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Ponniyin Selvan Part V (25 – 29)

June 19, 2017

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

25. At the Entrance to the Fort

Leaving his tent Poothi Vikramakesari leapt onto the horse that was waiting outside. He hurried to the north entrance of Thanjai fort. He noticed an elephant that was also making its way to the north entrance. On the elephant were the elephant-keeper and two women. The elephant-keeper blew the horn that he held in his hand. Then he announced in a high pitched voice, “Make way for the beloved daughter of Paranthaka siriya Velar who died in Eezham; the adopted daughter of Kodumabalur periya Velar Colonel Poothi Vikramakesari; the beloved friend of Pazhaiyarai junior stateswoman Kundavai Devi; Vanathi Devi! Parak! Parak!”

When he reached the trench surrounding the fort he blew his horn again. Before its echo faded he spoke again in the same high pitched voice: “Kodumbalur Princess Vanathi Devi has a message to the emperor from the junior stateswomanr. She is bringing an important message to the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar from the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar! Open the gates to the fort! Parak! Parak! Make way for Kodumabalur Princess and her friend Madam Poongkuzhali! Open the gates!”

Colonel Poothi Vikramakesari’s astonishement at hearing these words cannot be described. The elephant-keeper’s voice sounded familiar. Who is he? Does it matter who the elephant-keeper is? He must first make sure that it is Vanathi who is on the elephant! He must stop her from entering the fort! If it is her, then it is for the best! Until these problems are resolved it is best that the child remains with him …! With these thoughts the colonel rode his horse to the elephant. Among the soldiers hastily following him and trying to keep up with him, one held a torch in his hand. From the light of the torch it was apparent that the two women atop the elephant were indeed siriya Velar’s daughter Vanathi and Poongkuzhali.

“Child! Vanathi!” Before he could continue the elephant-keeper sounded his horn again. How to stop this fellow? Fortunately the women on the elephant saw the men approaching on horses.

After telling the elephant-keeper to be quiet Vanathi said, “Periyappa! Is that you? What I heard is true?”

“Yes, Child! It is me! You are carrying messages? Junior Stateswoman cannot employ anyone else? Under such conditions …,” said the colonel.

“Yes, Periyappa! Because the situation is so dire, she sent me. News arrived that you have surrounded Thanjai fort with troops. She was afraid that your troops may not let anyone in; and even if they did, those inside the fort may refuse to open the gates. Therefore she felt that I could be of help in both situations. Poongkuzhali was also sent to help me …”

“Yes, yes! The boatwoman is very smart. I am aware of that. But, what is this message that you have? So urgent, that it must be delivered in the night?”

“The news is urgent, Periyappa! I have brought news about Ponniyin Selvar to the emperor.”

“Aha! News about Ponniyin Selvar! What do you know about him?”

“Why, I know a lot – the heroic warrior, mighty trickster, Kaveri will not drown him, nor the ocean, beacon to those who seek sanctuary, never forgets a good deed owed, devoted to mother and father, will not cross the sister’s word, no inclination for ruling …”

“Enough! Enough! I didn’t ask for any of that. Is the Prince alright? Do you know where he is now?”

“He’s alright, Periyappa! I know where he is now. But I cannot tell!”

“What? Cannot tell? Even to me? Vanathi, is that you who is speaking?”

“Yes, Periyappa! It is me. I have promised not to tell anyone where the prince is.”

Colonel Poothi Vikaramakesari was frothing. “Girl! I believed that if I sent you to the junior stateswoman she will bring you up properly. But she has turned you into this stubborn woman! Enough of you being at Pazhaiyarai. Get down! Let me send you to Kodumbalur …,” he said.

Periyappa! I do not wish to step on this Thanjavur soil. That is why I remain seated on the elephant. This elephant has a case of rutting. This morning it threw down a man. Therefore, please don’t come too close. After I deliver my message I will come back to you. You can send me to Kodumbalur. Or, send me to where my father is. But don’t stop me now,” said Vanathi.

Poothi Vikramakesari was pensive for a moment. “Alright, Child! I won’t stop you. What will you do if the fortress gates don’t open,” he asked.

“Periyappa! You are here with this big battalion. What for? If the fortress doors won’t open, order your soldiers to break them open,” said Vanathi.

Poothi Vikramakesari beamed with pride. “Child! You spoke like a Kodumbalur king’s daughter. If necessary I will do exactly that. But that will not be necessary. Who is this sinna Pazhuvertaraiyan to stop you who has brought a message from the junior stateswoman to the emperor? He will never do that.

But please deliver a message to sinna Pazhuvertaraiyan from me also! Tell him that if you are harmed in anyway while you are inside the fort that I will wipe out his tribe without a trace! Tell him that my friends and I have come to hear the emperor speak! Let him know that by sunset tomorrow if he doesn’t offer us a meeting with the emperor that we will start to attack the fort,” he said.

“Alright, Periyappa,” said Vanathi. Once again the elephant-keeper sounded the horn. “Make way for the Kodumbalur Princess! Open the fortress gates!” He bellowed.

26. Vanathi’s Entrance

Inside the fort, he younger Pazhuvertaraiyar was having a mental breakdown. In valor he was not inferior to anyone else. But in other matters he was used to functioning under his brother’s counsel, so today in this difficult situation his mind fluttered like a bird with a broken wing. Since dawn he had received bad news one after another.

He received news that it was more than three days since the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar had started for Thanjai from Kadampoor Sambuvaraiyar’s palace. He also heard that on the day of the storm, many boats while crossing river Kollidam had sunk. A short while after a man who was on one of the boats with the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar turned up. He said that their boat also capsized and that he reached the shore after much difficulty.

Another spy came with the news that Prince Arulmozhivarmar had come out of hiding in Nagapattinam Soodamani Viharam. A large crowd of people were escorting him to Thanjai. While the prince stopped at Thiruvarur for the night, the spy had journeyed through the night crossing towns that were a wilderness of floodwater.

A short time after that a man sent by Sambuvaraiyar himself arrived. Sambuvaraiyar sent word that Thirukovalur Malaiamman was gathering his troops, and that Athitha Karikalar’s recklessness was increasingly on the rise, and because of it Sambuvaraiyar would like the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar to return immediately.

The elder Pazhuvertaraiyar on the other hand, was not in Thanjai. How can he return immediately? Would Kollidam’s flood have stolen that brave old man whom even Yaman dared not to meddle with? The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar was devastated.

Next arrived like thunder the news hastily delivered by spies from the south. They brought news that rows upon rows of soldiers were marching down on all three roads that led to Thanjai from the south and that Kodumbalur Poothi Vikramakesari was with them.

It was when he heard this news that the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar ordered all gates to be closed. He blocked anyone from entering or leaving the fort.

As usual he had the velakara soldiers guarding the emperor’s palace and his own men, the fort. He wanted to let the emperor know of these developments.

Before he embarked on that he wanted to consult with the chief minister, Aniruthar. Even though he didn’t have much faith in Aniruthar, he felt good about having him in Thanjai at that time. In this way, Aniruthar cannot do anything without the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s knowledge! It was better to even pretend that the chief minister’s counsel was being sought. In this way, no one can blame the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar if anything goes wrong.

Instead of going to visit the emperor alone, it was better to take Aniruthar also with him. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar believed that Prince Arulmozhivarman and Poothi Vikramakesari – who wanted to forge an alliance with the prince by giving his niece in marriage, – have conspired together to take over Thanjai, and this was the reason that the two men were advancing from both sides. This information will be difficult for the emperor to believe if it came from the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s mouth. Having Aniruthar by his side will lend credibility!

For his part, chief minister Aniruthar was also shaken up. He did not like the fact that the junior stateswoman Kundavai departed from Thanjai that morning. His peace of mind was already compromised by the disappearance of Eezhathurani and Poongkuzhali. “Where would they have gone? How could they have gone? Why” – raking his mind perpetually in this manner did not shed any light. The news that Poothi Vikramakesari is coming with troops completely unnerved him.

Yet, he advised the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar that the emperor need not hear about these developments.

“I hear that the emperor’s mental woes are on the rise today. The queen’s private maid was sent to inform me. If we break the news about Poothi Vikramakesari he might burst a vein in his brain that may end up fatal. Already the rumor in Thanjai is that the emperor has passed away. Think how damaging it will be if it turns out to be true. The rumor then will be that you have killed the emperor. That will make it very convenient for your enemies. Therefore, let’s wait before making a decision. First, let’s find out what Poothi Vikramakesari’s intentions are. Meanwhile we may hear more about the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar and Ponniyin Selvar. Until then please be patient,” he said. Kalanthaka Kandar thought that this was prudent.

“In that case I will leave you the responsibility of informing the emperor. I will deal with the safety of the fortress,” he said. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar then took his leave from the chief minister.

From then on he concentrated on tightening the security around the fort. He concentrated on being prepared for a protracted attack that may last days. If the Kodumbalur troops entered by breaking the fortress gates or by climbing over the fence he wanted to be prepared to defeat them by placing soldiers at strategic points. If the fortress wall is damaged in places he must have it repaired.

While the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar concentrated on these efforts his mind continued to think about ways to get information from the outside.

Thanjai fort had only two underground passages. One went out from the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar’s palace through the treasury cellar. It opened on the side of Vadavaru which was high with floodwater at the time. Opening it will only let the flood surge into the cellar. So no one will be able to use this passage for a few days.

The other underground passage left from chief minister Aniruthar’s palace. But no one can enter or exit from it without the knowledge of the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar. Where it crossed the fortress wall the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s guard was posted. He planned on sending his private aides via this underground passage at the close of the second jamam that night. He will send men to Kadampoor and Pazhaiyarai to gather reliable information about the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar and Ponniyin Selvar.

Just as Kalanthaka Kandar arrived at this decision, a soldier hastily entered and told him that two women have arrived on an elephant at the north entrance and that the elephant-keeper was yelling for the gates to be opened. When he heard that one of the women was Vanathi the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar was surprised. How dare she ask for entry when her periyappa has camped outside the fort with his troops. At first he thought that he should firmly refuse to open the gate. But by the time he reached the north entrance, his mind had changed.

“Refuse to open the gate because of a little girl? How pitiful? That will damage my valorous reputation,” he thought. He was also curious about why this girl wanted entry into the fort in this manner.

He looked out at the entrance from the tower of the fort. Beside the elephant-keeper, there were two women on the elephant. He recognized one of them as Vanathi. He saw Kodumbalur periya Velar speaking to her. Fragments of their conversation also reached his ears. He surmised that periya Velar was asking Vanathi not to enter the fort, and Vanathi was adamantly taking the opposite view. Therefore his notion of opening the gate for Vanathi gained more ground.

Once periya Velar moved away he saw the elephant taking a few steps to come and stand at the edge of the trench that bordered the outer wall of the fort. Just as before, the elephant-keeper blew his horn and announced, “Open the door for Kodubalur Princess! Make way for Vanathi Devi who is bringing messages to the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar from the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar, and from the junior stateswoman to the emperor!”

When he heard this all remaining traces of indecision and uncertainty left the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s mind. Indeed it was strange that the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar should send a message through Vanathi. There may be some foul play her. If there was, won’t he detect it? Can this little girl survive after deceiving him? Let’s see!

To the sound of the elephant-keeper’s horn a response came from the tower. Light from a torch appeared. The pointed ends of spears could be seen glittering in the light. Arrows could be seen mounted and ready, on bows curved and taut. From among them a figure emerged.

“The gates will open for the Kodumbalur Princess. If anyone else other than the elephant and those on the elephant tried to enter, they will no sooner go to yamanulakam!” The figure announced in a voice that roared like thunder.

When they heard it Poothi Vikramakesari and his men moved away slightly. The gates of the fort opened. The bridge over the trench was lowered. As the elephant crossed, the bridge shook. Vanathi felt fear. But there was no danger. The elephant crossed the trench and entered the fort through the open gates. Next minute the bridge was pulled up again; gates were shut.

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s elephant came and stood next to Vanathi’s. “Princess! Welcome! Welcome! I am very happy that against your uncle’s objection you have agreed to be my guest! Please don’t be afraid that you are in any kind of danger here!” The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar said in a majestic voice.

“Sir! I am not afraid. After I deliver the messages I have, I won’t care if you should even lock me up in the dungeon,” said Vanathi.

27. ‘Stop Here!’

To the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar talk about the dungeon brought back old memories. Forgetting conventional pleasantries he said, “Yes; you have been to the dungeon at least once. You went with the junior stateswoman. You went seeking information about the fellow who escaped after getting caught for spying!”

“No, Sir! That is not true. We went to the dungeon that day not to find out about the spy. We went to find out about the message sent by the crown prince Athitha Karikalar.”

“That’s what you thought. How could you have known whether he was a spy or a courier. You are an innocent little girl. There is no use arguing with you. So, after getting there, did you find out anything about him?”

“No, the person we went to see, he was released, even without your knowledge. Pazhuvur Ilayarani’s order preceded us. Alas! What can you do?”

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar bit his lips. His elder brother’s indulgence in Ilaiyarani’s excesses against his many warnings is being criticized even by this young woman! Hiding his feeling of shame, “For your part, you also helped free a half madman,” he said.

“Sir! You are calling Senthan Amuthan who delivers flowers to the temple a half madman. You will be surprised if you knew the great service done to Cholanadu because of his release that day!”

“Girl! There is nothing that will surprise me any longer. I am tired of standing in awe of whoever and whatever on behalf of Cholanadu. Even you are here now to do great service to Cholanadu, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Sir! If it’s not important would your brother have sent me? An ignorant and helpless woman?”

“My brother is indeed getting smarter by the day. It’s obvious from the fact that he chose you for this task. Quickly tell me your message!”

“He said to tell you that it was a mistake to have ignored the Pandyanadu troublemakers. Veera Pandyan’s aides are in fact engaged in dangerous activities. They have marked today as the day to avenge the Chola tribe. He said that the emperor must be given the utmost protection …”

Kalanthaka Kandar laughed. “This is the important news? I thought it had to do with your uncle arriving with troops. If he can keep an eye on the Kodumbalur garrison from outside, I can take care of the emperor inside the fort. Neither he, nor the junior stateswoman or you need worry about it,” he said.

“Knowing that you will take this nonchalant attitude, he also gave another message. Apparently you have warned him about a magician who frequented Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani’s palace; he did not want to listen, he was angry at you over it. ‘Brother! I have committed a grave mistake. That magician Ravithasan is the Pandyanadu saboteur. Head of Veera Pandyan’s emergency squad, who has vowed to destroy the Chola tribe without a trace. Today, one of his men will try to take revenge on the emperor. Don’t be naive. Take all precautions!’ – This is the message sent by the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar. I have done my duty …”

Kalanthaka Kandar was indeed startled. No one other than his elder brother could have sent this message.

“Girl! If this is true, why is he not here? Why has he sent you …?”

“He did not send me. He asked the junior stateswoman. She sent me. Danger awaits Athitha Karikalar also today. He has gone to protect him.”

“From where? Where did he see you?”

“He saw us at Kudanthai astrologer’s house. If you are still suspicious please listen to this. When your brother was crossing river Kollidam the boat capsized. After he scrambled on to the shore and was sleeping at pallipadai, he heard the saboteurs talking. Sir! Do we still need to stand here chatting? Or can we go to the palace?”

“Girl! Let’s assume that all what you said is true. However artful, no saboteur can go past the palace guard. Because you are a woman I let you in …”

“Why must anyone come from outside? What if the saboteurs are inside the fort …?”

“Impossible …”

“Alright! That’s your responsibility. My duty …”

” … you have fulfilled. You can return now.”

“No, Sir! I have fulfilled only half of my duty. If I give the emperor the junior stateswoman’s message then my task is complete …”

“You can give me that news also.”

“No. The junior stateswoman ordered me to deliver this news directly to the emperor. Here is the junior stateswoman’s signature ring! …”

“Ah! Anyone can produce a signature ring. What is the guarantee that the junior stateswoman gave you the ring? Your uncle has the fort covered. How are you to be trusted? …”

“What is the danger that you are fearful of that this helpless woman can cause?”

“Girl! Members of the Pazhuvur tribe do not know the meaning of fear …”

“In that case let me proceed to the palace. You also come with me …”

“The emperor’s mind is very disturbed today …”

“I have brought news that will relieve his mind, Sir! If you know what it is you will regret stopping me …”

Surprised the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar asked, “Girl! Perhaps you have brought news of the young prince?”

“Yes, Colonel!”

“Aha! Is the young prince alright? Where is he now? He …. the saboteurs …”

“Yes; He was also a target of the Pandyanadu saboteurs. But by the grace of god no harm was done. He is well. You are happy to hear this?”

“Good question! Of course I am happy to hear good news about the prince. Come, come! I don’t want to waste time. Come to the palace and speak directly to the emperor!”

With this final remark the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar rode away on his elephant. He was eager for news of the prince. He never thought of Arulmozhivarman as a competition for his son-in-law Mathuranthakan and the Thanjai throne. He knew that was not the emperor’s plan. Arulmozhivarman was also not the kind of person to cross his father’s word. His worry was that Kundavai should not interfere and make trouble. Has she started some conspiracy now? Keeping Arulmozhivarman by her side would she have sent some disturbing news to her father? If this Kodumbalur girl has really brought news of the prince to the emperor he will not stand in her way. If he knows what Arulmozhuvarmar’s intention was then he can make his plans accordingly! At the same time he can also let the emperor know about Poothi Vikramakesari’s treacherous move to surround the fort with his troops.

The two elephants stopped at the palace entrance. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar slid down from the elephant with ease. The other elephant rolling like a hill folded its legs and lay down. The two women and the elephant-keeper stepped down. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar whispered something in the palace guard’s ear. He opened the doors to the palace.

The message Vanathi claimed to have brought from his elder brother was lurking in the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s mind. Even if he tried he could not ignore it. Especially the news about magician Ravithasan took away his peace of mind altogether. He had always known about Veera Pandyan’s emergency squad. But he had no idea that they had a foothold inside the Thanjai palace itself. He believed that Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani’s consultations with the magician were mainly for the sake of drawing the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar more and more into her spell. He also believed that her intention was to turn the two brothers away from each other. But the news that this girl delivered was indeed threatening. Yet, what magician or saboteur can do anything? Without his permission not even a fly can enter the emperor’s palace. The emperor never ventured outside. In any case it is wise to further tighten the security around the palace. The last two days had seen too many people flocking in, citing the storm and flood as excuse or on the pretext of seeing the chief minister. No one knows if all of them did exit the fort. It was good that the gates were shut today without warning. If anyone suspicious was hiding inside they can be caught ….

Preoccupied by these concerns the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar beckoned his men who were always present at the palace entrance. He ordered them to search inside the fort for anyone suspicious and bring them to him.

He wanted to have the velakara troops to forego sleep and guard the palace through the night. So he sent for their leader. Then he turned to see what had become of the women on the elephant. They had just crossed the piazza and were about to go inside. But … but … who is he? The other person behind them? He is wearing a turban like the elephant-keeper! Aha! Why is the elephant-keeper following them? What has the elephant-keeper got to do in the palace? What business has the elephant-keeper got with the emperor?
As if struck by lightening his mind reverberated igniting his fury. Is there some perfidy here? Is this fellow the saboteur? The women were fooled because of the fellow’s elephant-keeper disguise? Has he been fooled? Right in front of his eyes Veera Pandyan’s emergency squad is marching into the emperor’s palace? Is Kalanthaka Kandar that much of a fool? Or is this part of Poothi Vikramakesari’s conspiracy? Whatever it is, it will be exposed right this second!

In four quick strides he was across the piazza standing beside the elephant-keeper. “Aday! Stop here!” He barked.

“Why are you going in? What business has the elephant-keeper got inside the palace?” The elephant-keeper’s arm lay in his vajrayutham like clenched fist.

Hearing his angry voice the two women in front turned. Their faces reflected a medley of feelings – excitement, anxiety and fear. At the same time smiles broke out as well. Vanathi began, ” Sir! … He … he … ” and then hesitated.

Consumed by anger younger Pazhuvertaraiyar did not want to see her or hear her. The elephant-keeper’s confusion confirmed his suspicion. He wondered if this was the Varnar tribe young man who once escaped after deceiving him. Has he dared to fool him again? …

Tightening his grip on the man’s arm the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar said, “Ada! Tell the truth! Who are you? Are you the elephant-keeper? Or, saboteur? Are you the spy who got away from here once? This time you won’t escape!” While speaking he turned the man’s face towards him. The lamps that were burning in the front hall of the palace shed some light on the stately face of the elephant-keeper.

“Colonel! I am an elephant-keeper also. I have never run away from you. I am here to hand myself over to you!” The elephant-keeper answered.

Kalanthaka Kandar looked at the face. He heard the voice. He felt as if all seven worlds had collapsed over his head. Dazed, he stood like a statue. It didn’t even occur to him to loosen his grip. His hand came undone on its own and freed Prince Arulmozhivarmar.

28. Cheer Broke Out!

The youthful enchantment of Prince Arulmozhivarmar’s face cannot be described in words. There was no frown. There was no sign of anger. He stood apologetic like the Kannan who got caught after stealing butter. He showed no trace of animosity against the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar.

Yet, the fearless, strong willed Kalanthaka Kandar’s limbs were shaking. Perspiration beaded on his face. Unaware of what he was doing he held his palms together in greeting. “Ponniyin Selva! Brave warrior who captured Eezham! The long awaited son of Cholanadu! In this condition? What is this travesty? What have I done to be punished in this manner? … You must kindly forgive me for my mistake. Please say, ‘I forgive you!’ Even with my two good eyes, I turned into a blind man …,” he said in a trembling voice.

As he proceeded to ramble on in this manner the prince stopped him. “Colonel! What is this? You made a mistake? This ignorant little boy must forgive you,” he said.

“Even cutting off this hand that grabbed you will not suffice. Ripping the tongue that called you will not …”

“Your words are molten lead to my ears. Enough! Stop! You did your duty. What’s wrong with that. The mistake is mine. That I would arrive in an elephant-keeper’s disguise …”

” … indeed, I did not expect that. How can you do this? Why? Is this any way for me to welcome the heroic warrior of Cholanadu? Shouldn’t I be hosting a royal welcome with victory drums echoing in all eight directions? …”

“That is why I came in this disguise. This is not the time for celebration. Don’t you know, what the Kodumbalur Princess said about the saboteurs – it all seem credible to me as well …”

“Prince! Have you banded me also with those saboteurs?”

“God! I am so pleased with your arrangements to protect my father. Let me first see my father, then …”

“Sir! Did you think that I will stop you from seeing the emperor? If anyone had told you that I was such an evil …”

“I will never have listened, Colonel!”

“Then why this disguise?”

“How else could I have stepped into the fort, think about it! The troops from the south are all about the place. Periya Velar is also here. You probably know why he is here …”

“Isn’t it right that I ordered the gates shut? Is there anything wrong with that?

“Very prudent. Periya Velar has lost his mind. I came dressed like this knowing that he will be in the way. I brought his daughter also. Fortunately he did not recognize me. Your watchful eyes saw me …”

“My eyes were shut. That is why I didn’t immediately recognize you. Please forgive me for calling you an elephant-keeper …”

“Please don’t say that. I have never drawn a distinction between you and my father. You sent men to bring me back by force …”

“God! What is this talk? Bring you back by force? Because he wanted to see you immediately, your father the emperor sent …”

“Don’t I know that, Colonel! They came when I was in Ilanaki. ‘Not the emperor’s order; it is the Pazhuvertaraiyars …’ – those next to me said …”

“Our enemies will say that …”

“Just like my father’s order, the Pazhuvertaraiyars’ order must be honored,” I told them. I have come crossing the sea, withstanding rain, storm and flood. I thought of asking questions once inside the palace. I had no intention of seeing my father against your wish …”

“Prince! Are you still questioning my motives? What authority do I have over your actions? If you wish me to accompany you I will. If you wish me to stay here, I will! Whatever the Prince wishes, that is my crowning obligation!” The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar said humbly.

“Colonel! You probably will have to wait here. We have stood here too long talking. Look over there,” said the prince.

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar turned around. His men who were standing at a distance had all advanced closer. Not only them; the palace guards were also next to them. From among the velakara troops who were positioned even farther away, a few of the men were walking towards them.

Those who were in front stood there staring at Ponniyin Selvar in amazement. When the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar turned, the light fell directly on the prince brightly illuminating his face.

“Long live the prince, one of the soldiers said. “Long live the prince,” said another. “Long live the warrior who beat Mahinthan and conquered Eezham,” said yet another.

When they heard their voices the velakara troops came running forward. “Long live Ponniyin Selvar,” rose many voices in greeting.

Since this was the entrance to the palace, and in deference to the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar the voices did not rise very high. It was like the gentle breeze rustling the new Spring growth of the arasa tree. In time as days passed we will see in the chapters to come how this faint sound grew and became the loud chorus that beat even the roar of the thousands of waves crashing in the great ocean.

“Colonel! It was a mistake to stand here talking. Now you see why I didn’t want to reveal myself before I was well inside the palace,” said the prince.

“I see, Prince! I will pacify them. You should proceed,” said Kalanthaka Kandar.

29. Uncertain Adversity

After Ponniyin Selvar entered the palace Kalanthaka Kandar went to the velakara soldiers who were gathering at the entrance of the palace.

“What is this disturbance? Don’t you know about the emperor’s condition? Don’t you see the enemy soldiers around the fort?” He asked in a stern voice.

The leader of the velakara troops asked, “Sir! Are they enemies who have surrounded the fort? How did Kodumbalur periya Velar become an enemy?”

Keeping a lid on the furor rising inside him the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar said, “That question ought to be posed to him; if he is no enemy why has he camped outside with a garrison?”

“To crown the young prince, we hear,” said the velakara troop leader.

“You are in agreement with that,” asked the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar.

The velakara troop leader said to his soldiers, “Please answer!”

The soldiers immediately chanted, “Yes! Yes! Long live Ponniyin Selvar! Long live the prince who captured Eezham!”

This time their voices rose stronger than before.

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s face reddened; his mustache twitched. Yet, biting his teeth he asked, “Is this any of periya Velar’s business? Or yours for that matter? Is there no respect for the emperor’s wish?”

One of the soldiers asked, “Colonel! Is the emperor well? Is it true?”

“What kind of question …” Kalanthakar hissed.

“Rumors about the emperor are spreading. Today we also did not see him! So we are all very concerned about his health,” said the velakara troop leader.

“Didn’t I already give the reason for the emperor’s absence? The emperor is in a highly agitated mental state. He did not want to see anyone today. He did not come to the assembly hall also …”

“Why is he agitated? Why did he refuse to see us? Can we at least know that?”

“Good, let me tell you. The emperor was worried about the prince who went to Eezham. Now that the prince is here …”

“We want to see the prince. We want to see him properly in daylight,” said one of the soldiers. “Yes, we want to see him! Long live the prince who conquered Eezham!” All shouted in unison.

“The prince must first visit the emperor. Shouldn’t he? After that if he so wishes, he will see you also!”

“Is that true? Or will he be sent to the dungeon instead?”

On another day, under different circumstances, the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s men would have gone to war against the velakara troops for being rude and impolite. There would have been a riot. But perhaps seeing the charismatic face of the prince just a few minutes ago left the Kalanthaka Kandar’s men mute and passive. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s hand reached for his sword. For a second he was overwhelmed by the urge to slash the impudent soldier’s throat in one quick stroke. Next second, resorting to his countenance he laughed out loud.

“You heard the man’s question? He wants to know if the prince will be sent to the dungeon. Well, it is not under my authority to crown the prince or send him to the dungeon. It is the emperor’s prerogative. If the prince is sent to the dungeon, he will pass this way. At that time you can see him!” Kalanthaka Kandar spoke angrily. Without paying attention to the noisy response of the soldiers he turned to go inside.

He saw Poongkuzhali waiting alone by the entrance. “Girl! Why are you standing here? Did they stop you from going in?” He asked her.

“No one stopped me, Sir! I decided to stand here,” said Poongkuzhali.

“Why?”

“At a time when a father and son are seeing each other after being parted for so long, what business do I have there?”

“Never mind; at least you think that the emperor is alive! That makes me happy!”

“Not only do I think, I just came back after seeing the emperor with my own eyes.”

“Then tell that to the velakara troops over there! They seem to have doubts!” he said.

“There was no basis for any doubts up until this minute. But who knows if it will be true the next minute?”

“Girl! Are you trying to bully me also? Have you all lost your minds?”

“Colonel! People call me a madwoman! Even I call myself a ‘madwoman.’ But, only because of listening to this madwoman’s advice, the prince was able to enter the fort without incident today. He was able to see the emperor while he is still alive …”

“Aha! What is this? Have you also set an ultimatum for the emperor’s life? Are you also blathering like the foolish people and the silly astrologers? Or, do you have specific information?”

“Is it only the people and the astrologers who can set an ultimatum. Didn’t you hear the message sent by your elder brother?”

“What is the assurance that it is true?”

“Colonel! Why should the Kodumbalur Princess lie?”

“Who knows? Maybe she wants to be queen …”

“Colonel! That was my thought also. After hearing the oath that the princess took this morning I have changed my mind!”

“Girl! Perhaps you are harboring the same wish …” The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar smiled.

“Colonel! I am really mad! Otherwise would I have stopped to talk to you?” Poongkuzhali turned to go.

Kalanthaka Kandar’s demeanor changed. “Girl! Don’t be angry! Before leaving, tell me what you wanted to say!” He said.

“Yes, I must speak. Or else I too will regret later. You also will be sorry. Sir! If anything happens to the emperor the entire country will blame you. Even your troops will,” she said.

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar frowned. “If anything happens I will not wait to hear their accusations. Before their words reach my ears my life would have departed! These velakara soldiers have vowed before Durga Parameshwari but I was the one who took the first oath and led the way for others,” he said.

“What is the use of that? The Chola kingdom will lose the emperor as well as a great warrior! Instead of that isn’t it wise to take the necessary precautions?”

“Girl! Are you telling me that I have not taken the necessary precautions? Do you see the soldiers guarding the palace night and day? Why? Even Chief Minister Aniruthar cannot enter the palace without my knowledge! Did you know?”

“I know, Colonel! But danger may come from within …”

“What rubbish? Are you saying that the women in the palace will poison the emperor? … Or, do you mean … the Kodumbalur woman who went in now with the prince?”

“God! Nothing good will come to those who doubt that harmless woman. In fact she is not that smart even. Sir! There is an underground passage that leads into the palace …”

Startled the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar said excitedly, “Girl! How do you know about it? What do you know? Other than three or four people no one knows about it! Those who find it cannot leave alive!”

“Colonel! I found out only this morning. I also saw a Pandyanadu saboteur armed with a spear hiding there …”

“God! This is alarming news … That passage … that passage … do you know where it ends?”

“It goes through the treasury room,” said Poongkuzhali.

“Aha! There may be truth in what you are saying. This is the work of that bewitching imposter masquerading as a woman! This is the work of the female devil that has enslaved my brother. Aiyo! How many times did I warn him? Girl! Is this really true? Did you really see? How did you find out about that passage? …”

“When my aunt took me this morning I found out …”

“Who is your aunt?”

“She is the one who was brought in the palanquin sent by you following the chief minister’s order, Sir! While we discuss this here …”

“True! I will go immediately to the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar’s palace and take care of this. Meanwhile you …”

“I will wait here and keep an eye …”

“Aha! How can I trust you? What is the guarantee that you don’t belong with the Pandyanadu saboteurs? Now that you have sidetracked me …”

“Colonel! In that case come with me! Bring a torch! We will both go and see! While we go I will tell the rest of what I know …”

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar at once called one of the soldiers and said something to him. Poongkuzhali guessed that they were going to the Pazhuvur palace. The colonel took a torch from one of the soldiers.

“Girl! Now lead me! I can see if what you said is true!” Kalanthaka Kandar said.

He still harbored doubts about Poongkuzhali. Maybe the woman had hatched up this fiction to deceive him, who knows? Maybe she wants to find the underground passage, who knows? Maybe this is a trick to let the Kodumbalur men into the fort, who knows? … He will not be deceived so easily. If she has any of these motives she must be properly punished. Can I be fooled like the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar? No! Regardless, let her walk in front. I must first find out if she really knows where the underground passage lies. Then let’s see if the story about the saboteurs hiding there is true. If it is … God! How dangerous! Fortunately, stopping them is not difficult. They will be killed like the fox caught in its hole! …

With such thoughts the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar walked behind Poongkuzhali. He marveled at her speed.

Yes, Poongkuzhali was pulsing with energy. Her walk reflected the state of her mind.

Lately for a period Poongkuzhali’s life had seen some rather strange events. But none compared to what she had witnessed that day. Very early in the morning her Manthahini woke up noiselessly and prodded Poongkuzhali to rise. There was a grotesque face peeking from the balcony of the anthpuram where they were sleeping. Just as soon it had disappeared. Poongkuzhali followed her aunt to the sculpture gallery. The same face that they saw in the loft appeared for a second between the heads of Ravanan and the Kailayankiri his hands were holding up; then it disappeared. Both took a closer look at the statue. Poongkuzhali saw that an underground passage opened up between the hands of Ravanan. First Manthhini, then Poongkuzhali entered the passage. At first Poongkuzhali could not see at all. The passage lay buried in darkness. Stumbling and falling she went holding her aunt’s hand for support. When they went up a few steps from the passage it felt as if they had entered a wider space. It was dark there also. With only their hands to guide them it was difficult to walk without knocking on pillars and walls. After a short while a ray of light began to seep through from a small lattice opening above. Poongkuzhali guessed that the sun had risen. She also knew that they were wandering about in a treasury cellar. But it did not seem likely that the man her aunt Manthahini had come in search of was going to be caught. There were so many places to hide in that dark cellar. Who knows where he is hiding? Before we find him he can find them and stab them from behind killing them; in this cellar no questions will be asked, no court or inquiry will follow.

While Poongkuzhali was thus pondering Manthahini began shrieking in her – neither human nor feral – voice. On its heels came a frightened human cry. The shadow of a figure began running wildly knocking into pillars and walls. Poongkuzhali decided that was the man whose face appeared in the loft. She guessed that he was terrified of her aunt’s cry mistaking it for a ghost or devil. The thought was a source of amusement to her. After a few minutes aunt Manthahini repeated her eerily pitched sonic assaults making the man run around fearfully. In the end he knocked himself against a wooden door. He knocked on the door loudly. After about four or five attempts the door opened. A woman stood at the door. The man said something to her. The woman appeared to hesitate and the man appeared to threaten her. She turned and went back. The man remained at the door peeking outside. In a short while the woman came back with a lamp. Both entered the cellar. Taking Poongkuzhali by her hand Manthahini went and stood behind a large pillar. They had a good look at the man’s face in the light of the lamp.

The woman carrying the lamp walked with the man to the interior of the cellar. “What ghost and what devil? Why should a coward get involved in this type of work?” Poongkuzhali heard the woman saying. Poongkuzhali did not quite understand what was meant by ‘this type of work.’

Once they disappeared into the cellar Manthahini dragged Poongkuzhali by the hand and walked out through the open door. They crossed the footpath and entered a big garden. There in a secluded area Manthahini communicated to Poongkuzhali what she had to say. “My end is near. Before I close my eyes I want to see the prince one last time. You must give this message and bring him back with you,” she gestured.

We know how fond Poongkuzhali was of her aunt. She did not have the heart to leave her at a time like this. But she could not disobey her also. Anyway the thought that this new development provided her another opportunity to see Ponniyin Selvar prompted her to arrive at a quick decision. She took leave of her aunt. After climbing over the wall of the palace, and when she was leaving Thanjai fort, at the entrance she met Azhvarkadiyan. She learnt that following the chief minister’s order he was also on his way to see Ponniyin Selvar. With the help of that brave Vaishnavan her journey proceeded comfortably without obstacles. 

Throughout the day luck was on her side. They saw the junior stateswoman’s chariot in front of Kudanthai astrologer’s house. To find out if Kundavai Devi had any news about the prince they went in. There they found out about the Pandyanadu troublemakers who were hiding in the treasury cellar. She was troubled by the knowledge that the prince was also a target. Vanathi’s promise provided some consolation. When she went to save Princess Vanathi she met the prince also.

What was most satisfying to her? The prince’s acceptance of her idea of going to Thanjai! She knew about the prince going about in Ilankai under the disguise of an elephant-keeper. She had not forgotten him racing from the seashore alone on an elephant leaving the colonel and soldiers behind. Therefore, she suggested that it was best that the prince use the same tactic , that he cannot enter Thanjai fort on his own, and that if he took her and Vanathi he would be allowed in as their elephant-keeper.

“Ocean Princess! That is a good idea. You are fit to serve as the chief minister!” Her mind reveled in the memory of what the prince had said.

But, even if everything had happened according to her plan, what was the use? As she had expected Manthahini aunt was not in the emperor’s room! She didn’t even ask anyone there about her. She felt a tightening in her chest each time she recalled her aunt gesturing, “My end is near.” Her heart cried, “What is the use of having gone to all this trouble, speaking smartly and bringing the prince here? Manthahini is not here!” Was she still in the cellar? Perhaps she had been murdered there by that murderer – the thought broke her heart.

She wanted to go through the underground passage to the cellar. But because of the arrival of the prince the palace was in an uproar. Women kept hurrying here and there. They came in small groups to peak inside the room where the emperor lay. Amidst this mayhem what will anyone think if she is seen going to the sculpture gallery alone? If that troublemaker is there it wasn’t wise to go there alone. Even the bold and daring Poongkuzhali was afraid of the impenetrable darkness that inhabited that underground cellar.

Therefore she decided to confide in the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar and ask for his help. Much time was wasted explaining and arguing with Kandar. That is why she was now racing. Her instinct told her that the worst was about to happen. She did not care about her own safety. She wished with all her heart that her aunt be not harmed in any way.

While entering the art gallery she felt a shadow sweeping in from the palace balcony. A figure appeared to be moving along the wall. She paused to see if it was real or not.

“Girl! Why are you stopping? Are you afraid that your lie will be exposed?” When she heard the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s words, she proceeded to go in.

Inside the art gallery Poongkuzhali showed the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar the entrance to the underground passage that lay between Ravanan’s heads and Kailayankiri.

“Alright! Now, go in,” said the fortress commander.

For some reason Poongkuzhali hesitated. Her body trembled.

At the same time a shrill otherworldly cry was heard. Poongkuzhali realized that it was her aunt Manthhini’s voice. She also knew that the cry came from the emperor’s bedroom in the palace. At once her hesitation left her.

Without paying heed to the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar she ran to the palace anthapuram. The piercing cry was heard again and again. When Poongkuzhali entered the emepror’s room the scene she saw sank into her heart like a picture in a gallery.

The emperor sat up in his bed holding the hands of his son. Manthahini stood in front of them wailing. On one side stood Vanathi and her would-be mother-in-law Malaiamman’s daughter. Everyone was looking at Manthahini who was screaming like a madwoman.

No one saw the long spear that came speeding from the loft. In one swift leap Poongkuzhali reached her aunt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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