Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Natural Calamities

This was written for the elements prompt, please excuse the lame title. It also needs a fair amount of refining, but this is as it was on the day we were supposed to finish it, so. [/lame justification]

*** ***
A girl walks into a forest, feet dragging and walks steadily—unsteadily—away from the fringes, away from the huts of hunters and woodcutters that cling to them like mud to the hem of her skirts, and deep into the heart of it, where even the birds are quiet. Her feet track blood on the fallen leaves and her slender body shivers with the coming cold—it is winter, and the trees are bare. And though she fears to sleep, yet sleep overwhelms her, and when she wakes, the sun has sunk and risen again, and the east sky seen through the latticed branches is a dark gold, shot with red.

And the woman standing before her, back to the bole of a tree, one slim arm twined about a low branch, watching her through narrowed eyes, is dark, near the colour of the earth and the wood—dark skin, black hair in coils, brilliant black eyes, and long black lashes. “Who are you?” she asks, not without trepidation—though the woman is slender and seems unarmed, she has seen too much of the malevolence of women.

“I am your mother,” she says, “and you, child, what is your name?”

“Vasudha,” she says, “but you are not my mother, lady, though you smile as she did, for she walked as though her feet were shackled and her back was bent and her shoulders stooped, and you carry yourself like a queen.”

“A queen? What know you of queens, child?” And yes, what can she know, mud-stained shabby clothes and small, dark body and simple braid and all? But she does.

“I served a queen, lady, till a week before.”

“A good queen?”

“Nay, lady.”

“A wise one?”

“Nay.”

“A beauty, then?”

“Yes, lady.” She stops, lips pressed tight, and the woman looks at her with kind eyes that remind her of the mother she lost so long ago. “But not kind.

“Neither a good queen, nor a wise one, nor kind.” The woman seats herself by Vasudha, puts a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You did well to leave her service.”

“I left it not, my lady,” she admits, “She sent me away.”

“Why sent she you away, my Vasudha?”

“She received in tribute a new vase,” she starts, stutters, stops, wonders why she speaks so freely to this woman she has never seen, and brings out the rest of her words in an agonised rush, “and I broke it.” The memory of the queen’s anger colours her cheeks a dark rich red, and she looks away, down at the barren ground, and the cracking carpet of leaves on it.

“For so little a crime?” the woman muses, voice full of restrained anger. “Have you a home to go to, child?”

“Nay, lady.” No home, she thinks, but the glittering Palace she has had to quit, that she has stayed in since she was a child sold in the slave-markets, plucked from kin and home in war.

The woman sighs and the leaves lift and fall with her exhale, and stands, one hand briefly on her head in benediction. “Then come to my house, child, and meet my kin.”

There is no guile in those eyes when she meets them, nothing but kindness, and she rises, and takes her hand. “You are too kind to me, lady.”

“My name is Vasundhara, child, and I bid you call me mother,” says the woman and smiles her dead mother’s gentle smile. “For as a mother I will be to you, for a little while, while you dwell in my home.”

“I cannot,” she says, and oh, it is hard to speak the words. “I have been forbidden shelter and food within the limits of Suryapur. It is death, mother, to disobey.”

“I live not in Suryapur, child, and I fear not the lady in Surajgarh. Come to my home, child, and live therein.”

***

It is no mean distance to Surajgarh—a full day’s ride, or a week’s walk, along Vasudha’s meandering route—and the trees ’round Vasundhara’s home have put out new leaves and new flowers, while those in the Palace gardens remain still bare, when a stranger enters first city limits, and then walks slowly up to the Palace gates. He comes wrapped in the scent of incense, and all he passes feel the balmy breath of spring wrap them ’round.

Into the Palace he walks alone, and into the audience-chamber, where Rani Indumati rules on her son’s behalf, and there stands, some unfelt wind ruffling his uttariya, and tangling in his hair, and making soft music of his strings of rudraksha and tulsi wood.

“Hail to thee, Queen of Suryapur,” he says, and his voice is the susurration of wind through trees laden down with the bounties of spring.

“Hail to thee, Brahman,” she answers, “who are ye, from whence come ye, and for what purpose?”

“My name, lady, is Anilesh, but that” he smiles, “is of no moment. I come from Raja Banhishwar, and I come, lady, with a message.”

“What message is this that you bear, from this King who I know not?”

“Raja Banhishwar rides to war against you, Rani Indumati, and that is the message I bear.”

“To war against me?” There is curiosity in her voice, and no fear. “But what harm have I or Suryapur done him?”

“You have greatly harmed his kin,” says Anilesh, and seems unaware that he should be afraid of Rani Indumati, that his hands should shake and his voice falter.

“How,” asks Indumati, and in her voice is anger, “can I harm the kin of a King I know not?”

“All men are kin to Raja Banhishwar,” says the Brahmin, and his voice carries the heat of the wind crossing desert sands, “and greatly have you harmed them.”

“How dare this King of no name and no realm thus criticise me?” The anger in her voice is evident now, and guards creep closer to the Brahmin.

“I have told you his name, lady, and all realms are his realm.”

“But not mine,” Indumati snarls, and gestures at the guards.

“Even yours, Rani Indumati, I promise you this,” answers Anilesh, nothing repentant, and raises his eyebrows as the guards put heavy hands on his shoulders. “I am a messenger and inviolate.”

“You have stood in my halls and insulted my rule. Neither caste nor age nor being a messenger can keep you inviolate, Brahmin.” Indumati smiles as Anilesh’s wrists are shackled. “Nor will your master be able to free you.”

Anilesh looks at his chained hands and then at the Queen, eyes cold. “I serve no master, lady. I came bearing a message,” he says, and his voice is an insidious icy wind, “and I have told you it.”

“And now you will regret telling me it, in my dungeons, without food and water.”

Anilesh smiles. “I am glad I came, lady, for I have now seen that in truth you are not a good queen, nor a wise one, nor even kind.”

“You dare?”

“I dare, lady. And now farewell.” The shackles fall clanking to the floor as white mist swirls around the Brahmin’s form, and his form dissipates, and the mist turns air.

***

At the height of summer, when all Suryapur’s farmers are praying daily for rain, for thunderstorm, for massing monsoon clouds, a barge sails up the river and docks at the Surajgarh jetty and a man walks to the city gates and hires a palanquin that takes him to the Palace. At the gates the guards move to stop him, and fail, and later think he flowed ’round them like a river breaking its banks, and shake their heads, bemused.

Into the Palace the man walks, and into the audience-chamber, where Rani Indumati doles out what she calls justice, and there quietly stands—the light from the many windows lighting his black curls blue, and shifting over his garments in illusory waves.

“Hail to thee, Rani Indumati,” he says, and his voice is waves lapping the shore.

“Hail to thee, stranger,” she answers, “who are ye and whence come ye?”

“I am Ambupati the merchant, lady, and I come from Rani Vasundhara with a message for thee.”

“What message do you bear?” she asks, and though her voice is steady, yet a shiver goes through her.

“I bear news of war, lady.” The Queen and all her court tense, for the sound of a tide rolling inexorably in is in their ears.

“Why bring you this message to me, when I never have seen your mistress?” The anger in her voice is tinted with fear—even Suryapur, prosperous and powerful cannot wage war against not one realm but two.

The merchant laughs like a jaltarang being played. “Oh, lady, she is no mistress of mine. And she wages war against you for you have grievously injured her kin.”

“I have injured no kin of hers,” Indumati says, fighting fear down in favour of rage.

“All women are kin to Vasundhara,” says Ambupati, and in his voice is the rumbling of a thousand thunder-storms. “And grievously have you injured them.”

“I let no man, nor woman, stand in my halls and instruct me in king-craft,” Indumati answers, voice deceptively gentle, eyes hard. “Even rulers I know not, even envoys they send.”

Ambupati inclines his curly head. “I have given you the message I bore, lady, and I will say naught else.”

“You will tell me, merchant, all I wish to know,” says the Lady of Surajgarh, as her guards chain the merchant’s hands behind him. “In the dank dungeons, you will tell me all.”

“I am a messenger, lady, and inviolate.”

“You are in my realm,” smiles Indumati, “and in my power.”

The merchant smiles, sunshine on water. “Aye lady.”

He lets them take him to the dungeons, and push him, still shackled, inside. But all night the guards hear the gurgling as of a spring rising from between the dungeon stones, and in the morning the merchant is absent from his cell, and the barge from the jetty. And the river slows to a trickle as it crosses Suryapur on its way to the sea, and all the streams become mud and all the pools dry.

***

It is monsoon by the seasons, but only by the seasons is it monsoon. No rain has fallen on Suryapur’s soil, and no trees have burst into leaf and flower and fruit. The royal granaries have begun to dole out grain, and even the seed-corn in the granaries has gone to fill the hungry bellies of the farmers. And then the cracked soil turns the brown of wet earth, and the trees unfurl new leaves and petals, and the mingled fragrances bring Rani Indumati into her gardens, away from the starving men she has had thrown into the dungeons for stealing food.

And in the garden, beside a flowering jutika plant, gathering up the fallen petals—so soon flowered an so soon fallen—she finds a dark, shabby, woman, easily dismissed as a gardener, save her bearing—when she unfolds, she stands as though no servant, as though a queen meeting another.

“Hail to thee, Rani Indumati, lady of Surajgarh, queen of Suryapur.” And though the voice is hoarse, the cadences are crisp, and so too are the words.

“Hail to thee, woman.” And she turns her face away, to look at the flowers and revel in their redolence. Surely the gods are pleased with them, to send thus this bounty, and without rain make the trees burst into leaf and flower and fruit, and turn the ashen bark the rich colour of the woman’s hands. The woman’s hands that are close to hers, now. And Indumati turns, all mellow pleasure gone—and rage coursing her veins. This woman, so shabby, earth-shaded skin and threadbare clothes—this servant, this shudra, how dare she? “I was not aware,” she bites out, longing for the guards she has dismissed, “that my gardeners employed woman to sweep away the leaves.”

“Do they so?” The woman’s eyes are like dead coals. “I know not, Rani Indumati, I number myself not amongst them.”

“Where number you yourself, then? Amongst the cleaners of slop buckets, or the eaters of carrion?”

The woman smiles, reaches to pluck a flower. “Neither, lady, though they are my kin, as all women are. I am Vasundhara.”

Indumati moves, finds a root catching at her feet, stumbles and steadies herself against a tree-trunk, flattens her back against it. “And you go needlessly to war against me.”

The woman plucks another flower, and another, and another, and begins twisting them all in a chain. “Not needlessly, Rani Indumati,” she admonishes, reaches out to pluck more flowers till the bough is bare, “for you have grievously injured my kin.”

“And you would avenge them?” She fights back the fear in her voice—this woman cannot fight, let alone defeat her. And yet she looks so calmly certain.

“I would,” answers Vasundhara, still calm, and raises her flowers to wrap them ’round her neck, and finds the chain fall short. “But that is not all the reason, lady, not the real reason.” She reaches her hand out towards the bare bough, and plucks a flower from its new burden. “You are not a good queen, nor a wise one, nor kind.” She twists the last flower into the chain and the chain round her neck. “And that, Rani Indumati, is why I go to war against you.”

And she smiles again, soft and gentle, and moves deeper into the trees, while Indumati stands in her garden, bark rough against her back, and the trees in her garden shed fruit and flower and leaf.

***

“Have we displeased the gods?” The raj-guru shakes his head, mute. “Then magic is being worked against us.”

“No, lady. These things that are happening—they owe naught to gods or magic. They are natural.”

Indumati grips the carved arms of her throne. “Natural? There has been no rain this year, no grain can be brought in because the river has dried, the land breaks the plough, and you call this natural, priest?”

It is autumn, and the granaries are bare, and the people, hungry all summer, have begun to starve, when a man on a bay horse comes riding through Surajgarh, up to the Palace gates. There guards try to stop him, this stranger dressed for war, but neither their flesh nor the iron-barred door can bar his way.

The murmuring audience-chamber falls silent as he enters, and the chastened raj-guru rushes gratefully away from Indumati. And Indumati rises from her throne to greet the stranger who stands before her throne, sunlight throwing living flame aross his copper ornaments.

“Hail to thee,” he says, “Rani Indumati of Surajgarh.”

“Hail to thee, northerner,” she answers. “Who are ye, and whence come ye, and for what purpose?”

“I am Raja Banhishwar,” says the man with flame in his hair, “and I come with news of your defeat, lady.”

“My defeat?” she asks, then again, forcing her voice steady, “My defeat, when you have not fought me?”

“Need I fight you, lady, when your granaries are empty, and your people starving? Your soldiers could not lift sword or spear against me.” He smiles with the warmth of a new-lit fire on a cold night. “Come, lady, step down from your throne.”

“You are one man,” she says, eyes wide and curious, “no matter how well-fed; and I have in this Palace at least a hundred warriors. And yet you speak of my defeat?”

“I am one man,” Banhishwar echoes, and draws from his scabbard a sword along the blade of which flames play. “But I am, lady, also the devourer and the scourge of all things. Step down, lady, for you are defeated.”

But Indumati does not step down. She stands before her throne and watches her guards let their weapons fall clattering to the ground, watches her son shrink behind his tutor, watches the raj-guru stare and stare and stare at Raja Banhishwar, as though his aged eyes see what no-one else can. And she pulls a sword from the nearest guard, hefts its weight in both hands, and moves towards the man with fire in his eyes, her own eyes clouded with crimson rage.

And Banhishwar laughs like the crackling of a forest fire and pulls her into his arms, and stifles her cries against his shoulder, and holds her as she burns to cinder, to ashes floating down to rest in a pile at his feet. “Not a good queen,” he says, as flakes of ash fall from his hands, “nor a wise one, nor kind. But brave.”

At the open doors of the audience-chamber the raj-guru stops him. “Will you rule us, Lord?” he asks, eyes wide and hands shaking.

“Nay, priest, not I,” he smiles, and takes the old man’s trembling hands between his. “We will bring you a queen in place of the one you have lost.”

***

It is winter, and the trees are bare. Yet, though it has not rained all year, nor has soil been ploughed, nor crops sown, yet in Suryapur there are bellies and granaries are filled and the river in danger of overflowing its banks.

A girl walks out of a forest, over a crackling carpet of leaves, under the dawn sky red against the latticed branches. She walks steadily away from the heart of it, where even the birds are silent, and at the eaves of the forest, where the huts of hunters and woodcutters cling like zari work to the hem of her skirts, she mounts a dappled horse and takes its reins from a white-garbed Brahmin.

And then she rides alone towards Surajgarh to take its throne.

4 comments:

Monidipa said...

umm okay, i told you i'd do a detailed criticism when i read the story more carefully. it's a great story, apart from these points:

i) indumati's crime isn't sufficiently shown, as you yourself mentioned. since she is human and the others are not, if she isn't villainised enough the reader tends to sympathise with her instead.

ii) structure-wise, i think you need to concentrate a bit more on the girl at the two ends and shift concentration a bit from the episodes in the middle. by the time i'd reached the end i'd forgotten about the girl.

iii) language. um. i really think the story would do better without the elevated language, but that's just my opinion. it works well enough with your greek stories, because that kind of elevated language has become the trope of transliteration from greek/latin, but it really bears no resemblance with any indian language. sounds very out-of-place. just my opinion though. ask a few others on this.

Rhea Silvia said...

re: Indumati, yes. I should really take this down till i finish retooling those parts.

re: Vasudha, i didn't want her to be very important.

Language is bad? O_o

RBC said...

I loved the language. Indumati's crime is quite evident I thought: she treats the messengers with the same tyranny she shows her people and is clearly no one's idea of a good ruler. I just had one objection: the sudden volte-face on seeing the woman in the garden doesn't make sense.

Rhea Silvia said...

rimidi, haff fixed.