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Ponniyin Selvan Part II (48 -49)

September 13, 2015

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

48. KALAPATHI’S DEATH

The prince knew immediately who the woman on the horse was. He hurried toward her. Poongkuzhali also went with him. Hesitantly, others also followed.

The dumb-queen had by then climbed down from the horse. Taking a look at the people following the prince she spoke to Poongkuzhali using sign language.

“Aunty has seen something in the forest. She wants us to go there with her!” Poongkuzhali said.

Immediately the prince decided on going there. He told Poongkuzhali to ask the lady if the others could join them. After thinking about it the woman nodded her head in affirmation.

On the way they all wondered about her horse. It was a horse of excellent breed from the Arab country. How did this elderly lady get it? No army had landed here in recent times; there has not been any war. Under these circumstances how did she come to have such a horse?

We have seen a Chola Nadu ship wrecked near the shore at Thondaiman river estuary. For a short distance from there, Ilankai coastline ran bending and curving in the south easterly direction. Often the sea water had dug its way inland forming several nooks and corners along the way. It was from such a recess the ship that Vandhiyathevan and others saw that morning had emerged.

Now, Oomaih-rani took them in the southeast direction. She stepped into the thick jungle. As they followed the prince became more and more curious. Something important must have happened; or else the elderly woman will not take us this far, he thought. All of a sudden it was upon them.

There was a small gap in the jungle. There was a tank. Along its shore lay dead men. The unpleasant odor of the carcasses drifted up mixed with the equally unpleasant smell of dried up human blood. To the men who had fought in so many battlefields, dead bodies and dried up blood was nothing new. Yet along with their curiosity they were revolted at the thought that something mysteriously strange and sinister had taken place there.

Upon closer look they found that the bodies belonged to sailors from Tamil Nadu.

“Hurry! Hurry! See if anyone is alive!” The prince shouted.

The others began to examine the bodies one by one.

Oomaih-rani again gestured for the prince to come with her. She took him to a tree that was a little away from the bodies. Propped up against the tree, half leaning half on the ground was a gory spectacle – it was human. But it was difficult to fathom. The body was covered with wounds. The injury to his scalp had drenched his face in blood making it grotesque. Upon seeing the prince the face that had been awaiting death any moment lit up in a faint smile. The man tried to speak. The face turned even more grotesque with blood coming out of its mouth.

The prince hurried over to his side. “Bring water,” he shouted.

The man said, “No, Prince! This lady gave me water already. If she had not come at that moment my soul would have by now departed. Sir! I have suffered the consequence of betraying you. God will not punish me for it in the next world.”

Upon hearing his voice, the prince took a closer look at him. “Ah! Kalapathi! What is this talk! What happened here? In what way were you betraying me? I cannot believe it,” he said. (In those days just as the commander of an army was called Thalapathi, the captain of a ship was called Kalapathi.)

“Sir! Because of your innocence you are speaking in this way. I came to imprison you following the Pazhuvertaraiyars’ order. Here it is!” From his deathbed Kalapathi handed a letter.

The prince took a second running his eyes cursorily over the letter.

“What is your betrayal here? You came to fulfill the emperor’s order! I came here in haste for the same purpose. In the meantime how did this calamity come about? Hurry now and tell me,” he said.

“I must hurry. Or else I will never.” With the greatest difficulty, Kalapathi related the following story.

Following the emperor’s order Kalapathi left from Nagapattinam with two ships. He did not like his mission. Yet, unable to disobey the emperor’s order he departed. When he did, the Pazhuvertaraiyars had given him strict instructions. Upon reaching Ilankai, he was to first leave the ships in a safe place and then find out the whereabouts of the prince. Then he was to meet him in person and hand him the order. Colonel Kodumbalur Velar was not to hear about it before that. Upon handing the letter to the prince, if he came voluntarily, then well and good; or else, Kalapathi was to bring the prince by force. With these instructions they had sent a few of their own men also with Kalapathi.

Kalapathi left with a heavy heart. Several of the men under him were not aware of the reason behind the voyage. His heartache was heavier owing to this. He did not know how to tell them about it. After anchoring the ships at Thondaimanaru estuary he left for Kankesanthurai with a few sailors to find out where the prince was. Upon hearing that the prince was traveling in the south of Ilankai, he returned.

Before his return the sailors had found out the truth about their mission. Weren’t there a few of the Pazhuvertaraiyar men? Through them it became known. When Kalapathi returned the sailors confronted him. They asked, “Are we here to imprison Ponniyin Selvar?” Kalapathi told them the truth. “We serve the kingdom. We must fulfill the emperor’s order,” he told them.

“We cannot do this. This is not the emperor’s order. This is order from the Pazhuvertaraiyars,” they said.

“Then what do you want to do?” Kalapathi asked.

“We will go to Mathottam and join the prince.”

“The prince is not at Mathottam!”

“If he is not there we will surrender ourselves to Kodumbalur Velar.”

However much Kalapathi tried to reason with them, it was of no use. Including the Pazhuvertaraiyars’ men, only about ten people agreed to stay with Kalapathi. How can one control two hundred men with just ten people?

“Alright! In that case get lost now! Suffer whatever that will follow! As much as I can I will abide by my duty,” said Kalapathi.

Some of the sailors decided that they will take one of the ships and go to Mathottam. Some others objected to it. Therefore they left the ship and took to land. In their haste to leave they neglected to anchor the ship. The ship drifted slowly toward land and ended up lodged into the sand.

After that Kalapathi did not want to wait there with the other ship. He had heard some news at Kankesanthurai. Apparently a few days ago an Arab ship had crashed and drowned near Mullaitheevu and there were ruthless Arab survivors roaming about the place. Therefore, he did not want to wait with the ship next to the one that had sunk. He left from there. He anchored the ship in the next recess that the sea had formed along the shore. On the shore he consulted the men who remained with him about the next course of action. He told them that he would go alone to hand the order to the prince and that they should remain there and take care of the ship until then. His men voiced their concerns. While Kalapthi was trying to instill courage in them, they were surrounded by hair raising shrieks and screams; and men who began to attack them. They appeared to be from the Arab country. The Tamil sailors did not expect such an attack at that time. They were also unprepared for a fight. They did not carry weapons in their hands. Yet they fought valiantly. Fighting they gave up their lives.

“Prince! I alone ran away bearing deathbed wounds and hid myself – because I felt obliged to tell someone of what took place. I held on to my life until now. Prince! I am fortunate to meet you in person and tell the story. I have reaped the benefit of betraying you. Ponniyin Selvar! Please forgive me!” Kalapathi concluded.

“Kalapthi, the man who carried out his duty! Why am I required to forgive you? If there is a heaven for warriors who die in the battlefield, you are most certainly destined to be there! No doubt about it!” The prince touched Kalapathi’s forehead which burned like fire.

Kalapathi’s tears mingled with the blood on his face. With the greatest difficulty he lifted his hand, carried the prince’s hand to his eyes. His tears soaked the prince’s hand. Tears welled in the prince’s eyes. Within seconds, Kalapathi’s life left his body.

49. HUNTING A SHIP

The bodies of Kalapathi and the other sailors were piled on top of dry logs and cremated. As the fire burned, Colonel Poothi Vikrama Kesari noticed the tears in the prince’s eyes.

“Sir! Are you shedding tears for the death of these traitors? God gave them the punishment they deserved for coming here to imprison you. Why should you feel sad?” He asked.

“Colonel! They are not traitors; And I am not shedding tears for their death. My tears are for the sad times that Chola Nadu is facing.”

“Ever since the Pazhuvertaraiyars came into power, Chola Nadu has been facing sad times. It is nothing new!”

“No, this is something new. What can be worse for a kingdom than its sailors disobeying their commander? Colonel! This is a harbinger. I am afraid whether there would be similar fissures all over Chola Nadu. If there would be then the empire founded by Vijayalaya Cholar would be in smithereens! Do I have to be the reason for this downfall? I have heard the story of Mahabharatham. It says when Thuriyothanan was born dogs and wolves howled in unison. They must have howled in the same way at my birth also,” said the prince.

“Sir! When you were born, whatever good signs were possible, they were all there. The astrologers who mapped your horoscope…”

“Enough, Colonel! Enough! My ears have soured to this kind of talk. Never mind the virtues of my horoscope. Time has come for us to part. Colonel! I am asking you. If the sailors who left disobeying this Kalapathy’s command return, you should not take them back. You must imprison them and send them to Thanjai.”

“Prince! We only heard the Kalapathi’s story. We didn’t hear the sailors’ side. How can we decide with only one side? Will it serve either truth or justice? Please come with me. When these sailors return you hear them and then make a decision…”

“Sir! That won’t be possible. Please do what you decide is proper. I cannot be delayed here for one more second. I must leave at once. Where is the boatman?”

“Where are you leaving to, Prince! Why do you need the boatman?”

“Must you ask? I have to reach the ship that is taking Vandhiyathevan. This heroic soldier has for my sake ended up in that ship, now under Arabs, placing himself in great danger! Can I abandon him? As if I have not committed enough sins already, must I betray a friend also?”

“Sir! You did not knowingly commit any sins. Even if you said so, the world would not agree with you. Vandhiyathevan is a reckless fellow; he lacks forethought. How can you be responsible for something he brought on his head himself? Where is the betrayal here? Prince! I never liked it – that you were treating as your friend, this wayward fellow who appeared out of nowhere. Only people of equal status can be friends!”

“Colonel! I don’t want to spend time in pointless rhetoric. Even if he is not my friend, isn’t there such a thing as gratitude? Hasn’t Valluvar and other great men said so? The record is – ‘Chola men never forget a good deed.’ I will not be the person erasing it. I will leave this very minute and find that ship…”

“How will you go, where will you look for it, Prince?”

“I will leave on the boat that all of you came in…”

“Is it possible to hunt a tiger with a rabbit? How can this small boat chase after a ship in the deep ocean? And what will you do after you catch up with it?”

“I will go in the boat, if the boat breaks I will swim holding to the wooden pieces. I will chase and catch up with the ship that has taken Vandhiyathevan even if it crosses seven seas. Then, if I am still unable to save my friend, I will die with him…Where is the boatman?”

While speaking, the prince looked around him. He saw Poongkuzhali having a conversation with the boatman. Beside her stood the mute elderly lady. He hurried towards them.

When he got closer he saw Poongkuzhali with tears in her eyes having angry words with the boatman.

“Aha! What is this? Another internal dispute?” The prince asked.

The boatman abruptly fell at the feet of the prince. “Prince! Without knowing I have committed this heinous crime. I did it for money; you must forgive me,” he cried.

“What is this? … Poongkuzhali! Together all of you will drive me insane! Can’t you at least tell me what it is?”

“Prince! I didn’t tell before because I was embarrassed. He is my brother. He is the one who gave a ride on his boat to the two men who are on a mission to kill you. He was waiting here following their orders. This morning he took them in the boat to that ship that we saw! Your friend is also on that ship…,” she said.

“Lord! Cut me up and kill me! I didn’t know that they were such vile men. If I knew I would not have done it. Kill me with your own hands, please,” pleaded the boatman.

Appan! Right now you are priceless to me. Come, let’s go! Take me also to that ship. That would serve as reparation for your crime. Let’s go, come,” said the prince.

At the shore the boatman pulled the boat into the water. The prince scanned the sea with his eyes.

“There, the ship is still within sight. We can catch it,” he said.

The colonel also scrutinized the sea. “Prince! It is as if the fruit slipped and landed in the milk,” he said.

“What, what? Even you are being optimistic!”

“What we are seeing is not as you think, the ship that Vandhiyathevan went on. It is Parthipenthiran’s ship. It is coming from Trincomalee side. It is coming towards us. Don’t you see?”

“Yes, yes! In that case, well and good. Parthipenthiran is coming with a different intention. But he is coming at the right time. We can hunt the tiger with the lion!… But I am not going to wait here until the ship gets here. I will go on the boat and meet it…”

“Prince! To accompany you on the boat…”

“Sir! None of you need to come with me on the boat. If you just wait here, I will consider that a big favor…Thirumalai! You too. You are not fond of the sea anyway!”

“Yes, Sir! I was going to stay behind. The order is for me to take care of you while you are in Ilanaki island. The chief minister is in Madurai. I must go and tell him what has happened here…”

“Do that! Poongkuzhali! You too must wait here. Don’t worry about your brother. I will take care of him. Didn’t you say that you left your boat somewhere here? With that you can be on your way. I will never forget your help… Cheechee! Wipe your tears! What will people think?”

The prince then bent down to touch the Oomaih-rani’s feet. She stopped him, kissing him on his forehead and blessing him. The next minute, the prince leapt into the boat that was waiting. The boat pulled off from the shore. Those on the shore stood looking at the boat.

The prince too kept looking at them from the boat. Even though all of them fell under his gaze, his eyes were focused on the tear stained face of Poongkuzhali. Wonder of wonders! As the boat moved, shouldn’t they all become smaller? They did, indeed. But Poongkuzhali’s face alone grew larger and larger. It kept coming closer and closer to the prince.

The prince shook himself free. He turned his eyes away. A scene from his dream the previous night came before his eyes. The junior stateswoman Kundavai’s words, “Brother! Don’t forget that Vaanathi is waiting for you here,” rang clear in his ears amid the roar of the waves of the ocean.

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