An Epic Love Story
By Deepak Jeswal
The hooves pounded on the earth with dull thuds as the horse flew its way over the expansive rough terrain of Sujanbhoomi’s outskirts, raising a cloud of sand and a rhythm of excitement. The wide horizon spread its rich wares of a sad sun setting in its own bloodied redness covered unsuccessfully by the gauze of vapory clouds; a bashful moon, in its weak whiteness tried its feeble attempt to whimper its existence.
With the darkening jungles behind him, the horse and its regal rider rode on the open green space of the hills with a ferocious vigor and without any respite. Arjun clutched the reins with a sharp grip, his knuckles whitening, his hands cold by the biting wind that cut through the unrestrained countryside and hit his pale visage. His scarf, wrapped around his neck to protect against the cold, flapped remorselessly behind him; the sleeves of his thick woolen dress flailed around him.
As he neared the sharp drop at the end of the open field, he reined in the horse, his eyes narrowing to discern any human form in the lengthening shadows. There, in the corner, on the edge of the precipice stood a woman; with, a chariot of royal bearings standing at a close distance.
Turning his horse, he rode towards her. The woman, startled by the sudden noise, looked up. She wore a hard expression- her eyes, large, dry and unemotional; her lips pursed in a tight grip, slightly curved down, adding to the hardness. She wore an expensive sari of purple, the color merging with the borders of the open skies, and the silver zardozi work reflected off by the dying light.
Arjun brought his horse close by, pulling it to a quick stop with a sharp jerk of the reins and a quick push of the stirrups; the horse shuffled to an uneasy halt. Jumping down, Arjun adjusted the silk scarf and took wide strides to the woman; his ruffled long hair settled nervously and recklessly over his broad forehead.
“A warm greeting to my lady!” said Arjun, bowing down; his voice was deep and dynamic.
The lady did not reply; she merely nodded her head imperceptibly, in an obviously reluctant acknowledgement of the greeting. An eerie howl of the wind filled the space between them. Behind her was the grand drop of the green gorge, with a stream gurgling its way in rough rapids and over sharp rocks, beyond which were the mighty mountains- unexplored and unconquered.
“May I know the reason for calling me here at such hour?” asked Arjun, a little reverentially, a little hesitant at the stern but stately aura that the woman exuded.
The two stood on the gigantic open space, unpunctuated except for their respective riders. The horse had begun its task of grazing at the grass; the chariot and its horse, stood motionless, like their owner.
“Have the men of Sujanbhoomi lost all notions of honor and valor?” she asked her voice soft but controlled and very strong, piercing through the wind with the finesse of a taut thread.
Arjun looked up sharply; their eyes met- hers, dancing with a feral agitation; his, steely and cold.
“May I ask the meaning of this taunt?” he enquired, his words nearly hissed out between his teeth. He looked at the woman’s glowing white skin. She was beautiful…but in a very wild sense; he felt a strange churning within his groins as he took in her upturned face and the redness of the mouth – as red as the diminishing sun behind her…as red as the blood that he felt boiling within him. Her chin was turned up in a mocking way, and he felt a surge within him to grab her and kiss her. There was an unconquerable attitude around her that stirred the man in him to possess her and ravage her.
“I am talking about your fiancée. Meera’s eyes are wandering much more than they should at this age!”
Anger erupted within him, and he raised his voice. “What are you saying, woman!”
“There is an unhealthy concoction brewing between Meera and Rudra”
Arjun was aghast. He was taken aback, and it showed on his face. The lady’s lips curved slightly into a small smile; her stare was relentless on him.
“Rudra is my husband; I will take care of him. I know how to! Men always fall for the doe-eyed ladies who smile coquettishly at them. Restrain that smile on Meera’s face…for if it continues, I promise you, Sujanbhoomi shall not see the next Dushera ever. Convey this to your king that he must tie chains instead of anklets to the straying feet of his daughter!”
The air was chilling, and the wind whistled a shrill tune over the rugged territory; Arjun shivered- the lady’s voice was unfeeling but simmering with unforeseen consequences. His anger intermingled with his desire as he again observed the wanton demeanor of the lady standing before him: Roopmati, the wife of the Crown Prince of Sahastragarh, the neighboring kingdom, on the other side of the River Mukti.
She took a few steps towards him, her purple sari rustling in the wind, but barely containing the curvaceous figure beneath it. She raised a hand and placed it on his shoulders.
“I hope you will understand!”
He felt the deepest lust at the touch of her warm hand; the heat singed through his woolens. Turning sharply she turned towards the waiting chariot. She sat on her velvet seat, her back straight and ordered the chariot driver to drive off. The vehicle rushed passed him, the wheels and hooves whipping up a froth of cloud and wind, and the sound of the rolling heaviness reverberating into the night’s abyss.
Long after she left, he stood near the edge, his eyes unwaveringly gazing at the piles of mountains strewn by nature in a supposedly random order; the sun now engulfed by the crevices of the hardened terra firma of the hills. His mind was galloping with the same rhythm that the horses had created.
“Meera…you shall pay for this betrayal!” he cursed within his breath. “And so shall you, Rajasaheb! History will not forget this easily”
“Tell me, what you have to say…fast!” He barked in his throaty rasping voice; he spoke with such force that the thick mustaches on his lips quivered with impatience.
“Why do you get angry, sahib?” smiled Raktaprasad slyly, shifting his weight from his lame left foot to the other- he was getting to his strong point.
“You know I have not much time…”
Raktaprasad looked around wickedly and smiled. Of course, Prince Rudra’s brother Shourya did not have much time, especially in the place where he stood. The large white marbled hall of the courtesan Chanda Bai was spotlessly polished; Raktaprasad could almost see his reflection in the same. Four gigantic pillars supported a ceiling so high that the short-height endowed Raktaprasad felt a pain in his neck when he watched the intricate hundred candle chandelier made of pure crystal special imported from abroad. Beyond the hall, he could hear the sounds of the nimble footsteps dancing to the strains of saarangi and harmonium, set to a mild rhythm of the ghoongroos and the percussion of the tabla. The mellow lapping of the waves of the River Mukti outside added their own charm. A melodious voice sung a song of love and beauty.
“Saheb, please do not get angry” said the servant, obsequiously. “This time the news is such that I shall ask for 100 gold coins.” His eyes shone with greed as he said the words.
With an awkward limp he moved forward, near to the gargantuan muscular frame of Shourya.
“Saheb, Raja Harshvardhan’s daughter and your brother are playing the game of love; the passion is very strong in both of them!”
Shorya’s eyes widened “If this is not true…”
“Saheb, you can chop the head of this servant of yours and feed the lions of Mukti Jungle” interrupted the vile man.
Raktaprasad shifted his weight again; not only did he have a short height; there was a marked slouch in his frail body also, with a small head fixed on the torso sans the neck. God had been sufficiently unkind in depriving the minutest sense of beauty in either his body or mind. On that, a deep scar inflicted on his cheek by an unfortunate adversary had taken away any scope of attraction. The adversary was killed; the scar on the cheek remained. He was the trusted aide of Arjun, the chief of army of Sujanbhoomi, but in his selfishness he realized that he needed to be friendly with the important members of the neighboring country as well.
With his eyes shining in delight, Shorya gave him a pouch full of gold coins and dismissed him off with a small wave of hand.
Shorya pondered over the information provided by Raktaprasad. So, his virtuous married brother, his rival, had fallen in love. Yes, this was the chink in the armor that he had been so desperately looking for. Ever since he had taken birth, he had realized that he had missed the destiny’s caravan with a very small margin of time and womb. He never forgave his destiny for this chicanery; nor, his father, King Devvrat.
Although Devvrat loved his first wife (Meenakshi) very much, he had married Laxmi because he needed to sire an heir for the kingdom, because Meenakshi could not give him one even after ten agonizing years. As luck would have it Meenakshi found she was pregnant just a month after Laxmi announced her own pregnancy. Though Laxmi knew that in all righteousness Meenakshi’s son would ascend the throne should he be born first, but Devvrat, in his kindness, promised that he would crown the first born, from whoever it was born.
Laxmi was satisfied; though the gap between the announcements had been small, somehow she sensed that she had the lead. In the next few crucial months it seemed that she was preparing her unborn for the throne.
However, to her shock and dismay, Rudra was born to Meenakshi, prematurely, a weak, nearly dead, blanched and wrinkled boy that cried for the first ten days of coming into the world, but who had in his survival marked on his forehead the future of the kingdom of Sahastragarh.
Shorya entered the world fifteen days later, a loser and full of the venom of jealousy that his mother had imbued him with. Over the years, he realized that his father’s entire love found its way to his weak sibling; and because he displayed a natural resentment and devised novel means to hurt his elder brother, his father’s wrath was always directed towards him.
In his endeavor to spite his father, Shorya took to wine and women early in life; and the notorious brothel of Chanda Bai was one of his favorite haunts. Built on the banks of River Mukti, the sprawling white marble architecture was a hub of activity during the nights when the nobility came to enjoy the pleasures of sin and skin. At the farthest end of the market that catered to the base needs of all, from the poor weary traveler to the uncouth business men, Chanda Bai’s haven was by far the best in its trade – almost a symbol of class and gentility. The grandeur of the building spoke volumes of Chanda Bai’s income. She took care to source the best, the youngest and the loveliest girls, and groomed them personally in music and dance, and the ways to please a man in bed.
Shorya stood near the tall Persian glass windows, deep in thought, looking at the serene waters of River Mukti flowing by. The windows were draped in crème satin curtains, laced ornamentally with small nuggets of colored glass in beautiful designs.
As he thought of ways to take revenge from his brother, Shorya’s breath came fast, and his bulky six-foot frame shook in exhilaration. A small tinkle of the anklet broke his reverie, and he turned sharply. A girl in her early twenties stood, bowing respectfully and with a silver glass of wine in her hennaed hands.
“Huzoor, do you plan to spend the night watching Mukti?” she asked, in a husky voice.
Shorya took the beauty of the demure girl in his lusty dark and deep eyes. Yes, once again, Chanda Bai had offered him the best of her entire lot. The girl had a skin that was clearer than the Mukti with almond colored intoxicating eyes that swam with mischief and invitation. She wore a bright pink ghagra choli, and her dupatta hung loosely over her heaving bosom and rounded behind her slim back to cover her silky hair; a few wanton wisps ventured out and playfully hung over her forehead.
Shorya smiled, and walked up to her. Taking the glass from her hand, he felt as if he had touched silk. “So you are Tara! Chanda bai was right when she described you! You are an angel”
The girl smiled shyly, and looked up to his robust eyes. “Huzoor, I am nothing but your servant…”
With a quick vulture like grip he pulled her towards him, and pressed her soft and warm body to his; in the tug, her dupatta slipped from her head and fell by the side, caught between their bodies, but enough to reveal the shimmering whiteness of the skin around and below her neck that revealed the ripeness of her youth through the deep cut choli.
He caught her in a tight grip, with the steel glass still in his hand, the coldness of which she felt at her lower back. He loved the suppleness of her breasts against his chest, and bent forward to kiss her lips. She smelled the odor of the wine from his breath but as taught to her did not resist or struggle, but allowed him to bite onto her tender lips. He pressed his body hard against her, and moved his thick leg around her slim ones.
After a while, she pulled away, and pushed him with a playful jerk and said, “Sarkar, not here…”
Understanding her meaning, he lifted her up in a swift movement and started walking to the wide marble stairs at the end of the hall. Tara wrapped her arms around his neck and placed her head on his neck, and looked back at the receding white floor beneath her. The dupatta, now hanging precariously from her neck, swayed with their movement.
In her mind, million thoughts raced. She knew what was to follow; she was prepared for it; she had been educated for this night all these years; in fact, she was surprised that she had so snugly fit into the ribald environment of the brothel. She was perfect in her dance, and she sang very well; many a nobility had come here only to see her move gracefully to the rhythms of the tabla, and listen to the songs that she composed and sang. She now enjoyed the ribald talks and raunchy jokes of fellow-nautch girls and prostitutes.
But she still remembered that once she was also a normal girl with some normal dreams of home, hearth and husband. The only daughter of the village priest, her birth unfortunately coincided with her mother’s death. She was keen to learn the scriptures and devote her life to the God. The destiny had something else in store for her. When she was ten, a severe epidemic had engulfed the village, wiping out nearly all, including her father. After that, she was alone and uncared for; she wandered the jungles of Mukti, trying to find food and shelter. Alas, the only man that she met during those stressful three days was Shorya, who in his arrogance and wayward ways knew only one shelter to provide for her: Chanda Bai’s brothel! She recalled how Chanda Bai had smiled at her, popping a large betel leaf in her mouth, and proclaimed, “Miyan Shorya, you have brought an uncut diamond here today; someday I shall present this to you, polished and cleaned!”
Today, she was finally presented to Shorya!
With a sigh, Tara looked at the henna on her hands; the henna, considered auspicious was a bride’s best friend; yet, the dark brown color burned on her hands; she was to have her wedding night today, without any procession, priest or purity!
The clatter of the sword echoed through the room.
Arjun looked at it in disgust, and sat down, panting, the sweat glistening off his shining dusky bare chest. For the past one hour he had been practicing sword fighting, killing off an invisible enemy in the stuffy air of his private room. How could his fiancée fall in love with some one else? Although merely the head of the army, the King of Sujanbhoomi had taken an unique liking to this handsome young man; since, there was no other offspring to the King, except for Meera, he had decided to marry her to Arjun, and give the reins of the kingdom to him after his retirement.
For Arjun, it was crucial that he remained in the good books of the King; though given to all the vices of the nobility, he had managed to keep that side of his hidden from the gullible old man.
“Arre, arre…what is this, master!” The wily voice of Raktaprasad broke the silence.
Arjun looked up at his man Friday. He hated Raktaprasad, and the opportunistic attitude, but tolerated him for the invaluable and insidious information that he always seemed to possess.
“Huzoor, will you only fight imaginary battles in this room, or go out in the field to fight also!”
Arjun turned to him and came forward in anger, and grabbed the man’s collar “What do you mean?”
Feigning fear, Raktaprasad recoiled, but spoke on. “Huzoor, your enemy Rudra is preparing war on Sujanbhoomi…and plans to kill you in this!”
With a loud war-like cry, Arjun pushed him back; the crippled servant staggered back, trying to recover with the best of his ability, despite the limp.
With mock affront, Raktaprasad said, “It is a fact! And my guarantee seal is on this news! I thought I should warn you…”
Arjun’s eyes blazed in a fire of hatred and rage. If this is true, then the purpose of the war is only to get Meera from him! He would not allow this to happen. He had to speak to the king immediately; the things were getting a bit too out of hand, and too fast.
He pulled out a bag of coins from the chest of drawers in the corner, threw it across to Raktaprasad, and rushed out. Raktaprasad caught the bag with an efficient move, and smiled to himself. It was good that these rich and high people were blinded with jealousy and fury, a fire that he kept fuelled with his tiny informations; in turn, they always rewarded him with money; and money, was his only motive…since God had given him no beauty or stature, and a limp over that, he felt it was his right to extract his pound of flesh in whatever situation that he deemed fit.
To Be Continued.