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Ponniyin Selvan Part IV (32 – 36)

November 29, 2016

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

32. “Why are you tormenting me?”

Sundara Cholar was astounded. Who is sliding down from the loft above holding the pillar for support? Why? He remembered the nightmare that he just woke up from. Is this still a dream? Is he not fully awake? To make sure Sundara Cholar again closed his eyes.

After a minute he opened his eyes again. There was no one coming down. Aha! That was his mind playing tricks.

He reminded himself of what went on before he fell asleep. The chief minister, his disciple and Thiyagavidankar’s daughter who sang sweetly, must have left. Malaiamman’s daughter and the maids must be in the adjacent room as usual. Most probably his beloved daughter was also with them. He regretted having complained about Kundavai to the chief minister. Kundavai was a pillar of knowledge and forethought. She had kept the prince at Nagapattinam to avoid turmoil in the kingdom. He was wrong to misinterpret it. Even Sundara Cholar had known for a while that his mental ability was failing. What is the use in being angry at the junior stateswoman? It is better to follow her advice. What was important now was to bring the prince from Nagaipattinam. God! He should not have suffered another setback because of the storm! He must make inquiries from Kundavai … Sundara Cholar thought of clapping his hands to summon those in the adjacent room …

But, what is this? It feels as if there is someone standing behind the bed! But the footsteps are very soft, like a cat, or tiger or other such animal. Who can it be? Is it perhaps Malaiamman’s daughter? His daughter? The maid? Are they walking gently so they won’t wake him?

“Who is it?” Sundara Cholar asked in a low voice. There was no answer.

“Who is it? Come in front!” He said a little louder. Again, there was no answer.

Sundara Cholar had an idea. It was frightening and confusing. Can it be her? Her ghost? The barbarous woman who appears in his dreams has now come in person? Her habit has been to appear in the middle of the night decked out in silk and jewelry! Now she is here at this twilight hour? Or, perhaps it is already midnight? Did he sleep that long? Is that why Malaiamman’s daughter and his daughter are not here? Are the maids asleep also? Aiyo! Why have they left him alone? If that witch is the fisherman’s daughter, she will not let him be! She will taunt him until he loses control!

“Wretched woman! If it is really you, please come in front! Are you here for blood? Come! Come! You must have a knife on you? With the same knife that has killed tigers and lions, kill me also! But don’t hurt my children! Don’t seek revenge on them for my faults! They did not harm you in any way, Woman! Even me, what harm did I cause? Did I tell you to fall from the top of the lighthouse into the sea? Why are you tormenting me for the heinous act that you enacted? …”

Sundara Cholar realized that someone was standing very close at the head of the bed behind him. Out of fear, his body trembled. Something came up from his gut and blocked his chest. It traveled farther up and blocked his throat. It felt as if his eyeballs would burst. There was no doubt that it was her. Her ghost was behind him. Just as he had thought, it had finally arrived seeking blood. It’s going to stab him on his chest and kill him. Or perhaps it would strangle him with its bare hands? In whatever manner, let it carry out its plan! He is of no use to anyone anymore. If that demoness took her revenge on him, then at least she may leave his children alone!

Sundara Cholar felt that if he just tipped his head, he would be able to see the demoness Manthahini’s ghost. Its presence felt so close behind the bed. He could feel its shadow over his face. He considered looking up. He could not summon the courage. Thinking, “Let me close my eyes tightly. Let it do what it wants,” he closed his eyes.

For a while he waited in that state; no dagger plunged into his chest. No ghostly hands strangled his neck.

The figure seemed to have moved away.

Aha! The fisherman’s daughter will not let me off the hook so easily. She will keep me alive and torment me for years to come! Today, perhaps she did not want to be seen! Alright, alright, let’s call someone. If someone comes into the room she would probably leave!

“Who is there? Where have you all gone!” Shouting in a loud voice Sundara Cholar opened his eyes. Aha! In front of him at the foot of his bed, who is it? No doubt, it was her; that deaf-mute’s ghost. Hair untied, it is standing here in a state of disarray. Blood is trickling from its forehead! Perhaps it is saying, ‘I came to get blood!’ Thrown into a frenzy Sundara Cholar shouted in a loud voice:

“You deaf-mute of a devil! Even when you were alive you tormented me by not speaking; now also you are performing the same wordless act! Why have you come? Tell me. If you had come for blood, then take me; why are you just standing? Why is your face so pitiful? Did you come to ask me for something? Then, ask me! If you cannot open your mouth and talk, then talk with your hands! Do not torture me by being silent. You have tears in your eyes! Aiyayo! You are sobbing! I cannot bear it! If you want to say something, please do! Or else, get lost! You won’t; why? What do you want me to do? Didn’t you try to drown my beloved son – a tiny baby – in the Kaveri flood? By god’s grace your plan did not succeed! You wretched being! Why are you still staring at me willing to split open my heart? Go! Go! You won’t? You won’t leave? I’ll make you leave, you wait and see! …”

Sundara Cholar looked for anything within his reach. There was an ahal lamp crafted of the five metals. Shouting, “Go, Devil! Go,” he hurled the lamp at Manthahini devil’s face. Like the chakrayutham flung by Thirumal, the burning lamp sped toward the female figure.

A piercing cry rose from the female figure that Sundara Cholar considered a devil.

Sundara Cholar froze; his body, the flesh and bones, blood flowing in his arteries and veins, and the essence of life that resided within the skeleton – all froze.

The lamp did not strike the figure. It landed with a ‘clang,’ on the floor, before reaching the figure.

Even though the flame had gone out, fortunately there was another light also burning in the room. Peering through its dim light Sundara Cholar saw Manthahini still standing there. A feeling of indescribable pain was reflected on its face momentarily. It directed a final parting glance of immense distress toward Sundara Cholar and then turned to leave the room.

It was this moment that raised a doubt in Sundara Cholar’s mind. Is this really the ghost of Manthahini? Or is this another woman who is exactly like her? Is she the twin who was born with her? Or perhaps … perhaps … is it her? She did not die? She is alive? All what he believed is not true? If it is her, then how mean he had been to throw the lamp at her! On her face the feeling of kindness was replaced by hurt. Was she hurt by his meanness? – Aha! She wants to leave. She is looking for a way out …

“Woman! Are you the fisherman’s daughter Manthahini? Or are you her ghost? Or are you her sister? Wait, wait! Don’t leave! Tell the truth before leaving! …”

As Sundara Cholar cried out loud, several people burst into the room. Sundara Cholar knew in an instant that all of them – Malaiamman’s daughter, Kundavai, Vanathi, Poongkuzhali, the chief aminister and his disciple had walked in.

“Stop her! Stop her from running away! Ask her who she is, why she is here!” Sundara Cholar howled.

All who came running froze in their tracks. They were alarmed by the frenzy in his voice and the terror on his face. They were astounded to find Manthahini there. Not knowing what to do, all stood immobile. Chief Minister Aniruthar made an accurate guess of what had happened and how it may have come about. “Girl! Isn’t she your aunt?” He asked Poongkuzhali.

“Yes, Sir!” Poongkuzhali answered.

“Thirumalai! Why are you standing like a tree? Manthahini Devi is trying to run away! Stop her, it is the emperor’s order,” he said.

For the first time in his life Azhvarkadiyan refused to obey his Guru’s order. “Sir! Instead, please order me to stop the tornado,” he said.

Meanwhile, Poongkuzhali did not just wait. She ran and grabbed her aunt’s shoulder. Manthahini pushed her away and ran. Azhvarkadiyan acted quickly. He closed the door to the room and bolted it. Then he stood in front of the door with outstretched arms blocking the way.

Like a deer surrounded by hunters Manthahini looked for a way out. She knew that the only way was to climb back up the same way she had come. When she glanced up others guessed her intention.

Sundara Cholar shouted, “Catch her! Stop her! Ask her why she came here, whom she is seeking revenge on!”

Poongkuzhali again ran to Manthhini Devi who was about to climb up the pillar to reach the loft. This time, instead of physically trying to stop her she tried to communicate through signs. As if she understood Manthahini pointed to the ahal lamp lying on the floor.

Kundavai, who was watching asked, “Father! Did you throw the lamp at aunty?”

“Yes, my daughter! I could not stand the look that devil gave me. So I threw the lamp,” said Sundara Cholar.

“Father! There is no devil; no ghost; the great lady is alive. Father! Aunty did not die! Ask the chief minister! He will tell you everything!” Kundavai looked at Manthahini and Poongkuzhali, silently arguing. She swiftly went there.

“My daughter! Do not go near her! The demoness will hurt you!” Sundara Cholar excitedly tried to raise himself from the bed.

Malaiamman’s daughter Vanamadevi gently took his shoulders and made him lean back again. “Lord! Please be patient! No harm will come to your beloved daughter,” she said.

33. Chola Goddess

When Kundavai came close Manthahini looked at her intently. At that moment the junior stateswoman did something no one expected. She fell on the floor and humbly greeted Manthahini touching her feet. Tears welled in Manthahini’s eyes. Bending down she lifted Kundavai and embraced her. The junior stateswoman put her arm around her and gently guided her to where the emperor lay.

Only now the empress had a good look at Manthahini’s face. She saw blood oozing out from her forehead.

“Swami! Did you throw the lamp at her? Aiyo! What have you done?” Malaiamman’s daughter wailed.

“No, no! The lamp I threw did not strike her. Even before that she was standing here with a bloody wound. But this merciless woman may try to accuse me! You also will believe her. All of you are on her side. Malaiamman’s daughter! Even your sympathy is with her? Do you know who she is?” Sundara Cholar asked.

“Yes, Swami! She is my goddess. She is the patron of the Chola tribe. Isn’t she the goddess who saved my beloved baby from drowning in Kaveri?”

“Aha! You also believe that? Did Kundavai tell you that?”

“I am telling what I saw with my own eyes. Kundavai was just a child! What can she know? Not only did she save Arulmozhi, she is also the goddess who saved your life and returned you to Chola Nadu; the goddess who rescued you from being attacked by the jungle bear in Poothatheevu!”

“God! You are aware of that also? Did you also know that she did not die, that she had been alive all these years?”

“I have known for some time. Ever since I came to know, I have been asking the chief minister to bring the benevolent goddess from Eezhanadu …”

“Aniruthar! What on earth is the queen saying? Is she really that fisherman’s daughter? Is she really alive? Is it a lie that she died? I thought that her ghost was after me, was that my imagination? Already my mind is gone. Don’t everyone together turn me into a complete lunatic,” said Emperor Sundara Cholar.

“Lord! It is true that she is the fisherman’s daughter. It is also true that she did not die. Emperor! I am the guilty one. There is no redemption for the crime I committed. But please be kind …”

“Chief Minister! Now I understand. She is the one, whom you wanted brought here by force from Kodikarai! It is not true, what you told me – that it was the boatwoman who came in the palanquin! …”

“King of kings! You must forgive this humble servant!”

“Aha! He says I must forgive him! From time immemorial such a farce has never taken place – the manner in which I, who is hailed as ‘king of kings’ and ’emperor,’ has been duped – this is unheard of! Why was this kept from me? Why wasn’t I told before? This evening, you were talking to me! Why didn’t you mention it then? Chief Minister! I get it! The Pazhuvertaraiyars are right. All of you are conspiring against me!”

“It is true that we have been conspiring. But nothing is against you. We wanted to somehow bring karaiyar’s daughter to you. Hearing from the great queen, that you have been tormented by her tragic death, I came to this conclusion. The great queen also wanted it. But it was not easy to bring her. You would have found it difficult to believe if we simply told you that she was alive. So I planned on telling you once she was here in the city. Yesterday evening after coming as far as the entrance to the fort, Manthhini Devi disappeared. Instead of her, this girl arrived in the palanquin. We spent all of today looking for her. It was after seeing her jump over the palace wall that belongs to Pazhuvertaraiyar, that my disciple also jumped. But she was not to be found. The Pazhuvur men captured Thirumalai. Emperor! I beg you to forgive my disciple for that.”

“To forgive? Is this the only offence? There is so much more! Go on!”

“After that, even at day’s end, even after searching inside the Pazhuvur palace, we could not find her. When you fell asleep a short time ago, we were in the adjacent room talking about her. We were discussing where she could have disappeared, how to bring this to your attention, and who should take the responsibility for it. In the meantime somehow, she has found her way to you. It’s as they say, the fruit slipped and fell into the milk!”

The emperor turned and looked at Manthahini. He noticed that Kundavai, Poongkuzhali and others had cleaned the wound on her forehead with a damp cloth and were in the process of applying medicated sandalwood paste over it.

“Vidankar’s Daughter! Can you ask your aunt how she got that wound on her forehead,” he asked.

Poongkuzhali took two steps to the front. “I did, Lord! But even I cannot understand her explanation,” she said.

“What is she saying? Is she saying that it happened when I threw the lamp at her?”

“No, no! She says that it happened when she knocked her head against a mountain. She also says that she had not noticed the blood coming out …”

Sundara Cholar at that time did something unexpected. He laughed out loud! It had been many years since anyone had seen him laugh that way. Reliving the moment he kept on laughing. Everyone began to look at him with concern.

“Chief Minister! Why is everyone staring at me? My insanity is nothing new. It’s the remnant of what had always been there. Don’t you all understand the reason for my laughter? She says that she banged her head on a mountain in splendid Chola Nadu. I am laughing over that. Why talk about mountains? We cannot even find a rock here to carve a small statue! Even if someone wanted to drop a rock over the Chola Empeor’s head, one cannot find even a granite for that! She says that she banged into a mountain? Which mountain? Poongkuzhali! Ask her,” he said.

As Vanathi listened, her face suddenly lit up. She took two steps to the front. She greeted the emperor.

“Sir! I have an idea. With your permission I would like to share it,” she said.

Veleer Daughter! You are also here? I did not notice you at all. With all of this commotion you have not fainted? That is a surprise! What is your idea? What about? Go on!” The emperor commanded.

“The lady says that she hurt herself by knocking her head against a mountain! I think I know how, Sir!”

“What? What? You are an intelligent woman! You may have understood the reason. Tell soon! Is she here with a bloody wound after knocking herself against a mountain in Eezhanadu?”

“No, Sir! Isn’t there a sculpture gallery in the garden here? In there, there is a kailasa mountain that Ravanan is lifting up. She may have knocked her head against that!”

Hearing Vanathi everyone was taken aback. “Could be; could be!” and “Probabaly that is the reason,” they said to each other.

Kundavai placed her hand on Vanathi’s forehead and wiped it as if to cast off bad luck. “My Darling! You are intelligent! None of us thought about it,” she said.

After angrily watching them, Poongkuzhali again communicated with her aunt by sign language. “Yes! It is the hill in the sculpture gallery! If I had seen that gallery, I too would have guessed it,’ she said.

The emperor looked at Manthahini intently. “Yes; She must have lost her way and banged her head on the hill in the sculpture gallery. Who knows where she was going, but she had finally ended up here,” he said.

“She had been searching for a way to come to you. There is no doubt about that. I was just telling them. That she will not leave without seeing you,” said Aniruthar.

“I don’t believe it, Chief Minister! If she wanted to see me wouldn’t she have come before? Wouldn’t she have come during the twenty five years? Why wait this long? Why haunt me as a ghost? Yes, yes! I believed that she had turned into a ghost. Isn’t that really true? She has been roaming the jungles of Eezhanadu like a ghost. While I spent my days in the luxury of the palace. Who can underestimate the power of guilt? How many times has my soul imagined seeing her? Who knows? Just like today, perhaps she had been here before secretly watching me? I tormented myself thinking it was her ghost! … Twenty five years! Twenty five eons!”

After this outburst, the emperor angrily turned to Aniruthar and asked, “Chief Minister! You asked forgiveness for a crime you committed? What is that?”

“Emperor! Is it fair to ask the accused what the accusation is??” Aniruthar said.

“Then, whom do I ask? Yes, I need not ask anyone. It is written all over your face. You came and told me that she fell into the sea and drowned? That was a lie! You maintained that lie for twenty five years. I too believed it. Aniruthar! Truly, your crime is unpardonable! …”

“I am not the only one responsible, Emperor! The fisherman’s daughter is also responsible! It is true that she fell in the sea. Then she resurfaced. She made me promise that I will not tell you that she is alive; if I didn’t promise she said that she will take her life. Whether this is true – you can ask her yourself.”

“I don’t have to! It must be true. Whatever it is, I am not wrong in believing that all of you conspired against me,” said Sundara Cholar.

“There is no redemption from the crime I committed. I will not ask for forgiveness. Yet, the weight I had carried in my heart for so many years has been lifted. Now please grant me farewell. Permit me to go to Thiruvarangam and spend my days in the service of Sri Ranganathar.”

“That cannot be allowed, Brahmarayar! Because of your folly then, so many problems have arisen today. Shouldn’t you first settle these issues, before running off to serve Ranganathar,” said the emperor.

34. Ravanan in Danger!

Sundara Cholar looked at his beloved daughter. “Kundavai! I must discuss some official matters with the chief minister. Go, mind your work. When you go please take this also with you! Let your mother be here for a while,” he said.

The manner in which the emperor dismissed Manthahini as ‘this’ expressed his distaste concerning her.

Disappointed, Kundavai looked at her father. Taking notice of it the emperor said, “Yes, it is good to find out if it is the Kailasa mountain in the sculpture gallery where she knocked her head! Take her there and find out! I cannot tolerate her standing here.”

Taking Manthahini by her hand Kundavai left, her disappointment showing on her face. Malaiamman’s daughter went to Kundavai and whispered into Kundavai’s ear so that only she could hear. “Child! She is an intolerable sight! What is the use of being disappointed with father? Show your expertise in fashion on her, let’s see,” she said. Smiling in affirmation Kundavai left with Manthahini. Vanathi and Poongkuzhali followed.

After that alternately turning his head to look at the chief minister and Malaiamman’s daughter Sundara Cholar said, “I don’t know why the two of you conspired to do this. If you thought that this would bring me happiness, you were sadly mistaken! Chief Minister! Why did you go to so much trouble to bring this wild beast from Kodikarai? Please at least now, speak the truth! At least from here on do not try to hide anything from me!”

An emotionally overwrought chief minister answered, “I won’t make the same mistake again, I won’t agree to hide anything from you hereafter. I went to all this trouble only to bring the truth into the open. Your mind was troubled by the belief that a woman fell into the sea and died because of you. For a long time I believed that you had forgotten that incident. But as time passed I realized that memory was deeply embedded in your soul causing you much grief. The great queen told me that you cried out in your sleep many times after having nightmares. Because of that Malaiamman’s daughter grew more troulbled than you. A short time ago she asked me for advice. We decided to try this. We decided to purge that memory by presenting in front of you the woman you believed dead. We thought that you would believe us only if we brought her in person. If this was a mistake, you must kindly forgive us!”

Bursting with anger the emperor responded,” It is a mistake! A grave mistake! All these days she hovered over me as a ghost. She harassed me in my dreams. Instead of a ghost, you have brought a lunatic in front of me. Did you think that she will make me happy? No, never. If I had been told beforehand, I would have completely rejected the idea of bringing her here. Never mind. Your intentions were good. With the greatest difficulty you have brought the deaf-mute madwoman here! How do you propose to send her back?” When Sundara Cholar asked this question Aniruthar turned literally speechless.

The empress now spoke. “Swami! I have no intentions of making my sister leave from here. She will stay in this palace with me. I will cherish and worship her like my own sister,” she said.

“Devi! You don’t have to go to this length to demonstrate your devotion to me. I have seen in these twenty five years that you surpass Kannaki in virtue. I know that ever since I became ill that you have taken care of me, fasting and meditating, forgetting even your precious children. You need not show me your devotion by bringing this deaf-mute madwoman from the jungle and hosting her in the palace. Malaiamman’s Daughter! Listen! Chief Minister! Please, pay attention! I met this dumb lunatic a long time ago when I was stranded in an island devoid of any human habitation. I am not denying that I became fond of her then. If you think that I still long for her and that is the cause of my suffering, you cannot be more mistaken. There were many reasons for me to fall in love with her at that time. That love has changed completely in these twenty five years into dislike and disgust. Consciously and subconsciously, she has tormented me without end. I cannot stand the thought that she is in this palace. Before you turn to anything else, please send her away from here. Thinking that it was her ghost, I threw the lamp at her. I don’t know what I would have done if I knew that she was alive, in body and flesh!”

Both the empress and the chief minister were shocked to hear the crude words of Sundara Cholar spoken in a tone of vitriol. They had not expected such a response from the emperor. Aniruthar had assumed that the emperor would condemn him only for his old mistake. The great queen on the other hand expected the emperor – even if he could not say it openly – to rejoice and applaud in his heart her generous gesture.

Not only did Sundara Cholar’s crude remarks disappoint them, they also produced anger and hatred. As if to crown all of his remarks the emperor said, “Cheechee! What is the great tragedy if this dumb madwoman is not alive? It would have been better if she had actually died when she fell into the ocean! Which imbecile wasted time saving her?”

Malaiamman’s daughter would not take the abuse anymore. Roused by compassion she said, “Swami! Please do not speak in this manner. It is vile. The elders have repeatedly affirmed that being ungrateful is the utmost betrayal! You can forget if you wish that this great lady saved your life. But how can we forget her saving our beloved Arulmozhivarman? Even if you did, I cannot. I will be in debt for the next fourteen incarnations to this divine daughter!”

“Devi! You want to ferret that story once again …?” Before Sundara Cholar could continue Malaiamman’s daughter interrupted: “Not a story, Swami! Arulmozhi himself told me. He said that the same goddess who saved him from the Kaveri flood also rescued him many times in Eezhatheevu. Fortunately, he is safe at Nagapattinam. Please bring him here. Ask him yourself!”

“Yes, yes! Arulmozhi is in Nagapattinam. But what is the certainty that he is safe? Who knows what may have happened during yesterday’s storm? Chief Minister! I have no peace in my heart! I have a foreboding that my tribe is in some unspecifiable danger. I consider this dumb madwoman’s presence here at this time a bad omen…”

“Swami! The karaiyar daughter’s presence is not a bad omen; it is a good omen. Her presence will protect our tribe. Durga Parameshwari has answered my unending prayers by sending this goddess …”

“Not at all; Durga Parameshwari did not send her, Saneesuwaran has sent her. Before doing anything else, please send that lunatic back. If you refuse, I will have to do it myself …”

“Swami! Please be kind and grant me this favor. Please allow her to be in this palace until Arulmozhi returns!” After this emotional plea, the empress touched Sundara Cholar’s feet in submission.

“Chief Minister! Did you hear? Did you hear the plea from Malaiamman’s daughter who takes everything white to be milk. God! Can such an innocent pacifist be in this world? She never asks for anything. Now she wants this. I don’t have the heart to refuse. But every minute that dumb madwoman is here will be hell for me. Therefore please make arrangements to bring the prince immediately from Nagai!”

“I will, Sir! Should we send the troops with elephants and horses and bring him publicly? Or …”

“You want to know if he should be brought secretly under disguise? You think that bringing the prince publicly will create trouble in Chola Nadu?”

“It is not merely an assumption, Lord! I know it with certainty. The people are angry for several reasons. There has only to be a slight provocation; their inner anger will boil over. We cannot say what will happen to the Pazhuvertaraiyars and Mathuranthaka Thevar …”

“What kind of talk is this, Chief Minister? If the citizens were to behave in an unruly manner, where is the Chola Nadu garrison?”

“The anger is most among the troops, Lord! People will calm down after empty threats and noise. The soldiers will before anything else break the Thanjavur fort into pieces, jail the Pazhuvertaraiyars and Mathuranthaka Thevar, and put the heroic warrior Arulmozhivarmar who conquered Eezham …”

“You are also in your heart secretly wishing that this would come to pass. The citizens have been foolishly misguided by the fiction created by the astrologers. But keep this in mind. My great uncle Kandarathithar’s son Mathuranthakan has the right to the chola throne. I have decided to crown him. Whether the people oppose my decision, whether the three gods come in person to stop it, I will not listen. If my sons stand in the way …”

“Swami! Nothing like that will happen. Your sons will never go against your wish. Arulmozhi has no affinity for ruling. They gave him the jeweled crown of Ilankai. He turned it down. He is not going to say no to you! Karikalan? You made him the crown prince. He went along with it. Do I have to mention his valor? If he so desires isn’t he capable of founding his own kingdom with the help of his sword alone? But he also has no desire to rule. You only have to say a word, about what lies in your heart …”

“Isn’t his tantrum of not refusing to come here after being asked so many times, isn’t it solely because he is afraid that my ‘word’ will fall in his ear, that I am going to say this ‘word’?”

“Emperor! The crown prince has built a splendid golden palace in Kanji and is awaiting your visit …”

“I know why he is waiting. He is waiting to jail his parents like Hamson and ascend the Chola throne. Who knows whether he has built a golden palace or an araku maligai?”

“Swami! You are being extremely harsh about Karikalan!”

“They have poisoned the emeperor’s heart to this extent,” said the chief minister.

“Who is ‘they’? No one; it is Karikalan who has injected the poison into my mind! If he really is my son, why hasn’t he visited after so many invitations,” asked Sundara Cholar.

“Can’t there be other valid reasons?”

“Why don’t you think of one reason?”

“There is talk all over the country that once Karikalar steps foot on this side of Kollidam the Pazhuvertaraiyars will imprison him …”

“Someone has spoilt my son’s mind with such talk! One is her father Thirukovalur Malaiamman, the other is Kodumbalur Velar. Perhaps you also have joined them, I don’t know.”

“Swami! I don’t have the habit of talking behind anyone’s back. A while ago you yourself spoke of danger. You mentioned a certain foreboding in your heart. Danger is encroaching the Chola tribe. It has two paths. The Pazhuvertaraiyars and the Sambuvaraiyars …”

“Chief Minister Aniruthar! Stop; Pazhuvur tribe has served the Cholars for a hundred years. The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar has fought in twenty four battles and bears sixty four scars on his body. Instead of claiming that such a man is scheming against Chola Nadu, one might as well say that the sun has blackened out, or the sea is on fire …”

“Emperor! The sun does become eclipsed. In the sea dwells the mare that exhales fire. But I didn’t come here to talk about that. I did not say that Pazhuvertaraiayars are scheming against the Chola tribe. They are trying very hard to crown Mathuranthakar …”

“What is wrong in wanting to crown the great Saiva devotee Kandarathithar’s son? Doesn’t the crown really belong to Mathuranthakan,” the emperor asked.

“That is exactly what I am saying. You have graciously decided to give the jeweled crown of the Cholars to Mathuranthaka Thevar. Under these circumstances what are the Pazhuvertaraiyars guilty of? They are only trying to fulfill your wish …”

“Therefore I owe them my gratitude.”

“But, Emperor! They are also involved in matters that you do not permit. They are thinking of dividing the Chola kingdom into two, and give the portion south of Kaveri to Mathuranthaka Thevar and the northern portion to Karikalar. This discussion is taking place today at Sambuvaraiyar’s palace. Emperor! Do you want to divide into two the Chola empire that your ancestors have toiled to expand, the empire that Vijayalaya Cholar, Athitha Cholar, and Maha Paranthaka emperor founded from Eezham to Kothavari?”

“Chief Minister! I will never allow that. Before cutting up the Chola kingdaom I will ask them to chop me in half. I don’t believe that Pazhuvertaraiyar would have taken this initiative. Perhaps he may have agreed to this plan thinking that I will be for it, that I may want to at least give half the kingdom to my son. If he knows that it is against my wish he will give up the idea. Chief Minister! I will crown Mathuranthakan without taking even a square inch of the Chola kingdom. Even if my children oppose it, I will not listen.”

“Emperor! If Pazhuvertaraiyar opposes, we don’t have to pay attention. Your sons will not oppose it. But they are not the obstacles to crowning Mathuranthakar. That obstacle comes from a bigger place. It is from the saintly woman whom yourself and me, and the people of Chola Nadu worship and hold in esteem. Even a few days ago when I spoke to her …”

“You mean Chempian Madevi. Someone has spoiled her mind also. The elder stateswoman is of the opinion that I want to crown my sons. Chief Minister! Please make arrangements to bring her here immediately. I will change her mind.”

“Emperor! That is not so easy. Before the great Kandarathithar departed he commanded his loyal wife. I was present at his deathbed. ‘There is an important reason for not crowning Mathuranthakan; my wife is aware of it,’ your great uncle said.”

“Chief Minister! There is such an obstacle? You know what it is?”

“If I know, would I wait until I am asked? You must bring the elder stateswoman and find out from her …”

“Yes; this is one matter that is troubling me also. Please make arrangements to bring the elder stateswoman at once. Whatever obstacle it may be I will make the necessary amends. Whom can we send to bring her? Why, I will send my daughter. Devi! Please bring Kundavai here at once,” Sundara Cholar told Malaiamman’s daughter.

Vanamadevi had been taking in the conversation between the emperor and the chief minister with one ear only as her mind was really focused on oomai rani. Therefore when the emperor asked her to bring Kundavai she hurried to the anthapuram. When she reached the anthapuram she found Kundavai, Vanathi and Poongkuzhali in deep distress. The maharani soon found out why. Oomai rani was not there. Concerned, she asked where she was. Kundavai told her, “Mother! It was not easy to carry out your order. Yet the three of us persuaded Manthahini Devi to have a bath. Then we dressed her in new clothes. Vanathi was combing her hair. Poongkuzhali was stringing flowers. As I was choosing the jewelry I heard her cry out. When I came here I saw that she had disappeared. Once her hair was combed and tied up she had suddenly wrestled herself free and ran away. She is not in any of the rooms here. We are still searching!”

Malaiamman’s daughter smiled when she heard this. “Was there a mirror in front of her when you were dressing her,” she asked. “There was one a little away from her,” said Vanathi.

“She would have caught a glimpse of her newly made up figure. It would have made her self conscious. She would have run and hidden somewhere. Look around. Perhaps she is hiding in the garden. She is used to jumping over walls and climbing through windows,” the empress said.

Everyone then went to the garden to search. Oomai rani was not there; their worry increased. Just as they were wondering whether to tell the chief minister and the emperor – ‘danar danar’ – a noise came. It was the sound of iron hitting granite. The noise came from the sculpture gallery. After asking a maid to bring a lamp all of them hurried into the gallery. A strange scene awaited them inside. The fashionably attired Manthahini Devi was vehemently swinging a long-handled hammer at Ravaneswaran’s hands that were lifting kailasa malai. Because the sculpture was made of very strong granite Ravanan had not until then succumbed. But if the attack went on he would at any time. If two or three out of the many hands of Ravanan were disabled the hill can move and sit more closely over his heads! The heads can fragment into pieces! It was at this precarious juncture that Kundavai and others entered the sculpture gallery.

When Manthahini saw them she dropped the hammer down and smiled. Except for Poongkuzhali all of the others who entered the gallery thought, “She is a hideous lunatic! No wonder the emperor was so disgusted!”

“Girls! Do not discuss this in front of the emperor!” Malaiamman’s daughter warned the others.

35. The Emperor’s Fury

At the time when the palace women found Manthahini in the sculpture gallery there was a heated argument taking place between the emperor and the chief minister.

As soon as Malaiamman’s daughter left the room Chief Minister Aniruthar said, “Great King! I did not want to bring up certain matters in the presence of ladies. Now I must talk about it. Veera Pandyan’s aides are still lurking in the country under cover. They are waiting for the right time to carry out their viscious oath.”

“This is nothing new! This is news that I have already heard. Haven’t the Pazhuvertaraiyars organized this tight security around me for precisely that reason?” The emperor said with a sarcastic laugh.

“You do know about his followers. What you cannot know is that aid for these saboteurs comes from the Chola treasury,” said the chief minister.

“Aha! What fiction is this,” said Sundara Cholar.

“I have more astonishing tales than this, that I must tell you. Newly minted gold coins from the underground cellar belonging to the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar lay heaped in the middle at a meeting of the saboteurs. My disciple Thirumalai saw with his own eyes. If you wish he will describe in detail …”

“That won’t be necessary. The Pazhuvertaraiyars have shed blood and sacrificed their lives for the sake of the Chola tribe, generation after generation. Even if Harichandran appears and tells me that they are giving gold from my treasury to the group that is plotting to kill me … ”

“Pardon me, I am not charging the Pazhuvertaraiyars with that sort of crime. Gold can go from the treasury to the saboteurs without their knowledge!”

“How can that happen? Can life depart without Yaman’s knowledge?”

“If Yaman in case married a young woman in his old age, it can be possible, King!”

“I also did not like the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar marrying at this age. I have told him so. But, I cannot justify accusing him of this crime.”

“Emperor! I am not accusing Pazhuvertaraiyar of any wrongdoing. I am accusing the young woman whom he married.”

“I can tolerate men being blamed. This is molten lead in my ears – your accusation of an unfortunate helpless woman.”

“However hot this molten lead may be, I must divulge some facts about Pazhuvur Ilaiayarani. I have had to regret so much for not telling the truth to you at the right time. Just now you were also angry about it. Therefore you must listen patiently.”

The emperor smiled upon hearing these rather tactful words spoken by the chief minister. “You are clobbering me with my own words. That is my personal matter. That has no relevance to this. In any case, go ahead. I am listening,” he said.

“Ilaiyarani Nandhini came to the Pazhuvur palace three years ago. Since then some magicians have been frequenting the Pazhuvur palace. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar also is aware of this. He also does not like the magicians visiting. Because he has no courage to confront his elder brother he is keeping quiet.”

“If only all siblings were like them!”

“Sibling loyalty should not jeopardize the safety of the kingdom!”

“What has been jeopardized now? Is the kingdom in jeopardy because a hapless female calls some magicians and have them engage in sorcery? Are you saying that I am ill because Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani has cast a spell?”

“Emperor! Those who come to see Pazhuvur Ilaiayarani are not actually magicians. I suspect that these are saboteurs masquerading as magicians. I also suspect that aid is going from our treasury through them.”

“We can suspect anybody about anything. Is there any evidence?”

“King of kings! If we today check the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar’s palace and the underground treasury cellar we may find evidence.”

“No one has ever suggested to me anything more ludicrous than this. Aniruthar! You are friend only to me. Long before me, Pazhuvertaraiyar has been the lifelong friend of Chola emperors for three generations. He is like the iron coat of armor that protects the Chola tribe. To the enemies of Cholars he is like Indran’s vajrayutham. Do we raid such a man’s house in his absence? Instead of believeing that Pazhuvertaraiyar is harboring saboteurs in his palace I would rather think that Malaiamman’s daughter is feeding me poison …”

“Emperor! This is not taking place with Pazhuvertaraiyar’s knowledge. Lust has cost Pazhuvertaraiyar his sight. He cannot see what is happening in front of him. While he is in the dark his palace is serving as the saboteurs’ headquarters. There is room to believe that Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani is one of them.”

“What other blasphemy have you got about this helpless woman?”

“A few days ago a coronation ceremony took place near Piruthiveepathi’s pallipadai at Thirupurampayam jungle. They seated a five year old child on the throne and crowned him as Pandya king and emperor. Those who took part in the ceremony also vowed to wipe out the Chola tribe completely …”

“Chief Minister! You think that you can scare me with this news, is that the idea? Do you expect my hands and legs to start shaking?”

“No, Emperor, no! I did not give too much significance to that parody. I wanted to tell you that Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani was present with that group of saboteurs.”

“Who is the intelligent spy who witnessed this? Your beloved disciple?”

“He got there only afterwards. The one who saw it in person is Varnar tribe Vandhiyathevan …”

“You mean the fellow who came here once, and then ran away? That spy?”

“He is not a spy, Lord! He is a confidential friend of your beloved son Athitha Karikalar.”

“Karikalan has collected so many of these confidential friends. One person will not tell the same story as the other. Alright, let’s assume that he told the truth. There is nothing that we can do about it now. Elder Pazhuvertaraiyar is not here; his Ilaiyarani is also not here. We will make inquiries when they return. Chief Minister! After hearing your stories about Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani, I am also now curious to see this enigmatic woman. Disgusted at Pazhuvertaraiyar’s marriage I had said not to bring her in front of me. She may be angry at me over that. I don’t know. When the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar returns this time I am going to make him bring his Ilaiyarani and try to calm her anger …”

“Emperor! That is exactly my wish also. There are more important reasons for cooling Nandhini Devi’s anger. Please allow the Eezha queen to be at the royal palace until Nandhini returns …”

“Aha! You have crowned her as Eezha queen? Never mind. What does she have to do with Pazhuvur Rani?”

“That is what we must find out, Lord! If the two meet in person, we may be able to solve that puzzle. The enmity Nandhini feels toward the Chola tribe also may change …”

“Minister! Your obsession over one woman’s grievance is rather astonishing …”

“There is reason to worry about Nandhini Devi’s grievance. I am afraid whether it is prudent of me to bring that up …”

“If you are reluctant, then who else will tell me? Don’t leave anything out. Please tell me,” said the emperor.

The chief minister remained thoughtful for a while. Then, “Great King! What I am about to tell is a very complicated story. You will not tolerate it. But you must listen patiently. Everyone who has seen Nandhini Devi and Manthahini Devi have been stunned by the likeness between the two of them …,” he said.

“There are so many such curiosities in this world. One tree is like another. One lunatic is like another …”

“But a tree does not disguise as another. A lunatic does not pretend to be another and taunt the emperor …”

“What are you saying, Chief Minister?”

“You were shaken because Manthahini Devi’s ghost was tormenting you at night …”

“Are you saying that it was her and not her ghost?”

“No, no. I am saying that Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani pretended to be Manthahini’s ghost and tortured you.”

As Sundara Cholar sat up in bed and burst out in anger, “If what you are saying is true, I will strangle that demoness with my bare hands …,” the chief minister interrupted. “No, Emperor! Please do not make any such vows,” he said excitedly.

“Why? Why do you show such mercy toward her? For the way she has hurt me, she cannot be spared anything!” Sundara Cholar fumed.

“However much a person has hurt one, if the person happens to be a close relative … perhaps one’s own daughter …” The chief minister hesitated to continue.

“Chief Minister! What gibberish is this?”

“Emperor! I have really tested your patience. Give me the proper punishment. But don’t talk about punishing Nandhini Devi. She is not only treasurer Pazhuvertaraiyar’s Ilaiyarani; she is the daughter of Emperor Sundara Cholar who reigns over the three worlds. Who can punish her? And for what crime?”

The emperor stared at the chief minister incredulously for a second. Then he burst out laughing.

“Emperor! Today has been a good day. I have heard you laugh twice,” said Aniruthar.

“Brahmarayar! I thought that there was only a female lunatic in the palace at present. Now I know that you are a bigger lunatic than her. She is a dumb lunatic; you are a blubbering lunatic!” Sundara Cholar kept on laughing.

36. Past Midnight

As Sundara Cholar’s laughter rang out the women returned. They paraded in with the great queen leading, Manthahini dragged in by Kundavai and Vanathi who held her one on each side, and Poongkuzhali and a maid following. Sundara Cholar’s laughter made them also happy. Manthahini stood there, one second lifting her head and looking at him and the next second lowering her eyes and staring at the floor. Her make-up was now complete. Kundavai was at that time well known for her exquisite taste and style. Because of it petty kings sent their daughters to be the junior stateswoman’s friend. Kundavai had fully utilized her experience in dressing oomai rani. Acting on her gut instinct she had tied up Manthahini’s hair in true Andahl fashion. After that all of the women knew that Nandhini was an exact copy of her. Because of her healthy body that had been nurtured by the wilderness even the twenty five year age difference was not apparent. The women brought in Manthahini proudly. Each one had her own reason to feel proud.

At the time of this historical narrative it was common for Tamil kings and petty kings to marry several women. War was perpetual. Young princes were always at the forefront of battles. Therefore to protect the tribe from dying out it was customary for those of royal heritage to marry more than one woman. The generosity and affection of the crown empress for the other queens was considered a virtue. Following in this tradition Malaiamman’s daughter was excited. Kundaavi was proud that she was once again able to prove her talent in fashion. She had transformed a mad beggar into a young lady of extraordinary beauty! Poongkuzhali was happy that her aunt was receiving such royal hospitality. The palace women were conducting themselves in a manner that was against all her prejudices!

The emperor turned his gaze toward this parade of women brimming with joy. Instantaneously his laughter stopped. Even he was surprised by Manthahini’s new appearance. As if doubting the sight he closed and opened his eyes several times. The chief minister’s stories had awakened his curiosity. He saw the similarity between Manthahini and the woman who had been appearing before him in the middle of the night and causing pain. At the same time he also noticed some differences. A desire to solve this mystery and uncover the truth dawned in his heart also. The distaste he had felt for Manthahini was still present. But he decided not to show it.

“Chief Minister! I called you insane just now. It would seem that I am the one who is insane, who is delusional. Hereafter the doctor’s daily visits alone won’t suffice. We have to send for the mystic also. It won’t hurt even if we catch the magician who comes to visit Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani and use his services,” he said in a low voice.

Aniruthar’s heart experienced a slight terror. ‘Let none of those magicians come anywhere near the emperor,’ his heart prayed. Aloud he said, “Great King! Why do we need a magician? And what do we need magic for? There is no incantation more potent than the holy name of Sri Narayanan!”

“Father! Did you call me? It seems you want me to go to Pazhiyarai? Can we all go today,” Kundavai asked.

Without answering her Sundara Cholar turned to the chief minister. “Aniruthar! I have changed my mind. For some reason, the ladies are all happy. They are celebrating as if a new daughter-in-law has arrived. I do not want to have them part now. Just as you suggested let everyone stay here for a few days. Chempian Madevi has a lot of respect and confidence in you. Therefore, please go and bring her yourself! Please send your disciple to Nagapattinam. I will tell the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar to bring elder Pazhuvertaraiyar and his Ilaiyarani at once,” he said.

“We will do that, Emperor! But it will take a few days for everyone to be here. Because of the rain that the storm brought in, all the rivers are flooded,” said the chief minister.

“No harm in that; we have waited for so long, there is nothing lost if we wait a few more days. If we make arrangements to bring Karikalan also then we can settle all matters. If he still refuses to come then I will have to go there myself. We can discuss that later. Please leave tomorrow and somehow bring the elder stateswoman back with you, even if you have to hold her hand! When you go please pay attention also to the people affected by the storm. Preoccupied with family affairs, we have completely forgotten this very important task,” said the emperor.

“No, Lord! I have not forgotten. All will be taken care of. You can be at peace.” With that the chief minister took his leave.

That night Sundara Cholar truly experienced a level of peace that he had not had until then. The news that karaiyar tribe Manthahini did not die had truly lifted an enormous weight that had burdened his heart for a long time. The news that Arulmozhivarman was in Nagapattinam also comforted him. He was confident that the occupants of Soodamani viharam were safe as it was a very sturdy building. He was amused by Aniruthar’s remark that Pazhuvur Ilaiayarani could be his daughter. The thought brought a smile to his face whenever his mind dwelled on it.

He chatted leisurely to Malaiamman’s daughter and the other women for a while. He lauded Kundavai’s skills in fashion.

“She was looking like a creature out of the wilderness, but you changed her into heaven’s Indrani! But, must you waste your talent on this old lady? Shouldn’t you practice your craft on young girls like Vanathi?” He teased her. Then he questioned Poongkuzhali for more information about Arulmozhivarman.

At the end of it Poongkuzhali said, “Swami! Please grant me permission to return to Kodikarai. Can I leave tomorrow? I don’t have to worry about my aunt anymore!”

“You said that your aunt’s son is down with fever? Aren’t you concerned about even him? Don’t be in such a hurry to go back. Stay a few more days,” said the emperor. Poongkuzhali remained silent.

That night Sundara Cholar slept peacefully. He didn’t have many dreams. Even the dreams that he had were not nightmarish; they were happy dreams. The women slept in the room adjacent to his. They also slept peacefully. The only one among them who was experiencing difficulty sleeping was Manthahini. The day’s events had shaken her mind. Her thoughts particularly hovered between the underground passage and the treasury cellar. Her mind was without peace, dwelling on her failed attempt to break Ravanan’s hands and close the opening to the underground passage. In the dimness of the night lamp she kept looking around. Most of all she kept staring at the lattice windows of the balcony.

Midnight passed. The third quarter of the night was also almost over. At that time a figure appeared in one of the balcony windows. She saw a rather disfigured and frightening face peering into the room through the window. She knew whose face it was. Astounded, she stood up. She looked at the window again. The face was not there. She walked quietly to the adjacent room. Standing on the doorstep she peeked inside. She saw the emperor sound asleep. She looked at the windows of the loft. Nothing was seen.

She came back and quietly woke Poongkuzhali, shaking her by her shoulders. Poongkuzhali opened her eyes from a deep sleep. She was startled to see the expression on oomai rani’s face. Oomai rani gestured her to follow her. Poongkuzhali who had enormous faith in her aunt followed her quietly.

Oomai rani headed to the sculpture gallery. On the way she picked up a night lamp in her hand. When they reached the sculpture gallery Poongkuzhali was mortified. Is she going to hammer at Ravanan’s statue again, or what? If she did that everyone in the palace would be so rudely awakened! Then that would be proof that her aunt was indeed a lunatic!

If her aunt tried it again she must stop her. If she needed to she must wrestle the hammer out of her hand … With these thoughts Poongkuzhali followed her aunt into the sculpture gallery. Ah! What is this? One of Ravanan’s heads is moving! No, no! Ravanan’s head was not moving. Between Ravanan’s many heads and kailasa mountain another man’s head seemed to pop up. Then it disappeared just as quickly. Sheer imagination! Confused state of her slumberous mind! It must be the lamp throwing shadows of the statues! …

She could not tell if Manthahini also saw the head; but she was walking toward the Rvaanan statue. Fortunately she did not pay attention to the hammer that was lying there. She held the lamp up in the dark space between Ravanan’s heads and hands and the kailasakiri they were hoisting up. There was a hole. What Poongkuzhali had guessed was correct. It was an exit to an underground path. It was constructed rather ingeniously arousing no one’s suspicion. Earlier that night it was this path that her aunt was trying to close. Without knowing that the others had stopped her.

While Poongkuzhali was thus assessing the situation, oomai rani after gesturing to her niece to follow her, lamp in hand squeezed through that opening with difficulty. Lamp in hand she started going in. Gradually, her body and then her head and the lamp in her hand disappeared. Only a faint light was visible. Poongkuzhali also twisted her body and bent her head and carefully stepped into that underground passage taking care not to knock her head. In a few seconds she also disappeared. Then the light also disappeared. Darkness took possession of the sculpture gallery.

In the morning when Malaiamman’s daughter, Kundavai and Vanathi woke up they were startled to find oomai rani and Poongkuzhali missing. Even after searching the entire palace, garden and sculpture gallery, they could not be found. No one could explain how they disappeared so magically. When the emperor was informed he showed concern at the beginning. Then, “It is better that those loonies have left. Who cares how they left,” he said. But an unfamiliar remorse and a gnawing worry took possession of his heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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