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Ponniyin Selvan Part IV (5 – 9)

August 24, 2016

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishanmoorthi.

5. Dreadful Cellar

Entering the hole in the earth Vandhiyathevan went down a few steps. The ground then became flat; there was hardly any light. He must have taken ten or fifteen steps. There was a sound akin to a wheel turning. All of a sudden he felt engulfed by darkness.

He was overcome by doubt and uncertainty. He thought about his decision to stay on task.

“What is the reason I set out for? How enormously important that is! Leaving that I have now entered this underground passage! Where would this take me? Who knows? Who knows what sort of dangers are awaiting me there? How foolishly I have acted! When will I give up my impulsive nature?”

Such thoughts slowed him down. Wanting to go back he turned and fumbled over the steps. But the opening was not there; he felt around with his hands. It was no use. Someone must have closed the opening from above. Vandhiyathevan was sweating profusely. Clumsily he tried to open the gap that has been shut. At that time as if from far away he heard voices; several people were speaking. May be there are people outside the hole where he entered; at the entrance of Aiyanar temple. Idumbankari probably lit the lamp, because he was expecting someone! They may have arrived. If this is true, then it will be a big mistake if he opened the gap and emerged through it. Who knows for how long they will be there talking? If they are Idumbankari’s insidious friends like Ravithasan, then they will talk for a long time. Why have they gathered here? What are they talking? What are they plotting? That veera Vaishnavan will be observing this. Instead of waiting here sweating and suffocating, it is better to go a little farther and see. He has already dared to enter this place, isn’t it better to find out where this underground path leads? …

With this decision Vandhiyathevan reversed his course and once again set his foot forward. Even though the ground was flat it was by no means even or smooth. The path had been constructed by breaking through the rock. He had some inkling about where it was leading. Most probably it will end up inside Kadampoor Sambuvaraiyar’s palace. Who knows where in that palace it will end? It may lead to the treasury. Or it may lead to the anthapuram where the palace ladies resided. He knew that such underground passages existed in the palaces of kings and petty kings. In the event of a catastrophic threat, if they had to escape from the palace they will use these routes. Because it was necessary to move the palace women these paths usually ended in the anthapuram. Because it was necessary to leave with important items from the treasury it was customary for these paths to go through the treasury. Who knows where this particular path will end? Because Idumbankari used it, it is probably leading to the treasury. Just like these saboteurs have been stealing from Pazhuvertaraiyar’s treasury without his knowledge through Ilaiyarani, perhaps they are planning to rob Sambuvaraiyar’s treasury also! Why are they engaged in this kind of activity at a time when Athitha Karikalan and others are going to be guests here? Perhaps there is another motive? Vandhiyathevan remembered what he heard and saw at Thirupurampayam pallipadai jungle. For a moment Pazhuvur Rani’s big sword with the fish emblem flashed in front of his eyes. He felt goosebumps. Their motives can be more vicious than robbing the treasury. If he finds out where this path was leading it may help to put an end to their dangerous plans.

In truth it has only been a few minutes since he set off on this underground path; yet because of the darkness it seemed like a long time. Without adequate ventilation his breath was short; sweat poured. The distance between Aiyanar temple and Kadampoor palace astounded him at first glance. But he reconsidered it. It seemed like a long way only because they have taken a roundabout way starting from the palace entrance, taking the forest route. Directly from behind the palace, Aiyanar temple may not be that far off. It must lay within an arrow’s reach. If that is true, then he must be close to the outer wall of the palace …

Yes; it was so. Suddenly from above a blast of cool wind hit Vandhiyathevan. After sweating and panting, reaching the point of fainting, the air gave him new life. He looked up; from above a streak of light let itself in. Voices also traveled. It must be one of the ramparts built for the soldiers to stand guard on the fortress wall. From there it has been designed to let air into this underground passage. Vandhiyathevan saw that only air could enter, and there was no setup for people to climb up or down from there.

The thought that he has entered Kadampoor palace and the cold wind that hit him from above gave Vandhiyathevan new life and renewed excitement. The underground pathway will end somewhere now. Will it be the cellar with treasures? Like the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar, will Sambuvaraiyar also have accumulated an abundance of pearls, corals, diamonds, garnets and gold coins? Like there, is there going to be lying amidst the heap of wealth a dead man’s skeleton? Will the spider have spun its web over the gold coins?

As he walked while immersed in such thoughts Vandhiyathevan was startled when something struck his foot. He relaxed when he realized that it was a stairwell. Yes; this flight of steps will certainly lead to the treasury room. Or else, it may be the anthapuram where the women lived. If that is the case, then he will be in danger! Ah! Kanthamaran’s sister, Manimekalai! That dark beauty will be there! Vandhiyathevan smiled when he remembered that he had at one time thought of marrying her. Of course there was no one there to see him smile! Supposing he should appear suddenly in front of the palace women when they are half dressed and in disarray! This thought made him laugh out loud … Until in the next second or so he came upon a terrifying scene that made his eyes bulge, his heart stop and his blood curdle.

Wasn’t he climbing the steps? When he set his foot on the topmost step realizing that there were no more steps he looked around to see where he was. Hundreds of ominously fiery eyes stared at him. The eyes belonged to killer beasts! Frightened he attempted to turn back. But behind him there was no place to go. When he stepped on the top step he heard a sound behind him. Perhaps the underground passage closed on its own! But where is this chilling wilderness? All of these wild beasts are waiting for him here! Venkai tigers, cheetahs, lions, bears, wild buffaloes, wolves, foxes and rhinos! Over there, two elephants! All ready to pounce on him! What are they waiting for? There, what a gigantic hawk! Aiyo! That monstrous owl! Man-eating bat! Is he dreaming? Or … what is this? A crocodile. Gaping, baring its ugly teeth, it lies here! Won’t a crocodile be in water? This is a bare floor. How did a crocodile end up here in the middle of these ugly beasts?

“Ammah! I survived!” Vandhiyathevan said aloud. He realized that the animals surrounding him were not alive. He remembered Kanthamaran saying that Sambuvaraiyar’s people liked to hunt. He also remembered Kanthamaran saying that there was a hunting gallery in the palace where the animals that his ancestors have killed during hunting were preserved, their skin tempered, the carcasses stuffed with cotton and displayed as live animals. Vandhiyathevan knew that he was in that hunting gallery. Yet it took a while for his body to recover from the initial scare.

He went to each animal touching, shaking and stomping on them. He made sure that the animals had no life. He wondered what he should do. The path he came on had closed by itself. Should he find it and retrace his steps? Or should he find out in which part of Kadampoor palace this dreadful room was situated? Or should he explore to see if this room will lead to any other room? He walked round and round examining if there was a door in any of the walls. There was no obviously visible door. He felt and knocked on the walls. It was of no use. As time passed Vandhiyathevan grew more and more frustrated. He was furious for embarking on this pointless venture and becoming trapped in this manner. As he walked along the wall he stopped in front of an elephant’s head that was mounted on the wall.

“Wretched elephant! Isn’t it you who moved and brought me into this room?” He scowled at the elephant. The elephant did not speak. Even a live elephant will not respond. What will a dead elephant filled with spent paddy and coconut husk do? It remained still without even wagging its trunk.

“What, I am asking you, you remain silent?” Vandhiyathevan twisted the elephant’s tusks. What followed was in the realm of magic.

When the tusk was turned the elephant’s ear that was glued to the wall moved. It did not only move, it flapped and made room. There was a big hole on the wall. Surprised beyond belief Vandhiyathevan peeked through the hole.

A woman’s face was seen. A young woman’s face; a dark beauty! A pair of large eyes were wide open. Surprise! Surprise! Next to the woman’s face Vandhiyathevan saw his face. Like a lover wanting to plant a kiss on a girl’s face, Vandhiyathevan saw his face and the woman’s face in close proximity. The woman’s wide eyes widened some more showing her immense surprise. In addition to surprise there was also fear in her glance. Next second, – ‘kooo!’ – she cupped her deep red lips and screamed.

Vandhiyathevan panicked. Involuntarily his hands dropped from the elephant. In an instant the elephant became just an elephant and the wall, a mere wall. There was neither hole nor woman. The cicada-like shrill and reverberating cry of the woman also had ceased. It took a while for Vandhiyathevan’s heart to stop fluttering. He fell to thinking about the face he had glimpsed.

6. Manimekalai

Sambuvaraiyar’s beloved daughter Manimekalai was a lively girl. From the time of her birth her parents and brother Kanthamaran have raised her with tender loving care. In Sambuvaraiyar’s palace she was the queen. Inside the palace her word ruled. Until a short time ago Manimekalai’s life was spent dancing and singing happily. It was four or five months ago that the first obstacle surfaced. Her elders began to insist that she must submit to something against her wish. However much Manimekalai preached to her elders, ‘Stubbornness will not pay,’ – it was of no use.

For two or three years whenever Kanthamaran returned from battlefields he will tell her about his friend Vallavaraiyan. Sky was the limit when he began to speak admiringly of his friend’s intellect and chivalrous nature. He will depict with admiration that he was Manmathan in appearance, Arjunan in valor and Krishnan in wit. ‘He is the right husband for you, only he can discipline you and keep you under control,’ he will say. Manimekalai loved hearing it. But outwardly, she feigned annoyance at Kanthamaran; she will fight with him.

“You just keep saying this. Why don’t you bring him one day? I will see how much of this is true …,” she will say.

“Alright, alright!” Kanthamaran will scowl.

Manimekalai spent her days daydreaming about Vallavaraiyan Vandhiyathevan, having imaginary conversations with him, laughing, playing, fighting and making peace with him. Sometimes she would enjoy talking about her brother’s friend, the Varnar tribe warrior with her close friends. Four months ago an unexpected obstacle rose barring these sweet daydreams.

Kanthamaran’s tune changed. “Forget the orphan without a home, position or status,” he began to say. He began to tempt her that he has decided to place her on the Thanjavur throne. Then one day he said it openly. He said that he was going to marry her to Mathuranthakan who was already wedded to the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s daughter. He hinted that it was Mathuranthakan who was going to be the next emperor. If she marries Mathuranthakan, Manimekalai will be the empress of the three worlds and her child will perhaps one day be the emperor. Her parents also joined in the chorus with him showing their approval.

But Manimekalai did not like any of this. Having heard so much about Vandhiyathevan, her heart had gone to him. Not only that; she also was aware that Mathuranthakan lacked valor, had never been to the battlefield and until yesterday had adorned his body with holy powder and ruthraksha bead chains saying that he was going to be a samiyar. Moreover, he was already married once. Thanjavur palace women were a proud lot. They were snobs who ignored outsiders as unsophisticated. On account of these facts Manimekalai became increasingly frustrated. She took the position that she will not marry Mathuranthakan for the Thanjavur throne; or for the throne of heaven’s Devendran.

When she heard another news her determination grew stronger. When the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar came to Kadampoor it was said that Ilaiyarani Nandhini had accompanied him. But she did not step into the anthapuram at all. Nor did she visit the Kadampoor palace women. At first this was rather surprising. The palace women spoke harshly and sarcastically about it. Later the truth came out little by little. When she heard that it was not the Ilaiyarani who was in the covered palanquin but it was Mathuranthakan, Manimekalai’s dislike deepened. ‘Cheechee! Would I want as my bridegroom this coward who goes about in a covered palanquin under the pretense of a woman? Never!” She told herself.

At the same time that Mathuranthakan had come to the palace in a covered palanquin, Kanthamaran’s friend Vandhiyathevan was also visiting. He was in the anthapuram only briefly. From out of the blue Manimekalai was suddenly overcome with shyness. She stood behind the other women. She did not even look at Vandhiyathevan face to face. Yet his face, handsome and smiling, that she half-saw from behind the others left an impression in her heart. His voice and the few words that he spoke stayed in her mind.

Therefore, again Manimekalai launched an unending debate with her brother Kanthamaran. She said that even if the three-eyed Sivaperuman told her in person, she would not marry Mathuranthakan. She specifically indicated that even though she saw Vandhiyathevan only briefly, she had feelings for him. This made Kanthamaran very angry. At first he tried to reason with her. It was of no use. So he said, “Vandhiyathevan is not my friend; he is my arch enemy. A fellow who tried to stab me from behind; if you are going to marry him I will kill him and you at the same time!” He showed the scar on his back. He told of how he recovered solely because of the loving attention of Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani.

“If you have even an ounce of loyalty towards me, please forget him!” He said.

After hearing this Manimekalai’s mind in fact changed. She was very fond of Kanthamaran. It was not possible for her to marry someone who had tried to kill him. So she tried to forget Vandhiyathevan. But it was not easy, often at unexpected moments his smiling face appeared in her mind. In daydreams, and at night!

Because of this for some months now Manimekalai had lost her natural exuberance. Sadness and lethargy took hold of her. ‘Time to be married,’ the elders reasoned. Friends of the same age teased her about it. They tried to cheer her up with fun and games. Nothing worked.

Once again for a few days now Manimekalai had begun to be her old lively self. She was encouraged partly by the knowledge that her parents and her brother have given up the idea of her marrying Mathuranthakan. In bits and pieces she gathered that they were planning to wed Manimekalai to the emperor’s eldest son and crown prince Athitha Karikalar.

There was no one in Tamil Nadu who did not know of Athitha Karikalan’s chivalrous acts. They also knew that for some reason he has been putting off marriage. To marry someone like that – isn’t that a luxury one cannot even dream of? In this vast Bharatha continent how many women are praying for this bliss. These realities firmly put Manimekalai in a better mood.

With the news that Athitha Karikalan from Kanji and the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar from Thanjavur were going to be guests at Kadampoor palace her old exuberance returned. This time Pazhuvertaraiyar was also bringing his Ilaiyarani. Nandhini Devi saved her brother’s life. About her beauty, intelligence and character Manimekali has heard a lot from Kanthamaran. He has also said that Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani was the reason for this new development in the matrimonial talk. He has also said that Manimekalai should be at the forefront in properly welcoming her while she was at Kadampoor palace. Manimekalai’s heart was also ready for that. She was eager to become a good friend of Pazhuvur Rani and through her influence be able to beat the Thanjavur palace women in style and sophistication.

Therefore, this past week Manimekalai was not only happy, she was also busy running here and there around the place supervising the hospitality arrangements being made for the guests. Especially she concentrated on having all the ameneties needed in the part of the palace reserved for Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani. Hasn’t her brother instructed her? So she really took the servants to task. She made her friends also work. In the room that Pazhuvur Rani was supposed to occupy she made each object to be rearranged thirty times.

She also frequently checked on the rooms that Athitha Karikalan and his friends were going to occupy. Some fellow called Parthipenthiran was coming with him. Who knows what kind of person he was? In this day and age who knew which person will change in what manner? Vandhiyathevan who used to be his brother’s friend had also been a part of Athitha Karikalan’s retinue! If only he had not turned out to be a backstabber, wouldn’t he have been here now? Yes! However busy Manimekalai appeared to be she could not entirely forget that friend-betrayer!

It was said that in all likelihood Pazhuvur Rani will be there that night. So Manimekalai was for the last time checking Nandhini’s room décor. During the course of it she came in front of the mirror that was affixed to the wall for the benefit of Pazhuvur Rani. She looked at her face in the mirror. The momentary pause turned into a prolonged scrutiny. She was finally satisfied and told herself that her face was not without beauty. When she was about to move away there was another face next to her. It came very close to hers to the point that their cheeks were touching. It was the same Varnar tribe warrior’s face that has been troubling her in her dreams. Unbeknownst to her, her lips came together and she screamed. The other face disappeared. There was only her face in the mirror.

7. Tailless Monkey

Manimekalai fell to thinking. What did she see now; was that an illusion? Or, a dream? If it was a dream, is she asleep? She pinched herself, no; she’s not asleep.

Isn’t this the room prepared for Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani? Her face is reflected in the crystal clear mirror. There is a floor lamp burning. She stared at the wall opposite the mirror. She was aware of the secret passage there. It can be opened from the outside; or from the inside. Manimekalai pressed her ear to the wall and listened. The hidden door to the secret passage was made out of wood. She thought that she heard a sound from inside the hunting gallery.

Manimekalai opened the secret door slowly. She peeked into the hunting gallery. It was mostly dark. In a corner there was an oil lamp burning. All of a sudden the light dimmed, and the next second it burnt as bright as before. It seemed as if someone crossed the path of the lamp. The figure that crossed that light for a second, the face, – was it the same face that she saw in the mirror? Or is this also her mind’s delusion?

Manimekalai clapped her hands. ‘Who’s there?’ She asked softly. In response someone cleared their throat. A bat abruptly left its place on the ceiling, ‘jillll..’ – it flew and hung itself from another spot on the ceiling. Again, a faint coughing sound was heard.

Waiting on the doorstep Manimekalai said in a loud voice, “Hey, Chandramathi!”

“Why, Mistress,” came the answer.

“Bring the lantern and come here at once,” said Manimekalai.

In a little while a servant woman appeared with a lantern. “The lamp here is lit! Why the lantern, Mistress?”

“We ought to check the hunting gallery. There was some noise.”

“It must be a bat beating its wings, Mistress! What else can it be?”

“No, girl! I was standing in front of this mirror just now. All of a sudden another face appeared next to mine!”

“What did the face look like? Manmathan or Arjunan?” The maid laughed.

“What now, Chandramathi? Are you teasing me?”

“No, Madam, no! You were talking about your dreams. Perhaps he is the one who appeared in the mirror!”

“Yes, Chandramathi! But it seemed very real.”

“All girls go through this illusive phase at least once. For you it will last another day or two. Once you see the prince from Kanji that old face will completely disappear.”

“Never mind about that! Now let’s go inside the hunting gallery and take a look, come!”

“There is no need, Mistress! The hunting gallery will be full of dust and dirt, the sari will be wasted!”

“Let it be wasted!”

“You will be coughing and sneezing, tomorrow when everyone arrives here …”

“Let them arrive, I must check the hunting gallery now; don’t swing the lamp and put the flame out, walk slowly!”

Manimekalai entered the hunting gallery. Her companion followed her with the lantern. Both went around looking. Chandramathi focused on the lifeless animals on the walls that were illuminated by the lamp that she carried in her hand. Manimekalai happened to glance at the floor as well. In the dust covering the floor she noticed footsteps here and there.

“Madam, over there,” said Chandramathi.

“What is it? What are you hollering about?”

“There, that tailless monkey seemed to be moving!”

“Perhaps it was expressing its delight at seeing you!”

“Madam, are you teasing me?”

“Didn’t you poke fun at me saying that I have gone mad!”

“Maybe the face that appeared in your mirror belonged to the monkey! It is straight ahead of the door through which we entered, see! The monkey is again moving!”

“Cheechee! It is the shadow cast by your lantern! When the shadow of the lamp dances around it looks as if the monkey is moving. Come! Let’s go, there is no one here!”

“In that case it is that monkey’s face that must have appeared in the mirror. Or may be it was the owl’s face above it. See how it is staring at us wide-eyed!”

“Why do you include me? The owl is mesmerized by your beauty, that is why it is staring at you wide-eyed!”

“Then whose face is it that was looking at you in the mirror?”

“Girl! Aren’t you the one who said that I have lost my mind. The same face that I see in my dreams, I may have imagined it in the mirror also. I am sorry that the same eyes that saw that handsome face had to see this monkey and owl also. Come, let’s go! I’ll see if that face appears in the mirror again.”

Both women turned and went back into the anthapuram.

Vandhiyathevan stepped out from behind the tailless monkey. He sneezed two or three times to clear his dust filled nose. He thanked the tailless monkey for saving him.

“Hey, Monkey! May you live long! That maid compared my face to yours. It did make me angry. I even thought of coming out into the open there, but I controlled myself. If you had not been here standing so tall, what would have become of me? I would have got caught to those women. Monkey! I wish you the best!”

While he was saying this he also realized that not much trouble would have arisen if he had been caught. He had already guessed who they were. All what they spoke fell in his ears. Especially Manimekalai had spoken in a clear loud voice. She spoke about a face seen in the dream, and a face in the mirror. What was that about? Old memories flooded his mind. Kanthamaran has said that he talked about him often with his sister. He remembered seeing her in passing during his previous visit here; Kanthamaran saying that her marriage prospects lay elsewhere with a better suitor. Has this foolish girl not changed her mind, or …?

There was no time to dwell on this; he has to find a way to leave. The elephant tusk leads to the anthapuram. Therefore it is of no use to him. He must find the way through where he entered. He knew that secret passages had different mechanisms for opening from the outside as opposed to from the inside. He can labor to find out the mechanism. But first of all he must find out where the secret passage lay in order to open it! However much he stared at the wall nothing was visible; light was also inadequate. He remembered a crocodile lying on the floor where he had entered. Perhaps if he goes there and examines the wall around it, the passage leading out may be found.

So he went near the crocodile and felt around on the wall. It was of no use. With time his anxiety worsened. What is this nuisance? He properly got trapped in this prison! God! It looks as if there is no other solution but to go back to the anthapuram! So many dangers, if he were to do that! Perhaps Manimekalai will be kind. But what reason can he give for being there? ‘Because of my love for you,’ should he say? What a wicked lie that will be? Even if he audaciously says it, will she believe him? What is the certainty that Manimekalai will be alone? If he gets caught to other women? If Sambuvaraiyar comes to know he will surely kill him!

Once again Vandhiyathevan’s attention fell on the crocodile lying on the floor. He was incensed by it. “Crocodile! Why are you gaping?” He said as he raised his leg and kicked the animal viciously. The crocodile moved slightly. At the same time a small crack opened up on the floor.

“Aha! Are you the one blocking the way? Idiot crocodile! Why didn’t you say so?” Vandhiyathevan bent down and moved the crocodile. As the crocodile moved the crack along the wall grew larger giving way to steps.

8. Hands in the Dark

Vandhiyathevan marveled at the ingenious construction of the secret passages in Kadampoor palace. There was inherent danger in using these steps if one was not fully informed. While halfway down the steps if the crocodile should move one can be lost, trapped beneath the wall.

After carefully making sure that the crocodile was not moving, Vnadhiyathevan was about to step down into the hole. Ah! What is that? Sound of footsteps coming from the underground passage! Who is coming? Azhvarkadiyan? Is the Vaishnavan coming in search of him? It is better to stop him from coming here. No, no. It is not one person. It sounds like five or six people. It can be Idumbankari and his companions. In one leap Vandhiyathevan again hid himself behind the tailless monkey. Aha! He had left the secret passageway open! Would it cause suspicion? No, no. When he arrived the path was open. Only after he stepped on the topmost step it closed on its own! So, it is better that it stays open. There, a head can be seen through the hole. It is Idumbankari. Here he is, with one foot on the top step looking around. His other foot is still down. Perhaps he is keeping one foot down to prevent the hole from closing by itself!

Adada! Why is there light coming from this side? The head of the elephant on the wall is moving! There is the path to the anthapuram – who is coming through it? Isn’t that Manimekalai with a lantern in her hand?

Idumabankari is coming up in one leap; the opening is closing. Idumabankari is removing his turban, he starts dusting the tiger next to him with the cloth! Where will this drama end?

In the meantime Manimekalai held up her lantern and looked around. When her eyes spotted Idumbankari she looked at him with surprise. Stopping the dusting, Idumbankari for his part feigned surprise.

“Madam! What is this? What brought you here at this time?” He said.

“Idumba! Is it you? What are you doing?” Manimekalai asked.

“Madam! Perhaps there will be a tour of the hunting gallery for tomorrow’s guests! I am tidying up for that. When the young master went to Kanji he gave me the order.”

“Yes, Idumba! In this palace only you and I have faith in the young master. I was seeing if Pazhuvur Rani’s room has everything ready. I heard something here. I thought that it was you, who else knows the secret passages of this palace? How long have you been here?”

“More than half an hour, Madam! There is another half hour’s work here. Are you alone here? Where is that chatterbox, Chandramathi?”

“I sent her to bring father because of the noise here. It is only you here, I will go and stop her.”

Raising the lantern in her hand Manimekalai saw the change that came over Idumbankari’s face as she spoke. Then she looked at the tailless monkey. She noticed it moving just as it had before.

“Yes, madam! The master has a lot today, please tell her not to call him and then have some sleep yourself. I will take care of everything,” said Idumbankari. Manimekalai went back in the same way she had come. The secret passage closed its door.

Idumbankari went near the head of the elephant and pressed his ear to the wall. Only after making sure that there was no sound from the next room he returned. Keeping the underground passage open, he lowered himself in the stairwell down to his waist. From inside the underground passage came the sound of an owl hooting. Idumabankari replied with an owl’s hoot of his own. He heard people coming up through the underground passage. After that things happened very fast.

A bat flew beating its wings, ‘chada chada!’ Involuntarily Idumbankari’s head turned to look at it. ‘Thadal’ – from behind him the tailless monkey fell. It hit Idumbankari so suddenly, his knees gave away. He stumbled going down two steps. Because he was taken by surprise he let out a cry swinging his hands around. When he realized that it was the tailless monkey that had fallen he willed himself to be fearless and tried to put the monkey back where it was.

Meanwhile a pair of hands that appeared to belong to a live human came from above the opening and pushed him further down. Idumbankari was incredulous. Fear gripped him. Again he looked up and down. He saw that the tailless monkey was in the hole upside down and when the lower half of its body also descended, the door closing. He told himself that the two human hands were  his imagination.

Meanwhile those in the underground passage were coming up. Ravithasan who came in first asked, “Appan! What is this? Why did you howl like that? Is there any danger? Should we go back?”

“No, no! There is no danger. When I opened the underground passage door this monstrous monkey somehow slipped and fell on my head! For a second I lost my nerve. Now this monkey is blocking the way neither going up nor down. Wait a little; let me move this monkey and clear the way,” said Idumbankari.

Our readers would have guessed whose hands pushed the stumbling Idumbankari from above. At this instance also luck was on Vandhiyathevan’s side. He came with the right idea at the right time. When Idumabankari stood on the steps staring at the bat, Vandhiyathevan pushed the tailless monkey on his head. While hiding he proceeded to push him down further. After that he pushed the tailless monkey also into the underground passage. Finally he moved the crocodile also.

After accomplioshing all of this in a matter of seconds, he ran to the elephant head. He grabbed its tusks and turned them with all his might. A way opened in the wall. But it wasn’t as wide as the passage that Manimekalai had come out of. A circular narrow path; it may be a door within a door. This was not the time to dwell on opening it fully. In that time that treacherous group will be inside the hunting gallery. After that his escape will be unlikely.

Therefore even though the opening was narrow he must enter it. Daring to follow through with his decision Vandhiyathevan crept into the circular shaped opening. His head, hands and half his body were in. It was not difficult to get the rest of the body in. There was nothing to hold on to. At this time the lamp inside went out. Darkness surrounded.

Vandhiyathevan in a pleading tone said, “Chandramathi! Chandramathi! Help me!”

A woman’s voice was heard laughing out loud.

“Chandramathi! Are you having fun here? Is this nice of you?”

Laughter followed once again. Then, “As if what you are doing is nice! Sneaking into the anthapuram like this?” A woman spoke.

Vandhiyathevan knew that it was Manimekalai’s voice. Yet, he said on purpose, “Chandramathi! I came because you asked me to! There are people behind me. Quickly get me out of here. Or else there will be trouble!”

“Chandramathi! Are you this smart? Never mind. I will teach her and you a lesson!”

“Oho! Are you Princess Manimekalai? Madam! Please, just this once; forgive me and get me out of here! I will never do anything like this again! A million blessings to you!” Vandhiyathevan begged.

In the dark two slender hands took hold of Vandhiyathevan’s shoulders and slowly helped him out on to the floor. The opening in the wall closed.

“Princess! A million salutations to thee!” He said.

“Wait! First find out what I am going to do to you and then offer your salutations!”

“Whatever you do to me is fine with me! You saved me from murderers! That alone is sufficient! Instead of dying by those monsters’ hands it will be my good fortune to die by yours!”

“Aday! Appah! You sound so brave! Who are the murderers following you? Wait a little. Let me first light the lantern and see what your face looks like!”

“Madam! Do you have to look at my face again? It is the same monkey’s face that appeared behind you in the mirror! Didn’t Chandramathi describe?” Vandhiyathevan laughed.

From the dark came the sound of laughter and the jingling of bangles. When Vandhiyathevan poked his head into that room Manimekalai had knocked the lamp out. Now when the cover was lifted the flame again rose up glowing. In its light Manimekalai stood mesmerized staring at Vandhiyathevan’s face. The sound of several people entering the adjacent hunting gallery was heard at that time.

9. Dog Barked

Manimekalai stood gazing at Vandhiyathevan’s face. Vandhiyathevan also stood smiling. His mind wondered what excuse to give this woman to escape from there.

At this time, “Madam! Did you call me,” a voice was heard from outside.

“No, mind your work,” said Manimekalai. Her bewilderment left her.

She went to the opening through which Vandhiyathevan had emerged and bolted it from inside. She beckoned Vandhiyathevan to follow her to another part of the room. Then she turned abruptly and asked, “Sir! Tell the truth! You said that Chandramathi asked you, is it true?”

“Yes, Madam!”

“Where and when did she ask?”

“A short while ago! When I stood hiding behind the monkey in the next room  both of you came and looked around and went back. Just after you turned she asked me. ‘Monkey! Do you want to come and wait in my room? It would be helpful to scare off people who showed up at unwanted times!’ –  It seems as if you did not hear it!”

Smiling Manimekalai said, “Would I have let her get away with it, if I had heard?”

“Princess! What is the use in getting mad at your friend? What can Chandramathi do if my face and the tailless monkey’s face look the same?”

“Your face and the tailless monkey’s face are far apart!”

“As far apart as the tailless monkey’s face and the face of the owl that hangs over it.”

“Your face is neither like the monkey’s face, nor the owl’s. But you do have all of the monkey’s tricks. Sometimes you also gawk like the owl. Isn’t it you, a while ago was gawking in the mirror?”

“Yes, Princess! It is I!”

“Why did you then step back and close the door?”

“There was a face next to me in the mirror that seemed to belong to a heavenly maiden. Thinking that I am going to frighten that heavenly maiden I took my hand from the elephant’s tusk; the door closed automatically.”

“Do you know who that heavenly maiden is?”

“At that moment I did not. Later, I surmised.”

“What did you surmise?”

“Whom I saw is not a heavenly maiden; she is Manimekalai whom the heavenly maidens will come running to serve! I know she is Kadampoor Sambuvaraiyar’s precious daughter. I also remembered that she is my dear friend Kanthamaran’s beloved sister.”

Manimekalai’s brows arched together. With a smile that was both sarcastic and angry she asked, “Is that so? My brother Kanthamaran is your dear friend?”

“Is there any doubt, Princess? Don’t you remember my visit here four months ago? I even came to the anthapuram to offer my greetings to the matrons! Don’t you remember?”

“I remember well. How will I forget it so soon? Are you that Varnar tribe prince called Vallavaraiyar Vandhiyathevar?”

“Yes, Princess! I am indeed that poor fellow who, without a palace to live in and a kingdom to rule, merely carries the tribe’s title of ‘Araiyan!‘ Once upon a time your brother used to talk a lot about you. When Kanthamaran and I were doing guard duty at Vadapennai riverbank, he would often talk about you. I too had my dreams. Later I gave up.”

Manimekalai had a curious thought. Kanthamaran had said that this man had tried to kill him. What was the reason? Supposing it had to do with her? Would he have fought with Kanthamaran because he refused to give his sister in marriage to him? This created a sweet turmoil in her heart. She turned it into a storm of fury.

“Sir! There is no need for ancient tales now. Tell the reason why you entered the palace stealthily; or else I must call my friend at once and send word to my father,” she said.

“Princess! I already gave the reason for my presence here. Some murderers were chasing me to kill me. When I ran away from them I saw a crack in the earth. I guessed that it was a secret passage. When I followed it to escape, it brought me here!”

“Sir! The phrase ‘sheer gallantry,’ describes you perfectly. I have heard of victorious heroes. But I have never heard of anyone exceling at running the way you do. Utharakumaran would beg from you!”

Her jab pricked Vandhiyathevan sharply. Manimekalai, whom he had thought silly, had pointedly insulted him! “Devi! There were seven or eight people! I am just one. They were armed. I have nothing. My precious spear was washed away in the Kollidam flood,” he said.

“Very good! That treacherous spear that stabbed a friend from behind, it is better that the spear was washed away with the river!”

Vandhiyathevan was astounded. Before he could answer Manimekalai asked, “Tell the truth. Are you running away from murderers? Or are you here to commit a murder?”

Vandhiyathevan writhed as if he had placed his foot on fire. “Siva Siva! Narayana! Whom will I come here to murder? My dear friend’s beloved sister? Why?” He said.

“What do I know? ‘Dear friend,’ you call him unabashedly! Didn’t you try to stab this friend from behind? Whatever that was for, the same reason may have brought you here to kill someone.”

“God! What is this unwarranted accusation? Did I stab Kanthamaran in the back? I would cut my hand off before attempting such a thing! Who told you this atrocious lie?”

“My brother himself told me. I will not have believed it if anyone else had told me.”

“Kanthamaran said this? In that case I am truly unfortunate! Someone had stabbed him in the back and left him near the Thanjavur fortress wall. He was lying there unconscious. I carried him to Senthan Amuthan’s hut and saved his life. Is this my award for that? Princess! Why did I try to kill him? Did he give any reason?”

“He did, he did! You insulted me by calling me ugly. You said that Thanjavur women were more beautiful than me. For that Kanthamaran angrily beat you up. Unable to fight him face to face you stabbed him from behind, I heard! Is all of this true, or not?”

“Lies! Lies! Insidious lies; I would sever my tongue before calling you ugly! It was Kanthamaran who insisted that I should forget his sister!”

“Why?”

“Because kings of empires were waiting to wed you, he insisted that I should forget you.”

“You also forgot about me completely!”

“I could not completely forget. But ever since then I began to think of you as my bloved sister. Princess! Take me to Kanthamaran at once! Or ask him to come here. I want to at least find out why he said this big lie, or if this is what he really thinks; let me correct that false perception.”

“Perhaps you came here to finish what you started in Thanjavur …”

“Meaning …”

“You tried to kill him there. It did not succeed …”

“God! To kill Kanthamaran would I come to his palace?”

“Why else have you come by the secret route?”

There, listen carefully! Those who came to kill me are still in the next room. Don’t you hear their voices, footsteps?”

“Why should they come to kill you?”

“They look like sorcerers. May be the crowd that offers human sacrifice to Kali.

“They have trapped this handsome prince for that …” Manimekalai laughed.

“That is surprising to me as well; why they have come to catch this monkey face who gawks like an owl. After listening to you I have a suspicion. May be Kanthamaran himself has arranged this. Take me to him immediately! Either e clears his misunderstanding; or he can kill me with his own hands. Why should he send murderers. Madam! Please call Kanthamaran immediately!”

“Sir! Don’t be in such a hurry! Kanthamaran is not here.”

“Where is he?”

“He has gone to Kanji to bring Karikalar. Tomorrow night everyone will be here; until then you …”

“Until then you are telling me to wait here? That is not fair!”

“I am not telling you to wait here. In a short while Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani will be here. After that not an ant or fly can be here. You know about Pazhuvertaraiyar. If he sees you here he will cut you up into pieces! Ah! That old man’s infatuation with his wife!” Manimekalai laughed.

Vandhiyathevan thought about all that happened during Pazhuvertaraiyar’s last visit.

“Is that right? Is Pazhuvertaraiyar very fond of Pazhuvur Rani?” He asked.

“I thought that was public knowledge. Last time, four months ago they were here. The old man did not even allow Pazhuvur Rani to come to the anthapuram. She is the apple of his eye. This time they are going to stay for a few days. Big preparations are underway to provide her a private room. At least this time whether she will see us – if the old man will let her – no one knows.”

“In that case what shall I do now?”

“I am also wondering – Ah! I have an idea. There is my brother’s private weapons room in the palace. I will take you there. Tomorrow evening Kanthamaran will be here. Until then, wait there. You can prove directly to Kanthamaran the truth and falsehood of your claims …”

“Princess! That is not proper! A dangerous proposal!”

“What is the danger?”

“If Kanthamaran asks how I got there, what am I to say?”

“Say what actually happened”

“When I just told you about it you did not believe me! Even when the people who are on my trail are here in the next room!”

“Sir! I will test that right now.”

“What are you going to test?”

“I am going to go into the next room and ask those people. Have they come to kill you? Or were they brought here by you?”

“Aiyo! They are evil. If you get caught to them alone …”

“Who can do anything to me in my own place? See!” Manimekalai showed the hidden penknife that was tucked in her waist.

“No one canome near me. Even if there was any danger, you are here – the mighty warrior!”

“Madam! I have no weapons on me.”

“Haven’t you heard that for the mighty, even a blade of grass is a weapon? Even your name is Vallavaraiyar! If women had weapons even they will fight. Why will they need men? Don’t worry needlessly. The fellow who was dusting in that room is our palace servant. He must have brought the others. I probably know the others also. I will find out why they are here. Do not wait near the door. Go over there near that wooden storeroom and wait behind it!”

Manimekalai went to the secret entryway leading to the hunting gallery and tried to open its door. Vandhiyathevan hastily walked toward the storeroom and stood behind it. Its doors were open. He happened to glance inside. He saw that it was not meant for storage of grain. Inside it were a series of steps. On each step were lute, veena, cymbals, drums and other musical instruments. He looked up. The steps appeared to reach the ceiling. Meanwhile Manimekalai opened the door of the hunting gallery and went in.

Vandhiyathevan marveled at her courage. At the same time he told himself that she was unlikely to be in any danger.

In the meantime another door opened from another side. “Ammah! Ammah!” Chandramathi came in calling.

Vandhiyathevan was startled. So that she will not see him, he went inside the instrument storage room.

“Ammah! Ammah! Thanjavur folks are at the fortress entrance. Maharani asked me to bring you there immediately!” Calling, she looked around. She went to the hunting gallery door that lay open in front of her. From there Vandhiyathevan knew that she will be able to see him in the storeroom. Therefore he hurriedly went up a few steps. His knee banged on a veena and made a noise. Terrified, Vandhiyathevan went up a few more steps. His head struck the top of the storage cupboard. What a surprise? Hit by Vandhiyathevan’s head the top plank lifted upwards. Intuitively Vandhiyathevan raised the plank with his hands. Not only did the plank lift up, light entered through the opening. From a distance came a cacophony of sounds. Far above in the night sky stars twinkled. Vandhiyathevan’s heart jumped with joy.

Lifting the plank further he climbed out. He saw that he was on the top tier of the palace. Moreover it was the same place where he had on a previous occasion comfortably slept in the open air. It was the same place where hiding behind the big pillars he found out about the vengeful and disloyal plot that the petty kings were hatching. He replaced the plank as before covering the opening. Then he realized that there was no way to locate it again from the roof. But there was no time to think or marvel about it. He had to find a way to escape from there. The fairy of good luck who had until then helped him, won’t she come to his aid again?

Vandhiyathevan looked around. Wherever he turned the place was an eyeful with banners flapping and flags flying high. Adada! Perhaps this is what is called a royal welcome! Vandhiyathevan walked with trepidation looking around, slowly placing one foot after another. The rooftop was deserted. So far so good. He quickened his pace.

He ended up in the moonlit balcony where he had once before slept. From there he could see the palace compound and the outer wall, the arena where the folkdance took place and the place of the perfidious meeting. Down there also there was no one around. It was not difficult to understand why. There was a big commotion at the palace entrance. Hundreds of torches were lit. As drums beat and trumpets blared people’s cheers rose in unison. Because Pazhuvertaraiyar’s entourage was nearing the palace entrance everyone had gone there to welcome them. That is why the palace was deserted. Aha! The fairy of good luck was still on Vandhiyathevan’s side. What a good opportunity for escape; even fifteen minutes ago this will not have been possible. Fifteen minutes later also would have been too late.

Approaching the place where the perfidious meeting took place Vandhiyathevan once again looked around; no one. He looked down. No one there either. He looked at the outer wall. There too … Ah! What is that? Between the branches over the wall, a face! It looks like Azhvarkadiyan’s face! … Cheechee! Madness! Once before this is where he had seen Azhvarkadiyan’s face! His mind was playing tricks on him! In a way it was good. Because this is the right spot to jump over once he climbs on the wall. Perhaps his subconscious mind was alerting him to this possibility. Before the welcoming gala is over and the crowd comes in he must escape. How does he lower himself into the compound? Ah! Here is a way. There is a shed. Perhaps it was built for the folkdance. A bamboo planted for the tent had sprouted upwards reaching the rooftop. Grabbing it Vandhiyathevan climbed down. He looked around again. No one. He heard the sound of ankle bracelets from above. Aha! Perhaps Manimekalai is looking for him. Troublesome girl! If he gets caught to her that will be the end of him.

In one breath Vandhiyathevan ran across the compound. Standing by the wall he looked back. A female figure was seen on the rooftop. He could not tell if it was Manimekalai or Chandramathi. Whoever it was she would have seen him running across. Fortunately she did not scream. Whoever it is let her live long! Like a queen!

Heaping well wishes on the mysterious figure, Vandhiyathevan hurried along the wall. He was at the spot where Azhvarkadiyan’s face had appeared over the wall. How can he climb over the wall? It was so high! It had no crevices or nooks to grab onto! God! … Here is the trick! A few bamboo poles brought for the folkdance lay around; left over perhaps. He leaped and grabbed one of them. He leaned it against the wall. The pole matched the wall’s height. But it must stay steady! If it slips while he is climbing? … If it does he will fall! If he cannot take that risk – what is the use?

After testing the pole a couple of times he began to climb. Half way up the stick started to slip. ‘Finished! If it falls – bones are going to break!’ Before he finished his thought the pole once again stood steady. It felt as if a hand was holding it from top! ‘What remains is complete lunacy!’ Vandhiyathevan thought as he climbed. Once he gripped the top of the wall the pole began to slip and finally came down in a crash. The noise it created sounded like thunder in his ear. Good thing! The uproar at the fort entrance was now greater than before. Therefore no one would have heard! But that girl on the rooftop of the anthapuram! She would have heard. Standing on the wall Vandhiyathevan turned and looked. The girl was still there!

Vandhiyathevan’s arrogance has not completely left him! ‘Goodbye!’ – he waved his hand and started to climb down to the other side. Going down was not as difficult. On the outside the wall was more uneven. The rough surface allowed him anchorage, places to hold onto and place his foot. Branches from the tree nearby spread out grazing the wall. With the help of these branches he climbed down hastily. When he thought about how he had fooled Manimekalai and escaped, he wanted to laugh. As if echoing his thought, he heard someone laugh. Vandhiyathevan’s blood curdled. Hands began to shake. He looked down in order to jump. He saw a dog below waiting to jump on him. He could not go up again. He must jump. If he did he will have to sacrifice some flesh to the dog. Did he hear laughter? Or, was it the dog barking? Is there someone hiding who has set the dog on him? … Is it more risky going up? Is it more risky jumping down? Plagued with questions Vandhiyathevan’s mind swung like a pendulum; just as his legs dangled in midair trying to avoid the teeth of the dog that kept leaping up at him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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