed more light on it?

“Manimekalai! I commend your resolve. I applaud you for admitting your guilt to save your lover. We have only heard in fiction and poetry of such extraordinary behavior. Today there are no poets from the academy to write songs about you. But even if I believe you, will others believe you? Your father and brother contend that Vandhiyathevar was next to the lifeless body of Karikalar! Will people believe them? Will they believe you? There is another obstacle to believing your account. I am the one who sent the Vallathu prince to my brother on an urgent mission. I asked him to stop my brother from going to Kadampoor. In the event that Karikalan went I asked him to be with Karikalan and guard him every moment. Moreover, Vallathu prince belongs to Kariakalan’s bodyguard service. He was next to Karikalan when he died. Yet, he did not save him. Therefore he failed in his duty. He should have sacrificed his life to save Karikalan. Even if he is not the killer, he must be punished for failing to do his duty!”

“Devi! He did not fail in his duty at all.”

“Besides your word what other proof is there for that?”

“There is proof here! In your brother’s own handwriting!” Manimekalai handed an ola that she kept tucked in her waist.

With overwhelming curiosity Kundavai read the letter. Yes; it was Athitha Karikalan’s own writing. To keep it confidential he had himself written it. It was addressed to Kundavai.

“To my dearest Sister, the emperor’s beloved daughter, the junior stateswoman Kundavai Devi from Athitha Karikalan. For a long time I have not had any sleep at night. Three years ago I committed an atrocious deed. I killed the enemy who surrendered. The woman who begged for his life and he are forever tormenting me. They don’t allow me to sleep peacefully.

This morning when I stepped outside unable to sleep I saw the long-tailed star falling. At that time something departed from my body as well. Now it is the empty cage that remains. Sister! Let this bad omen disappear with me. Let Ehambaranathar protect our beloved father and Arulmozhi from harm.

You and I in our youth had so many dreams about the Chola kingdom. I could not accomplish them. My brother will. He was born to rule the three worlds. Vallathu prince Vandhiyathevan will aid him. Devi! I was pleased to know that Vanthiyadhevan carried out your orders to your satisfaction. If not you will not have sent him to me on this important mission. You will not have sent him to save me from my destiny.

Sister! If something happens to me here the responsibility lies with my stubbornness and fate, and not with Vandhiyathevan. As you had instructed he tried very hard to stop me from coming to Kadampoor. After coming here he is following me like a shadow. To help him in his mission he has also befriended the daughter of this house. With her help he is a step ahead of me, hiding at every site that I visit here. All this in order to protect me. But can someone protect another person from the fruit of his moral actions?

You have heard how smaller creatures are attracted to the dancing cobra ending up as its meal. In the same way I am going to Nandhini. You have cautioned me that she is our sister. I cannot believe it. Yet there is some mystery about her. I am going in order to find it. Somehow I will find out the truth today.

Whichever way my fate ends, Vandiyathevan is not at fault. He is carrying out your order as instructed. Sister! Kanthamaran and Parthipenthiran have fallen in that bewitching beauty Nandhini’s net. Vandhiyathevan is the only one who did not. I don’t know how to reward him. There is a very intelligent girl in this house. I have formed a liking towards her as if she is my own sister. A marriage between Manimekalai and Vandhiyathevan will be a good reward. But I am not sure if you will consent to this.

My dear Sister! I am giving this letter to that girl. Fortunately she cannot read. With respect to her, do whatever pleases you! In our family you are the wisest. I disobeyed you and I am going to face the consequences. I hope at least our brother Arulmozhi will follow your advice and bring the Chola kingdom glory …”

The letter ended here. Tears flowed from Kundavai’s eyes as she read it. Wiping her eyes quickly she asked, “Girl! How did you get this letter? Who gave it to you?”

“Devi! The prince himself gave it to me. Nandhini had misrepresented him to me. So I thought that this was a love letter to me. I was going to toss it in the fire. Then my curiosity took over. So I kept it. I gave it to my friend Chandramathi and asked her to read it. My heart breaks when I think that I killed this brave gentleman – who calls me his sister – with my own hands. Devi! please make sure that this murderess receives the right punishment,” begged Manimekalai.

Her excitement and her manner of delivery made it clear that she had conjured this in order to save Vandhiyathevan. Kundavai was aware of this. Yet, the letter was not fiction. It was Karikalar’s own writing. The letter alone was proof that Vandhiyathevar was innocent. If this woman kept her mouth shut it would be very helpful. But how can she be silenced?

“Manimekalai! Are you still saying that you are the one who killed Kariakalr?” She asked.

“Yes, Devi!”

“You are saying that you were told to read this letter. Karikalan calls you in the letter his own sister. Why would you kill someone who had such affection towards you?”

“If I had read the letter before I would not have done this dreadful deed. I did it without knowing his heart. That evil Nandhini also had spoilt my mind.”

“How?’

“She often maintained that Karikalar was jealous of Vandhiyathevar and that he might even kill him. To suit this characterization Karikalar also picked up the sword in a frenzy and began shouting, ‘Where is that Vandhiyathevan? I will kill him right now!’ I believed it. With the knife in my hand I immediately …”

“Girl! Give up this talk. Even if I were to believe that the brave Athitha Karikalan was murdered by a helpless woman, the world will not.”

“Devi! Who else could have killed him? In that dark room where Karikalar’s body lay, there were only Vandhiyathevar and me. He did not kill. So, it has to be me!”

“By saying this you are bringing dishonor to my dead brother. Moreover, think about this! Will the Varnar tribe prince be quiet seeing you take on the charge of murder? He will want to save you just as you are trying to save him. Just like you are being adamant he will also say, ‘I am the one who killed.’ Because you are a woman they may pardon you. But they will not pardon him. You do know what kind of dreadful punishment awaits cutthroats who kill members of the royal family! He will be publicly …”

“Oh!” – Manimekalai wailed upon hearing Kundavai’s words. Crying she pleaded, “Sister! Only you can save him!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ponniyin Selvan Part V (42 – 47)

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

42. Malaiamman Mourns

When Sambuvaraiyar came upfront leaving Nandhini’s anthapura room he called Kanthamaran aside. He said to him, “Son! Our tribe has suffered a setback today as never before. If we want to put this behind us you must listen to me and follow my instructions!”

Kanthamaran had been affected by Karikalar’s death very much. He also realized how impetuous he was in wanting to kill Vandhiyathevan. “Father! It is my stupidity that has brought this tragedy on our tribe. Please forgive me for that. Whatever you command me to do I will carry it out,” he said.

“You must leave this palace at once without anyone’s knowledge. You know that there is an underground passage that leaves from under my bed in my bedroom. It meets the one from the hunting gallery near the palace wall …”

“Father! Under such tragic circumstances you are asking me to run away through the hidden passage leaving you here alone,” said Kanthamaran.

“Child! You forgot your promise already? Yes; you must go. You are the one person now remaining in the tribe of Kollimalai leader Valvil Ori. If necessary, you must go to that same hill and live in hiding. You must return only when I send word that Mathuranthaka Thevar will be crowned,” said Sambuvaraiyar.

“Forgive me, Father! I cannot live in hiding. Must Valvil Ori’s tribe earn the disgrace of producing such a coward also? If you tell me to sacrifice my life I will do it this very moment. But I will not agree to live in hiding,” said Kanthamaran.

After thinking this over Sambuvaraiyar said, “Son! I said that to test you. You don’t want to run away or hide yourself. Good. I am going to give you a dangerous mission that will require courage. Leave immediately by the underground passage! But don’t go to Kollimalai! Go straight to Thanjavur! The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar will probably be there. If he is there tell him what has happened here! If he is not there, tell the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar …”

“Sir! What shall I say happened here?”

“What do you mean? Tell them about Karikalar’s death! Tell them, ‘Because of fate, unexpectedly, our plan has been put into motion; Karikalar is dead! The time has come to crown Mathuranthakar!’ Malaiamman and Kodumbalur Velar will fight us. Tell them that we must gather all our troops now and defeat those two,” said Sambuvaraiyar.

“If they ask me how Karikalar died, what shall I tell them,” said Kanthamaran.

“What else? Tell them that Vandhiyathevan of the Varnar tribe killed him! Another important detail, keep this in mind! Vandhiyathevan went to Eezhanadu. He met Arulmozhi Thevan there. When he returned he met with the junior stateswoman in Pazhaiyarai. News has arrived that Arulmozhithevan after being in hiding in Nagaipattinam has now come out. We must spread the rumor that Arulmozhithevan wanting to ascend to the throne sent Vandhiyathevan to kill his brother. We must create the impression that Pazhaiyarai junior stateswoman was behind this. Tell this to the Pazhuvertaraiyars and Mathuranthaka Thevar! …”

“Father! What you are saying could very well be the truth! Friend-betrayer Vandhiyathevan could have come to this palace with this dangerous goal!”

“He might have, Son! But we have to find out the reason for Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani’s sudden and mysterious disappearance! Vandhiyathevan is accusing her, and the Pandyanadu goons who were helping her! …”

“The man who committed the crime will always try to shift the blame to someone else. Now I understand everything. Father! Pazhaiyarai Kundavai Devi has never liked Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani. She must have planned to kill Karikalar and abduct Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani at the same time. Chief Minister Aniruthar appears to be in on this also. That is why they sent this Vandhiyathevan. Aiyo! Without knowing their treacherous motives we have suffered!”

“Kanthamara! There is no use regretting what has happened. We must pay attention to what follows. You leave immediately! Before news of Karikalar’s death reaches Sundara Cholar, or anyone else in Thanjai, the Pazhuvertaraiyars and Mathuranthakar must be told. Therefore, hurry! You know about the underground passage that leads into Thanjai fort! …”

“I do, I do!”

“Then leave immediately!”

“I will, Father! My sister, Manimekalai … it is about her that I am worried …”

“You don’t have to! I will not let her blurt out to anyone else like she did to us. If she starts blubbering again, I will kill her with my own hands …”

“Aiyo, that is what I am worried about. I am afraid of your anger …”

“Don’t be! I know how to change her mind! Aha! Fate acts in mysterious ways! At first we thought of giving her in marriage to Mathuranthaka Thevar. Then we changed our minds and decided to marry her to Karikalar.  Karikalar today is lying dead. Fortunately Manimekalai never cared about him. We will have to follow our earlier plan. …”

“Yes, Father! It looks as if Manimekalai’s heart is now with that traitor Vandhiyathevan.”

“There is nothing like that, Son! Manimekalai is not old enough to know her heart. I will take care of her. You cannot delay one more minute here!”

At that time hearing the loud noise from outside the walls of the palace Kanthamaran asked, “Father! What is going on? It looks as if Malaiamman’s troops are here! When you saw Malaiamman this morning what did that old man say?”

“He had the most auspicious news. The old man was very happy to hear about Manimekalai wedding Athitha Karikalar. He is bringing a granddaughter of his to be wedded under the same awning! Now, wasn’t that magnanimous? When I invited him to the palace he said once the sun rises he will arrive at an auspicious hour. It looks as if the soldiers are already celebrating the supposedly upcoming wedding!” Sambuvaraiyar tried to laugh at his own comment. But his laughter died midway.

“Come! Come! I will walk you to the underground passage. On the way, you must not delay even a second. Somewhere on the way you must get yourself a horse and hurry,” he said.

Sambuvaraiyar picked up a lamp in his hand. Both entered the underground passage. They walked fast. Once Kanthamaran was past the palace boundary Sambuvaraiyar embraced him and gave his blessing. When he asked, “Do you want the lamp,” Kanthamaran replied, “No, Father! Don’t I know this way well? Even with my eyes shut I can go!”

Once he disappeared from sight in the tunnel Sambuvaraiyar returned. On the way he entered the hunting gallery. He listened carefully for any noise in the adjacent room. Nothing was heard. He hesitated for a few seconds. Then, as if arriving at a decision, he sighed deeply. After adjusting the wick to burn brightly, he returned the lamp to its place and went back hurrying.

Once Sambuvaraiyar returned to the palace foyer he gathered all of the women from the anthapuram. All of them were in a highly agitated state. From the tearful Manimekalai who was forcibly brought back by Kanthamaran they had somehow found out about Karikalan’s death.

“Ladies! A great tragedy has befallen our tribe as never before. You must be prepared to leave this palace any moment. You must will yourself to spend many days in the jungle and the mountain. Everyone gather your clothes and jewelry and come to the piazza. Not a sound, no crying or weeping! Do you understand?” He cautioned.

Sambuvaraiyar then came to the front entrance of the palace. He wanted to go up the front tower and find out what the commotion outside was about. He didn’t have time for it. Because even before he reached the front entrance soldiers from outside had broken down the fort’s gates and were piling in. The guards at the entrance fell to the ground unable to stop them.

If that wasn’t enough, soldiers were climbing the wall and jumping from there as well.

Sambuvaraiyar’s heart experienced great fear and trepidation. Perhaps Malaiamman found out about Karikalan’s death? How? So fast? Alright. Sooner or later he will find out. But these men must be stalled here at least for a little while longer. A half nazhikai will be sufficient. By then he would have put his plan in motion …

Sambuvaraiyar stood majestically in the piazza that was between the fort’s entrance and the palace. He held a sword, sharp and shining, in his hand. Behind him stood seven or eight soldiers bearing long spears. Some of them held flame torches providing light.

Behind the soldiers who entered breaking the entrance gates, came Thirukovalur Malaiamman and Parthipenthiran.

When he saw Smabuvaraiyar standing at the center of the piazza, Parthipenthiran pointed him to Malaiamman. Both men walked toward Sambuvaraiyar.

Even as he was walking Malaiamman asked, “Sambuvaraiyar! What is this I hear? Will you commit such atrocity? Oho! What is this? You have your sword drawn out! What is your intention?”

“I am waiting here to ask you precisely that. What is your intention? What is the purpose of breaking the front gates? This morning I myself came and invited you. You said you will wait till tomorrow for an auspicious hour …”

“Sambuvaraiyar! Auspicious hour is already here; that is why I came. Where is Athitha Karikalan? Where is the heroic warrior who beheaded Veera Pandyan? Where is the triumphant warrior of Sevur battlefield? Where is my grandson?” Malaiamman asked.

“You are asking me? What do I know? Whichever venue pleases the prince, he will be there. I have already told you that I did not want to have any word with that rude child! Now, this ought to be stale news for Parthipenthiran!”

“Aday, Sambuvaraiya! Do not fool me with lame excuses! Bring Athitha Karikalan to us at once! Or else, I will raze this place to the ground, – the fort, the ramparts and your palace!” Thirukovalur Malaiamman roared.

“Parthipenthira! What is this old man yelling about? Has he lost his mind? Who am I to hand the prince over to him? Who is he for that matter? Am I keeping the prince in prison? Or is he here to take the prince by force,” said Sambuvaraiyar.

In a calmer voice Parthipenthiran said, “Sambuvaraiyar! Don’t be offended! The old man has reason to be angry. Take a look at this ola here and you will find out!” He handed a small piece of palm leaf to Sambuvaraiyar.

Sambuvaraiyar stared at it in the light of the flambeau.

“Prince Athitha Karikalar’s life is in danger. Come immediately with troops to save him,” it was written in that ola.

Even as he was reading it Sambuvaraiyar could feel the perspiration beading on his face. Just as his body had trembled when he saw Karikalan’s corpse, his body shook now also.

“What perfidy! How treacherous! Who would have written this note,” he stammered.

“What does it matter who wrote it? Bring Athitha Karikalan here at once! Or, take us to where he is! Or, shall I ask my soldiers to search,” Malaiamman asked.

“Alright, Sir! I will take you to where Karikalan is. Parthipenthira! You know the place. I found out just now that he has gone to Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani’s anthapuram. You take him there,” said Sambuvaraiyar.

“Yes, Grandfather! Come! I will take you,” Parthipenthiran said turning in the direction of Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani’s anthapuram.

“Aiyo! What is this?” He howled. In the direction where he turned he saw a fire blazing. Over the flames rose dark billowing clouds of smoke.

All turned around to look. “Fire! Fire!” Terrified cries rose from everyone’s mouths.

Recovering from his initial shock Parthipenthiran said, “Sambuvaraiyar! I did not at first believe this ola. Now, I do. There is perfidy and treachery. Grandfather! Tell them to arrest these saboteurs at once! I will go look for the prince and bring him!”

“Yes, sabotage, Parthipenthira! There has indeed been perfidy and treachery. But you are the ones behind it. You broke down the gates and entered this fort. You have bid your soldiers to start a fire. If the prince is in danger it is because of you! Careful! There will come a time for revenge!” Sambuvaraiyar retorted boldly.

Without paying any attention to him Parthipenthiran ran. At the same time the women from Sambuvaraiyar’s palace walked out into the piazza in a huddle. Their faces showed their confused state of mind. But not one whimper was heard from anyone.

Some of them noticed the rear of the palace awash in light. They embraced each other and pointed to the blazing fire. Manimekalai also saw it. “Aiyo! Fire! Fire! He is there,” shrieking she began to run towards the fire. Sambuvaraiyar stepped in front of her slapping her hard on the face. His beloved daughter, the apple of his eye, who had never known anyone to treat her in this manner stood aghast staring into his face.

Feeling sorry Sambuvaraiyar said, “Foolish girl! Didn’t I warn you before? Why are you making me angry?” Then he said, “Look over there! See! There is no need for you to cry or run,” pointing to Vandhiyathevan who emerged from the shadows walking unsteadily. He was carrying Athitha Karikalan’s lifeless body over his shoulder.

Malaiamman watched the confrontation between Sambuvaraiyar and his daughter. Now his attention also was drawn toward Vandhiyathevan. With wide eyes he stared at Vandhiyathevan walking unsteadily carrying someone on his shoulder. For some reason his body trembled. There was fear in his heart. He wanted to query the man who was now near him. But his tongue faltered. His throat felt dry.

His gaze unwaveringly fixed on Malaiamman, Vandhiyathevan approached him.

“Sir! Here is Prince Athitha Karikalar! I could not bring to you alive the heroic warrior who beheaded Veera Pandyan. I saved only his body before it perished in the fire. Please take your grandchild who has been killed by fate and perfidy!” Vandhiyathevan lowered Prince Karikalar’s body gently and laid it down.

Then he collapsed on the ground unconscious.

Old man Malaiamman sat down next to the body of the prince. He gazed at his brave beautiful face for a moment. Then all of a sudden as if a hill was collapsing his entire body heaved. “Aiyo!” A sad cry rose from his throat like the tumultuous sea.

He beat himself repeatedly on his head and chest with his well sculpted old hands.

“My treasure! I came for your wedding; here I am at your funeral,” he wailed in a voice that reverberated through the ends of the earth.

The elderly man then proceeded to visit one by one his memories of the prince since the time of Athitha Karikalan’s birth as he cried. He talked about the celebrations that took place on the day of his birth. He wept describing how as a baby the prince had played on his lap, shoulders and arms. He told about teaching him to take aim with the spear, wield the sword and fight. He described in minute detail the heroic performance of the prince in the Sevur battlefield at the age of sixteen and mourned.

“Aiyo! Why didn’t you die in those brave confrontations with Pandyan and reach a warrior’s heaven? Did you have to succumb to the perfidy of this traitor Sambuvaraiyan, and his gang of saboteurs? Alas! It was I who sent you here to be his guest! I am getting old; I sent you thinking that you needed friends, that if you marry his daughter he will be on your side. I believed I was sending you to Sambuvaraiyar’s palace. But instead I have sent you to be a guest at Yaman’s palace! I am the traitor! I am the one who killed you!” He repeatedly hit himself on his head.

He then abruptly let go of his grief assuming an angry stand. Turning around he roared, “Aday, Sambuvaraiya! Tell the truth! How did the prince die? What trick did you play? Even Devendran cannot win if he came to battle face to face! How many fellows did you set after him? Where did they hide and how did they kill this heroic warrior? Tell the truth!”

Angrily Sambuvaraiyar responded, “Old man! Owing to your age I am tolerating you. How did the prince die? I know only as much as you! The fellow who brought his corpse, perhaps he can tell! What is the use of questioning me?”

“Aday! This happened in your palace while he was your guest. You speak as if you haven’t a clue. Who will believe this? Good; when Sundara Chola emperor asks, you can give the answer! Soldiers! Arrest this Sambuvaraiyan. Break down this palace with its ramparts and raze it to the ground!” The old man thundered.

Parthipenthiran who just returned looked at Malaiamman. “Sir! We don’t have to destroy this palace. Agnibaghvan has undertaken that chore! There, take a look,” he said.

Malaiamman looked. He saw the fire that had been burning in one corner of that big palace now spreading rapidly. He saw that fire growing, towering towards the sky engulfing pinnacles, balconies, lofts, rooftops and towers leaving only ashes in its wake still advancing fast extending its thousand, ten thousand red tongues. He also saw the Thirukovalur soldiers standing aghast at this monstrous sight.

“Alright, alright! The lord of fire has indeed taken on our work. Good, Parthipenthira! Let’s leave at once. Emperor Sundara Cholar, the ruler of the three worlds has been sending word for three years that he wants to see his eldest son. My daughter Vanamadevi has been sending me request after request to bring the prince. At last let them at least see the lifeless body of the prince. Let’s not sacrifice this heroic warrior’s body to the fire that has engulfed the treacherous Sambuvaraiyar’s palace. Let’s take it to Thanjavur. We’ll lay it in the emperor’s presence. Let the mother and father at least weep over the beautiful face that life has abandoned. Let the emperor deliver the proper punishment to the treacherous villains who killed the prince,” said Malaiamman.

43. Back in Kollidam

In the village called Thirunaraiyur on the north shore of Kollidam there was the temple residence of Saiva elder Nambiyandar Nambi. At its entrance stood a palanquin belonging to the palace. Its carriers and guards stood nearby. At a distance stood a crowd of villagers.

At the center of the crowd a heated argument was taking place between two men. The villagers were following it with growing excitement.

If we make our way through the crowd and peek in we will find out that the two men are not strangers. One of them was the Azhvarkadiyan nambi called Thirumalai. The second person was the brave saivar who at the beginning of our story engaged in an argument with him on a boat. He was the principal admisnitrator of Nambiyandar nambi’s saiva temple residence.

When he heard that the elder stateswoman Chempian Madevi who was paying a visit to Nambiyandar wanted to speak to that great man in private the above veera saiva elder came outside. The sight of Azhvarkadiyan naturally made him angry. The memory that he had lost on a previous occasion to the distinguished veera Vaishnavan in a debate fueled that anger.

“Aday! Pretentious Vaishnava, who deceives the country scribbling your god’s name all over your body, where have you come? Go, find a place where there will be pongal and pulliyotharai!” He said.

“I am here after a good meal of pongal and pulliyotharai. I hear that in the saiva ashram you have been fattened on a diet of ash. A pity! What can you do? Your Sivaperuman starving of hunger dined on poison. At that time if our Narayanamoorthi’s sister Parvathi did not grab his neck what would have been the fate of your Sivan,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“Aday! Veera Vaishnava! Stop talking! Don’t try flying higher and higher. Even though your Peruman flew very high didn’t he come back unable to see Sivapaeruman’s head?”

“What yarn are you spinning? When our Mahavishnu in his vaman avatharam measured the earth with one foot and the sky with his other foot, wasn’t your Sivan’s crown below that foot,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“That your Mahavishnu was born on this earth ten times exposes his bravado, doesn’t it? And what sort of births? Fish and tortoise …” said the veera saivar.

“That’s all you know! Why did Baghvan come as a fish? To bring the four vedhas that had drowned in the sea! That is why our azhvar has sung,

‘unceasingly opulent, surrounded by divine courtesans,
the prospect of ruling heaven and earth I do not want
grant me the more austere birth of being born a fish
in a pond in the pleasant gardens of Thiruvengadam'”

“Appan! Your azhvars are only twelve. Our nayanmars are sixty three! Keep that in mind!”

“Oho! Now that has become a bragging point? Pancha Pandavrs were only five. But Thuriyothanathiyar were a hundred – are you about to say?”

“Loudmouth! Are you comparing our nayanmars to the Thuriyothanan crowd? It is amoung your azhvars one finds peyazhvar and poothathazhvar.”

“It is your Sivaperuman you keeps a retinue of goblins! You have forgotten that?”

While the veera vaishnavan and the veera saivar were thus waging a war of words, supporters took sides and encouraged them with their intermittent cheers. The crowd fell silent when they saw Sivagnana Kandarathithar’s beloved spouse Chempian Madevi walking out of the madalayam. To bid farewell to her Nambiyar Nambi accompanied her.

Mazhavaraiyan’s daughter taking her leave from Nambiyandar looked at Azhvarkadiyan. “Thirumalai! You have started your fighting even here,” she remarked.

“No, Devi! This is not fighting using our limbs. This is a war of words. It is this distinguished veera saivar who started the war. Our war of words entertained those gathered here. That is why they have not come into the madalayam,said Thirumalai.

“Appan! Even for the sake of entertainment and dialectic we should not create differences in status among deities. It will create confusion in the minds of ordinary people! My father-in-law Paranthaka Thevar weaved a golden roof over Thillai Chittampalam. In the same way he also donated to the Anantheesewarar temple in Veeranarayanapuram. We must all follow in the path he showed,” said Chempian Madevi.

Once Deviyar was seated in the palanquin the palanquin traveled westward. Guards walked in the back and in front. Azhvarkadiyan walked staying close to Chempian Madevi’s palanquin.

After the palanquin had traveled a short distance Azhvarkadiyan asked the elder stateswoman, “Devi! What happened to the matter that you came to see Nambiyandar about?”

“My mind is now clear of any confusion, Thirumalai! Nambiyandar said that if there was no way of preventing Mathuranthakan from ascending to the throne, then it is only right to tell the truth to the world. I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Now I feel confident,” said Chempian Madevi.

“The chief minister also expected Nambiyandar to say that. Anyway it is good that you made this journey. Madam! There is now greater urgency for you to make a decision about this. A most terrifying news has arrived from Kadampoor. The people of this town are not yet aware of it. If they were they will not have been present here today. They will have gone to see the funeral procession of the prince,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“Thirumalai! What are you saying? How frightening? Which prince? Whose funeral procession,” asked Devi.

“Forgive me, Madam! No such tragedy has ever visited the Chola tribe. They say that Athitha Karikalar has passed away at Kadampoor palace, they say that it is under unnatural circumstances. No one knows how, or who was responsible. Different versions have emerged. After Athitha Karikalar’s sudden death Kadampoor palace caught fire and has burned down completely. They are bringing the dead body of the prince in a procession to Thanjai. Thirukovalur Malaiamman is bringing Kadampoor Sambuvaraiyar and his family under his custody. There are over a hundred thousand people in the procession! Before they reach Kollidam shore we should cross that river!”

“Thirumalai! This is really frightening! Does this mean that the calamity that people were expecting following thoomakethu’s appearance is now here? Aha! Is this any way for that extraordinary warrior’s life to end? Aiyo! How tormented Sundara Cholar will be to hear this? I hope the ailing emperor will not suffer a setback because of this news. Only the merciful Sivaperuman can save the Chola tribe,” said Mazhavaraiyar’s daughter.

“Madam! Apart from its tragic nature, I am also worried that this event will lead to the breakup of the Chola empire itself.”

“Why do you think that, Thirumalai?”

“A big fight can start between the Cholanadu leaders and petty kings. While blood is being shed in internal squabbles, foreign enemies will be encouraged to attack! Must I elaborate about the consequences, Madam!”

“Thirumalai! Why do you say that there will be fighting among the petty kings and the leaders?”

“You know very well the reason, Madam! Some will say that your beloved son Mathuranthakar ought to ascend to the throne next. Others will say that it ought to be Arulmozhivarmar. Already Kodumbalur Velar’s troops are camped outside the fort. Malaiamman is taking the body of the prince to Thanjai. Petty kings who side with the Pazhuvertaraiyars are gathering their troops together. A river of blood will flow when Cholanadu soldiers begin killing each other. In our fine rivers such as Kaveri instead of water there will be blood! Even the highly intelligent chief minister Aniruthar is perplexed. He is afraid that the great kingdom of Cholanadu founded by Vijayalayar and ruled by Athithar, Paranthakar and your beloved husband Kandarithithar may vanish during our lifetime. Even Aniruthar cannot think of a way to prevent it,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“Thirumalai! By god’s grace I will prevent such a disaster befalling this empire. I know how. It is to make sure that I can do this, and to be strong in my decision, I came to Nambiyandar. You are saying that a fight for the throne between Mathuranthkan and Arulmozhivarman will lead to a civil war!”

“Yes, Madam! How can we stop such a war? Until now the winning argument was that Athitha Karikalar was older by a few years! Now he is no more. Arulmozhi is younger than your beloved son. But Malaiamman and Velar and the Cholanadu people will insist that the crown belongs to Arulmozhivarmar. Pazhuvertaraiyars on the other hand will disagree …”

“Thirumalai! Whoever agrees or disagrees, Mathuranthakan will not have the throne. I will see to that. I will carry out the will of the great man who was my spouse. If it is decided that the throne is not for Mathuranthakan, then there will be no civil war, am I right?”

“Yes … Madam! Only you can at this time save Cholanadu from destruction; there is no other way,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“There is nothing I can do on my own. Maheshwaran with Parvathi on his side must grant me this power,” said the elder stateswoman.

For a short time the two traveled in silence. Soon Kollidam jetty came into view from a distance.

“Thirumalai! You delivered a terrible news just now. You said that Athitha Karikalar has passed away. That this heroic warrior who ought to have ruled the three worlds is no more is in itself tragic. You said that his death was unnatural. What happened? Did he die under tragic circumstances? Did he take his own life? Or, are they saying that someone murdered him,” asked the elder stateswoman.

“Devi! There are many rumors about it. Because it happened in Sambuvaraiyar’s house, Malaiamman suspects them. He has imprisoned them. He is bringing them to Thanjai. Apparently Sambuvaraiyar’s son Kanthamaran alone has escaped …”

“I don’t believe that Sambuvaraiyar was the cause. However opposed one is, how can one have the heart to kill the emperor’s beloved son who has come to his house as a guest? Sambuvaraiyar will not have done this. What has he said about this? How does he think Karikalan died?”

“Devi! Once before a Varnar tribe warrior, a young man, visited Pazhaiyarai. Do you remember? Even Madam Kundavai employed his services, she sent him to Eezhanadu with a letter!”

“Yes, yes; I remember. What about him?”

“Next to the lifeless body of the prince, only this young man was found seated. Therefore, Sambuvaraiyar is saying that it he who killed …”

“Thirumalai! That would never have happened. I remember seeing that child …”

“I think the same, Madam! But circumstances and witnesses are against Vandhiyathevan!”

“Aiyo! A pity! The junior stateswoman had so much faith in that young man. If she hears this she will be petrified!”

“Madam! I was about to bring this up. Once you reach Kudanthai it is good to meet the junior stateswoman and take her to Thanjai …”

“That is my intention. The junior stateswoman is waiting for me there …”

Before the junior stateswoman hears from anyone else, it is best that you tell her …”

“Then, you are not coming with me now, Thirumalai?”

“Devi! With your permission I want to take leave of you on Kollidam’s southshore …”

“Where are you going?”

“There is a mystery surrounding Karikalar’s death. I want to find it.”

“How?”

“Devi! I have told you once before about the Pandyanadu troublemakers. I saw one of them when I was coming on Kollidam’s southshore,” said Thirumalai.

“Why didn’t you go after him at that time?”

“Only after I reached Kollidam’s southshore I came to know about Karikalar’s death. Arasi! Bid farewell to me! I know where the saboteurs usually meet …”

“Alright, so long! What shall I tell the junior stateswoman Kundavai? I am very worried about her.”

“Tell her not to worry if Vandhiyathevan is charged with the crime. Tell her that I will somehow find the real culprit!”

“By god’s grace may you succeed in your mission,” said Chempian Madevi who was an ardent saiva devotee.

By then they had reached the Kollidam shore. Boats were waiting to take the elder stateswoman Chempian Madevi and her retinue.

Azhvarkadiyan caught a smaller boat and asked the boatman to leave immediately, ahead of the other boats.

44. In the Mountain Cave

Once he reached Kollidam’s southshore Azhvarkadiyan headed west. He saw that the place was a wilderness of water because of the Kollidam breach. But in places inundated by the breachwater there were signs that water was draining, an indication that the riverflow has subsided. Finally he reached Thirupurampayam. He marveled at how this place alone was not affected by the flood. Going over in his mind about the historical tale that in the ancient time of the great deluge when the rest of earth was under water this place alone was untouched, he reached the pallipadai jungle. Even though many trees were down because of the storm it had not deprived him of a place to hide. The jungle remained thick and impenetrable. From his hiding place he watched three men and women as they stood talking at the pallipadai temple entrance. Upon careful scrutiny he saw that he could identify the three men. All three men had been present at the first meeting of the saboteurs in this pallipadai jungle. One was Soman Sambavan, another was Kiramavithan and the third person was Idumbankari. The woman was boatman Murugaiyan’s wife. While Idumbankari talked, the others seemed excited by his news. “Alright! Then we can leave immediately for pachai mallai. It will take us two days to get there,” Azhvarkadiyan heard Soman Sambavan saying.

Wanting to get a headstart over them Azhvarkadiyan turned. He was startled by a knife that pointed to his chest. Relief flooded when he saw it was Poongkuzhali’s hand that held the knife. They communicated their mutual awe by grinning at each other. Through gestures they also communicated the necessity to remain silent.

Once Azhvarkadiyan was sure that the saboteurs had gone from there he asked, “Poongkuzhali! How did you get here from Thanjavur? Why have you come?”

“I came for revenge,” said Poongkuzhali.

“Revenge? For what?”

“One of them is the rascal who escaped after killing my athai. I followed him and caught up with him here. Three others were already waiting for him here. I am perplexed to see my brother’s wife with them! In the meantime you appeared here suddenly. What shall we do now? If you will follow me I will follow them and kill the man who killed my athai,” she said.

“Aiyo! A pity! You mean your aunt oomairani, Manthahini? Why did one of them kill her,” asked Azhvarkadiyan.

“He didn’t plan to kill my aunt. My aunt bore the spear that was aimed at the emperor,” she said.

“Oho! Is that right? Oomairani sacrificed her life to save the emperor’s? When did this happen? Let me hear the full story!”

“Is this the time to be talking? They will run away!”

“Poongkuzhali! I know where they are going. I also guessed why they are going, and whom they are going to meet there. It is best not to meddle with them on the way. We can go where they are going. And once I find out what I had come for, you can have your revenge,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“Alright, then let’s go! On the way I’ll tell you what happened in Thanjavur,” said Poongkuzhali.

* * *

Both crossed Kollidam by boat and reached the opposite bank. Then they traveled in a northwesterly direction. After journeying for three days and nights they reached the foot of pachai mallai. It was not easy to find the people they were after because of the thick overgrown jungle at the base of that mountain. They were discouraged by the seeming reality that their journey this far may have been a wasted effort.

Suddenly an owl was heard screeching. Another one sounded as if in response. Azhvarkadiyan’s face beamed. He silently signaled to Poongkuzhali to follow him. From where the owls had sounded there was a clearing. There were about seven or eight people present. Some were lighting a fire and cooking. Others were talking. There seemed to be an element of surprise in the news that they appeared to be exchanging, the newcomers and those who were already present.

Ravithasan was one of those already present. He was pointing to a mountain cave at a distance and saying something to those who had just arrived. Azhvarkadiyan noticed this. “Poongkuzhali! The people I came in search of are probably in that cave. I will slowly check the cave out. If anyone of these men come near the cave, alert me,” he said to Poongkuzhali.

“I cannot cry like an owl. I will pretend to be a cuckoo bird,” said Poongkuzhali.

To let air and light in, there were many holes made in the cave. Therefore plenty of light entered the cave. In that light Azhvarkadiyan witnessed an extraordinary scene. The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar donned a tiger skin attire like that of the kalamuga mendicants. Beside him lay a necklace of skulls strung together. His face appeared white as if he had lost a lot of blood. He appeared to have been lying on the floor and was now slowly waking or regaining consciousness and was trying to sit up. His face looked as if he was stepping out from a nightmarish world. His eyes looked around, wide and disoriented.

Beside him was Nandhini. She had no jewelry or make-up. Her hair was not tied. Yet her attractive countenance dazzled ten times more striking than before. In a voice filled with affection, support, regret and sorrow she was saying, “Sir! Have this porridge,” and was handing him an earthenware bowl.

Pazhuvertaraiyar turned and looked at her. For a while a smile blossomed on his face indicating pleasure and happiness.

“Nandhini! My great queen! Is it you who just spoke? Was that your voice? Where are we? I was at death’s doorstep, is it you who brought me back? What Savithri did the other day to Sathyavan, did you do for me today? It seemed as if you were touching my chest with your tender hand. Is it true? For three years you refused to even touch me; finally, has your heart relented? Where is it? Give! Give the porridege! Porridge from your hand is like heaven’s own ambrosia to me,” he said.

While accepting the earthenware bowl from her hands his manner abruptly turned hostile. Glaring at her he said in an angry voice, “Treacherous monster! Is it you? You had the nerve to touch me? Were you trying to stab me? And I woke up then? Is this porridge in this vessel? Or is it poison to end my life? From your hands, even heaven’s ambrosia will become poison,” and knocked the vessel out of her hands. It hit the wall of the cave and broke into smithereens.

45. ‘Bid me farewell!’

It did not seem that the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar’s anger surprised Nandhini in any way. For three years she had treated this great warrior of an old man like a doll at the end of a string dangling from her hand.

Today, for the first time that string broke. The doll that was dancing to her tune had begun to think for itself. Nandhini appeared to have been expecting this. She no longer had use for this doll.

Calmly Nandhini rose and worshipped the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar. In a voice cracking with emotion she said, “You have said many times that my words are sweeter than honey and ambrosia. But today my words will be like the porridge I gave, more bitter than poison. Yet, please allow me to say a few words before I take my leave. The same mouth that had called me ‘apple of my eye,’ and ‘beloved wife,’ today called me a treacherous monster! For three years I deceived you and betrayed you. I was an orphan in the desert. You brought me from there to this palace. You made the queens and princesses treat me with respect. You fought with the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar who means the world to you. The accusations and sarcasm hurled at me by others did not diminish your affection for me. I betrayed the person who has trusted me and lavished on me unimaginable glory. That is true. I lived in your palace only to carry out my intention. I did many things without your knowledge. I stayed in touch with the saboteurs. I charmed the minds of young men like Kanthamaran and Parthipenthiran using them to my advantage. But, Sir, I have never betrayed you in one respect. Since the day I married you publicly I have known you alone as husband. No blemish had been placed on your age old tribe that had produced great warriors generation after generation by my bad conduct. That kind of dishonor will never be yours even if I continue to live …”

“Nandhini! What are you saying? What more infamy can befall my tribe? Aiyo! With my hand … with my hand … Wretched woman! You had a sword! Where is it? Cut my hand off with it! That is the only help you can give me! No, no! Don’t! There is one more important task for this hand. It is very important. Do not listen to me and do anything like that!”

Swami! I will not do anything like that. I could not even use it on the person whom I had coveted for a long time to avenge. When I was in a daze, afraid that the chance was about to slip away, you came to my aid …”

“Vile wretch! I came to your aid? What are you saying? Traitor! Devil incarnate as woman! If I anticipated this I would never have gone there! God! When I got caught in the Kollidam flood why didn’t Yaman take me away?”

“Swami! You did not come to my help. I did not ask for your help also. You came in the tribe that has for generations affirmed its alliance with the Chola tribe, even to the extent of sacrificing one’s life in the service of the Chola tribe. I on the other hand came to settle my score with the Chola tribe. That is why I never divulged my true intention to you. Sometimes I have thought of getting my work done through you. Think about it! Today you are calling me, ‘Monster,’ and ‘Devil incarnate as woman!’ But haven’t you on so many occasions stood helpless as a drunk losing your sight and senses gazing at the beauty of this hapless woman’s face? On those occasions I have considered using you to settle my score. But I did not want to involve you directly in such a treacherous act and bring dishonor to your tribe. This is why I tried so hard to make you go to Thanjai from Kadampoor. And you went. But fate brought you back at the nick of time! You did not by your volition return to help me. It was fate that brought you there at that moment! Yes, Sir! It was fate that made you suspicious about my conduct. If your intention was only to prevent me from seeking revenge you would have arrived in public. It was because you suspected my conduct that you came secretly and in disguise. At least in that matter, your suspicion must be over! Or else, at least now, be rid of it! Elders have said that a husband and wife are partners for life. It was because I was a true wife to you fate brought you back at the right moment …”

“Nandhini! Enough! Stop! Your words are torturing me. Instead, please kill me once and for all! I don’t have strength in my arms to even put up a fight! I have no strength in my body also. If you can’t summon up the courage to use the sword, then please add some poison to the porridge!”

“King! Forgive me. No … you cannot forgive me, not in this birth! I will say this though, please listen! In our next birth if we both happen to be on this earth, at that time we will have no recollection of this incarnation. That I lived a life of deception in your palace, that I used the wealth in your treasury for my vengeful schemes, this last occurrence brought on by fate in Kadampoor palace, you will not remember any of this. I also will not. For my betrayal of you in this birth, I want to seek amends in the next one. In my next birth, I will marry you. I will be a truly faithful spouse to you. As long as this life lasts, this will be my prayer to all the gods.”

His body and soul both mellowed by these words the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar said, “Nandhini! You go away! Leave this place at once! If you keep talking in this manner I will loose my senses. I will neglect my duty! All the harm you have done until now is enough! Don’t confuse me and drive me mad any longer! Go, go now!”

“Swami! Please forgive me! If I had listened to the advice of those who came with me, we would have by now crossed this pachai mallai and Kollimallai and entered Kongunadu. But I did not have the heart to leave without speaking to you and taking leave of you. Once you were out of Kadampoor palace you fainted. The men told me to just leave you there. I did not agree. I made them carry you. Even though we walked day and night without stopping, three days have gone by. When we reached this place also they wanted to abandon you here. I was adamant. I said that I will leave only after you regained your consciousness. I won. You tried to kill me. That is understandable. But because of fate something else happened. You who wanted to take my life – I resurrected. Just now you knocked down the porridge from my hands. But it was these hands that fed you water and tended to you the last three days when you were unconscious. For three years you had me as the mighty queen of your palace showering on me great prestige. I cannot repay that in this incarnation. Still, I have been fortunate to serve you these past three days. This memory will satisfy me as long as I live. I am leaving, Sir! Please bid me farewell!”

“Nandhini! Why are you telling me? Just go! The more you delay, the more my mind will vacillate!”

“Yes; you will even want to kill me again. Swami! If death is by your hand this servant will consider it a windfall. Anyway, was it to kill me that you came in disguise?”

“Why did I disguise myself? You said that I doubted your integrity and I wanted to catch you. That is not correct, I disguised myself and came via the secret passage because I feared that if I appeared before you as Pazhuvertaraiyan and you spoke two words to me, my heart will melt all over again. I wanted to leave no room for you to talk, I wanted to take you by surprise, throw the knife at you while you stood in shock. I threatened the Kadampoor servant Idumbankari and took his knife from him. Not only that, Nandhini! I came in the disguise of a kalamugan, so that I will not be made the laughingstock of the country if rumor should spread that old man Pazhuvertaraiyan turned jealous and killed his young wife. But just as you said, while I had my plan, fate had its own. I cannot try this again. So, leave! Only, tell me this! If I did not interfere at that time, what would have happened? How did you think of executing your plan?”

“Oh, yes; I was going to talk about it. Your anger has disturbed my mind as well. Swami! When you went to Thanjai, I gave you my word, ‘No harm will come to your tribe and its reputation through my hand!’ I tried very hard to keep it. I planned to carry out my scheme through either Manimekalai, Kanthamaran or Vandhiyathevan. Most of all I had my hopes on Manimekalai. For a different reason I hoped that Karikalar will turn frantic and rush to kill Vandhiyathevan who was hiding there; and at that time Manimekalai will kill him. So that Manimekalai will not be accused, Vandhiyathevan I hoped will volunteer, ‘I am the one who killed!’ This way I would have taken revenge on Pazhaiyarai Kundavai also. Such was my plan. But there was no need for any of this. The prince took his life with his own hands …”

“No, Nandhini! No! Karikalan did not take his own life. Are you trying to fool even me?”

“Swami! If you had not thrown Idumbankari’s knife at that time, Karikalar would have killed himself with Veera Pandyar’s sword …”

“Yes, yes; if I had come a second later I would not have done this horrendous deed. Instead my suspicion would have been on you. Nandhini! Destiny has had its run. We cannot change anything now. In a way fate has done me a good turn as well. You said that in our next birth you wanted me to be your partner in life! Sweeter words than that, I have never heard. I did not even ask you. When my life departs it is these words that I will be thinking of. Yes, Nandhini! In this birth, you and I can no longer be together. Therefore, leave. Before leaving, if there is any porridge that I tossed away remaining, give it to me! If there is no porridge, at least give me some water from your hand! To show that you have forgotten what I said in the beginning, that you have forgiven, give me a mouthful of porridge or water before you go,” said Pazhuvertaraiyar.

“Alright, Sir! For such kindness I will be grateful as long as I live!” Nandhini went to get porridge from the stove.

Azhvarkadiyan decided it was time to slip away from the cave. He had found out all what he wanted to know. There was no use remaining there any longer. There will only be danger. He left thinking that he will decide on the next course of action once he was outside the cave.

46. Azhvan in Danger!

Azhvarkadiyan and Poongkuzhali were seated under the tree at the foot of the hill. “Girl! Mission accomplished. Shall we go?” Azhvarkadiyan said.

“Vaishnavar! If your mission is finished you can go. My mission isn’t,” said Poongkuzhali.

“What is your mission?”

“I came in search of the scoundrel who killed my aunt.”

“You didn’t find him? He is not among those traitors?”

“He is!”

“Then what?”

“Did I come to worship at his feet and collect my bundle of blessings? I came to get revenge for revenge, murder for murder.”

“Poongkuzhali! Who are we to punish those who have sinned? There is always god!”

“Is there? Even so, I doubt that god is punishing humans for their atrocities.”

“Let’s not talk about god. In this world the responsibility of punishing wrong-doers is with the king; and the officials appointed by the king.”

“If the king and his appointees fail in their duty?”

“How can we determine that they have failed?”

“Vaishnavar! One of those scoundrels there, threw a spear from the balcony and killed my aunt. He killed a helpless woman who was deaf and dumb, who never intended harm to anyone, who had been an unfortunate being all her life. The emperor, his queens, Thanjai fortress commander – the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar, they were all watching. Still, they let him escape …”

“Poongkuzhali! They did not do anything to catch Soman Sambavan?”

“The emperor who rejected her all her life gathered her in his lap and cried. All of the others stood passively in their bewilderment. Once I said, “I am going behind the murderer,” the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar was jolted into action. He accompanied me, but in the underground passage he had to turn back.

When we were both in the underground passage, a cry rose in the dark. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar pursued it and found a man. He held him and shouted, ‘Here, the murderer!’ The man replied, ‘No, I did not kill!’ The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar recognized the man’s voice. He was astounded. ‘Aiyo! Why did you come here?’ He asked. ‘I came to see if all the treasure here is safe,’ the voice replied in the dark. ‘Aiyo! God! If anyone sees you here what will they think? They will think that you are the one who tried to kill the emperor.’ said Kalanthaka Kandar. ‘Is the emperor dead,’ asked the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s beloved son-in-law Mathuranthaka Thevar. ‘Foolish Child! Come with me! Before anyone sees you, come!’ Kalanthaka Kandar took the son-in-law by his hand and left. Then I followed the murderer alone. After all the difficulty, after coming all this way, you are asking me to go back?” Poongkuzhali said.

“Girl! You should have been born a man. If you had been you would have been a dictator of a big empire. Never mind. Listen to this. Give me your verdict! If a person intends to kill one person, but ends up killing someone else by accident, should that person be charged with the crime of murder?”

“I don’t understand your question. The one who killed, did commit the crime of murder!”

“How can that be? You have heard Ramayanam. Thasarathar released the arrow thinking that it was the elephant drinking water. It fell on the rishi kumaran. Was Thasarathar punished for the crime of killing rishi kumaran? No! Take the case of Soman Sambavan whom you followed here. He threw the spear to kill the emperor. But, the emperor is alive. Your aunt came in between, took the spear and died. Isn’t that suicide? Then how can Soman Sambavan be charged with the crime of murder?”

“Vaishnavar! You have a very peculiar way of dishing out justice …”

“This isn’t just mine. Even the lord of the universe Narayaana Moorthi himself is peculiar in this regard. In this world the sinners are prosperous. Good people – benevolent souls – suffer and die. There must be some divine justification for this?”

“Get lost, Vaishnava! And take your Narayanan with you. I will come after doling out my kind of justice.”

“Poongkuzhali! I did not raise this topic for your sake alone. There in that cave are two people. One of them killed Athitha Karikalar. But he did not intend to kill him. The knife he threw to kill someone else, struck the prince killing him. Can we call this person a murderor?”

“Vaishnava! Don’t meddle with my brain. Who is in that cave?”

“The treasurer of Chola empire, the heroic warrior who fought in twenty four battlefields, who carries sixty four scars on his body. The tax collecting lord, the head of the petty kings group – the elder Pzhuvertaraiyar is seated in that cave …!” Like a town-crier Azhvarkadiyan announced in a loud voice.

At the same time Ravithasan, Revathasan, Parameshwaran, Soman Sambavan and others came running. Poongkuzhali moved away at once standing at a distance. The men surrounded Azhvarkadiyan. Ravithasan held a walking stick in his hand. Raising it he said, “Aday! Pretentious Vaishnava! Anbil Aniruthar’s spy! Finally got caught to us? Of our three plans we succeeded only in one. We failed in the other two. We don’t have to worry about those failures anymore. We have found you, the person we have been searching for three years! This time, you will not escape from us!”

“Azhvarkadiyan in a voice that was louder than before said, “Appan! Who is the one searching? Who is the one running? All are the children of that Narayana Moorthi himself! Without him even an atom will not move in this world! Ravithasa! You listen! Let your companions also listen! Leaving all the other small-change deities, surrender at the sacred feet of Mahavishnu! Baghvan will forgive all of your sins and save you! Do not fall, throwing away your lives in the service of mortal beings. Worship Narayanan and reap the benefit of narajanmam, seek your place at the paramapatham! Let’s see, join me in singing:

‘Narayanan is god –
let’s all worship!'”

He began to sing.

Ravitahsan started laughing. “Why, Vaishnava! Paramasivan is not god? Worshipping Paramasivan will not bring me to paramapatham?” He said.

Excitedly Azhvarkadiyan said, “Paramasivan is a deity of destruction! Narayanan is the savior! Have you forgotten our Narayana Moorthi saving gajarajan when he was caught in the crocodile’s mouth?”

“Appan! Didn’t the Vishnubaghvan who saved gajarajan kill the crocodile? Like that, didn’t your mahavishnu destroy Ravanan, Kumbakarnan, Iraniyatchan, Iraniyakasipu, Sisubalan, Kanthavakiran and others?” Ravithasan said.

“Those who suffer at the hands of our peruman will also reach heaven. After killing Iraniyan, Ravanan, and Sisubalan gave them heaven. Your Paramasivan on the other hand burned down the thiripurar with his third eye. Did he give them heaven?”

“Alright, alright! Enough with your chatter! Now let Narayanan come and save you!” Ravithasan held up the club in his hand.

Wishing to help Azhvarkadiyan, Poongkuzhali drew her knife she had tucked in the waist. At the same moment her attention was drawn to a woman who came running out of the mountain cave her hair loose and flowing. For a moment she was startled believing it was her aunt Manthahini. Then she realized, “No, no, she is Pazhuvur Rani Nandhini!”

By then Nandhini was beside Azhvarkadiyan. She stopped Ravithasan’s raised hand with hers.

“Don’t! Don’t hurt my brother! Ravithasa! If it is true that I am your rani then drop the stick,” she said.

“Sister! Thank you. But they cannot hurt me. Narayana Moorthi whom I worship will save me,” Azhvarkadiyan said.

Ravithasan laughed. “How will he save you? Once he appeared from out of a pillar to save Prahalathan; would Narayanamoorthi today appear splitting this tree in two?”

“Magician! You don’t believe me? Good! Look over there! Look at Aiyanar temple over there! Do you see the horses made out of clay in front of the temple? By the grace of Narayanan those clay horses are going to come to life! Soldiers bearing spears will ride those horses to capture you and save me!”

Everyone turned in the direction of the temple. They were aghast unable to believe their eyes. Because it really did appear as if the clay horses had come to life and were galloping towards them. On each horse was seated a soldier armed with a spear!

47. Nandhini’s Disappearance

Among those who were taken aback by the sight of the horses racing toward them the first one to come to his senses was Ravithasan.

“Devi! This fake Vaishnavan has once again shown his handiwork. I have warned you many times, ‘He is a spy. Do not trust him!’

“He has brought people to catch us. But he cannot catch us. Even if his god Narayanan comes it will be impossible to catch us. Come, let’s go. Before the horses get here, let’s go up the mountain,” said the magician.

“Nandhini! Don’t go with those traitors! Enough with the tragedies caused by your association with them,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

Nandhini looked at Azhvarkadiyan. “Thirumalai! I have been wanting something for a long time, do you remember? I have been asking you to take me to my mother. At least now if you promise me that you will take me to my mother, then I will go with you. Or else I will go with them,” she said.

“Yes, yes; he will take you to your mother in yamalokam! Just like he killed your mother he will kill you and send you to yamalokam! Nandhini! You no longer want the friendship of these traitors. One of them killed your mother! Look at the magician’s face! ‘Murderer!’ It’s written,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

His face erupting in anger Ravithasan shouted, “Lies! Lies!”

In Nandhini’s eyes that had seemed peaceful until then anger surfaced.

“Thirumalai! Is this true? My mother is dead? I will never see her?” She said.

“If you have doubts ask this girl. It is one of them, Soman Sambavan, who threw the spear and killed your mother. She saw it. She came after the man who killed her aunt! Poongkuzhali! Speak!” Azhvarkadiyan implored.

“Yes! I saw with my own eyes! I came here to take revenge on the man who killed my aunt,” said Poongkuzhali.

Nandhini’s frenzied laughter bordered on insanity. “You came to take revenge? Revenge! Revenge! Isn’t it enough the way I took revenge?” She said. Then she turned to Ravithasan. “My enemy! Cutthroat! Is this what you did,” she said.

“Rani! You are mistaken. I did not betray you. Soman Sambavan threw the spear at the emperor. That dumb madwoman came in between and died! Her fate! What do you say? Are you going with us or not? There, those horses are here already,” he said.

It did not appear that Nandhini was listening. Abruptly she sat down. She covered her eyes with her hands. She sobbed and wept so that her entire body was shaking. With the weeping came the frenzied laughter.

Ravithasan looked at his men. “Run! Run and climb the mountain! There is no use depending on the rani any longer,” he told them. Soon all were running.

“Vaishnava! Here, payment for your mischief!” Ravithasan hit the vaishnavan on his head with the stick before running himself.

Namo, Narayana!” Azhvarkadiyan cried as he rubbed his head.

All those who ran entered the mountain cave. In a short time they stood above the cave on the hilltop at the mouth of river Kanari.

At the same time the horses reached the foot of the mountain. Because there were large rocks spread all over and there was no travel-worn path the horses took a long time to get there.

Azhvarkadiyan saw that the horsemen leading were the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar and Kanthamaran. Behind them he saw Senthan Amuthan tied to one of the horses.

“Come! Come! You came at the right time,” he said. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar and Kanthamaran jumped down from their horses. Their attention was drawn to Nandhini who was seated down crying.

Kanthamaran went to Nandhini. He tried to say something. But no words came out of his mouth.

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar turned to Azhvarkadiyan. “Vaishnava! How did you get here? Why are you here,” he asked.

“Colonel! I came in search of the same person that you have come looking for. The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar is inside that cave,” he said.

“Really? He is alive?” The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar said eagerly.

“Yes, he is alive. Yaman will be terrified to go near your elder brother! So, those murderers there, they did not succeed in your brother’s case!” Azhvarkadiyan pointed to Ravithasan and others standing on the top of Thirumalaikunru.

“Who are they? Why are you calling them murderers?”

“These men belong to Veera Pandyan’s emergency squad, magician Ravithasan and his crowd. They are the ones who tried to kill the emperor. They are the criminals who killed Prince Athitha Karikalar,” said Thirumalai.

“Lies! Lies! Vandhiyathevan killed the prince! Are you trying to hide your friend’s crime,” interrupted Karikalan.

“Fool! Be quiet!” The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar scowled at Kanthamaran.

He then turned to the Vaishnavan. “Did they try to kill the treasurer also? How did he escape,” he asked.

“With the help of Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani who is sitting here crying!”

“Why is Ilaiyarani crying?”

“She heard that her mother passed away. So she is crying! Can’t we postpone these inquiries for later?”

“Yes, yes! We must first see the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar; you go and tell him that I am here!”

Even at that time the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s reverential awe for his elder brother did not diminish even a little. He hesitated to walk in on him unannounced.

“Sir! Your brother is not going anywhere. I will go and tell him that you are here. Aren’t you going to do anything to catch those murderers?”

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar pressed his forehead with his hand. “Yes, yes! Once before also my mind slipped! I let the fellow who tried to kill the emperor escape,” he said.

“He has not escaped; he is there, on that hill. Hurry! Tell your men!”

Colonel Kalanthaka Kandar immediately barked out an order to his soldiers. They ran leaving behind their horses to where river kanari turned into a waterfall from the mountain. When they reached that place large rocks began rolling down from the top. One or two soldiers fell to the ground hit by the rocks while others scattered to avoid the rocks from falling on their heads.

“How did they climb to the top, do you know?” The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar asked.

“They went inside the cave and from inside they climbed. There must be a secret passage inside the cave. Come, let’s go and see!” Azhvarkadiyan said. As he led the way Kalanthaka Kandar and Kanthamaran followed.

At that time from inside the cave a towering figure emerged unsteadily. Standing at the entrance to the cave, the figure stared at those coming. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar did not immediately recognize his older brother. When at last it dawned on him that the person with the bruised up body and death pallor was his brother, the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar ran and hugged him crying, “Brother!”

Tears poured from the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar’s eyes. “Brother! You warned me so many times! Without listening to you I have suffered,” he mumbled in a soft voice.

As Azhvarkadiyan and Kanthamaran were about to go inside the cave, the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar stopped them. “Where are you going,” he asked.

“The murderers went inside there …”

“What murderers?”

“Magician Ravithasan and his friends.”

“They are not murderers,” said the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar.

“See? Didn’t I say that Vandhiyathevan is the murderer,” said Kanthamaran.

The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar stared at him sharply. “How did this foolish young man come here?” He asked.

“It was Kanthamaran who brought the news from Kadampoor.”

“What news?”

“He brought the news that Prince Karikalar had died. Sambuvaraiyar sent word through him that we must gather all our might and make arrangements to put Mathuranthakar on the throne immediately!”

“Aha! Is that right?” The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar said in a tone that showed very little enthusiasm. Then he asked, “How is the situation in Thanjavur?”

“Brother! I must explain in detail. You are very weak. Shall we please sit down and talk,” said the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar.

The treasurer sat right there at the cave’s entrance.

“Sir! If you give us a little room we can go in the cave and see if there is a way to climb up,” said the Vaishnavan.

“What for,” said the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar.

“Ravithasan and crowd climbed the hill by going in through the cave,” said Thirumalai.

The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar shook his head. “There is no use going inside the cave, Appan! They have pushed a rock from above and blocked the way. The rock almost fell on my head. It is a divine feat that my life has been spared! Go! Both of you, go! See if there is another way to climb the hill,” he said.

When Azhvarkadiyan and Kanthamaran went away the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar’s eyes fell on Senthan Amuthan and Poongkuzhali.

“Who are they? Why are they here?” He asked.

“The girl is Kodikarai Thiyagavidankar’s daughter Poongkuzhali. She came in search of the man who killed her aunt. Senthan Amuthan came in search of her. It was him who guided us here so we could find you,” said the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar.

“Tell me everything that happened in Thanjavur,” said the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar. Accordingly the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar did. He told that a man belonging to the magician’s crowd hid in the treasury cellar, waited for the right moment and threw a spear aimed at the emperor; that Manthahini Devi came in between to save the emperor and lost her life. Then he continued:

“Brother! In the meantime Kodumbalur Velan arrived with a big garrison and began attacking Thanjavur fort. Without you there I could not decide whether to start a war with Velan or not. Neither could I ask the emperor for advice. Chief Minister Aniruthar is in the fort. He told me to wait until you returned, and until then it would be enough if we just took care of the safety of the fort. Fortunately at this time Prince Arulmozhivarmar and Kodumbalur Velar’s daughter Vanathi arrived. The prince came in the disguise of an elephant-keeper. Vanathi told me that she had brought an urgent message from the junior stateswoman. Thinking that it was to our advantage to have Velan’s daughter in the fort I let her elephant in. At the entrance to the emperor’s palace I came to know that the elephant-keeper was Prince Arulmozhivarmar. I was perplexed. Brother! The young prince does have an extraordinary power. When I saw his face my limbs started shaking. My heart melted. Unbeknown to me my palms rose in front of me together. I had to greet him and welcome him. It is no surprise that the Cholanadu people start dancing not knowing head or tail at the mere mention of Prince Arulmozhivarmar! …”

“Enough, enough! Don’t we know that already? So I was right to think that the news about Arulmozhivarman drowning in the sea was nothing but fiction. Tell me what happened then! Why did the prince disguise himself as the elephant-keeper?” Pazhuvertaraiyar asked.

“If the Kodumbalur Velan knew he would have stopped him outside. He would have barred him from entering the fort. Thinking that Velan’s troops also will make a big fuss, he came in this disguise. For that, we must applaud the prince. It was when the prince met the emperor and while they were talking the murderer threw the spear from above. By divine intervention, it fell on the dumb lunatic and she died. If it had fallen on the emperor and he had died, our tribe would have been marred forever …”

“It isn’t now? Tribe is forever marred!” The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar mumbled to himself.

“Brother! What did you say,” asked Kalanthaka Kandar.

“Nothing, go on,” said the treasurer.

“Now, a miracle happened. The emperor who had been disabled for so long was all of a sudden walking. He ran to the deaf-mute, placed her head on his lap and started wailing. For a moment we all stood speechless. It was this woman Poongkuzhali who shouted, ‘I am going after the killer,’ and ran from there. May she be blessed! It was because of her that I had the good fortune of seeing you here today even in this condition.”

With tears in his eyes the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar said, “Brother! I have heard in ancient mythology about the devotion of younger brothers to their elder brothers. But even among them one cannot find one as devoted as you. Never mind; tell me what happened then!”

“I also followed Poongkuzhali. In the underground passage I caught a man in the dark. I thought that he was the killer. When I heard his voice I knew it was Mathuranthaka Thevan.”

“Why was he in the underground passage?”

“I also don’t know why. When I asked he did not give me a proper answer. I was afraid that someone will think that he is the killer.”

“Perhaps, he is?”

“No, Brother, no! That weakling will not go that far. Besides, I saw with my eyes the man who ran away after throwing the spear. Mathuranthakan did not agree easily to leave the cellar. I slowly persuaded him and took him to the palace and left him there under guard. I was going to go back to the treasury cellar but there was much else going on. Rumor had already spread outside, ‘The emperor is dead,’ and that someone had killed him. Kodumbalur Velar had ordered his troops immediately to attack the fort. Kaikolar troops joined the Veleer troops. Our troops were at that time unprepared. To command them I wasn’t present at the entrance. Veleer and kaikolar troops began to break down the gates; they started climbing over the wall and enter the fort. By the time I came to know about it and reached the entrance ten thousand of them were already inside. Our soldiers were only about two thousand. They fought valiantly with those from the outside. I went and ordered them to stop. I gathered our soldiers in one place. Deciding that there was no use in waiting in the fort I left with our soldiers. Veleer and kaikola troops tried to stop us. We struck back and felled all those who tried to stop us and came outside. ‘If either Pazhuvur family or Mathuranthaka Thevar is hurt even in the slightest way I will destroy the Kodumbalur tribe,’ I sent a message to Poothi Vikramakesari. Then, I came hurrying thinking that you will be in Kadampoor. On the way, on kudamurutti riverbank Kanthamaran was speeding on his horse. When he saw the Pazhuvur flag he stopped; the news he delivered shocked me. He said that it has been a few days since you left for Thanjai. I asked what message Sambuvaraiyar had sent. The elder Sambuvaraiyar sent word that Prince Karikalar had died, Vandhiyathevan had killed him; therefore this ws the time to seat Mathuranthaka Thevar on the throne, that we must make all necessary arrangements immediately, and we must send letters to all those on our side and gather our troops. It seemed right to me. I believed that you also must be engaged in the task of strengthening our side, and that you will return soon. I led our troops to the  Thirupurampayam ridge between manniyaru and Kollidam and left them there. I had olas written to Mazhapadi thenravar Mazhavarayar, Kunrathoor Kizhar,  Mumudi Pallavarayar, Thanathonki Kalingarayar, Vanangamudi Munaiyatharaiyar, Theva Senathipathi Poovaraiyar, Fearless Singha Mutharaiyar, Irattaikudai Rajaliyar and had couriers on horses hurry with them. I asked everyone in my ola, to gather their troops and come as fast as they could to Thirupurampayam. Brother! You need not worry at all! We will destroy Kodumbalur Velan and Thirukovalur Malaimman so that they can never again raise their heads. We will recapture Thanjavur fort. We will also place Mathuranthaka Thevar on the throne!” The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar declared excitedly.

But his words did not seem to produce the slightest excitement in the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar. His attention suddenly veered in another direction.

“Brother! Who is that? Who is it who is covering the face with both hands, and crying and sobbing,” he asked.

“Elder Brother! Can’t you see? It is Ilaiyarani! A pity! She must have had a very difficult time trying to save you! Pleased forgive my criticism of her, Brother! I hear that magician Ravithasan and his cronies abducted you and it was Ilaiyarani who saved you. It is true, isn’t it,” said Kalanthaka Kandar.

“Yes, yes! It is Ilaiyarani who saved my life. If Nandhini did not tend to me you will not have seen me alive. The world will not have known the truth,” the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar said.

“Even I did not appreciate Ilaiyarani’s exemplary character! How will the world know,” said Kalanthaka Kandar.

Without paying attention to his words the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar said, “Nandhini has not left this place still? I thought that she would have gone with those men who climbed the steps up in the cave and fled?”

“How can Ilaiyarani go leaving you behind,” said the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar.

“Never mind that! How did you know that we were here, in this place?” The elder brother asked.

“We were staying near Thirupurampayam pallipadai. Kanthamaran was guarding the Kollidam shore. When he saw Senthan Amuthan trying to get on a boat he caught him. You will remember that I had Senthan Amuthan in jail for a few days once before because he helped Vandhiyathevan escape. Kanthamaran was already very angry at him. Now, again he suspected that he was involved in some spy work. So he brought him. When we talked to him we found out about you. He had heard about his uncle’s daughter Poongkuzhali going after some murderer alone by herself and he came in search of her. Poongkuzhali told him not to join her and sent him back. Yet he had discreetly followed her. At that time he overheard some culprits near Thirupurampayam pallipadai. He found out that some scoundrels had abducted you and taken you to the green mountain area. Knowing that Poongkuzhali and the Vaishnavan were heading to green mountain he tried to follow them without their knowledge. When we heard this Kanthamaran and I started with fifty soldiers. Senthan Amuthan was adamant that he join us. We figured that it was also good and tied him to a horse and brought him. It was good that we came. We found you. What is there to worry about now, Brother! Let’s go now. I will make arrangements for the men to carry you, so you won’t be in pain. By now a large garrison would have collected in Thirupurampayam. We can capture Thanjavur fort in one jamam,” said the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar.

“Yes, we must go to Thanjavur immediately!” The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar stood up. He slowly walked towards Nandhini.

Nandhini who was until then seated on a rock sobbing stood up abruptly when she heard the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar clearing his throat. Her frenzied eyes looked around. Azhvarkadiyan who was beside her said in a low voice, “Nandhini! At least now, say yes; say just one word that you will come with me! We will leave this country and go to vadanadu. We will journey to Brinthavanam, Vadamadurai, Ayothi, Kasi, Harithvaram, Rishikesam, and other sacred stations. We will recite Srimanth Narayanan’s holy name, sing azhvars’ hymns, and live our lives happily. I am prepared to give up my government work and come with you.”

With tears in her eyes Nandhini looked at him. “Thirumalai! Even after I betrayed you to this extent, your affection for me has not changed. May Narayanan whom you worship  bless you!” She said.

At this time Poongkuzhali asked Senthan Amuthan, “There! Look at Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani! Doesn’t she resemble our aunt?”

“Yes, with her hair untied she is exactly like your athai,” said Senthan Amuthan.

“From now on, she is going to be my aunt; the affection I had for my aunt, I will now give Ilaiyarani,” Poongkuzhali answered.

“I am with you on that, Poongkuzhali!” Senthan Amuthan told her.

By now the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar was standing beside Nandhini.

Seeing him Nandhini fell on the ground and worshipped him. She touched his feet and then raised her hands to her face pressing her fingers against her eyes. Standing up she looked at the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar once. Then she abruptly turned around. Her eyes fell on the horses that belonged to the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar and his men. She ran fast towards the horses. She leaped on to the first one. She took its reins in her hand and gave it a tug. The horse began to gallop.

Those who were helplessly standing unable to fathom her intentions now started to go after her. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar, Azhvarkadiyan, Senthan Amuthan and Poongkuzhali, all took a step forward.

“Stop!” The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar roared. Once again all of them stood paralyzed and helpless. They stared at the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar.

The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar stood gazing at Nandhini’s figure atop the horse. The horse, speeding like the wind, soon made a turn at the foot of the mountain and disappeared from sight.

Yes; Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani Nandhini Devi also disappeared. We will no longer see her in this story.

Perhaps, many years later, in another place, under different circumstances we may see her. Who can say?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Memory

IMG_0911We played in our playgrounds
Then we went home
Knowing we will come back
to play again
We never returned
Now old and worn
we miss our play days
our playmates
This is not what we were promised
When we played in our playground
We were promised a better life
A better playground
We will never make promises
Such as these
Know thee that your play is only for once
Make the most of it
Don’t hold your memories
Erase your memories
Before they are hijacked
And thrown into the memory pickle jar
that holds memories
from a thousand years ago
A thousand years will pass
Your memory is insignificant
We played in our playground
We will take our memories with us
Knowing it’s only for once
And that once
lasted a lifetime
a lot to hold
to keep
We played in our playground
They told us we will return
We never did

Ponniyin Selvan Part V (38 – 41)

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

38. That was Pretense?

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.