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Ponniyin Selvan Part V (7 – 9)

February 12, 2017

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

7. People Rejoice

Boatman Murugaiyan was stunned by his wife’s cry. He shook his hands at her in vain to signal her to calm down. Exasperated he said, “Woman! What are you blabbering? Are you insane?”

“I am not insane. You are insane, your father is insane, your grandfather is insane. Don’t you recognize him? You can’t recognize the brave warrior who conquered Eezham, who drove king Mahinthan to the hills? You can’t recognize the emperor’s beloved son whom Chola citizens consider the apple of their eyees; the divine son whom Mother Kaveri brought back? If you can’t, why are you accompanying this man? Where are you going?” Rakamaahl said.

The prince interrupted. “Woman! You have mistaken me for someone else. I am a merchant from Eezhanadu. He is my guide. Who is he to you? Is he your husband? If you like, take him! Please don’t shout unnecessarily,” he said.

Meanwhile a crowd had surrounded them. Minute by minute it grew larger. Everyone was staring at the prince.

Rakamaahl shouted louder than before. “Ah! God! What is going on? Has Ponniyin Selvar lost his mind? When you drowned in the sea did you lose your memory? Or, have those evil Buddhist monks cast their magic spell and made you believe that you are someone else? Or – Aiyayoh! Can that be? After you died has someone taken possession of your body, playing the trick, jumping from cage to cage? That cannot be! Crown Prince! Think, please! You are not a merchant. You are the beloved son of Sundara Chola emperor. You were born to rule the world under one mantle. If you have doubts please take a look at your palm. There will be sankuchakra lines!”

Prince Arulmozhivarmar covered both of his ears with his hands. “Woman! Can’t you shut your mouth and be still,” he told Rakamaahl. To Murugaiyan he said, “What is this hassle? Can’t you stop her from screaming?”

Murugaiyan whispered in his wife’s ear, “Rakamaahl! Please bear with me! Be quiet! The prince does not want anyone to recognize him. He is going to Thanjavur dressed like a merchant!”

“Oh, you son of a sinner! Why didn’t you say so? You told me that the prince was not in the Buddhist monastery! You are pulling the same trick now! Aiyayoh! My blunder! I care too much, so I blurted out! The cursed Pazhuvertaraiyars are waiting to take their revenge on you. Knowing that, oh! – what have I done? I have made your presence here public! Prince! Please do not be afraid. The Pazhuvertaraiyars cannot hurt even an atom of your body. Like my husband and myself, thousands of people are on your side waiting to protect you,” she said. Turning to the crowd she asked them, “Don’t you all agree with me? Is anyone here on the side of the Pazhuvertaraiyars? Then, please come forward! Kill me first and then think of harming the prince,” she howled.

The crowd that was until then watching incredulously began to chant, “Long live Ponniyin Selvar! Long live the mighty warrior who conquered Eezham!” Hearing their voices more people joined the crowd. Among them was the enperaya leader of Nagaipattinam. Making his way through the crowd he said, “Prince! We heard that you were at this city’s Soodamani viharam. We did not believe the rumor, but now we know. Yesterday’s storm has wreaked havoc in this town. But it made you leave that Buddhist viharam. For that, we will forget all the tyranny of the storm. The city is fortunate to be graced by your presence!”

The prince saw that it was no use trying to hide himself any longer. “Sir! I thank everyone in this great city for their love. It makes me very happy. But I have to go to Thanjavur for an important reason. It is urgent. To avoid any delay I put on the disguise of a merchant. Please bid me farewell,” he said.

“No, no! The prince must wait and accept the poor people’s hospitality for at least a day,” a voice shouted from the crowd.

Following it a thousand voices rose. “No, no! The prince must wait here at least for a day,” they shouted.

“Crown Prince! Do you see the love and enthusiasm of my town’s people? You must be our guest and receive our homage. Aren’t we as deserving as the Buddhist monks? Yesterday, the people of this city, thinking that the Buddhist monks were keeping you hidden, were about to raze Soodamani viharam to the ground. The storm arrived at that time! It did what they failed to do. The viharam has crumbled to the ground,” he said.

“Sir! It is not right to blame the monks. The bikkus had me there because I needed them. When I was ill and pleading for dear life they saved me from Yaman’s loving noose. I am sorry to hear that Soodamani viharam succumbed. It is my duty to rebuild it,” the prince said.

“Aha! We had no idea about your illness! Now that we do, we will rebuild Soodamani viharam. Prince! You must be our guest before leaving,” said the enperaya leader.

“Yes, yes!” Tens of thousnads of voices echoed the leader.

“Prince! We can make up for the delay here. You have started out on foot. All the roads are blocked because of the storm. The rivers are flooded. On foot, when will you reach your destination? We will put you on an elephant and send you in a procession. We will all come with you and leave you in Thanjavur,” said the enperaya leader. While he was speaking more and more people were joining the crowd.

The prince was thinking. ‘The plan is ruined. The secret is out. Rakamaahl foolishly screamed and ruined the plan. Was it just foolishness? … Or, is there another motive? In any event, it is impossible to ignore these people. Their feelings will be hurt. In addition it may make matters worse. I must stay at least until noon and pacify them. I can also say a few words to alleviate the fears of those affected by the storm. Aha! The junior stateswoman Kundavai predicted that there will be turmoil in the country if they knew that I was alive! How accurate that was! There is no one as erudite as my sister in this world! They talk about Thanjai’s throne. Actually it is Kundavai who should have it! …’

While Ponniyin Selvar was thus contemplating he saw the crowd becoming bigger. He also saw how excited they were. They appeared to forget the storm’s devastating effects. From out of the blue elephants and horses; carriages and palanquins; banners, flags, and musical instruments such as kettle drums, trumpets and cornets appeared on the scene.

The prince decided to at least spend half the day there. He told the enperaya leader, “Sir! I don’t want to reject the people’s affection. I will remain here until late afternoon. Would you let me do that?”

The crowd was overjoyed when news spread that the prince had agreed to delay his journey. They took it on themselves to show their happiness. Music blared. On the streets people gathered in pockets around artists staging sword fights, fencing, folk dances and other entertainment. It became impossible to go back to the Chola palace through the crowd and the street festival. With the greatest difficulty they finally did.

In the palace the prince could not rest even for a minute. The news of his presence had spread to neighboring villages. People came in droves. All wanted to see the prince. He went outside often and inquired after their wellbeing. With genuine sympathy he walked through the crowd asking about their experience with the storm. He promised to make arrangements to help them as soon as he was in Thanjavur. He saw that the people weren’t really interested in their material loss. He heard the people asking one another, ‘Will the Pazhuvertaraiyars’ power come to an end?’ They spoke about the emperor’s declining health and who might succeed him to the throne in low voices, but clearly intended for the prince’s ears.

Meanwhile the city leaders arrived. Preparations got underway for a feast in honor of the prince. Arrangements were made to provide food for the crowd also. Whatever grain that did not get washed off with the storm was brought. There was no shortage of vegetables. From the fallen trees there were heaps of plantains and coconuts to feed a hundred thousand people!

***

The meal was over and it was time to leave. Holding his palms together in greeting the prince appeared on the front balcony. On the street a procession stood ready to take off. A decorated elephant arrived to take the prince. In front of it and behind stood horses and oxen. Beside musicians, flag bearers holding banners and flags lined up. Like the sea that spread the previous evening, people stood clamoring filling the space as far as eyes could see.

On the outside the prince looked cheerful. In his heart he was worried. He was eager for news about Eezha rani who had stolen his affection more than his own mother. He had hoped that he would get more information from Murugaiyan’s wife. But she had disappeared in the crowd. Only Murugaiyan took the effort to keep up with the prince and accompany him to the palace. He also did not know what had become of his wife Rakamaahl.

The prince had another concern also. The Pazhuvertaraiyars have already accused him of wanting to take the kingdom against his father’s wishes. The crowd’s behavior only seemed to prove it!

The prince simply wanted to free himself from the townspeople’s vortex of love. Meanwhile there was another development that he did not expect at all. When the prince held his palms together in a posture of farewell, the city leaders made their way through the crowd and stood at the entrance to the palace. As if foreordained the sound of drums and trumpets rose above the noise of the sea. When the music abruptly stopped there was silence. An elderly member of the city leaders stepped up to the podium and spoke eloquently.

“Ponniyin Selva! We have a request. A request on behalf of the people of Nagaipattinam and surrounding villages. We are concerned about the health of the emperor. We are also concerned about another news that we have been hearing. We hear that Pazhuvertaraiyars and several petty kings have decided to crown Mathuranthaka Thevar who had never seen the battlefield. If he ascends to the throne it will really be the Pazhuvertaraiyars who will have the reign. The petty kings’ word will become the law. Prince Athitha Karikalan has not been to Thanjai for three years. Several reasons are given. They say that he is not interested in the crown. In that case who should by law take the crown? It is the long awaited son of Cholanadu, the son whom Mother Kaveri saved, the mighty warrior who conquered Eezham … it is you! People! Do you agree with me?” When the speaker posed the question the response from the crowd shook the earth. “Yes, yes; we agree!” Tens of thousands of voices shouted. Following it a hundred thousand voices chanted, “Long live Ponniyin Selvar!” The noise turned into an incomprehensible roar.

When the prince began to speak as if under a spell the crowd became quiet.

“Sir! I am delighted by the love all of you have for me. But the way you have chosen to demonstrate that love is not proper! It appears that you have forgotten that my beloved father emperor Sundara Cholar is still living. ‘Long live the emperor!’ – you must join with me and pray. When the emperor is alive why worry about who will be seated on the throne next?”

The elderly chief of the city’s leaders had an answer for the prince. “Ponniyin Selva! From the beginning of time it has been the practice to choose the future king while the present king is still alive. Didn’t the warrior who conquered Madurai, emperor Paranthakar, who weaved a golden roof for Thillaiampala temple, line up those who will succeed in future generations while he was still alive? Isn’t that why your father asceneded to the throne?” He said.

“Yes, yes! Therefore, isn’t it the emperor who should decide who will take the throne after him? Is it proper that we should be having this conversation,” said the prince.

“Ponniyin Selva! We agree that only the emperor has the power. But it would be right if the emperor is able to make this decision on his own. At present the Pazhuvertaraiyars are keeping the emperor inside the Thanjai fortress like a prisoner. Prince! In addition, many of us even doubt if the emperor is alive. We want to come with you to Thanjai and see for ourselves. God willing, if the emperor is alive, we will tell him what we want. We will submit our request that it is you who should ascend to the throne after him. After that, let the emperor decide!”

The prince was very disturbed to hear someone having doubts about whether the emperor was alive. He experienced pain and fear that he had not felt until that moment. He was convinced that the emperor’s life was in grave danger and that he was too far away to do anything about it. And then there was the news about Eezha rani’s abduction by some scoundrels. He was anxious to leave for Thanjai without a moment’s delay. Within seconds the prince decided on a course of action. There was no use arguing with these people. It will only create more delays. If he agrees with them and gets started then on the way other solutions can be sought.

“Sir! I will not stand in the way of your wish. What you said about the emperor has made it more urgent than ever before to be near him. I must leave immediately. If you want to see the emperor, then by all means join me! Whatever the emperor says about the crown’s succession we will all listen and act accordingly!” He said.

In a short while the prince began his journey on the elephant. A procession of about thousand people followed him. As they proceeded more and more people joined them.

8. Pazhuvertaraiyar on the Boat

Readers would remember that it was in the morning of the day of the storm that Pazhuvertaraiyar departed for Thanjai from Kadampoor. He took the road up to Kollidam and then turned west along the Kollidam riverbank. He did not want a long journey through the Cholanadu villages. He wanted to go west and cross Kollidam at Thiruvaiyaru.

The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar was not traveling with hundreds of aids. He wanted to avoid anyone’s attention during this trip. So he took just ten people with him.

When Pazhuvertaraiyar reached Thiruvaiyaru at Kollidam’s northern shore water was abundantly flowing touching both sides. It would have been impossible to take the horse in the small boat waiting. There were signs that the wind was picking up speed. Therefore, leaving the horses on the north shore for the return trip, Pazhuvertaraiyar set off on the boat with the ten soldiers accompanying him. Midway in the river the storm turned severe. The two boatmen struggled to row. The flood pulled the boat eastward. The storm pushed it west. The boatmen tried to direct it to the south. Caught between these three forces the boat turned like a wheel.

In Pazhuvertaraiyar’s heart also there was a storm waging. When he was facing Nandhini his mind would generally fall into a stupor. Whatever she said would seem right. Something that he had abhorred all his life, if it is proposed by Nandhini, would become palatable. Even if some doubt lingered in his heart, his mouth would still say, ‘Yes, yes; we’ll do that.’ Once he had agreed to something, he never liked going back.

When Nandhini asked him to bring Mathuranthakar from Thanjai, he agreed. After beginning the journey doubts plagued his heart. He did not believe that Nandhini could behave immorally. Yet the thought that he had left her alone amidst three young men of her age haunted him.

He had reasons to feel hostile toward Kanthamaran, Vandhiyathevan and Athitha Karikalan. As if drawn with a hot rod of iron Kanthamaran’s remark, ‘your daughter’ – when he encountered Nandhini and Pazhuvertaraiyar in the underground cellar – had left its mark on Pazhuvertaraiyar’s mind. In the heat of that moment he secretly ordered his guard to kill Kanthamaran. Later, he rregretted it. Kanthamaran somehow survived. How he did, how the cellar guard succumbed, – Pazhuvertaraiyar still had not figured out the details. He could not forget that following the stabbing, Kanthamaran was a guest in his palace and Nandhini had attended to him with great care.

And, Vandhiyathevan was also at Kadampoor. He had not liked that loudmouth from the first moment he laid his eyes on him. His dislike grew when he heard that he had wanted to warn the emperor secretly and that he escaped from Thanjai fortress fooling everyone. He also remembered hearing from the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar that Nandhini may have helped Vandhiyathevan escape. That fib can never be true. Because it was known that Vandhiyathevan was the confidential messenger to Madam Kundavai and Prince Arulmozhi. That ruled out any connection to Nandhini. Yet whenever Pazhuvertaraiyar happened to see him with Nandhini he felt his steel heart blazing in a fire.

And then, there was Athitha Karikalan. He had heard that once he wanted to marry a temple pattar’s daughter, and that girl was Nandhini. Now they are meeting again. Nandhini took the initiative for it. Why? One thing was certain; Athitha Karikalan might be a rude fellow. He might not respect his elders. But he was born in the Chola tribe. No one in that tribe had committed adultery. Karikalan was also not that kind of man. Where women were concerned he was faultless. But Nandhini? Was it prudent to have believed her to this extent and gone along with her whims and fancies? Was Pazhuvertaraiyar certain that her behavior was faultless? He still did not know her history well. His brother Kalanthakakandar had warned him indirectly many times.

“Would my brother’s words become true? Would Nandhini fail him? Aha! This is good for fiction! Do such deceitful women really exist? Is Nandhini one of them? …”

If these thoughts fanned the flames of anger in his heart they also ignited his lust for her. To leave his agony behind Pazhuvertaraiyar shook his head and cleared his throat. The awareness that he was among ten other people was what kept him from smacking himself on his forehead. Long sighs escaped his being without his volition. Gripping the edge of the boat with both hands he vowed, “I will find out the truth in two days! I will never again make these mistakes!”

9. Shoreline Breach

The others on the boat had no idea about Pazhuvertaraiyar’s inner musings. They assumed that he was concerned about the boat in that stormy weather. His iron will was what the elder  Pazhuvertaraiyar was known for.

When they saw him unraveling fear took hold of the others also. Everyone began to think of a way to escape fearing that the boat may topple any moment.

After struggling for a long time the boat finally reached the coast about five miles east of their landing point. Thinking, ‘No more worries,’ everyone sighed. At that moment a tree that was swaying devilishly broke and fell. The wind carried the tree and dropped it in the water next to the boat. The boatmen tried hard to turn the boat away from it. It was of no use. The tree collided with the boat. The boat capsized. Next minute everyone from the boat was floating in the water.

Since they were all planning an escape route, when confronted with the necessity they were somewhat prepared. As the boat was close to the shore some started swimming. Others clung to the trees. Others grabbing whatever they could simply floated.

Because Pazhuvertaraiyar’s mind was preoccupied with other worries, he was the least prepared. When the boat capsized he drowned. The flood carried him a long way off. After gulping mouthfuls of water, his ears and nose blocked, when he made his way above the floodwater there was no sign of land or the men from the boat. Pazhuvertaraiyar realized that the flood had dragged him to the center of that vast river.

The old man’s age old valor sprang again in his heart. The great warrior who had fought victoriously in many wars decided to put up a fight with the Kollidam flood. He grabbed a log that was coming his way. Aiming at the shore he began to swim. Fighting against the wind and the water he swam. When his hands became tired he simply floated. Several times when he tried to crawl out of the water the slippery shore muddied by the rain pushed him back again into the river. He immediately grabbed back the log that he had momentarily let go of.

After fighting in this way for a good quarter of the night his feet finally touched the ground at a place where a reed colony had taken root. The tall grasses conveniently bent to his grasp and helped him finally climb on to the shore.

Darkness engulfed him. It seemed unlikely that there were any villages nearby. He was probably about fifteen miles east of the pier across from Thiruvaiyaru. Yes, yes! He was near the town of Kudanthai. Can he make it to Kudanthai for the night?

The storm had just reached its climax in that area. Its noise sounding like a hundred thousand devils deafened one’s ears. ‘chada chada!’ – trees were falling down. Thunder from above sounded as if the ends of the earth were exploding. Rain was torrential.

“Won’t there be an old building or temple somewhere? I will have to spend the night there. Only when the day breaks I can begin my journey.” With this decision he walked along the riverbank resolutely planting his otherwise trembling legs.

In the river the flood ran up to the brim. The rain dumped water on the shore as well. And the darkness – he had no words for it! So, when the brave old warrior was walking he did not pay attention to the water swelling over the bank. He hesitated when the water was suddenly touching his knees. When it rose up to his thighs he became alarmed. But his time for thinking had run out. In the next second he found himself tumbling and falling. The flood that rushed past, breaking the Kollidam bank, rolled him over and carried him along. Because the ground dropped beyond the embankment of the shoreline he felt being carried down deep into the abyss. When the boat capsized and left him in the torrential flood of the river he was able to go along with it. Now he could not. He kept rolling over and over, going deeper and deeper down. He could not see, he could not hear. He could not straighten himself and push upwards, or reach for air. A frightening monster kept thrusting his head under water, rolling him from head to toe over and over again towards an abyss.

“Aha! The flood is the monster that has broken the Kollidam bank and bursting forth through it! Can anyone escape its terrifying grip and its brutal somersaults? Feet won’t even skim the ground! Nothing to grab on to! I cannot breathe! Someone is strangling me! My ears are blocked! Durga Parameshwari! Goddess! Would I survive this catastrophe? Wretched Nandhini! See what happened to me because of you! … Aiyo! … Poor girl! I left you with those rascals and came! … Cheechee! What have I reaped by falling for your beauty, feeling sorry for your plight and marrying you? Other than losing my peace of mind, what else was there? In the end I am going to get caught in this Kollidam breach and suffocate to death! My body – that bears sixty four battlescars – there won’t be a tombstone or pallipadai over its burial place! No one will find the body! I am going to be entombed in mud somewhere! No one will even know what became of me! Or, the flood may cast me away on some shore! Foxes and dogs will feast on me! …”

These thoughts kept Pazhuvertaraiyar’s mind working for a few minutes. After that he lost consciousness altogether! …

‘thadar!’ – when his head knocked against something he briefly regained his senses. His hands were holding onto either the earth or a rock. A force brought him up and swung him over. He also used whatever was remaining of his will power and pressed his hands down and leaped. Next minute he felt himself lying on a hard granite floor. His eyelids were pressed down tightly. With difficulty he tried to open them. When they opened a little the light outside nearly blinded him. In the bright light Durga Parameshwari presented her divine face! “Goddess! Your mercy is endless! You decided to end my harried life on earth and bring me to your presence! …”

No, no! This is not heaven. This is the Amman temple on earth. It is Amman’s statue that is in front. He is lying in the room facing the sanctuary. Next to Amman a small flame was flickering. Its light was what blinded his eyes. ‘Cho!’ – outside the rain poured. Storm was also waging. Neither the rain nor the storm could not touch the flame flickering in Devi’s sanctuary! Is this a good omen? Is this a sign of Durga Parameshwari’s kindness to him? Is it a sign that however many dangers may come his life will not be dimmed? The mercy of jaganmatha is endless! All his devotion and poojas have not gone to waste.

The old man struggled to get on his feet. His body trembled. After being in the water for so long it was natural to feel cold! He took the cloth that served as a curtain in Amman’s sanctuary and wiped his body. Discarding his wet clothes he wrapped himself in the curtain.

At Amman’s sanctuary there were the coconut halves, fruits and rice that have been placed as offering. The priest and devotees who came to worship must have left in a hurry. What was the hurry? Was it the storm and the rain? Or were they aware of the Kollidam breach? Whatever it was, it turned out to be his blessing! Durga Parameshwari did not just save him from the flood. She was also waiting with food to relieve him of his hunger.

He would have to spend the night in the temple. There won’t be a better place. The flood would pass this way. It might damage the temple. Water would burrow in around the temple. It might damage the foundation. In any case it’s not going to topple in one night. Even if it did, so be it. There was no way he could leave this place tonight. There was no strength in his body; or mind.

Piously Pazhuvertaraiyar approached Devi’s sanctuary. He dined on the food to his satisfaction. He wrapped and saved the balance carefully. In front of the goddess he lay down in a pose of worship. His eyes were closing. Within seconds Pazhuvertaraiyar was fast asleep.

 

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