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Ponniyin Selvan Part I (38 – 41)

December 20, 2014

Ponniyin Selvan was written by the late Kalki Krishnamoorthy. It first appeared serialized in the weekly Kalki. Beginning in 1950 it appeared as weekly installments for three and a half years. It is now again being serialized in Kalki. These are my translations / notes in keeping up with the plot. Translations of this novel are available online.

38. Nandhini’s Discord

When Pazhuvertaraiyar returned to his palace it was about an hour past midnight. The storm in his heart was more tumultuous than the wind outside that raised the dust from the ground in swirls of current. He was distressed for having lashed out at his dear brother. There was no limit to his brother’s affection. He spoke freely because of this affection. But why did he speak disrespectfully of Nandhini? This is human nature. Human beings always looked for some means of escape from taking the blame themselves. It is the nature of ordinary people. Why should his brother take that low road? Is it proper for a man of his stature to point the finger at a woman, his own sister-in-law, after letting go of the treacherous guy who had fallen into their trap? Never mind! Didn’t the brother apologize? Why should I keep dwelling on it? Is it possible that it was true? Have I foolishly fallen for a woman in my old age? For the sake of a woman found in the woods, I have insulted my own brother, the one who fought by my side in a hundred battles, the one who put his own life in danger in order to save mine. Why is she so indispensable? We don’t know her ancestry. Her ways do arouse suspicion. Chee! Chee! Brother’s words have upset me also. How unjust? Doesn’t she show me her love and respect? Isn’t she excited about our plans? Doesn’t she advise me? Didn’t she marry this over sixty old man? If she desired so, even Lord Indra would want to marry her. Is there a king in this world who will not want to marry her? Ah! Imagine if this Sundara Cholan had seen her! Isn’t it foolish to doubt someone like her? I have heard that old men are capable of ruining their lives by giving in to all kinds of doubts. There are so many examples to see. We should not behave like that and become the laughing stock of the country. Anyway, it is alright to question her about certain matters. Why does she borrow the signature ring from time to time? Why does she wait alone in the gazebo on occasion? Why does she see this magician from time to time? Who is she trying to charm with magic? Besides all of this, how long is she going to keep me at arm’s length? The reason is always some vow, some fasting, but never an explanation about what these are for! It sounds like a scheme out of fiction to keep a guy waiting. I should not allow this anymore! I have to put an end to this tonight!

When Pazhuvertaraiyar reached his palace that night, all of the fairer sex regardless of rank and class was assembled to welcome him. But he did not see Illaiyarani anywhere. He was told that she was still in the gazebo. It made him angry to think that perhaps she was ignoring him. He didn’t understand why she had to be there after midnight. He went there fuming. As he approached the entrance he saw the maid and Nandhini coming out. While the maid waited behind, Nandhini avoided looking at him, staring into the dark. Even when he got close she avoided facing him. Instead of showing anger, now he was the one having to plead with her. “Nandhini! My darling! What is the matter? Why are you ignoring me?” asked Pazhuvertaraiyar placing his hand gently over her shoulder. Nandhini in one seemingly effortless move knocked his well toned and muscular arm out and away from her body. Oh! How can this feather light touch have such strength? “My life! It is my luck that you pushed me with your gentle touch! What you did was unheard of from Trincomalie to Vithyamalai; no soldier had dared to do it! It is my blessing! Shoudn’t you tell me the reason for your displeasure? I am yearning to hear your sweet and melodious voice,” begged Pazhuvertaraiyar, the hero of a thousand battles.

“It’s been four days since I last saw you,” sobbed Nandhini. Pazhuvertaraiyar’s heart which had withstood countless number of swords and arrows melted like wax. “Is this why you are angry? you could not bear four days of separation. What would you do when I go to the battlefield? It would be months,” he said.

“You think I will subject myself to that long a separation. Like a shadow I would follow you to the battlefield,” Nandhini replied.

“Very nice! That will be some war with you there! Darling! My chest and shoulders have faced many arrows and spears. They say the wounds add up to sixty four. But if a tiny thorn were to pierce your soft skin, it will break my heart. What a thousand swords and spears could not achieve a tiny splinter on your sole would. How can I take you to the battlefield? It pains me to see you standing here barefoot. Come, come and sit on your sofa! Allow me to look at your beautiful face. Don’t think these four days were an agony to you alone! Every minute away from you is like an aeon. At least now let my thirst be satisfied; let me see your beautiful face,” he said taking Nandhini by her hand and seating her on the petal strewn sofa. Nandhini wiping her eyes raised her face to Pazhuvertaraiyar. The treasurer saw the smile in the golden light of the lamp. “Aha! The three worlds can be sacrificed for this smile! Since the three worlds are not in my possession let me at least offer her my body and soul and possessions. But she never asks me for anything,” the brave warrior thought. His plan to question her, to punish her was forgotten. He was at the point when he would do with his head what she commanded with her foot. Slavery is despicable. But nothing makes one to lose one’s head than being a slave to a woman!

“You have been away for four days. Upon your return why didn’t you come here straight? Is your brother more important than me?” asked Nandhini, feigning anger as she looked at him sideways.

“Not that, my darling! My heart wanted to be here like an arrow shot from a bow. But that slow wit Mathuranthakar! I wanted to see if he returned safely through the underground passage. I had to stop at my brother’s to find out.”

“Sir! I care about all your undertakings. I too wish you success in all your endeavors. But it’s difficult for me to accept that there is a man going about in the carriage that is meant for me. All over the country people think that you are taking me everywhere with you.”

“Do you think I am happy about it? Not at all! But we have undertaken a huge task. I am tolerating it because of the magnitude of this responsibility. Moreover, don’t forget that this was your idea! Didn’t you advice me to take Mathuranthakar in your carriage? Wasn’t it your clever idea to have him use the underground passage?”

“I was doing my duty. Isn’t it the wife’s responsibility to help her husband in his work? Just because I said it you shouldn’t …”

“Is that all you did? This guy was with holy powder all over his body enumerating Siva mantra on holy beads. He was bent on proving that he was his mother’s son frequenting the temple and lake. However much we tried we could not develop in him a passion for governing. You spoke to him twice. He has changed. I cannot describe how eager now he is to rule. His ambition extends from Lanka to the Himalayas. He is dying to be on the Chola throne. Nandhini! I don’t know what magic you performed on him! Speaking of magic, if you are so good at it, why do you need another magician here? People are unnecessarily …”

“My Lord! If others are gossiping it is your responsibility to put an end to it. I have explained this before. If necessary I will do it again. To alleviate the poison of the snake in Pallaiyaru! You men are ready for combat. You underestimate the women. You consider it a disgrace to battle with a woman. But one woman can wreak more harm than a hundred men. A snake knows another’s trail. You don’t know that Kundavai’s schemes. I know. You may have forgotten the way she insulted us both. I cannot. How can I forget her asking me in front of a hundred other women, “The old man may have been overcome with lust in his old age. Where were your senses? Why did you marry that old man?” How can I forget her saying, “You look like a fairy queen. Any prince would have taken you for his queen for the throne! Why on earth did you marry this old buffalo?” I cannot forget as long I live!” Nandhini started sobbing.

39. His Whole World Started To Spin

Pazhuvertaraiyar was aware of the gossip surrounding his late stage marriage and his age. It had reached his ears that among those who were critical stood Princess Kundavai. But no one had so far bluntly stated word to word what had been said. When he heard it from Nandhini his heart was set on a war path. He started breathing heavily. Nandhini’s tears were like oil poured over the already blazing fire in his heart. “My darling! Is that what that vile wretch said? She called me a buffalo? Fine; see what I do to her! See how I crush her like the buffalo tramples the lily! Moreover … I will … I will …,” his anger was so overwhelming he was at a loss for words. His face was at its most grotesque. Nandhini tried to calm him. She took his iron fist and laced her fingers through his. “My lord! I knew that you would not stand for insults hurled at me. But the lion that split the head of the elephant in rut and drank its blood cannot attack a cat. Kundavai is a female cat. A grand witch! She has got everyone dancing to her witchcraft. In fact the entire Chola Nadu is under her spell! Her magic has to be destroyed by counter magic. If you don’t like it please tell me. I will leave the palace today …,” she started sobbing again. Pazhuvertaraiyar’s anger subsided. He was overcome by desire: “No! No! Have a thousand magicians over! Don’t leave! You are my life’s dearest! No! You are my life! Without life what can this body do? As it is the distance between us is killing me! You know all this magic! Can’t you teach me a little of that magic?”

“My Lord! When you are armed with sword and spear why do you need magic? Leave the magic and gimmicks to an ordinary woman like me. Why do you need magic?”

“Dearest! When I hear you call me “My Lord”, I feel an awakening at the roots of my being. It’s true that I am armed with sword and spear. Those are for the battlefield. They are of no use in this room. I am defenseless in the face of love. Isn’t it you who has the answer? Do you want to know why I am in need of magic? To put out the fire that is consuming me, both mind and body. If you have a remedy for this ailment please tell me! If not please allow me to make love to you! However, please save my life. Darling! It’s two and a half years since we married according to religion and tradition in the eyes of the world. But we have not lived as man and woman. With fasting and penance you have kept me at arm’s length. You are hurting the man who married you. Just kill me with your own hands; feed me some poison and end my life! …”

Nandhini covered her ears: “Aiyo! Do not speak so harshly! If you repeat this once more I’ll do exactly as you wish. I’ll kill myself with poison. Afterwards you can live in peace.”

“No! No! I will not repeat it. Forgive me! If you kill yourself will I ever have peace? I am half mad now. I will become a complete lunatic then …!”

“My Lord! Why would you lose your mind? We united as one body and one soul on the day we married; two minds together; two hearts together. For every single heartbeat of yours there’s an echo in my heart. Every idea that originates in your mind has its resonance and reflection in my internal mirror. My stomach knots when your hair stands on end. A crease in your brow fills my eyes with tears. After we have joined soul to soul, why care about this mortal body? Molded out of earth its fate is predestined; dust to dust, ashes to ashes …”

“Stop! Stop! My ears are sore upon hearing your cruel words!” Pazhuvertaraiyar cried. He started speaking without giving her room to speak: “Did you say ‘molded out of earth’? That’s not true! Don’t let lies spill out of that sweet mouth that tastes of honey. Did you say that your body was made out of dust? Never! There are many women in this world. Brammah may have cast them out of earth, stone or lime. He may have mixed charcoal and ashes. But what did he do in your case? He gathered the flowers from Hibiscus; and those of the red lotus from Tamil Nadu. He placed them in a golden vessel with heaven’s own ambrosia of immortality. He let it simmer in the light of the moon. He serenaded it with music. He brought the lute players from ancient Tamil Nadu. You were born out of this mixture.”

“My Lord! You speak as if you were there next to Brammah when he did this! Am I the only object of this vivid imagination? There are many women in the interior of this palace; born into royalty. You have been living with them for a long time. You have known me only these two and a half years, …” Before Nandhini could finish Pazhuvertaraiyar interrupted. Perhaps at last he wanted to express in words the torrent of emotions that was filling his heart. Perhaps he wanted to put out the carnal fire that was burning inside of him with words.

“Nandhini! You spoke about my women. I married them so that the ancient Pazhuvoor tribe will live on. Some did not bear children. Others had only girls. I concluded that it was God’s will. I had given up all thought of women. My attention was squarely focused on the affairs of the country. There was no room for anything but the welfare of Chola Nadu in my heart. This is when the great war with Pandiyar took place. I did not hold back even though there were many able and more youthful warriors. If I had not taken part we would never have had the grand victory of that scale. After beating the Pandiyar, after planting the flag of victory in Madurai, I went to Kongu Nadu. From there I was returning along the shore of the river Kaveri. On the way I saw you near a wooded forest. I could not believe what I saw. I closed my eyes and opened them again thinking it was my mind playing tricks on me. Still you were standing there. I decided that you must be a fairy. Once I got close I told myself that you would disappear. I got closer. Still you did not disappear. I said to myself that this mythical being sent down to earth on a curse cannot speak the human language. I asked “Child! Who are you?” You replied in Tamil, “I am an orphan. I have come to you for sanctuary; please save me.” When I continued with you in the carriage there were many bewildering thoughts in my head. I was certain that I had seen you somewhere before. But I simply could not figure out where. All of a sudden it was as if a curtain lifted in my mind. Truth revealed itself. I did not know you in this incarnation. But I had known you in many previous ones. Recollections of those other births came surging all at once. When you were Akalikai in this world I was Devendran. I gave up ruling the heavens and came down here in spite of the Rishi’s curse in search of you. Later I was born Santhanu Maharajan. While hunting along River Kangai I met you; I fell in love with the mortal being who was Kangai herself. When I was Kovalan in the town of Koveri you were Kannaki. Losing my senses to this world’s temptations I neglected you. When I came back to my senses I knew more than ever how precious you were. I took you to Madurai. On the way I left you in the care of some shepherds and I went to sell your ankle-ring. I lost my life to fraud. In return for that I destroyed the Pandiyar race in this birth. I was returning from that war when I saw you. I realized it was the Kannaki I got separated from a hundred years ago …”

While Pazhuvertaraiyar was talking Nandhini had turned her face away. Pazhuvertaraiyar could not see the changes that her face underwent while he talked. If he had seen it is doubtful whether he would have continued. When he paused for a break, Nandhini turned. “My Lord! Your examples are not good They seem like bad omens. If you want to call yourself Manmathan, then I will be Rathi,” she said smiling. Pazhuvertaraiyar’s face brightened with pride and happiness. However lacking one is in the department of good looks who would not be happy if one is called Manmathan by the woman he loves? Regardless, he spoke as if he was immune to self-indulgence: “Darling! It is fitting to call you Rathi. But I am no Manmathan. You are speaking out of love.”

“My Lord! To my eyes you are the Manmathan. In a man beauty is his valor. The world knows that there is no one more brave than you in South India. Moreover, what is becoming of a man is his kindness to a destitute. I am proof of your kindness. You gave asylum to this penniless orphan with no kith or kin. You showered on me an inordinate amount of love and support. I will not make you wait for long. My fasting and seclusion are coming to an end …”

“Darling! Explain to me clearly what this fasting, this seclusion is for. I will do my best to speed it up.”

“The children of this Sundara Cholan who thinks that there is no other Manmathan than him should not inherit the throne. That Kundavai’s pride should be crushed …”

“Nandhini! Consider those two wishes fulfilled. There is no throne for Athithan or Arulmozhi Varman. All of the leaders of this country have decided to crown Mathuranthakar …”

“All of them have agreed? Is it true?” Nandhini stressed.

“Except for two or three all others have agreed. Kodumbalooran, Mallaiyaman and Parthipenthiran will never agree with us. There is no need to worry about them. ”

“But don’t we have to be careful until it happens?”

“There is no doubt about that. I am taking all precautions. There will always be dangers because of someone else’s foolishness. Even today there was a blunder. A courier from Kanji had deceived Kalanthakan. He had gone behind his back and delivered a letter to the king personally …”

“Aha! You are forever praising your brother. Didn’t I say that he wasn’t very bright?”

“With regard to this matter he had been stupid. He says that the chap had our palace signature ring!”

“Those who fail will always find excuses. Did they even try to catch the guy?”

“Of course. a search is on inside and outside. They will grab him. This is not going to be a hindrance to us. Mathranthakan will take the throne once the emperor passes away …”

“My Lord! It is time I told you what my fasting is about …”

“Darling! I too want to hear it …”

“Mathuranthakan, that silly boy who flashes his teeth at the sight of a woman – my wish will not be granted by his ascending to the throne …”

“What else would grant your wish? Tell me what you wish! I will make your dream come true!”

“My King! When I was a child an astrologer read my horoscope. He said that until I am eighteen I will have many troubles.”

“What else did he say?”

“After eighteen my luck will change, he said. I will reach unimaginable heights, he said.”

“He told the truth. Tell me who he is. I will shower him with gold.”

“My Lord!”


“He said one more thing. Shall I tell that also? ”

“Of course! You must tell me!”

“The man who takes my hand in marriage, will be the emperor of a great country where kings from fifty six other countries will serve him, the astrologer said. Will you fulfill my horoscope?”

When Pazhuvertaraiyar heard this, his head started spinning; Nandhini and the sofa on which she was seated, the gazebo, the pillars that were holding the gazebo, the garden that stood in the dark, the treetops that glistened in the moonlight, the stars in the night sky, the two palaces – the entire world started to spin in front of his eyes.

40. The Dark Palace

Let’s see what had happened to Vandhiyathevan. We saw that he disappeared near the dark palace. He tried to eavesdrop on the magician and Nandhini. But it was of no use. He could not hear them. In reality he was not that keen on listening to them talk. He realized that Nandhini had a certain charm that put him under a spell. He felt it would be better if he did not see her again. There was more danger in being a captive to her than to the Pazhuvertaraiyar brothers. With them he realized that he was on the defensive, his mind was alert, shoulders were stiff with his hand on the sword at all times. One can tackle them with one’s wit or with one’s sword. In front of this damsel, his capacity to function, both mind and body, was in danger. What will happen if I met her again? In addition, she has a magician there now! What magic were they capable of? Why does she hate Princess Kundavai so much? One could see the hatred in her eyes! She might change her mind and hand me over to Pazhuvertaraiyar! Aren’t women famous for their fickleness? Therefore its better if I escape without seeing her again. But how to escape? Only way is through the garden! What if those men are hiding by the wall waiting for him? Is there any other way? Vandhiyatheva! Where is your luck today? Think! Think! Use your head! Use your eyes! Look around! This palace here in the dark! Why is it dark? What is inside? If I go in where will it take me? Is there another exit? Why not go and see? If not now, it might come in handy on another occasion. Who knows? But how to enter this place? What a massive door? And a humongous lock! Oh! Oh! Oh! Will not budge! So tight! Ah! What’s this? Seems like there’s a smaller door inside the big door. This just opens – the small door! If this is not luck, what is? Only way is to go in!

Opening the small invisible door that was fitted into the larger door Vandhiyathevan entered the dark palace. As soon as he stepped in his first thought was to keep this a secret from Nandhini. He carefully closed the small door after him. With the door closed he felt that the darkness was ten fold thicker inside. In a fraction of a second when the door was open he had seen some big pillars. Now nothing was visible. The darkness lay so heavy that all comprehension was lost. Chee! Chee! When one comes into the dark suddenly this is how it is. Once my eyes are used to the dark I will slowly make out the things. I have experienced this many times. Why be afraid of this darkness? Without standing here in one place let’s move a little. Feel your way around. The pillar is somewhere here. Like a blind man Vandhiyathevan held one hand out in front of him and began to walk. Just as he had thought there was a pillar. An enormous one! Granite! Hugging it, he felt around the pillar and took a few more steps. There was another pillar. But nothing at all was visible yet. Have I become blind suddenly? What a crazy thought? How can I suddenly lose sight? Let’s walk a bit more. No more pillars. Am I going down somewhere … into a pit? Ah! A step! I almost fell! How long to keep going like this in the dark? Suddenly for whatever reason fear gripped Vandhiyathevan’s heart. He didn’t feel brave enough to continue. I will have to just go back. Open the door and go back to the gazebo! Instead of going in circles in this maddeningly dark place I might as well go and ask Nandhini for help. Just promise her whatever for now, act on it later as circumstance allows! Thinking in this way Vandhiyathevan turned to go back. But where is the way back? I cannot touch anything. Where are the pillars? Can I find the door? Am I going to walk here round and round all night? How dangerous!

Aha! What’s this noise? Chada … Chada … where is it coming from? Are they bats? It’s only to be expected in this darkness. No! This is not just bats. These are footsteps! … who is it? Humans? Or … Vandhiyathevan’s throat went dry! His tongue was plastered to the roof of his mouth. Suddenly he felt as if someone had hit him. Vandhiyathevan hit back with all his might. His hand hurt as if it had been cut off. He felt around with his other hand. He realized that he had not only bumped into a pillar but had hit the pillar as well! He could have laughed if not for the throbbing pain in his hand. Still, this helped him to relax a little. But he wasn’t entirely over his fright. He listened again. He could again hear the footsteps. One minute it sounded like it was receding, the next minute it was getting closer. Vandhiyathevan stood still and listened. Looking in the direction of the footsteps he saw … Ah! Light! There was a light! It’s getting brighter! It’s moving closer! Smoke too! Someone is approaching with a flame torch. Perhaps it’s Nandhini looking for him. That would be nice. What if it’s someone else? Let’s hide somewhere. In the light he could see that it was a large hall with several big pillars in between. Carved on the pillars were monstrous gargoyles. From below a staircase rose, took a turn and rose again. He saw that the light came from the bottom of the stairs. Therefore it cannot be Nandhini. Is the underground prison I heard about, is it here in this dark palace? Is someone coming up from there? At the thought of the dungeon Vandhiyathevan started sweating. In a second he had moved behind a pillar. The brave warrior Vandhiyathevan was in that second shaking from head to toe. Three figures came up the stairs. All three were human. One was holding the torch. Another was holding a spear. The third figure, in the middle, was not carrying anything. When he saw their faces in the light of the flame, his fear gave way to astonishment, ten orders of magnitude greater. The one leading the trio was none other than Vandhiyathevan’s good friend Kanthanmaran! Vandhiyathevan could not first place the person in the middle. For a second he thought it was Pazhuvoor Illayarani. Next second he knew who it was. He knew it was Mathuranthaka Thevar whom he had only fleetingly glimpsed at Kadampoor palace. He did not know who was carrying the torch. He assumed it was one of the guards. Vandhiyathevan’s mind worked in a frenzy. He figured out that they were coming through the underground secret passage. Pazhuvoor Illayarani had returned in the carriage the day before. Pazhuvertaraiyar returned today. Both came publicly through the main entrance of the city. No one knew that Mathuranthakar was away. Therefore his return cannot be publicized. That is why these three men are here in the underground passage. Perhaps this is the secret of the dark palace. Kanthanmaran, after saying goodbye to Vandhiyathevan had somewhere joined Pazhuvertaraiyar who had made use of him for this secret mission. He had been selected to serve as Mathuranthakar’s escort. Also, I remember! Kanthanmaran did say that he had an important job in Thanjavur and that he would very likely be coming there. Now if I suddenly appear in front of him what will he do? As soon as this thought occurred to him Vandhiyathevan decided against it. If he appeared before Kanthanmaran now he may have to kill him because of the vow he had taken. Or Vandhiyathevan may have to kill Kanthanmaran. Why get caught in a conflict like this?

As the three men went up the stairs the light began to dim. Vandhiyathevan decided against following them. They were certainly headed to younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s palace. What’s the point in him going there? After escaping the lion’s hold why poke my head again in its den? There was no use going back to the gazebo as well. Pazhuvertaraiyar would probably be there now. That would also be dangerous. What can he do? … why? Why not go down these stairs? See what is there! Vandhiyathevan went down the stairs into the underground passage.

41. The Cellar

Pressing his foot down firmly after each step Vandhiyathevan walked cautiously in the darkness of the underground passage. The steps were going down. After a bit of level ground there was again a series of steps. Reaching out with his hands he could not find any walls. Therefore the passage must be rather wide. After a while the steps began to go up. The path appeared to curve. Oh! How much longer to be trotting in the darkness?

Aha! What’s this? It’s no longer so dark. There is some light seeping in! Where is it coming from? Is it the moonlight? Is it through the roof or a balcony perhaps on the side somewhere? Or is it a lamp in some hidden nook?

No! No! What’s this miracle? Is this for real? Am I hallucinating? It was a very wide hall; an underground room carved out of a rock. The flat ground outside served as the roof, so low that it almost knocked one’s head. It wasn’t the moonlight creeping in through the roof or a balcony. The room was lit by its contents. Ah! There were heaps of objects spread all over the room emanating their own moonlight. In one corner were crowns pressed with pearls, diamonds and garnets. Another corner had a collection of pearl bracelets, diamond necklaces and belts. What’s over there in that wide mouthed trough? God almighty! A thousand smiles in the form of tiny white pearls! It was the afternoon sun radiating from yet another large pot filled with gold coins. In the opposite end of the room was a heap of gold bars. This may be the hidden treasury of Thanjavur. It is not surprising that this secret hidden treasure is in the dark palace right next door to Pazhuvertaraiyar’s residence. Oh Mother! How did I get here? Isn’t this luck? Both goddesses, the goddess of wealth Lakshmi, and the goddess of good luck have brought me here. Isn’t it a wonder that I have effortlessly tumbled on this fantastic secret here? How do I make use of this? Never mind, making use; Looks as if I would never want to leave this place! I can forever be going round and round here! I will never feel hunger or thirst here! Sleep will not touch me! The fruits of a hundred years of Chola victory is here. The nine treasures it is called; It’s all here! It will beat even Kuperan’s treasure! Why leave this place? Vandhiyathevan went round and round in that cellar. He touched the garnet crowns in the corner. He took the diamond belts in his hand and examined them. Putting them back he went to the copper pot full of pearls. He dipped his hand in and stirred them. He scooped up the gold coins in both his hands and showered them back into the pot. He noticed something glittering in a corner. On closer examination … Aiyo! God! It was a skeleton! A skeleton that was once a human body with flesh, blood, skin, hair, nose, face, eyes and ears!

Ah! The skeleton is moving! It has life! It’s rising from death! It’s as noisy as the gold coins. It’s telling me something. Every hair on Vandhiyathevan’s body stood on its end. He was certain that he had lost his mind. Chee! Chee! The skeleton did not stand up. It was a bandicoot running out of there. It fell on my foot and ran away! … Yes; skeleton is back on the floor! But it is trying to tell me something. “Get away! Don’t wait here! I too was a man alive with flesh. I got trapped here. There was nothing but death. Only my skeleton remains. Run!” It’s warning me. If I don’t leave now I would have the same fate as this man here.

But he did not know the way out. Outside of the cellar it was pitch dark. Below, it looked like a bottomless pit. The stairway coming up must be somewhere. Vandhiyathevan started searching in earnest. On one of the heaps of gold coins there appeared to be a filament. On closer look he discovered it was a spider’s web. It made him think. The elders have likened the spider’s web to ‘want’. There are three kinds; our desire for wealth, women and land. The spider having spun its web, quietly waits for its prey. Once a fly falls down it slowly starts closing in on the fly, tightening its net, finally eating it. These three weaknesses are like the spider’s web. Once we lose our path and get trapped in one of these there is no returning. Vandhiyathevan had been tested with all three in one day. First there was Nandhini; then her temptation of an offer to redeem his ancestral land. And now, the wealth in this underground cellar. Vandhiyathevan decided just like the first two, he did not need this third one. Sky is the limit; this planet is my empire. “All land is my land; all peoples are my people,” the Tamil Nadu pundits have said. There was nothing comparable to traveling, going from place to place, take in the scenery; the flooding rivers, the budding trees, the birds, the deer and the peacock, mountains and valleys, the immensity of the sky, the sea, the gathering clouds, the waves washing up against the shore; eat whenever there is hunger and whatever is available; sleep wherever without a care! Aha! Isn’t that a free life? Why give up this freedom to get caught into desire that requires deceit, necessitates danger? Let’s get out of this dungeon somehow. Never again, get caught in one of these situations …

Aha! A door closing! … Again the sound of footsteps! … There is no end to this night’s wonders! No end to the surprises! No limit to the dangers! Footsteps were coming from a distance from both sides. Vandhiyathevan listened carefully. He tried his best to pierce through the dark to see whatever was coming. Soon he was treated to another act of the night’s drama that he had surreptitiously become a witness to. He was now the spectator from the fartherest reach of the theater that unfolded in front of him. On the stage a torch appeared from one side. Through a curtain from the other side another torch came out. Both torches approached each other casting a faint light on two tall dark figures on one side; on the other side another tall dark figure was accompanied by a slight, short figure. Vandhiyathevan stared until his eyeballs were falling out of their sockets. In the end he could see who they were. From the left were Kanthanmaran and the guard who had gone with Mathuranthakar; from the right were Pazhuvertaraiyar and Illaiyarani Nandhini Devi. What will happen when they meet? Is there going to be a confrontation? Or will they pass each other peacefully? As the drama neared its climax, Vandhiyathevan stopped breathing entirely.

The two sides met awkwardly. Their hesitation was proof that it was not planned or even expected. There was no discord. Pazhuvertaraiyar questioned Kanthanmaran breifly. He replied. Vandhiyathevan could not hear them. Pazhuvertaraiyar then pointed the stairway with his hand. Kanthanmaran bowed respectfully. He started going down the steps. Pazhuvertaraiyar then gestured toward the servant. The servant without words bowed with one hand over his mouth. He then followed Kanthanmaran down the steps. Pazhuvertaraiyar and Illaiyarani walked towards the left side. The puppetry and the phantom-like apparition lasted less than a minute. It was by the entrance to the staircase. Aha! It was good that I was going round and round here amidst this treasure. Imagine being caught in the middle of these two parties! That was a narrow escape. What’s next? What is the way out? No doubt Kanthanmaran is going back the same way he had escorted Mathuranthaka Thevar. I got diverted into this room full of treasure inadvertently. If I follow Kanthanmaran I can see where the exit is. Then I have to figure a way to leave without getting caught on the outside. If necessary I can even ask Kanthanmaran for help. Or else, I may have to put him and the guard out of the way while I escape. So, let’s follow Kanthanmaran for now.

At first, it appeared as if the torch was coming toward the cellar. Vandhiyathevan held his breath. He did not move. The light started to move away. Vandhiyathevan had a good look around the place. He found the steps by which he had come up into the room. He climbed back down and went up again. Walking on tiptoe he followed the light at a distance. It would have been impossible without the light for him to maneuver his way around alone in this dark underground passage going up and down, bending and twirling along its myriad curves. Long live Kanthanmaran! How will I ever repay him for this invlountary service … He had no idea that the payback moment was right around the corner …!

The path was coming to an end. He could see a large wall ahead. It was impossible to see a door or other exit. Nevertheless it had to be there. Aren’t all hidden passages equipped with an exit? The guard shifted the torch to his left hand. With his right hand he reached for the wall. It appeared that he was turning a handle screw on the wall. The wall opened to reveal a slit the width of a line. Gradually it became wider, producing an opening large enough for someone to go through. The guard pointed the opening to Kanthanmaran, who after saying something to the guard placed one foot in the opening. His other foot was still inside. Vandhiyathevan could see his back clearly! Aha! What’s this? What’s this guard fellow doing? Is that a knife he is pulling from his waist? Oh my God! This guy just stabbed Kanthanmaran. Cutthroat! A demon who stabs from behind! Vandhiyathevan in one gallop hurled himself out from hiding. The guard turned at the noise behind him. The light fell on Vandhiyathevan’s furious face.


From → Notes

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