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Ponniyin Selvan Part V (30 – 33)

July 6, 2017

Translated from the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

30. Immortal!

However fast Poongkuzhali ran the spear overtook her. Before she could reach Manthahini the spear had gone through her. ‘veel!’ – Manthahini cried eerily before falling down. A chorus of mournful cries rose from those present in the room.

As everyone rushed to the fallen woman someone was heard rummaging about in the loft. Earthenware came flying in all directions.

One fell on the brightly burning lamp next to the emperor; the light went out. The room was engulfed in darkness. The anthapura room and the surrounding corridors turned into a scene of confusion and chaos. People ran here and there.

“Lantern! Lantern!” The younger Pazhuvertariayar’s gruff voice roared.

“Aiyo! Aiyo!” A woman’s voice was also heard wailing. Everyone’s heart missed a beat. Because it was the queen’s voice. Without missing her mark Poongkuzhali ran straight to her aunt only to realize that someone else already had her on their lap.

Heartbreaking sounds of sobbing and crying fell in her ears.

From the entrance, “Who is that fellow? Do not run! Stop,” shouted the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar.

Poongkuzhali knew who the running man was. At the same time two maids entered the room with lamps.

No one could believe their eyes at what they saw in the now lit room.

The emperor who had lain in bed for three years, Sundara Chola king who had lost the use of his legs completely, had walked from his bed to Manthahini and was seated next to her on the floor. The prince sat next to him.

Blood was dripping from the tip of the spear that had pierced Manthahini on one side of her body and exited through the other.

Malaiamman’s daughter Vanamadevi stood next to the emperor’s bed. A sharp knife lay thrust on the pillow where the emperor’s head had been moments ago.

When the room was illuminated by the lamps, the queen stared at the empty bed, and then with great astonishment at the emperor who was seated on the floor. Ponniyin Selvar gently raised Manthahini’s head and lay it on the emperor’s lap.

Quiet tears poured from Prince Arulmozhivarmar’s eyes. The emperor on the other hand was sobbing and crying.

Poongkuzhali’s eyes took the scene in a fraction of a second. Instantly her mind summed up what had happened there.

The fellow who threw the spear from above had seen Manthahini stopping it. At once he had taken aim at the lamp with whatever earthenware that lay up there.

In the dark he had jumped down and tried to stab the emperor before running away. He had pushed the queen aside who rushed to the bed knowing that the emperor was in danger. It was then that the queen had cried, “Aiyo!”

The intruder must have run past the entrance knocking the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar who was just walking in.

Knowing what had happened Poongkuzhali wanted to run behind the man who had escaped after committing such a heinous act. At the same time she was also acutely conscious of the fact that her aunt’s life was at an end. She did not care that it was the emperor who held Manthahini on his lap. She sat down next to him and cried, “Athai! Athai!”

“Aiyo! Your words have come to pass! Wretched woman that I am, I left you alone here,” she wailed. But Manthahini had no time for her. Her eyes were fixed on the emperor’s face.

Why, she didn’t even have time for the prince who held her hand as he cried softly. How can she notice Poongkuzhali?

As Poongkuzhali went on wailing, the prince suppressing his sobs said, “Ocean Princess! What on earth! Have you forgotten yourself? Have you forgotten where you are,” as he stood up.

Feeling embarrassed Poongkuzhali also rose to her feet.

“King! There is no one else in this world for me other than my aunt,” she sobbed.

Wiping the tears that poured from his eyes the prince said, “Poongkuzhali! She is your aunt! But to me, she means ten times more than my own mother! She sent you to bring me! But she has not even looked at my face. Do you know why? My father and mother who separated from each other thirty years ago are once again together today. Who are we to stand in between them? …” The prince looked pointedly at everyone in the room including the queen.

Again he spoke to Poongkuzhali. “Girl! You have helped me before a few times. None of that matters. You gave me today the luxury of seeing my mother and father together! I will never forget this, Ocean Princess! Think of your aunt’s triumphant act today! She saved my father from the vengeful spear of the enemy! She took it herself. She sacrificed her life in order to save the emperor’s life. Not once; twice. The sight of your fallen aunt gave my father his legs back. He came running from his bed. Because of it his life was saved a second time. The avenger knowing that he had missed his mark knocked the lamp out and came running to stab the king again. Because the emperor had left his bed the saboteur’s mission failed. There, my birth mother, Malaiamman’s daughter stands in astonishment. My birth mother saw the spear striking your aunt. Knowing the avenger will strike again she came running. She hoped to make the same sacrifice that your aunt made. She wanted to cover my father’s body and bear the next assault herself. “Aiyo,’ she screamed because she did not see my father on the bed. If my father had remined on the bed either my father, or my mother would have died today. Ocean Princess! Do you realize what a great service your aunt performed today for Chola tribe and Cholanadu. If the emperor had died by the avenger’s weapon the Chola empire would have broken into pieces. The Pazhuvertaraiyar tribe would have faced eternal blame. Your aunt did not only save my mother and father’s lives. She also saved the Pazhuvertaraiyars’ honor. She saved Cholanadu from a great tragedy. She became the Chola deity. Poongkuzhali! I will not shed anymore tears. You also need not cry. No one has to mourn her! Who can have such an immortal parting? Who can be so fortunate to sacrifice their life for the sake of a spouse after thirty years of separation? Who can be fortunate to lay her head on that spouse’s lap and peacefully go?” The prince once again looked at those present in the room.

He saw that everyone was listening. He went on.

“Poongkuzhali! Don’t be afraid that you will be an orphan because of your aunt’s death. I will never forget your help today. I will forever be grateful to you. Even if I forget, the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar will never forget. Your aunt and you did a great service to him today. If the spear or knife had struck the emperor, what would the world have said? The conclusion would be that the Thanjai fort commander was also in collusion. Kodumabalur Velar is waiting outside. This would be reason enough for him to destroy the Pazhuvertaraiyar tribe. Why go that far? If I didn’t with your help today enter the fort, I too would have doubted the fortress commander. Therefore more than anyone else, it is the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar who is indebted to you. Whatever reward you seek he will give you. Even if you ask for half of his wealth he will not say no!”

The prince had his eyes on the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar as he spoke. He wanted him to realize that he had failed in his duty. The distressed face of the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar was proof that he heard the prince. His majestic countenance had deserted him. The nonchalant arrogance of his daredevil personality was no longer present.

He had the shameful face of a soldier caught red handed while fleeing a battlefield.

At the mention of an award, Poongkuzhali, whose heart was mellowing as she listened to the prince, became the outrageously indignant ocean princess.

“Prince! I don’t need anyone’s gratitude; or award. The ocean king is my sanctuary. My boat is safely tucked away at the pier by the canal. I am leaving now. If … in case … my aunt survives, – No, that is a vain hope. My aunt said already this morning. She knew what was coming. She is not going to survive. I have nothing to do here. If one day you should come with the Kodumbalur princess to Kodikarai …,” Poongkuzhali’s glance traveled in Vanathi’s direction. Seeing that girl watchin her and the prince with wide eyes she said, “Cheechee! How covetous of me! I am leaving,” and began to walk away.

Until then Vanathi had stood immobile as if in a trance. She was suddenly jolted back to life. She caught on with Poongkuzhali and said, “My dear friend! Where are you going? Just like you, I am also an orphan! …” Before she could continue Poongkuzhali interrupted. “Devi! You are not an orphan. And I am not your dear friend. Very soon Pazhaiyarai junior stateswoman will be here,” she said.

Only then Vanathi remembered the junior stateswoman. “Aiyo! Sister does not know what happened here. We must send word to her,” she said.

“Must you worry about it? Your uncle is at the entrance. If you ask him he will send word!” With this response Poongkuzhali gently moved Vanathi out of her way and walked on. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar who stood at the doorway stopped her.

“Girl! I heard what Poniyin Selvar said. It is the truth. You saved the Pazhuvertaraiyar tribe from eternal abomination. I am forever in debt to you. Whatever reward you seek …,” he said.

With a sad smile Poongkuzhali said, Colonel! Some here are happy that the emperor is alive. Some are happy that he regained his ability to walk. Some are happy that the Pazhuvertaraiyar tribe escaped infamy. It does not appear that anyone is sad about the tragic death of my aunt. Shouldn’t I at least mourn her? I am going to find the man who killed her! Please allow me to pass!”

Fortress commander Kalanthaka Kandar was astounded by Poongkuzhali’s words.

“Girl! I lost to you. Letting the murderer escape I am standing here idly. If I don’t find him I will still face blame – though the emperor is safe. I was wrong to distrust you! Where would the murderer have gone? He pushed me and ran. Yes, yes! he would have gone to the underground passage. Come! Come and help me! I don’t want to take anyone else! Once he gets caught, see what I will do!”

With Poongkuzhali’s hand held in his iron grip the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar sped to the sculpture gallery.

* * *

No one else moved. Knowing what the prince wanted no one went near the emperor. But all eyes were on the emperor and the great lady whose head lay in his lap.

But Sundara Cholar and Manthahini were united as one. There was no room in their hearts for anyone else. In whatever way experts in psychology may generalize the predicament of living through thirty years in a matter of minutes, there is no doubt that Sundara Cholar and Manthahini lived a long life together in those few minutes. All that could have been spoken between them in thirty years was said. Manthahini’s eyes did the talking. Sundara Cholar understood her completely. In the few months he lived a heavenly life in poothatheevu he had studied her sign language. Therefore even though Manthahini spoke only with her eyes he instantly knew what was in her heart. Manthahini after all did not say much.

“I have no regrets about you. Where is the emperor of this world? Where am I, a deaf and dumb, fisherman’s daughter? It was I who was hiding from you. I satisfied myself with occasional glances from afar. I have been blessed to take my last breath lying on your lap! What more do I need,” this is all she said. Her heart and eyes repeated this message again and again. Her face glowed in happiness. There was no sign of pain on her face after having a spear penetrate her body. She had lost awareness of her body. At its moment of leaving why would the bird care about its cage?

Sundara Cholar had also lost all awareness of his physical self. That is why he was able to run to Manthahini forgetting his disabled legs.

But unlike Manthahini, Sundara Cholar was not satisfied with a few words. He kept on speaking. What his eyes expressed his lips verbalized. Not a word was coherent. But Manthahini understood him. She nodded her head in affirmation when she agreed; she shook her head in defection when she disagreed; she expressed happiness when happiness was called for; she consoled when comfort was needed.

“The love of my life! You are dying for my sake! How many days longer do you think my life will last? I am indeed a stone hearted sinner; I agree. Those who are fated to rule must turn their hearts into stone. If not how can ruling proceed? My first mistake was abandoning you in poothatheevu. Because of it many mistakes followed. How happy we were in that paradise of an island? We were not lucky enough to have it last! God let us down! My kin let us down! Once I was crowned as prince I was about to come to you. I came up to Kodikarai. The wretched folks there said that you had jumped into the sea. Even Aniruthan whom I considered my best friend duped me. … Yes, yes! I hear you. You are saying that it is true that you jumped into the sea. And that you were saved by someone afterwards. Aniruthan knew that. But he did not tell me. Look at the tragedy that followed because of it! Whenever I saw you I assumed that it was your ghost. I believed that you were haunting me for revenge. I believed that you pushed my little child into Kaveri when in fact you saved his life. Aha! If only I knew that you were alive, how different my life would have been? Do you think that I would have given you up for this empire? Never …!”

Sundara Cholar verbalized in this manner the avalanche of thoughts that surged through his mind. In the end he said, “Two days ago when you came I threw the lamp at you. I showed disgust when I saw you again. You must forgive me for that. For so many years I believed that your ghost was haunting me. You appeared in this very room at midnight and spoke to me. I believed that you were cursing my children. The hatred I developed then did not leave me even when I saw you in person. In truth you have come to us as our goddess! You came to prevent harm to me and my children! I did not understand that. Only after my daughter Kundavai explained, I understood. Aiyo! What a blunder I made! Please forgive me. How will I now show the love I have for you? You have made it impossible! You told me not to crown my sons. I understand the reason now. Why are you shaking your head? You said that for the wellbeing of myself and my family. There is nothing wrong in that. But the people here are driving me insane with their tales. They tell me that you gave birth to a child. If it is true please tell me. If you have a son please tell me. I will find retribution for the wrong I did to you through him …”

When Sundara Cholar spoke these words Manthahini became visibly excited. Her eyes looked around and then came to rest on Ponniyin Selvar. The prince immediately came to her and sat down.

Manthahini touched the prince with her hand. When she looked at the emperor her answer was abundantly clear. Her eyes said, “He is my son!”

In this manner Manthahini looked at the emperor and Ponniyin Selvar alternatingly a few times. Her eyes then closed. Her head that was propped up on the emperor’s lap slid to the side.

Manthahini’s life left her body. Until that day no one had seen or heard Sundara Cholar cry. Those who saw him that day howling, “Oh,” were stunned.

Prince Arulmozhivarmar alone remained calm.

He told the emperor, “Father! You should not regret my mother’s death. She did not die. She has become a goddess! She will be our family’s deity for eternity!”

But Sundara Cholar’s crying did not stop. Did he cry over Manthahini? Who can say if he cried for Manthahini, or if he felt the tremor in his heart of another sad event far away that took place at the same time?

Prince Arulmozhivarmar’s consoling words on the other hand would become true. Later on when Ponniyin Selvar ascended the throne as Raja Raja Cholar, he built a temple in Thanjai for Manthahini Devi whom he called ‘Eezhathu Rani.’ For some time it was famously known as Sinhala Nachiyar,’ temple. In time the name morphed into ‘Singhachiyar Kovil.’ Visitors can inquire about a tiny old temple that exists even today in a part of Thanjai city by the same name.

31. ‘The Time is Here’

It would be best if this story can be ended here with the events described in the previous chapter. Readers may even expect it. But it is not possible. We are obliged to describe the atrocity that took place in Kadampoor Sambuvaraiyar’s palace on the same day at about the same time.

* * *

All alone Nandhini paced back and forth in her anthapura room. Her face mirrored the turmoil in her heart. Her eyes had a strange sparkle flickering as they darted between the various entrances to the room. Her ears listened for footsteps. “The time is here,” her lips kept mumbling. At times her lips quivered; her brows twitched, her entire body shuddered like that of a tantric dancer.

Curtains hung all around her ornately appointed bed hiding the bed completely. Nandhini raised the curtain at one end slowly. She looked at the murderous sword that lay lengthwise on the bed. It shone as if cast out of the very fire in a blacksmith’s kiln. It was a wonder that the silk mattress and curtains did not catch fire. Only this fact proved that the sword was metal and not burning hot coal.

Nandhini picked up the sword in her hand. She admired it as it sparkled even more catching the light of the lamp. She hugged it against her chest. She held it against her cheek. She spoke to it. ” Divine Sword! The time is here for you to do your work! You will not let me down, will you? No! You won’t! It’s my hands that will let me down,” she said.

Then she looked at her hands. “Hands! Will you hold steady? Cheechee! Already you are trembling! When the time is here what will you do? Yes, yes! There is no use relying on you. I must look elsewhere,” she said.

All of a sudden Nandhini’s body shuddered. She looked up through eyes that were blazing hot. “Aha! You are here? Come! Come! You came at the right time! My love! My king! Come! Veera Pandyan’s Head! Why are you waiting on the ceiling? Come down! There is no one here! No one except your servant! Why are you staring? Open your mouth and speak! ‘If you survive this hurdle then I’ll put you on the Pandya throne,’ you said. I have not forgotten that. I have not forgotten the promise I made to you. The time has come to fulfill it. How long have I waited patiently for this? How many disguises I put on? You kept watching. Even now, keep watching. Don’t bat your eyelids. You never sleep, anyway! You have turned me also into an insomniac! If I seek revenge for you today then you will let me be, won’t you? You will let me sleep after that, won’t you? … You will leave only after seeing me on the Pandya throne? If I keep my promise, you will keep yours, you are saying? … No, no! I don’t want any throne or crown. A little boy was brought as your son. He was crowned. If I seek revenge, you will be satisfied. You will leave me alone after that! You will go to the same warriors’ heaven as all others who die in war. There will be other women like me. One of them …? No …? God! You want me to go with you? Alright, alright! Let’s discuss this later, my love! I hear someone, hide yourself! … I will hide this vengeful sword …”

There was someone at the door. As Nandhini was placing the sword back on the bed Manimekalai walked in.

Nandhini regained her composure at once. Calmly she said, “Is that you Manimekalai? Come, come!”

“Sister! What on earth? You are forever holding that sword,” said Manimekalai.

“If not? When the men are so vile we must seek the help of the sword!”

“Devi! I am here to help you. You don’t trust me?”

“If I did not trust you, would I confide in you, Manimekalai? In this world you are the only one I trust. Yet, even you cannot go against your brother!”

“Sister! He is not my brother, I have decided …”

“Why do you say that? Whatever the matter, he is your brother  …”

“Brother! Sister! I have come to realize that such felicitation is just an illusion. Kanthamaran wants to force me into a marriage against my wishes for his own gain! Will he do that, if he really cared about his sibling? …”

“Sister! He may still have your interest at heart …”

“Yes; he has suddenly discovered my interests and disinterests! Actually he did not consider my wellbeing at all, Sister!”

“Isn’t it for your wellbeing that your brother wants to see you as queen on the Chola throne that extends from Eezham to Vadapennai?”

“Not at all! It’s the temptation that he can be chief minister, or treasurer like the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar, if I were the Thanjavur queen … that is the reason, Sister! Sister …!” Manimekalai was reluctant to go on.

“Tell me, Manimekalai! Whatever is in your mind you can speak to me freely. You meant it when you said that you were fond of me …”

“Sister! Please do not doubt that. In this world I love only two people. You are one of them …”

“Who is the other person?”

“You know the answer. Why do you question me …?”

“Sister! I thought that it will make you happy. Haven’t you seen in literature and novels? If a woman falls in love isn’t it natural that she will want to talk about it to someone? What is the use of having a friend …?”

“That is true, Sister! I have confided in you. But the reason I came to you now is about something else. A rather worrisome matter, Sister!”

Startled Nandhini asked, “What? What?”

She was gripped by the fear that her plans will face some new obstacle. It showed on her face.

“Sister! Treasurer Pazhuvertaraiyar has not reached Thanjavur still. On the way …”

“What happened on the way? Did he change his mind?” The news did not seem to diminish her fear.

“It would have been better if he had returned, Sister! The storm that took us by surprise the other day at the lake, it was more severe in Kodikarai and beyond. When Pazhuvertaraiyar was on the boat crossing Kollidam the storm blew in …”

“Then,” Nandhini asked excitedly. But she was now visibly less worried.

“The boat had toppled when they were about to reach the other side!”

“Aiyo!”

“Those who managed to come ashore had searched the shore. Your husband was not found,” said Manimekalai.

She was ready to console Nandhini as she expected her to breakdown and cry upon hearing this news. But Nandhini had no such reaction. “How did you know about this?” Nandhini asked in a tone that held more disbelief than distress.

“One of the men who was with Pazhuvertaraiyar came. He was speaking to my brother. I heard him with my own ears, Sister! My brother did not know how to break this news to you. He was seeking the advice of the prince. I came running to tell you no matter …”

Overcome with grief Manimeklai began to cry. Nandhini embraced her. “My Darling! I know now how fond of me you are, but don’t be sad for me,” she said.

Manimekalai looked at her astounded. ‘She has a heart made of stone,’ – Nandhini read her thought.

“Sister! You came running to give me the sad news and console me. Now I have to console you. You should not be sad. I am certain that nothing happened to my husband. If it had I would have known it in my heart. That is why I am not worried. But please tell me exactly what you heard! I have a suspicion …”

“What is it, Sister?”

“I wonder if your brother and that Pallava Parthipenthiran have a plan to hurt my husband. They may have fabricated this news as part of their plan …?”

“I do not understand, Sister! Why will they harm Pazhuvertaraiyar?”

“You are like a child, Manimekalai! Didn’t I say that your brother and Parthipenthiran have evil designs for me? Didn’t I say that is the reason I keep this sword next to me at all times? …”

“You did; and that is why I asked you not call Kanthamaran my brother. Even so, why should they harm Pazhuvertaraiyar?”

“Sister! You do not fathom? Unhappy in a marriage to an old man, I will be happy if he is gone. Then I will submit to their desires. That is why. If I knew your brother’s character I will not have cared for him in my home treating him like my own brother. I will not have saved the man who was at yamalokam’s doorstep …”

“Sister! Hereafter I will not leave you alone even for a moment. If any of these two come here I will kill them with my own hands!”

“Manimekalai! You don’t need that worry. I will protect myself. If Kanthamaran and Parthipenthiran approach me I will teach them a lesson that they will never forget. I am not afraid of them. Only the reckless prince makes me shudder. Fortunately you have saved me from that danger!”

“I saved you? What do you mean?”

“You have stolen the prince’s heart, Manimekalai! Don’t you know that? Why else would he have pushed away the Varnar tribe warrior and carried out from the lake? I have been observing him ever since. You don’t realize that, Manimekalai?”

“Why not? Indeed, I do. Even thinking about him makes me afraid. If he comes near my body trembles. That savage who calls himself my brother is also endlessly haranguing me …”

“That you must marry the prince?”

“Yes; if he sees me alone for one moment he starts preaching to me. To be rid of his harassment …”

” … you have decided to marry the prince?”

“Even you have reached that conclusion?” Manimekalai started to sob. Tears poured from her eyes.

Nandhini comforted her. “I was only teasing you. Do you really have to cry like this,” she asked wiping Manimekalai’s tears.

When Manimekalai was a little consoled, “My Darling! Look deep into your heart and tell me. Don’t you really want to marry the prince? Don’t you want to marry him and be the queen of Chola empire,” said Nandhini.

“Whether you ask me just once or a hundred times the answer will be the same, Sister! I have no such desire.”

“It is true that you have lost your heart to Varnar tribe Vandhiyathevar?”

“Yes, Sister! But who knows where his heart is?”

“What does it matter where his heart is? When we don’t know if he is alive …”

Startled Manimekalai said, “What do you mean, Sister?”

“Manimekalai! You don’t know the truth yet. You have not comprehended your situation or your loved one’s. You worry about me. You worry about my husband. You should not worry about us at all. I know my husband. If he utters one word this entire country will shudder. Sundara Chola emperor will not cross the line that he draws. He will not listen to the chief minister’s word against my husband’s. He will not listen to his women. Fools like your brother make fun of Pazhuvertaraiyar thinking that he is an old man. Yet, in one breath he can knock down your brother, Parthipenthiran and a hundred other young men. Therefore, no one can harm Pazhuvertaraiyar. My Darling! I know how to take care of myself also. I have faced more difficult situations than this. It is you I am worried about now. ‘This girl is so fond of me. No harm should come to her,’ I am thinking. It was you I was thinking about when you walked into this room …”

“I don’t understand, Sister! What harm can come to me?”

“Foolish Girl! What is more dangerous to a woman than marrying someone she does not like?”

“That is never going to happen.”

“Your brother has decided to marry you to the prince; your father has also agreed.”

“How can their decisions affect me? Don’t I have to agree?”

“You are speaking like a child! Do petty kings need consent from their daughters to give them away in marriage? Moreover, if the eldest son of the emperor who rules the three worlds, – the crown prince, – wants to marry you; who can stop that?”

“Why? I can. I will tell the prince myself.”

“What will you say?”

“That I do not want to marry him.”

“If he asks why?”

“I will tell the truth. I will tell him that my heart is with his friend Vallavaraiyar.”

“Foolish Girl! You don’t have to tell that. They already know that.”

“If they do, why are they trying to coerce me? If they persist, here, I too have a knife, Sister!” Manimekalai showed the little knife that was safely tucked away in her waist.

“My beloved Sister! On the one hand I want to laugh at your foolishness; on the other hand I want to weep.”

“What have I blabbered now, Sister?”

“You think that they will try coercion? You think that they will ask for your permission? They will do no such thing. They will simply eliminate the reason why you will not marry the prince!”

“What are you saying?”

“I am saying whomever you have given your heart to his life is in danger …!”

“Aiyayo!”

“Your brother already loathes his old friend. He is angry that he had told the prince about the secret meeting that was held by the petty kings in this palace a few months ago. Moreover, he is accusing him of stabbing him on his back. For a different reason Parthipenthiran is very angry at your suitor …”

“What will their anger do to him, Sister! He is a true warrior, isn’t he?”

“What does it matter? If one is suddenly surrounded by murderers what can an unarmed warrior do?”

“Aiyo! Are you saying that they will kill him?”

“They won’t. They will cut him into pieces and let the foxes and dogs feast on his flesh …”

“Aiyo! How savagely cruel!”

“Even talking about it you feel the brutality. If it really happens how devastated you will be?”

“Sister! I am tormented already. Will they really do it? He is a close friend of the prince!”

“Haven’t you heard of close friends becoming arch enemies? Little Sister! Your brother and Parthipenthiran have been fawning to the prince …”

“Demons! You seem to …”

“How do I know about this, you want to know? In the afternoon today Parthipenthiran came to see me on the pretext of saying goodbye …”

“Where is that scoundrel going?”

“Not very far. You heard about Thirukovalur old man Malaiamman making his way here with his troops?”

“I did. I was wondering why.”

“That is also on account of you! Today in the afternoon the prince announced I was told, ‘If Manimekalai is not given in marriage to me, as soon as Malaiamman’s troops arrive this fort will be razed to the ground!’ Your brother apparently said, ‘We are not the ones standing in the way; it is your pal Vandhiyathevan!’ The prince had asked, ‘Can’t you remove the obstacle?’ ‘With your permission, it can be done,’ was your brother’s answer. My dear sister! I found out a few more details from Parthipenthiran. It is certain that your dear lover’s life is in danger. If you don’t act now you will lose your husband even before you are married,” said Nandhini.

It is no surprise that Manimekalai’s entire being felt the agony of this crushing news.

“Aiyo! He must somehow be warned!” She said in anguish.

“He can be warned. But you just said that he is a true warrior. Is he going to run away if he knows that his life is in danger. Probably not. He will only become more stubborn,” said Nandhini.

“Please tell me what to do. My head is spinning. I don’t know what to do,” said Manimekalai.

“This is what I was worrying about when you came. I too cannot fathom. Fortunately you brought some news. Now I have an idea to save Vallavaraiyar.”

“I brought some news? What is it?”

“You said that after Pazhuvertaraiyar’s boat overturned there has been no news about him.”

“Yes.”

“I will beg Vandhiyathevar. I will ask him that he should go and find out about my husband for my sake. You also plead my case. That warrior will not refuse two helpless women. The way to save his life is to send him away from here immediately. There is no other solution. After he leaves you can talk to your father and brother freely; boldly. I will also speak on your behalf. ‘To force a girl against her wish is not becoming of those born in the Chola tribe,’ I will say.”

“If they won’t listen to you also, then I do have the knife in my hand!”

“Alright, alright! First let’s get your lover away from this palace. You know where he is? If you cannot see him yourself, then send your companion Chandramathi. Or else, send Idumbankari, and bring him here somehow!”

“Even if he agrees to leave from here, how will he go, Sister? If my brother stops him …?”

“Why should your brother know? Manimekalai! Think of how he made a sudden entrance here, surprising you, the very first time. We can send him through that same underground passage! Go quickly, Sister! Every minute that Vandhiyathevar spends in this fort his life is in more danger. How can we know when the murderers set by your brother will attack him?”

“I am going, Sister! I will somehow bring him,” said Manimekalai as she departed.

When her footsteps faded Nandhini heard someone knocking on the secret door to the hunting gallery. She went to the secret door and opened its inner door. In the dark the outline of a grotesque face presented itself.

“Magician! Have you arrived?” Nandhini said.

“I have arrived, Rani. The time has also arrived,” answered Ravithasan.

32. Final Step

After pulling the bolt and locking the main door to her room Nandhini with lamp in hand entered the taxidermy gallery through the secret door.

Magician Ravithasan’s face was already grotesque. The wounds on his head made it even more grotesque.

Nandhini asked, “Magician! What happened? These are fresh wounds on your body!”

“Rani! What is the surprise? You think that we spend our time feasting on gourmet meals and lounging on silk mattresses? It is a wonder that Parameshwaran and I escaped alive today. It is the late Pandya emperor’s ghost that saved us …”

“No! Ravithasa! No! His spirit is with me at all times. Even a nazhikai ago it appeared before me and asked if I was going to keep my promise or not.”

“Rani! What answer did you give?”

“That I will fulfill my promise today or I will kill myself, I said.”

“In that case it was good that we came here running. After all this time what is the use to anyone if you killed yourself? We must finish what we undertook! If you cannot …”

“Who said I cannot? I will fulfill my promise. After that I will take my life …”

“No, no! After carrying out your promise there is so much else that you can do. We must crown Veera Pandyan’s beloved son in Maduarai for the world to see …”

“You can take care of the rest. Tonight my work will be over. My life will also be over …”

“Rani! All the wealth hoarded up in Pazhuvertaraiyar’s treasury must reach malainadu. Your help is needed for that!”

“Even after I fulfill my promise, you want me to live in deception of my husband, Magician?”

“Madam! Who is your husband?”

“I mean the innocent man who married me for the world to see, ignoring the country’s ridicule, who facilitates every promise and oath of mine.”

“Rani! Pazhuvertaraiyar is not your husband. Every night Veera Pandyar appears in my dream and commands me to treat you as his queen …”

“Magician! Let’s not talk about him. You did not tell me how you suffered these wounds?”

“Yesterday night an old tiger attacked us in the Kollidam jungle. For an old tiger its teeth and nails were rather sharp …”

“How did you escape?”

“Where we crowned the Pandya prince …, we pushed that pallipadai temple’s dilapidated tower over the tiger … and we escaped …”

“Aiyo! What a pity! You could not stand against even an old tiger and win …!”

“Yes, Rani! We agree. So, how can we stand against a young tiger like Athitha Karikalan? That is why we have to use magic and chicanery. Devi! If we miss today we are never going to have another opportunity. After news of Sundara Cholan and Arulmozhivarman gets here, Athitha Karikalan will be beyond our reach …,” said Ravithasan.

“Magician! What about them? Do you have any news about them,” asked Nandhini.

“By now their lives would have ended, no doubt …”

“You said the same thing when you and Thevaralan went to Eezham.”

“There, that dumb lunatic harassed us nonstop. That is why we could not …”

“You said that Varanar tribe warrior has drowned in the sea. He has also escaped and is here …”

“We did have an opportunity to take care of him in the pallipadai jungle. But you stopped us.”

“I told you that there was good reason for that …”

“I know nothing of this good reason. He is now here protecting Athitha Karikalan like an iron glove.”

“You need not worry about it.”

“I have to. If not today, then it’s never! Devi! What have you planned? What are we to do?”

“At the moment the biggest help to me would have been if none of you had turned up here …”

“No, that is not true.”

“You don’t trust me …”

“We are here because we trust you. We are here to take you away safely once the job is done. If there are any unexpected hurdles, we are prepared for that also. Any moment you can summon us for help.”

“In my plan there is no room for hurdles. After the job is done I don’t want to live.”

“That cannot be. You must come with us. Or else …”

“Magician! After my promise is fulfilled I will stay in Pazhuvertaraiyar’s house even for a minute …”

“In that case you come with us!”

“How will you take me?”

“The underground passage ends at Aiyanar temple. In the woods there, we will have the Pazhuvur Rani’s palanquin. To prepare it for the journey Idumbankari has already brought it out. We will carry the goddess who avenged the man who took Veera Pandyan’s head. Before dawn we will be in Kollimalai.”

“How many of you are here?”

“Four!” Ravithasan clapped his hands softly.

Men hiding behind the dreadful and dead animals in that gallery looked out showing their heads.

“Where is Parameshwaran?” Nandhini asked.

“I have left him outside. A kalamugan was conducting pooja at Aiyanar temple. Getting rid of him was not easy. I have left Thevaralan at the temple entrance to to make sure that the kalamugan does not come back …”

“Why should we worry about kalamuga men? Magician! Did you hear any news about the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar?”

“News?”

“He left for Thanjavur, didn’t he? On the way while crossing Kollidam the boat capsized. Sambuvaraiyan had received word this evening that Pazhuvertaraiyar did not make it to the shore; that he had drowned!”

“God! Was that his fate? You did not mention this all this while?”

“I did not believe it, Magician! I don’t think that Pazhuvertaraiyar would have died drowning in Kollidam.”

“I also have no faith in this rumor, Rani!”

“What if he has swum to this side of Kollidam? If supposing he comes here tonight? … This is what concerns me …”

“Rani! You need not worry. I remember now. On Kollidam’s other side on Thanjavur road I saw a well built gentleman last night. He was not clothed in silk or jewelry. Because it was dark I did not recognize then. Now looking back, that man on the road could have been the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar!”

“Then, he certainly won’t return here tonight?”

“No! You can be sure of that. What are your orders for us now?”

“Magician! You must wait here patiently! Whatever seems to happen in my room, however many voices you may hear, don’t barge in. It will only spoil matters. When you hear me call, come!”

“Rani! How will you call?”

“Magician! You know that it has been many years since I laughed out loud! You probably have never heard me laugh!”

“Devi! Just once, when you were speaking to that wretched young man Vandhiyathevan, I heard you laugh …”

“Aha! You have that in memory! Good! Today, if you hear me laugh, open the secret door and come in. That is the signal that the job is over. It may be Vandhiyathevan again that I will be laughing at. You need not be surprised by that …”

“Devi! I am beginning to understand your plan …”

“If you can be patient for just a while longer, all will be clear. If there is some unexpected hurdle, you will hear me crying. Come immediately …”

“We will do just that, Rani. But I don’t want to hear your crying. I want to hear your laughter,” said Magician Ravithasan.

33. “Aiyo! Ghost!”

At the same time, Vandhiyathevan was lethargically pacing back and forth in the palace garden. The garden was situated along the outer wall. Nocturnal blooms were just then beginning to unfold their petals. The north wind blew the scent of paneer, parijatham, mallikai, and mullai onto his face. ‘Aha! If only this were the Pazhaiyarai palace garden! If only it were the ankle bracelets on Kundavai Devi’s feet that I hear!’ His mind wondered. ‘I am here in this Kadampoor palace! Defeated in serving this reckless prince!’ He thought. He was hurt by Athitha Karikalar’s angry outburst that evening: “For the rest of the day, do not come before me! When the sun comes up tomorrow I will tell you my decision about you!” The prince had lost his temper as never before. A pity! What is the use of finding fault with him? His mind is so rattled. When he considered the man’s situation Vandhiyathevan felt sorry for the prince.

* * *

That day Athitha Karikalan’s frenzy had reached new heights. Excitement and lethargy, anger and joy, friendship and arch enmity – these opposing emotions kept him swinging. He in turn kept everyone around him dancing. Unable to predict what he would do next those around him were in a state of shock.

The news that arrived at sunrise that day helped heighten his agitation. It was Sambuvaraiyar who came with the news that Thirukovalur Malaiamman was getting his troops ready. He voiced his objection and criticism of it.

“Malaiamman is an old man from antiquity. He is over eighty. Why are you afraid of him,” asked the prince.

“Sir! We come in the line of Kollimalai leader Valvil Ori. We do not know what fear is. I am hesitating because of your presence here. If only you would give permission …”

” … You are ready to battle with the old man. That’s it! Sambuvaraiyar! I am the one who asked my grandfather to bring the troops!”

“Why, Prince!”

“I am caught here alone among you! If anything happens to me here …”

Komahan! If you have doubts of that nature even the size of an atom … this very second …”

” … You will ask me to vacate the premises?”

“Aiya! This is your kingdom. This is your palace. Tiger flag flies on top. Who am I to ask you to leave? If you give permission my family and I will leave the palace. You can have miladudaiyar Malaiamman here and be safe.”

“Oho! Are you pointing out that you as the descendant of Valvil Ori is fearless and I, from the Vijayalaya Cholar tribe is a coward.”

“The chivalry and strong will of the prince is known all over the world. At the age of twelve you entered the battlefield, massacred the enemy and earned the name ‘heroic warrior.’ Again at eighteen, you chased the warring Veera Pandyan to his hideout and returned with his head …”

“I know, Sir! I know! I know how you made fun of me. That I am the brave tiger who chased a man in the running, that I brought back the head from an already dead Veera Pandyan; I am also aware that the Pazhuvur female devil is the cause of these rumors!” Athitha Karikalan laughed menacingly.

Sambuvaraiyar regretted engaging this fanatic prince in talk.

“Son of the king! Nothing I can say can be right. Please do whatever you wish. I will take my leave.”

“You jolly well may. But give up the thought of leaving the fort. I also will not leave until I find out the truth about the treacherous meeting that was held here a few months ago,” said Athitha Karikalan.

Sambuvaraiyar’s lips quivered. His body trembled. Tears welled in his eyes.

Parthipenthiran saw this. He addressed the prince.

“Son of the king! Just as the Chola tribe is famous in their chivalrous tradition they have also earned their name for fairness. You are not doing justice to this elderly person. You are wounding his heart with your words. Sambuvaraiyar has already provided an explanation for the petty kings’ meeting that was held here and you have accepted it. Because you have been saying that you don’t want the kingdom, because you are refusing to go to Thanjavur, the petty kings with the wellbeing of the Chola kingdom in mind discussed the succession to the throne. If you are willing to take on the burden of the kingdom why would they have to concern themselves? When they have brave Athitha Karikalar who is famous all over the world, would they consider – even in their dreams – Mathuranthaka Thevan, who has never seen the battlefield? …”

Athitha Karikalan interrupted. “Yes, yes! While I am alive it is impossible for another man to ascend to the Chola throne. That is why you are trying to get rid of me!” He laughed again in an outrageously loud tone.

“Parthipenthira! You thought that I don’t know that you have joined them? You thought that I didn’t know, when we went hunting the other day how Kanthamaran and you followed me taking aim at me with your spears? If my true friend Vandhiyathevan had not by god’s will arrived here, wouldn’t you have by now sent me to yamanulakam,” he added.

Parthipenthiran glared at Vandhiyathevan as if he intended to kill him with his eyes. “Sir! This villain has spoiled your mind with his talk. If he can prove, that I wronged you even in my thought, then this very second …” he said.

“Appan! Who can prove the guilt of your mind? Answer my question! You and Kanthamaran brought me here lured by Pazhuvur Rani’s charms? Do you disagree?”

“I do not, Prince! There is no need to disagree. I am very confident that Pazhuvur Rani has the best of intentions. Her goal is to bring you here, get you married to Kanthamaran’s sister and prevent any internal turmoil in Cholanadu. There isn’t anything that can make us all happier than to see the Chola crown on your head. I will tolerate anyone insulting me. But if anyone insults the Pazhuvur Rani, I will this very second make him fodder to my sword!” With is eyes on Vandhiyathevan, Parthipenthiran drew his sword.

“Aha! My Brave Friend! Put back the sword! I will tell you when the time comes. Then you can take it out. Vandhiyathevan did not malign Pazhuvur Rani. He is also like you smitten with her beauty. In fact, he is swearing that Pazhuvur Rani is my sister. He came running to give me this news. He has cast blame on you as well. He is telling that you brought my brother from Eezhanadu in your ship and drowned him in the sea on the way. What is your answer to that,” said Athitha Karikalar.

“I will answer that,” said Kanthamaran who walked in at that time.

Komahan! I have brought good news. The young prince did not drown. Ponniyin Selvar  has been hiding in Nagaipattinam Soodamani viharam all these days. When the sea rose following the storm and inundated Nagaipattinam, he had to come out. He is on his way to Thanjavur now surrounded by thousands of people,” Kanthamaran said gaily.

If he envisioned that the news will place Karikalan in a better state of mind, disappointment awaited him. Karikalar’s wrath now turned in a different direction.

“What? What? Arulmozhi is on his way to Thanjavur? Surrounded by thousands of people? Why? Vallavaraiya? What did you tell me? What is going on now? You told me that Arulmozhi will remain in Nagaipattinam until he knows my opinion. Why is he now going to Thanjavur? …”

Vandhiyathevan interrupted. “Sir! That is what the junior stateswoman told me. I do not know what happened afterwards. If necessary I will …”

“Aha! You want to leave also? Good, good! All of you have become my enemies. I understand your perfidy. I know why Arulmozhi is going to Thanjavur. This is that Kodumbalur periya Velan’s trick. That old man’s wish is to tie his brother’s daughter around my brother’s neck and have them on the Chola throne. I heard that Kodumbalur Velan is also heading to Thanjai with the southern battalion. My sister, the junior stateswoman is also involved in this perfidy. Yes; you too …”

“Prince! Pardon me! Neither Ponniyin Selvar nor the junior stateswoman have any such thought. That is the truth, if you wish, I will go and find out the truth,” said Vandhiyathevan.

“You also want to join in their perfidy! Kanthamara! If there is an underground dungeon in this palace take him and lock him there,” hearing Athitha Karikalan’s command, Kanthamaran with much happiness went to seize Vandhiyathevan.

Karikalar immediately changed his order. “No, no! The chola tribe never goes against the law. They will not punish until proven guilty. Vallavaraiya! Do not sight me for the rest of the day! That is your punishment! I will tell tomorrow whether you are going to Thanjai or the dungeon. Go! Go! Don’t wait here another second,” he said.

Vandhiyathevan looked at Karikalar’s face. It seemed to tell him, ‘This is just horseplay!’ But in an instant deciding that it was better not to be near the fanatical prince Vandhiyathevan said, “Sir! Your wish is my honor!” Then he left.

Later that day in the afternoon Vallavaraiyan Vandhiyathevan found out that acting on the prince’s order, Sambuvaraiyar and Parthipenthiran had departed to meet Thirukovalur kizhar and bring him with them.

He also knew that the prince and Kanthamaran had a long private conversation.

These events had exhausted Vandhiyathevan’s mind. What will the prince order the following day? Will he order him to go to Thanjavur? Will he tell him to stop at Pazhaiyarai on the way? How nice that will be? He did not at all like the life in Kadampoor palace. No one here seemed happy. Forever they behaved as if they have lost something. When darkness descended the palace did not at all seem like a place of human habitation. It looked like an old manor inhabited by ghouls and goblins. How and when will he leave this place? …

While Vandhiyathevan was thus absorbed in his thoughts, “Aiyo! Ghost,” a woman’s cry cut into his stream of consciousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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