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Ponniyin Selvan Part II (17)

April 19, 2015

From Part II of the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

17. DO THE DEAD RETURN?

Until then Sundara Cholar was relating the story like a third person. Now he began to narrate it as part of his life’s story.

“My dearest daughter! I am going to tell you something today that ordinarily a father should never tell his daughter. I am telling you something that until now I have not opened my heart to share with anyone else. In this world only my friend Aniruthan knows about it; even he does not know the entire story. He is not aware of the war in my heart at this moment. But I am going to tell you everything. At least one person in our family ought to know this. My tongue will not allow me to tell this to your mother. I cannot tell your elder brother or younger brother. You alone I have been thinking of telling for some time. Today the opportunity has arrived. Today I also have found the necessary courage. You will not laugh at my condition; you will try to heal the wound in my heart; you will help me to fulfill my wish! – with this confidence I will tell you…

“I started from that island in the ship. I reached Kodikarai. Hearing that my grandfather, emperor Paranthakar was in this Thanjai palace, I came directly here.

When I reached Thanjai, emperor Paranthakar was awaiting his death. He was hurting inside. The empire that he had built in the last forty years was breaking into pieces. Rajathithar who was to ascend the throne after him had died in the Thakkolam war. My father Arinjayar who was critically wounded in the same war was oscillating between life and death. After capturing Thondai Mandalam, Kannarathevan’s troops were advancing. In the south the Pandyar were gaining ground. The Chola garrison had returned from Ilankai after losing there. Many Chola Nadu soldiers have died in many battlefields. Together, all of this news had pained emperor Paranthakar’s heart and thrown him into a sea of depression. Under these circumstances when he saw me his face lit up. My grandfather had been very fond of me since the days of my childhood. For a long time he kept me in the palace with him without sending me anywhere. I stubbornly bid farewell to him and went to Eela Nadu. My grandfather’s heart broke when he found out that I was not among those who returned from there. Because it was not known if I had died, he kept sending search parties to find me.

“Finally, one such group found me. Once I reached Thanjai, his wounded heart attained some peace. Somehow hope had sprung in his mind that the Chola Nadu that had continued to deteriorate in his last days would again triumph because of me. The astrologers had contributed to this hope. To accomplish this, even though he had four sons, at his deathbed there was only me, his grandson. Before his death the emperor beckoned me to him, kissed my forehead and shed tears. He said several times, ‘Appan! After me your uncle Kandarathithan will ascend the throne. After him this Chola empire will be yours. It will be during your time, this Chola dynasty would triumph’.

“He said that my life’s goal ought to be to establish the Chola supremacy and made me promise accordingly…

“Just like my grandfather was fond of me , I was also devoted to him. Therefore I resolved to accept his command. But my heart had no peace. What happened to the karaiyar tribe daughter who saved me from being eaten by a bear in the island surrounded by sea? Can a dumb woman of low birth be seated on the Chola Nadu throne? Will she like the life in a palace? Won’t people laugh at me?… My mind was often disturbed by such thoughts. Not only that, my uncle Kandarathithar had a short time ago married a second time. You know that the Mazhavaraiyar tribe daughter was fortunate to marry him. If the first wife did not bear children what is the certainty that the second wife will not have children? If a son was born to my uncle how will I inherit the kingdom? That some people in the government were already talking about this fell in my ears. But perhaps the great person that was my uncle, wanted such doubts to never arise in anyone’s mind. After emperor Paranthakar died Kandarathithar’s coronation took place. My uncle – the new emperor- made arrangements to have me crowned as prince at the same time…

“My dear daughter! Like how the citizens of this country are fond of your younger brother Arulmozhi today, in those days they were fond of me. When the coronation was taking place inside the palace, outside there were thousands of people waiting eagerly. All wanted to see the newly crowned emperor and prince. So my uncle and I came out and stood on the palace balcony. Below it was a sea of people. Their faces were filled with happiness. When they saw us they all cheered happily. When these thousands of people are happy about my princely status, what is the justification for my worrying about a dumb woman who lives in the middle of the jungle in an unseen island? Is all of these people’s happiness important? Or is a dumb woman’s life important?…

Thinking in this way, one by one I was looking at the happy faces looking up at us. In the crowd stood men and women, old and young, girls and boys. But suddenly a face, a woman’s face, a face filled with sadness, a face that was looking at me pitifully with tear filled eyes came into view. In the middle of that immense crowd, how that one face, attracted my eyes and attention, I don’t know. After that, my eyes did not move from there; my attention also didn’t wane. The face grew bigger and bigger; it appeared to be coming closer to me. At last, the entire crowd disappeared, those who were standing beside me disappeared, the palace disappeared, the receiving balcony disappeared, Thanjai’s fortress and ramparts disappeared, the sky and the ground disappeared, only one face like goddess Paramesvari’s omnipresence appeared in front of my eyes. My head turned; legs became weak; memory slipped…

I came to know later that I had fainted and those around me had held me up. The others thought that I was exhausted after taking part in the coronation ceremony. Ending my public appearance they brought me inside the palace. Later when I recovered my senses fully I told my friend Aniruthan in private, what I had seen. I described the dumb woman and ordered that she be found. Aniruthan came back and said that even after searching every nook and corner in Thanjai, no such dumb woman had been found. He said that it might be my mind’s delusion. I said angrily to him, “If you cannot help me in this what kind of friend are you?” I said to send people to look along the tracks outside the Thanjai fortress that led to the seashore. Accordingly people went along many paths. They searched all the way to the seashore. Those who went to Kodikarai said that there was a dumb woman at the house of the lighthouse keeper. And that she appeared insane. And it had been futile trying to communicate with her through sign language. And that she had flatly refused to come with them to Thanjai. When they brought this news, I was tormented by indecision. For two days I remained in that state. However much I tried I could not forget her. Day and night, she was in my mind. At night, I could not sleep even for a second. Then I took Aniruthan and went to Kodikarai. I rode the horses as fast as I could. On the way my torment grew. I was confused when I thought what I would do if the dumb woman was found. Do I bring her to Thanjai or Pazhaiyarai and say, ‘She is my queen’? When I thought of this my body and soul cringed.

“My dear girl! In those days I had earned the unwanted publicity as the most handsome man. I did not think of it as a compliment. Nevertheless, others spoke of it endlessly. Even though I had been given my grandfather’s name ‘Paranthakan’, they had made it disappear completely by popularizing the name ‘Sundara Cholan’. While being treated as a celebrity in this manner by all, how will I bring to the palace a dumb woman completely in the dark about refinement? If not, what is to become of her? – I reached Kodikarai with such thoughts in a confused state of mind. That benevolent lady took care of my problem. The news that I gathered there left me in shock. The day after the people we had sent returned, the woman had climbed to the top of the lighthouse. It was the night before the new moon; the wind was strong. The sea tumultuously rose to surround the lighthouse. The woman had stood for a short time watching the tumultuous ocean. Because she often stood in this manner no one minded! Suddenly a scream was heard over the roar of the ocean. Then she was not visible. One or two people had seen a woman’s figure with its head down falling into the sea from the top of the lighthouse. Even after searching by boats there was no use. It had to be concluded that the woman got swallowed by the tumultuous sea.

“When I heard this news I had an ache and pain in my heart like I was pierced by a lance. But in a short while there was a sort of peace. The question of what’s to be done with her was no longer there. I didn’t have to think about it and disturb my mind!…

“I returned to Thanjai bearing this strange mixture of sad and peaceful pain. I let my mind concentrate on matters of the government. I went to battlefields. I married your mother. I bore brave sons. I was also fortunate to have you as my daughter…

“In any case, Daughter! I could not completely forget that poor soul who was dead. Sometimes in my dreams that frightening scene – a scene that I never saw with my eyes – appeared and tortured me. The sight of a female figure plunging headlong from the top of the lighthouse into the sea continued to appear in my dreams and imagination. Whenever I saw this frightening scene in my dreams I would sit up screaming. Those lying next to me would ask, ‘What? What?’ Your mother had asked on several occasions. But I never told the truth. ‘Nothing,’ I would sometimes say. Or I would make up some frightening war stories and tell. Gradually by the mercy of time this frightening apparition left my mind; she also went away from my memory; Until recently I had thought that she had gone away. But it looks as if those who are dead are more cruel than those who are alive. Daughter! The dumb woman’s ghost had not left me. For some time now it had reappeared and is torturing me! My Daughter! Do you believe that the dead return…?

After saying this Sundara Cholar averted his glance to a distant point and stared vacantly. There was nothing in the direction where he was looking! But Kundavai saw his body trembling. She felt an immense sympathy toward him. Tears welled in her eyes. She pressed her face to her father’s chest and cried. It appeared to reduce his trembling. Then she looked up at her father and said, “Father! You have suffered for many years keeping this enormous pain within your heart. That is why your body has also deteriorated. Now you have told me, haven’t you? From now on your body will recover.”

When Sundaracholar laughed in response, why was there doubt mixed with pain? “Kundavai! You didn’t believe. You didn’t believe that the dead would return. But there, beside that pillar; behind the oil lamp, that poor soul’s ghost was standing last night. I saw with my eyes. How can I not believe? If mine was an illusion, what will you say about your friend? She fainted because she saw and heard something! Bring her, Kundavai! I will ask her myseslf!” Sundara Cholar said earnestly.

“Father! Vaanathi is a timid girl! I don’t know how she was born in the Kodumbalur brave agrarian tribe. Seeing a pillar in the dark, she will scream and faint. There is no use asking her. She wo’nt have seen anything; won’t have heard anything.”

“Is that right? Leave her alone. Listen to the rest that I have to say! I too did not believe for a long time that the dead would return. I also thought that the apparition was my mind’s delusion. You remember the infant Arulmozhivarman suddenly disappearing when we were all going in the boat in the river Kaveri? When we were all shocked and helpless a goddess handed the child from the floodwaters of river Ponni. She disappeared once the others took the child. We have spoken about this on several occasions before. You could not have forgotten. All of you decided that it was goddess Kaveri who saved the child. But do you know what I saw with my eyes? It was that fisher folk girl – the dumb woman –  was the one who handed the child. Do you remember that I fainted on that day also? All thought that I lost consciousness on account of the danger faced by the child. But that is not true. After all these days I am telling you. I fainted because the figure of the woman who handed the child appeared to be her ghost…

“Daughter! Do you remember the day of your brother’s coronation? On that day didn’t Athitha Karikalan following his coronation come to the palace to receive the blessing of the palace matrons? I came behind him. I saw the same dumb woman’s ghost there standing in the middle of the women and staring menacingly at Karikalan. Again I lost consciousness. When I thought about it afterwards I began to have doubts about that incident. I wondered what reason she had to look at Karikalan so menacingly. I thought that also might have been my delusion. But, Daughter! My doubts have been allayed after I came to Thanaji this time. Once upon a time, when she was alive, I could read her mind by looking at her face; I will find out what she wanted to say from the way her lips moved! I have again obtained that power, Kundavai! Four or five times at midnight she has appeared in front of me and warned me.

I understood what she was saying – “You killed me! I forgive that. But don’t commit a sin again! Don’t give the kingdom that is one’s right to another!” I understood her as clearly as if she spoke with her own mouth, gaining her ability to speak. Daughter! You have to help me fulfill this. This kingdom with the curse – this Chola throne, – my children don’t need this! We can give this to Mathuranthakan…”

Kundavai interrupted to ask, “Father! What are you saying? What is the necessity to change an arrangement that the entire country agreed upon? Even if you did, would the world agree?”

“What does it matter, if the world agrees or not? My duty is to do what is right. I never had peace of mind even when I became the crown prince of this Chola empire, and later ascended to its throne as emperor. My conscience was pricking me. It was not right for me, the younger brother’s son to ascend to the throne when the older brother’s son was alive. I am bearing the burden of that sin today. Why should my sons also contribute to this travesty? Athithan does not need this kingdom; Arulmozhi also does not need it. We also don’t need the curse that comes with this kingdom. We should crown Mathuranthakan while I am still alive. After that I will retire to the gold palace that Athithan had built in Kanji and live there in peace…”

“Father! Shouldn’t the elder stateswoman agree to this?”

“Daughter! That is why I am seeking your help, give her whatever reason and make my aunt come here. Aha! Why this just course of action evades this learned elder stateswoman? Why did she urge me to commit this perfidy? Or why is she angry at her own child? Why is he so stubborn over this matter that is against his mother’s nature? It was within reason when Mathuranthakan was a Saiva devotee and wanted to become a Sanyasi. Now when he himself has the desire to rule how can we crown someone else?”

“Father! There can be desire to rule. Doesn’t one need qualifications?”

“Why are there, no qualifications? How can the son of Kandarathithar and the prophet-daughter of Mazhavarayar be lacking in qualifications?”

“Leave aside qualifications; shouldn’t the citizens agree?’

“If we ask the citizens, they will tell to crown your younger brother immediately. Is that right? Would Arulmozhi agree?… This is all useless thinking, daughter! However make your great-aunt to come here soon! Write to her that I am fighting with Yaman; Send word that if she wants to see me alive she should leave immediately…”

“There is no need for that, father! The elder stateswoman would like to serve at the Thanjai Thalikulathar temple. I will write to her mentioning that and ask her to come now. Until then be patient, Father!”

Saying this Kundavai took leave of her father and went to her place. On the way she met her mother Vanamadevi. She said, “Mother! Please don’t leave my father even for a moment! Others can go and do the necessary poojas!”

The doubts that had been lingering in Kundavai’s mind for some time began to clear. In places that were extremely dark some light was beginning to be shed. Her mind was certain that there was a dangerous and treacherous plot being hatched against her father and brothers. But she was unable to know, what sort of plot it was or the workings that went behind it. She realized that there was great danger to Chola empire and to her brothers’ right to the crown. She also believed that she as a woman bore the responsibility of protecting them from this danger.

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