An Epic Love Story
By Deepak Jeswal
The forest was knotted into a merged mass of trees, fallen leaves and fruits, intertwined with vines growing at reckless, unheeded pace and insects crawling in their fate-less existence. A narrow track had been beaten through it by the incessant footsteps of humanity, shaded by the spreading trees on both sides, their branches intermingling with the other, providing a natural roof to the corridor.
With a heavy, coarse shawl wrapped around his shoulders and heads; his non-existence neck buried deep inside, and the ugly, small head bent, the man limped through the path with as much speed as his crippled leg could take him. His hands, inside the folds of the shawl, clutched a heavy pouch of coins. Somewhere, in the near distance he could hear a few howls and cries of the wild animals, but he was not scared…Raktaprasad had often taken this path, as did many others. And, moreover, today, his mind was stimulated by the lovely bulge of the bag that he held in his hand. It was his moment of glory- the British, true to their words, had given him the five hundred gold coins; let the two kingdoms fight, he would leave the country today itself to the far off plains on the south and settle there.
The night was nearly wearing off; from the small patches of openings on the green roof above, he could see the full moon above…so beautiful! Well, everything was beautiful today; just as his luck had been.
His mind replayed the events of the last few days – Arjun had come back from a meeting somewhere, angry and shouting, and had blurted out about Meera and Rudra. Seeing his opportunity, Raktaprasad had conveyed the same message to Shorya – a person Raktaprasad knew would be interested in this piece of information. Then, Shorya had asked him to impart a false alarm about Rudra planning to fight a battle to Arjun. The trick worked…Arjun, in his stupid fury and idiotic gallantry, had persuaded the King to give a befitting reply. And then of course, seeing the opportunity, Raktaprasad had gone to these lovely British men, with their riches and their hunger for land! Tomorrow, the motion of the events that he had so willfully created would culminate in the battlefield, with the death of many…but who cares?
Tomorrow, he would leave as soon as the sun rose.
He heard a few more rustles in the depth of the dark around him, and clutching the pouch tighter, he increased his pace.
Suddenly, from a small patch behind him, he heard an unfamiliar sound; scared, he turned around; two men, in black and heads covered, had pounced upon the track from a small clearing on the sides. Raktaprasad’s blood froze; lost in his thoughts, he had noticed them, and a sharp fear gripped his heart.
Turning on his heels, he started to run, as much as he could with his limp; but the men were large and much stocky than his diminutive self. They were just behind him, and one of them raised his leg and pushed him with full force on the lower back, which sent him staggering forward, his hands rising to balance; in doing so, the pouch fell with a loud jingle as the coins dropped on the sandy track.
His voice stuck in his throat; but there was no point in his screaming …when he fell, the men had jumped on him; one of them immediately pushed on his mouth with a heavy palm, the other held his struggling feet; the first man, with his free hand, took out a dagger from his waist. Raktaprasad fought with all the might that his body could gather and his eyes stared wildly as the man raised his dagger to stab him.
The body convoluted and wriggled for some five minutes before it stilled. Raktaprasad died with his tiny head mashed against the gold coins, and his body ripped at the heart, to enable his confirmed death.
The men got up, and looked at each other with satisfaction.
“Let’s go and inform Sir George!”
Queen Meenakshi had never seen her husband in such a frail state; his eyes were sunken, his face pale and he murmured incoherently. He lay on the expansive bed, his head resting on the golden bed rest with unease, as she sat beside him holding his hand, and trying to soothe his pain with her comforting, warm strokes.
“My lord…everything will turn out to be fine…please, in the name of Lord Krishna, do not worry so!”
In her heart, she knew that no amount of platitudes will work; but there was nothing else that she could do. History had placed them at a crucial crossroad.
“I do not worry about the battle, Meenakshi!” murmured the King, his eyes closed, and his head shaking as if controlling the flow of tears that were waiting to burst out. “I have seen many battles in my lifetime and fought them with all my strength and won them too. But this one hurts me.It is not right! My poor Rudra has been caught in this.”
“Rudra has agreed to figh and he will fight; he cannot back away from the word that he has given me. And he is a strong man; I have full faith in him!”
“No…no…I do not fear that, Meenakshi! I fear that I have been wrong to him – his marriage to Roopmati was wrong! I should not have allowed this; looking back I have committed the same sin as my father did in forcing me to marry Laxmi”
“Why do you remember all these past events? And, even if the marriage was wrong, Rudra should have understood his duty as a husband, and not gone after Meera and this affair”
The king nodded, but did not reply. In his heart, the painful words of Rudra echoed and pierced him from within. “Father, my plight is something that even the Gods will cry at…caught in a marriage with a woman who never understood me…caught in an affair that would never fructify…”
Rattan’s blood curdled as he saw the woman standing at his doorstep, her frame silhouetted against the shining moon light.
“Meera…what brings you here at this time…and why?”
Meera took off the shawl from her face, and entered the room, and rushed to hug him. He stood frozen and did not move, nor did he make any efforts to hug her.
“Oh Rattan…I am so scared…what is this happening…I did what you told me to! But, I was not expecting this to happen…not a war!”
She clung to him with a child-like feverishness. He pushed her back; it was quite irritating for him to humor her, at least not now, just when he had been thinking about his Tara. He looked into her face- it was not the face that he had described to Tara- that was his ploy to get Tara jealous and perhaps show off her own charms the way she did to her customers. Meera was not as charming, but she was not ugly…she did have very expressive large eyes, but the nose was way too flat, and the lips not as sensuous. But she was the king’s daughter…and quite stupid to have fallen for his rustic charms. So, Rattan did not mind…it helped, and what the heck, she was a woman at the end of the day!
“You should not have come at this hour…what if someone sees you? You must not forget you are the king’s daughter…they will kill both of us if they find out!”
“I don’t care…I don’t bother…I love you, you love me; and this war will only worsen matters…let us run away from here!”
Rattan looked at her with disgust; has this woman gone crazy? Run off? With her? For, what? He looked at her squarely- she was getting to be a bit too much of a nuisance for him, with her serious love business. He had to correct her.
“Meera…I have no plans of running away anywhere with you!”
She was aghast as she heard the words; her eyes brimming with instantaneous tears; her heart throbbing within the confined walls of her ribs.
“Where will we go from here? In any case, your father will find us out immediately. And what will we do in some other kingdom…we need money and some work! Don’t worry too much…look, let the war get over, and then we shall present our case to your father…what difference does it make to you if this war happens or not…don’t let your guilt get the better of you…go home, please!”
She stood rooted, without any movement. He moved forward and lightly placed his arms around her, trying to be comforting. But she was not convinced. There was something wrong.
“No…no, Rattan! It was has to be now- the battle might end up any way! We cannot delay it further.”
Rattan winced; should he say it now, or wait- she might revolt and tell her father the entire truth, and then he would lose his life, for sure. But could she risk telling about him- after all the brouhaha that was happening because of her alleged affair with Rudra? No, she would not risk it; better to finish this off permanently.
“Meera, please! I cannot do this now!”
“Do you love me?”
He was taken aback with this abrupt question. He hesitated in his reply…she jerked his arm off her shoulders, and looked at him squarely, into his eyes, searing through them and getting into his heart.
“So, you don’t love me? Then, what was all this that was happening between us the past many months? Why did you make me do this sin?”
Irritatingly Rattan moved his hand through the flop of his hair, and narrowed his eyes, grimacing, and trying to think a suitable reply for her.
How could he tell her that he was paid a handsome amount of money by Roopmati to get Meera to ensnare Rudra?
“Well…the motive was exactly as I had told you, in the larger interests of the country, and your father.”
“No…I don’t believe you!”
“Then, you can think whatever you want to, and please leave…I am not telling anything” he replied, raising his voice.
Meera cringed, but stared back at him, in a half hurt, half realization glare.
“Do you really love me?” she repeated again.
He hesitated; now was the time to tell her the truth, and get it over with, forever. She had asked a direct question, that too twice, and he would answer directly; but seeing the fire in her eyes, he hesitated…could he?
“Well…Meera, of course…but what you are saying is neither practical nor possible. There is a vast chasm between our social structure…I mean, you are the King’s daughter!”
“You did not think of our vast difference when you gave me all those promises of love and life earlier? You did not think I was the king’s daughter when you made me do that sinful act of playing Rudra’s lover? You did not think of anything practical when the situation led itself to a war that shall see the deaths of thousands. No Rattan…I am sure you do not love me” She gave a wistful smile to herself, and the tears rolled down her cheeks. “I don’t know what blinded me to foolishly agree to your demands!”
Turning back swiftly, she adjusted the shawl back on her head and walked out of the room in quick strides to the horse waiting for her.
Rattan stood rooted, a deep relief permeating through his mind- at last, this stupid chapter was over! He sat on his makeshift bed, and stared ahead in the darkness, trying to recall how and when this drama had begun.
A year back, while he was still the paramour and fancied man of Roopmati to satisfy her physical urges (he smiled, she was good), he told her about Meera- the King’s own daughter- fanciful, naughty and footloose, but like all rich and secluded girls, stupid and emotionally depraved. With her too, he had played his innocent friendship and poverty card; the lonely and uncared for Meera immediately jumped to his bait.
The next day Roopmati had come up with a wild plan that even he thought was not possible to carry out…she wanted Rudra to somehow fall in love with Meera, so that she could humiliate her husband, and take her revenge. For this, he would be handsomely compensated (and to be fair, he was paid off quite well, and on time). Initially, he was suspect of the entire plan, but when Meera succumbed to it with the ease of putty in a worker’s hand, he realized his immense control on her, and now, on the hindsight, Roopmati’s idea had not been all that bizarre.
When he had told her of the success of the mission, and that Rudra was suitably in Meera’s love-clutches, he remembered the absolutely frozen look on Roopmati’s face.
“At last, I have my revenge! Tomorrow, I shall tell this to Arjun, Meera’s official fiancée…”
That night, she had been an animal in the bed.
He sat with his head rested against the wooden wall, one leg dangling, and the other raised on the bed, with his arm placed, stretched, on the knee; as he thought of that night, he felt a pleasurable pain building up again between his thighs, and was a little shocked at it; but he allowed his mind to wander; he imagined the night with Roopmati, but the face was not hers…there was Tara! The damn whore! He will get her someday!
Outside, the night’s lengthy arms outstretched to touch the tender fingers of the dawn. The river continued its flow…
Tara’s bare feet ached as she ran through the jungle, ignoring the thorns that were piercing her soft flesh, and the warm blood oozing out of them; her anklets were the only sound that brushed past the fallen leaves of the path; her hair (still curly from the pleats that she had tied earlier on) was disheveled, dusty, open and hung loosely on her shoulders. She picked up her ghagra over her toes, in order to avoid tripping over it, as she ran the distance to Rudra’s private palace, hoping that she would find him there. She had secured a shawl tightly around her shoulders. She barely registered the passing trees and shrubbery.
The dawn was cracking out of its dark cocoon- a thin red streak coloring the grey skies. She tore the vines and branches that had in their unruly growth danced upon the path, and she felt the hurt of the nicks and cuts on her soft bare hands.
She did not recognize the force that had made her run out of the house in the middle of the night, leaving the drunk and sleeping Shorya on her bed, but as she traversed the distance, she realized that she had to be there before it was too late.
She had deliberately avoided the route through the town, fearing that she might meet someone who would know her, though she was in a doubt as to the explanation that she would have to give to Chanda Bai for this unexpected sojourn.
She ran on, her breath short and fast, and audible, but she gulped down and felt a thorny pain in her dried throat. She came out of the jungle to the open fields; on her right lay the end of the town, and to her left, a path would take her to the palace. With a momentary pause, to take in the fresh air of the early morning, she again resumed her run, the music of her anklets following her. Away from the jungle, she realized that the dawn had split the skies much more than she wished.
The private palace of the Crown Prince, built of red sandstone, in a quaint hark back to the Mughal architecture, was looming large in front of her; it was not very big in size, and was surrounded by its own small knot of trees and gardens. She turned to the path, and looked furtively at the guards standing there…she was late! There was a marked activity at the courtyard of the palace; there were innumerable horses and the army was getting ready for the battle. Her heart sank…she could turn back; no one had noticed her as yet.
But, her mind did not agree with her; no, she would not turn back. And with a fresh gulp of air, she ran towards the large iron gates, and at the two, blank looking but tough guards standing with their formidable spears!
“You girl…what do you want?” One of the guards, dark and with a stern face asked her, as she neared him.
“I have to meet Prince Rudra…” she started.
“Get off here, the Prince does not meet anyone here; you will have to go to the Royal Court for that…go off!” He stared at her.
A strong sense of despair rose in her; she pleaded and told them that the Prince’s life was in danger, and she had to meet them, but they were relentless.
When Rudra came out, he was attired in his full armory; though he had hardly slept the night, he seemed fresh; his heart held fear, and stepping out of the door, he looked up heavenwards at the rising sun.
Before him, his personal and private army was ready, on polished horses, with their gears and weapons; despite a sea of people standing there, the quietness disturbed him; it was very depressing and heavy; yet, he knew that his army could not be standing there and passing silly jokes when death was throwing its net over them. With a sigh he walked down the short steps, and saw a small commotion at the gate, some five hundred meters away from him.
A girl, in a stained ghagra, held up by her hands, with her curled up hair flailing, and a tight dark maroon shawl around her, with mud marks on it, was running towards him, and his two guards were trying to catch up with her.
“Tara!” he called out.
Seeing their master call out her name, the guards stopped in their tracks. He dismissed them off with a small wave of his hand, and took Tara inside the palace. On the left was a small room- a sort of strategy room, where earlier in the night he had sat with his key army personnel to discuss the war. The room, square, and carpeted, had a large table at its centre, with some chairs strewn around it carelessly; a pile of parchments was lying on the table hap hazardously; from the barred window, the nascent sun was streaming in. She sat on one of the chairs, on the edge, feeling very unsure; she had reached till him; Rudra was standing in front of her, but how was she to start her narration.
“What brings you here at this hour? What if you had been killed?”
She gulped and with warm but fearful eyes looked up to him. “My life is not all that important; yours is. Your life is in danger!”
He laughed. “So? It is a war; everyone who is fighting it would be in danger” Though he joked it off, he felt a thud within his heart. Was death that near?
“No… I do not mean that way! May God give you strength to succeed! But, Shorya Babu was there with…” she paused, how could she say this to the man she was desperately falling in love with? But, his deep eyes carried no malice, or shame or any derision. She found her strength in them. “He told me all…in his intoxication. You have become target of a very vile conspiracy. He told me that the Princess Roopmati had deliberately placed Meera to fall in love with you, so that this battle could be started and you be killed. Arjun will most likely fight with you; but if he does not succeed, tonight, Shorya and his men will murder you off in the resting tents, and take over the throne! This way, he would not be guilty, plus because of all this, you have already been disgraced.”
There was no reaction from him; but, he was staring at her. She felt scared at his ceaseless unblinking stare.
“Meera does not love you, Sire!” she went on, resolutely, “She was only utilizing you for a purpose which I do not comprehend.”
Her voice played upon the silence of the small, thick-walled room.
After a moment, which to her was killing, Rudra spoke, “I know this!”
She looked up abruptly. “You know this?” she asked incredulously.
“Yes…I know this! I knew it yesterday itself… when you met me.”
He raised his hand to silence her. “I don’t know why I am telling you this, because I need not do so. But, the truth came to me yesterday itself. We met…yes, before I met you, I had already got the truth from her…I know you must be wondering that I had spoken so eloquently about her, but that’s because, even though she had not loved me truly, I had definitely done so. For me, she will still remain the pure and pristine Meera.”
Tara’s eyes welled up; was this man for real, she thought?
“But I am surprised that you should risk your life to come here and warn me so. Why?”
She looked up with love and sadness. “Is this question necessary?”
He smiled at her…no, it was not! It was so clear in her eyes, on her quiet angelic face. He went up to her, and gently pulled up her chin towards him, and said, “Tara, you are a good girl; leave the hell where you are. I will give you money; get out of this wretched land…beyond the mountains, there is a route that the slim eyed people use to trade silk and spices; on that there is a town of Kashtmandap, in a valley, beautiful, and surrounded by nature’s bounties. There is an old woman, who had nursed me in my infancy and childhood, on the outskirts of the main town. Go to her, and stay with her”
He removed his hand from her chin, and took off his customary knight-of-arms ring and forwarded to her.
“Give her this; she will recognize this; it is my personal ring, and she would know that only I could have given this to someone. She will welcome you heartedly.”
She accepted the weighty ring meekly, her mind blank.
He sighed. “If I live, I shall come to meet you there”
She sat with her head bowed, the tears flowing down her dirty stained cheeks, and with a blurred vision looked at the ring in her hands; her mind was still blank. She could not think coherently. She had come to save his life, and the messiah was rescuing her?
He called out to a servant. A small man, in his late years, came in. Rudra instructed for a hefty sum of money to be given to the lady who was sitting there, and dismissed off the servant.
Turning towards her, he said, “I have to go now. Will you do as I say?”
Without saying a word, she got up, and nodded. “I was just a piece of useless metal; you have touched me and turned me into pure gold. I can never go back and sleep with any other man.” She proceeded to touch his feet.
He left the room.
When she came out of the room onto the courtyard, the horses and their gallant riders had already filed into a neat formation. They were waiting for their leader, Prince Rudra to give the signal to start. She walked a short distance amongst them, to have a last look at Rudra; the men, looking at her curiously, chose to ignore her, knowing fully well that she must have been important for the master to meet her at this odd time. Her heart skipped a beat as she saw the fine form of the Prince, with his straight back, and elegant armor, seated on his shining black horse, decorated with full royal strapping.
For an instantaneous second he turned to have a look at her and smiled at her, shyly, his dark eyes twinkling against the morning sun. All the doubts that she had felt in the small room evaporated in the wispy mist of the morning; she smiled back.
He had given the signal; the large gates creaked open; with a short trot, he marched his horse out. The next file started to follow, in the same majestic rhythm.
As they passed her, a small wind got created by their stern movements, and her hair flickered, and a few strands loosened to caress her face, but she did not remove them, and stood still, her arms by her side, her fist clutching the ring, and she did not move, as one by one, the entire army moved out of the large courtyard in a fantastically coordinated rhythm of the hooves prancing on the concrete below, passing around her, to the gate, through it, and onto the long tree-lined path, out to the battle field.
She did not move even when the last of the horses had filed out and the dour guards started to close the gates, but looked up heavenward at the sun that had come out splendidly on this bright day, having widened its arm to edge out the evil darkness of the night- a fresh, beautiful and moist day, full of hope and vigor.
Yes, my lord!” she whispered to herself. “You shall come back…to me! My fable will also be complete!”
Her words, said so softly, were echoed by the chirruping birds and carried over the horizon with their energetically flapping wings.
The vast open space overlooked the gorge, beyond which were the mountains, in green layers, ending up to the horizon with the tall white, snow covered jagged peaks that looked up the sky with mock and delight for being taller than the clouds, which hovered below. The space was open, unshielded and ochre in color, with a few intermittent wisps of green from the strands of grass that had defiantly grown around the rocks. In this dry landscape, Meera stood, at the corner of the precipice, in a dark brown cotton sari, the pallu of which covered her head loosely, from which streaks of her black hair were flying out. A wind was whipping up, and the sari bulged like a sail but she held the corners of the pallu near her waist securing it from flying off her head. The sun was set, and in doing so, had added a distinctive bronze hue to the atmosphere; the clouds, darkened and thick, proliferated out in the limitless sky in myriad sizes.
Her face, blank and bland, and heavily lined with worries, was colorless, and her eyes, stared ahead, glassy and emotionless. But, in her heart a torrent of feelings lashed their fury. She should have stopped meeting Rattan immediately when things were getting serious. But, at that time, her unruly heart did not heed to her caution. Every day, she longed to visit him, talk to him, hold his hands and felt secure and safe in his arms. Regretfully, she acknowledged that being a King’s daughter had taken a toll on her…her mother was dead; and her father was busy with his stately duties. Life was a routine, of getting dressed up and attending boring functions and processions; of course, the first flush of youth was teasing her, and Rattan, with his handsome face, and lovely eyes, came into her life, and it seemed as if life had bloomed under his supervision, the way the colorful fragrant flowers did under his care. Then, he had passed on this weird suggestion; but she did not think about it at that time. Why? It was because she was so enamored by his sweet talks and promises and swears and softness, that she never realized that he could be using her. And moreover, though he had never said so in as many words, she knew he felt their difference of stature, especially, her being the King’s daughter; she feared she might lose him; so, by agreeing to his illogical demand, she wanted to prove her love to him; it was almost a childish urge for her to get his acknowledgement that she was his forever.
Meera would never know that the motion of events that she had set out so casually at the behest of her lover had been insensitively further fuelled by others like Raktaprasad.
But, when she came to know that a war was being fought over her, the enormity of the situation crashed on her. Her father had summoned her and scolded her and taken a vow not to speak to her for bringing shame to his family and the entire kingdom. That night, pained, she wanted to meet Rattan, but before she could do, Rudra was there, waiting for her. And, she told him the facts. She would never forget the disintegrating and crumbling look in his eyes as she sobbingly told him about Rattan and the play acting that she had shamelessly indulged in with the gullible prince. The last words of Rudra, uttered with ch pain, were, “I would always love you, forever”. At that instant, wretchedness overtook her; she should have been happy in ending this farce; but alas, she was pained; she was somehow, at a completely different level and sphere, feeling a concoction of sadness and care for him. But Rudra, left, and she stood there clutching the shaky straws of her love.
Now, as she stood at the edge of the sharp drop, a deep regret gnawed into the innards of her shaken heart. She wanted to turn back time on its heels and return to the comfort of the routine that would never be hers again; she wanted to see her father’s busy smile, as he would just acknowledge her presence, and then get back to his work. She had lost her right to this momentary pleasure as well- all for an illusion of love; all for, her need to build a meaningful relationship.
Her course of action was decided: she was not going back to the Palace; but she was not going to jump off the cliff either. Death would be too easy a punishment for her; it would be deliverance; no, she had to conduct her penance. She was going to the forests of the north and would live a hermit’s life amongst the sages that inhabited the place, and try to find and fill meaning to her vacuous life.
She would live in loving the man she should have, but could not.
In true sense, she would be a Meera now!
The howls of the wind pierced the deadened night.
“Go, my friend.” Arjun said, giving the reins of his horse to Rudra. “I have realized that the fault was not yours; Roopmati is dead- she was evil, I have killed her…now, you go before Shorya comes in; go far from this madding place, and find peace.”
Gratefully, Rudra took the reins of the horse, and climbed the handsome steed.
The hooves of the horse pounded on the earth, and finally merged into the night.