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Ponniyin Selvan Part II (22 -23)

May 10, 2015

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

22. SENTHAN AMUTHAN IN PRISON

Like another small fortress, the mint where gold coins were manufactured was situated inside the Thanjai fortress. The security outside the mint was strong like at the entrance to the fortress. When Kundavai Devi and Vaanathi went to see the mint that evening it was the time when goldsmiths were leaving at the end of their work. The entrance guards got ready to check the goldsmiths before they left. The goldsmiths had piled near the entrance. At that time the palace chariot came and stopped at the entrance to the mint. Kundavai and Vaanathi disembarked. Standing mesmerized at the sight of them, the guards and goldsmiths shouted, ‘Long live the junior stateswoman!’ The head of the currency factory came running to welcome the princesses eagerly. He took them inside and showed them the kiln where gold was heated, the moulds where coins were cast and the imprinted coins. The coins that had been cast that day lay in a pile on a side. The brightness of those new gold coins dazzled the eyes. Each coin had a tiger seal on one side and a ship on the other.

“See, Vaanathi! For a long time gold came from all over the world to Chola Nadu. It came by land; and by ship. Until now the responsibility of carrying all that gold was on the women of Chola Nadu. Turned into jewels they carried the unbearable weight. For some time now that burden had been lessening for Chola Nadu women. Our treasurer Pazhuvertaraiyar had made the change to manufacture these dazzling gold coins!” Kundavai said.

“Sister! What is gratifying about this?” asked Vaanathi.

“Gratifying? You don’t know anything, Girl! With these gold coins, it is easy to estimate, ‘This much gold!’ It is easy for citizens to pay taxes to the government. To trade with foreigners, merchants don’t have the trouble of bartering goods to goods. They can give gold coins and obtain goods; they can receive gold coins and sell goods. That is why the merchants of Chola Nadu are praising our treasurer Pazhuvertaraiyar… I will tell you another thing. Listen!” Kundavai lowered her voice and said:- “These coins are very convenient for those plotting against the emperor and his family. Can’t they make saboteurs out of even the most innocent with these coins?”

Kundavai’s last words fell on the ears of the head official of the mint. That official said, “Yes, Madam! We hear such frightening rumors these days. That is why for some time now the security of the mint is stronger. The number coming and leaving the dungeon below has also increased!”

“Those who come, has; leaving, too?” asked Kundavai.

“Why? That too. Today they brought one in the morning. Half an hour ago they took him back!” said the official.

“Who can that be?” Kundavai was a little surprised.

After seeing the places where various kinds of work took place they went behind. In the back wall was a small opening. They opened it and went through. The light there was dim. The ceiling was low. From all four sides were heard the sound of hair raising roar. An aid stood holding a flame torch. Looking around in its light many cages and tigers inside the cages were seen. Some of them were venkai tigers; some were leopards. Some were sleeping; some were strolling back and forth inside the cage. Their eyes shone like burning coals in the dim light of that place.

Kundavai held Vaanathi’s hand tightly and said, “Hey! Are you afraid? Don’t faint here!”

Vaanathi laughed a little and said, “Why be afraid of the tiger, Sister? Isn’t the tiger the protector of our tribe?”

“Sometimes don’t the protectors join the enemies? Then won’t it be more dangerous?”

“No. Sister! Human protectors may sometimes betray one. But these tigers will not!”

“Can’t say. These tigers have eaten many saboteurs to the government. Their blood would have mixed in the body of these tigers?”

Vaanathi who said ‘I am not afraid,’ just a while ago, now trembled a little.

“Sister! What are you saying? Live men are fed to these tigers?” she asked.

“They won’t do that. Didn’t I say that below this mint there is the underground prison. To go in and come out of there, there is only one way. That way is through this tiger hall. If anyone tries to escape from the prison they have to come into this hall. Then they will become food for the tigers!”

“Siva Siva! What cruelty?”

“Governance is like that! There is mercy! there is also cruelty! Vaanathi! At some point they may even lock me up in this dungeon. If you had heard the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s conversation with me today…”

“Very well Sister! There is no one in two times seven fourteen worlds who has the power to lock you up in prison. If anyone tried to do it won’t the earth split in two and swallow up this Thanjai city? I am not worried about that. I am worried about our Pazhaiyarai doctor’s son. That quiet boy won’t have tried to escape?”

“Quiet boy indeed! But it is not possible to say when and how someone will change?”

The roar of the tigers grew more intense.

“The tigers seem very angry!” said Kundavai to the guard.

“No, Madam! They are welcoming the beloved daughter of the emperor!” said the guard wittily.

“Great welcome!” said Kundavai.

“Also, it is the time for their meal. They are roaring for their food!”

“In that case let us go quickly. Where is the entrance to the prison?”

They had reached one corner of the hall now. The guards moved one of the tiger cages that was there. A door was seen fixed to the floor. Two men bent and raised the door up. Inside a few steps were seen. One by one they went down the steps. The darkness grew. A faint light was shed by the two flame torches held by two guards. They had to proceed single file along the narrow crooked paths.

There, if the frightening roar of the tigers made one’s hair stand on end, here, it was the weak and sad moans from human voices that seized one’s mind and made the body shudder.

But in the middle of those faint voices, – wonder! wonder! – a sweet voice was heard singing!

The rooms in that dungeon weren’t in a row. They lay front and back and in angles. At every door the guard raised the flame torch. In some rooms there was only one person. In some there were two. In some rooms the inhabitants were fastened by chain to a ring on the wall. In some rooms they were not bound and were let free. As each room’s inhabitants’ faces came into view and following Kundavaidevi’s nod everyone proceeded further.

Vanathi at one point asked, “What is this atrocity? Why are they locked up like this? Is there no inquiry or justice?”

“For ordinary crimes there is inquiry and justice. But people who committed crimes against the kingdom, foreign spies, people who helped spies – they are held here. Once the truth comes out of them they will be released! But from some, no truth is ever found. They can only tell if they had something! Their situation is indeed tough!” Kundavai said.

In the mean time the song ‘Ponnar manianey!’ was beginning to be heard from very close. When the torch was held up in front of that room a young boy’s presence was visible. He is a boy known to us already; Senthan Amuthan!

His angelically innocent baby face attracted the attention of the princesses.

Kundavai looked at him and asked, “You were the one singing!”

“Yes, Madam!” he said.

“You seem to be in good spirits!”

“There is no lack of good spirits, Madam! The omnipresent god is with me here too!”

“You speak like a great sage? Who are you, Son? What were you doing outside?”

“I am neither a great sage; nor a little sage. Madam! Outside, I was stringing flower garlands and offering them to god. Here I am satisfied with stringing words into poetic garlands!”

“You are not only a sage; you are also a poet it seems. Is this the only song that you know? Do you know many others?”

“I know some others, but ever since I came here I have been singing only this.”

“Why?”

“I came here through the gold coin factory. I saw the never-before-seen sight of the heap of newly minted gold that can derail the mind of the pious. It reminded me of the figure of ‘Ponnar meniyan’…”

“Lucky you! Temptations are many that arise in people when they see gold. Your thoughts went to the appearance of god. Don’t you have any relatives, Son?”

“I have only my mother. She lives outside the Thanjai fortress near the lotus pond.”

“What is her name?”

“Vani Ammai”

“I will see her and tell her that you are in good spirits here.”

“No use, Madam! My mother cannot hear; she cannot speak also…”

“Oho! Is your name Senthan Amuthan?” asked the junior stateswoman in surprise.

“Yes, Madam! You know this poor soul’s name?”

“For what crime have they imprisoned you here?”

“Until yesterday I too didn’t know what crime I had committed. Only today I found out.”

“What did you find out?”

“I found out that I am imprisoned for helping a spy.”

“What is it? Which spy did you help?”

“I met a traveler outside the Thanjai fortress one day. He said he needed a place to stay the night. I took him to my home. But even in my dreams I didn’t consider him a spy…”

“Do you know what his name is?”

“He said that his name was Vallavaraiyan Vandhiyathevan. He also said that he belonged to the old Vaanar tribe…”

Kundavai and Vaanathi looked at each other. Their minds spoke in agreement.

Vaanathi looked at Senthan Amuthan and said, “Please tell everything in detail, Son!”

Senthan Amuthan did just that. From when he met Vandhiyathevan at the entrance to the fortress to when he was seized by the Pazhuvertaraiyar men on the riverbank, he related.

“Why did you trust and help a vagrant you never met before?” asked Vaanathi.

“Madam! We like some people as soon as we see them. We even feel that we can give up our lives for them. How does one explain the reason? Some others, we feel like killing them at first sight. Today they had a man locked up with me for a while. There is no way to describe my anger at him. Fortunately a short while ago Pazhuvur Illaiyarani’s men came and took him away…!”

“Is that so?” Kundavai bit her red lips with her teeth. Her brows drew closer. She angrily exhaled.

“Who is the man who was freed in such a haste? Do you know?” she asked.

“Why not? Apparently some Pazhaiyarai doctor’s son!”

“What is it, Son, that he said that was improper? You said you were so angry that you felt like killing him?”

“My uncle’s daughter, Poongkuzhali lives in Kodikarai. He spoke improperly of her. That is why I was so angry at him. Yet because he gave some good news I decided to let it pass.”

“What was such good news, Son?”

“It was with my friend Vandhiyathevan that he went to Kodikarai. There, this cutthroat betrayed my friend and tried to hand him over to the Pazhuvur men. He could not..”

“He could not? So did that spy escape?” Both Vaanaathi and Kundavai asked as one voice eagerly. Indeed, it was for this information that they had entered this dungeon!

“Yes, My Lady! My friend had escaped. During the night Poongkuzhali had taken him to Illankai island by boat. Those who went in search were deceived. He was also deceived!”

The two women looked at each other. The happiness that filled their hearts was visible on their faces.

Kundavai looked at Senthan Amuthan and said, “Appan! You are rejoicing the escape of a spy so much! It is indeed correct to keep you in prison!”

“Madam! If I am to be put in prison for that crime, then both of you should be in the room next to me!” he said.

The two women laughed. Their laughter in that dungeon buried in darkness, sounded as strange as Senthan Amuthan’s song.

“You are very smart; you are very wicked. If you are kept here you will corrupt the others by your singing alone. Before I do anything else I should speak to the head of the fortress and have you released,” said Kundavai.

“Madam! Don’t do that! There is a man in the next room. He has been telling me a hundred times a day, “Please teach me a song! If you do I will tell you where in Illankai I have hid the Pandya tribe’s jeweled crown and necklace.” Please ask him to keep me here until I find out that secret!” said Senthan Amuthan.

“Poor fellow! Are you saying that you will remain here until you are afflicted with madness like that? Then what is the fate of your mother, Vaniammai?” With that the junior staeswoman left and so did the others.

In fifteen minutes some guards arrived and set Senthan Amuthan free from the dungeon and left him at the entrance to the fortress.

23. NANDHINI’S LETTER

That evening Nandhini was seated on the sofa in the gazebo, writing a letter. She had written only a few lines. While she was writing her body trembled like a tender vine caught in a cyclone. She sighed often. In that cool hour even with the maid fanning her with peacock feathers there had sprung pearls of perspiration on her crystal-like forehead. Her letter was:

“Young Prince! With much reluctance, and much fear, I have dared to write this letter. Many kinds of news reach my ears about the status of the kingdom. You are not paying attention to anything. You didn’t come to Thanjai even after your ailing father sent word several times. I am tormented by the thought that the reason for this may be myself. If I meet you once I can alleviate all doubts. Would you kindly consent to this? If you do not want to come to Thanjai, we can meet at the palace of Kadampoor Sambuvaraiyar. Today, I am in the position of your grandmother. what objections can there be for us to meet and talk? You can completely trust the brave young man, Sambuvaraiyar’s son, who is bringing this letter and send word through him – yours, the unlucky from birth and unfortunate Nandhini.

After truly hesitating and pausing to write the above letter, Nandhini told the maid who was fanning, “Go, Girl! Go and bring the Kadampoor prince at once!”

The maid went and brought Kanthamaran and then stood to a side.

Kanthamaran’s eyes could not bare to look at Nandhini directly. He averted his glance and stood staring into the distant garden.

“Sir! Please sit down!” The tremor in Nandhini’s face made Kanthamaran to focus on Nandhini’s face.

Continiuing, “It’s not surprising that the eyes that looked at Kundavai Devi would avoid me,” Nandhini said smiling.

The words cut through Kanthamaran’s heart. Her smile made his head dizzy.

Faltering, “A thousand Kundavais will not make up for one Nandhini!” he said.

“Nevertheless, if the junior stateswoman points with her finger you won’t hesitate to reach heaven and return with Indran’s throne. When I beg, you will not even sit down!”

Kanthamaran taking the seat opposite to her said, “If you command I will go to Brahmalokam and return with Brahma’s head!”

Nandhini shuddered. Looking away from Kanthamaran she said, “After Paramasivan’s felling there are four heads remaining for Brahma. He will survive even if you fell one more!”

“Devi! Say whatever you must. But don’t praise Kundavai Devi to me. My blood boils when I think of her sympathising for that friend-betrayer Vandhiyathevan,” said Kanthamaran.

“Yet the fact is that your imagination was extraordinary this morning. How imaginatively you spoke of the interminable battle between your friend and yourself?” Nandhini’s words embarrassed Kanthamaran.

“I had to tell something about how I met him! That is why. That he stabbed me in the back is of course true!” he said.

“Sir! Isn’t it better to remind yourself about the events of that day?” said Nandhini.

“You are also doubting my words, are you?”

“I am not doubting. Yet, you have forgotten some matters. However, one day they will imprison Vandhiyathevan. At that time shouldn’t there be evidence for the crime you are charging him with?”

“I have no interest in that. I still want to forgive him.”

“I applaud your generosity. Yet, between us it is better to ascertain the truth. Please remind yourself again of all that happened that night. You met Pazhuvertaraiyar and me when you were coming through the underground cellar. Do you remember that?”

“I remember it well. I cannot forget it as long as there is life in me.”

“Do you remember what you said at that time?”

“I don’t remember what I said. I was mesmerized when I saw you.”

“But I remember very well what you said. ‘Sir! I have heard so much about your daughter’s beauty. But none of that measures up to the truth,’ you said!…”

“Aiyayo! Is that what I said-? That is why perhaps his face turned so red! Even now when he sees me he doesn’t like me that much…”

Nandhini laughed and said, “There is no harm if he does not like you; You like him, don’t you? That is sufficient!”

“Devi! I will tell the truth. What is the use in hiding it from you? I too dislike him,” said Kanthamaran.

“There is no harm in that also; I like him; that is sufficient. Who knows what penance I did to deserve a husband like him?” she said.

Kanthamaran’s mind was confused upon hearing this. He stayed quiet without knowing what to say.

“Let it be; what did you do after seeing us in the underground cellar?” asked Nandhini.

“The guide with the flame torch led me showing the direction. I went along completely occuipied with thoughts about you. The guard moved after opening the secret door on the fortress wall. I went through. At once, someone stabbed me in the back, that is all I remember. Vandhiyathevan, somehow knowing that I will be coming through, must have waited outside.”

“No, Sir! Your guess is very wrong. He was not waiting outside.”

“Have you also joined his side?”

“Why should I join his side? What is the gain for me? Or what would be his gain? It is now certain to me what must have happened.”

“Please tell, Devi! Please tell how?”

“Vandhiyathevan didn’t wait outside!…”

“Then who was waiting outside?”

“No one; I only said that Vandhiyathevan was not waiting outside! He was waiting inside the treasury cellar!”

“What? What? How can that be possible, Devi!”

“That day he disappeared all of a sudden into thin air. How did he disappear? Please think for yourself! Somehow he went inside the treasury cellar and found out all the secrets from there. Then, he followed you. When the door was opened he stabbed you from behind and he also got out. After that his conscience may have bothered him. He took you to the mute woman’s house and left you there!…”

“Devi! It must have happened in the manner that you are describing; no doubt. For so many days this did not strike my intellect; nor anyone else’s! If anyone asks me for the most astute person in Chola Nadu I would point to you. The world has intelligent people; it has beatiful people. It is rare to find both in the same person in Brahma’s creation. I am seeing, that it is in you that these two, beauty and intelligence have come together!” said Kanthamaran ecstatically.

“Sir! Did your words just now come from the heart? Or is it the common flattery of evil men to someone else’s wife?”

“This is not flattery; I said what was truthfully in my heart.”

“In that case would you trust me completely? With that trust would you do me a help?”

“If it is within my ability I will do whatever it is.”

“You must go to Kanji for me.”

“I will go to Kasi if I am told.”

“You don’t need to go that far. I will give a letter to Prince Athitha Karikalar in Kanji. You must deliver it to him. After delivering you must invite him to your Kadampoor palace as a guest…”

“Devi! What is this you are saying? Don’t you know the plan that your husband, my father and many other prominent men of Chola Nadu are hatching for the kingdom?”

“I know very well. Beyond that I am aware of some other news also! Sir! Your family, my family and many other big families are at the brink of a great danger. Do you know who the reason for it is?”

“Please tell, Devi!”

“The cutthroat, who was here as a guest this afternoon!”

“Aiyaiyo! Are you saying, the junior stateswoman?”

“I am saying, that it is that cobra. A snake knows another. Only this Nandhini knows the traechery of Kundavai. She has sent your friend Vandhiyathevan to Illankai. Do you know why? It is a big lie that it is for medicinal plants! She is not distressed over Sundara Cholar’s ailment. Mathuranthakar should not come to the throne after him. Neither should Athitha Karikalar. Her desire is that her beloved brother Arulmozhivarman should come to the throne. If Arulmozhivarman came to the throne she can make him dance to her will. After that the empress of Chola empire is indeed Kundavai Devi! Do you know who the emperor would be? Indeed, it would be your friend Vandhiyathevan!”

“Aha! Is that right? This must somehow be prevented. I must tell my father and the Pazhuvertaraiyars immediately…”

“There is no use in telling them. They will not believe. Kundavai’s trick must be won by a counter-trick. With your help we can win!”

“Order me, Devi!”

“Here, With the utmost care you must take this letter to Athitha Karikalar in Kanji. Will you?” She handed the rolled up letter and its container.

Kanthanmaran in a state of lascivious giddiness, instead of taking the letter and the container, took Nandhini’s hand and blurted, “I will do anything for you!”

At that moment, ‘chada, chada,’ came a sound. Pazhuvertaraiyar was coming at breakneck speed on the path leading from the palace to the gazebo. Unexpectedly encountering him, the maid stood to a side in shock. There was a parrot fastened by a chain to a triangle hanging from the ceiling. In his haste, unaware to himself, Pazhuvertaraiyar grabbed that parrot in his hand. His mind’s haste communicated itself through his hand. The parrot’s wings beat noisily, ‘chada, chada.’ Unable to bear Pazhuvertaraiyar’s vehement grip the parrot screeched.

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