An Epic Love Story
By Deepak Jeswal
The gentle lapping of the river was now joined with a mild strain of a classical song that was emanating from the Chanda Bai’s brothel; it was still faint due to the distance,
and added a mystical touch to the entire environment. The moon shone in its vibrant glory, as the boat waded through the waters, with its two very divergent passengers.
Tara looked up in astonishment as she heard the name, her eyes questioning and her emotions churning within her; of course, she knew he was Prince Rudra, she had seen him a couple of times at the Dushhera processions; but he seemed so different then, with all the regal outfit and a crown; today, he was simple and just a lover!
“Your Highness, I am so sorry…” she started to say, but Rudra just raised his hand to stop her.
“No please, don’t start off this. I am only a human being! And, perhaps, you were right, in our roles given by society; we somehow forget that beneath all that weight, what actually is the living force is same in each one of us”
Tara was still unsure; he was the King’s son, crowned to take his place sometime in future- belonging to the highest echelons of the social hierarchy; she was just a prostitute- a fallen woman, who perhaps did not even count in the list of subjects. But, though somewhat relieved by his statement, she did feel a bit uncomfortable. Then, a thought crossed her mind.
“If his highness his not displeasured, can I ask you a question, please?”
“Yes, sure, why not?”
“Whom have you loved?”
“The one who is so pure that even the fire cannot temper her further; the one who is so divine that even the angels shy from her; the one who is so pretty that even the moon hides his face seeing her; the one who is so tender that even the flowers hurt her! My love…my Meera!”
They had neared the bank, just off the rising cold white concrete structure of sin; the sound of the song from it was distinct and clear; whoever was singing had deep pain in her voice, though she sang words of union…the alaap stretched over the river that extended into the night on the long river which merged into the haze of the night.
With a light jerk the boat hit the bank; and the boatman rushed out to tether it to the embankment. She got up, with a slight imbalance as the now stationery boat wobbled. As she raised her foot to move towards the land, she turned towards him.
“Sir…the night is dark and ominous…”
“…but you are so beautiful that you make the dark night also sparkle” He held her with force, her arms pinned behind her in his strong grip, and the other holding her chin, pulling it towards his own face. Arjun planted a small kiss on her neck.
Roopmati tried to free herself, but not with the force that she could have.
When she had met Arjun on the hilltop the first time, she had seen the lust in his eyes. In her own body, she had felt a deep thrill running. Today, when the messenger brought a message for her from Arjun, she had joyously realized that her opportune moment had arrived.
Her marriage to Rudra was a grandiose political arrangement; she was not part of the decision making, and certainly, would have preferred a better husband, or rather a better kingdom to rule, than the crumbling, small state of Sahastragarh. On top of it, Rudra turned out to be too soft, too gentle for her immense physical and ambitious needs. She goaded Rudra to fight other kingdoms and annex them to their state, but the fool was a peace loving idiot, who preferred a song to the sword. She was dissatisfied, and gradually, their marriage crumbled to a state that they were a couple only to attend the multitude processions and parades, with a plastic smile pasted on her lips.
To satiate her needs, she found many means…willing men- army men, gardeners and stable keepers- all, who were much below her standards, but what the hell! They gave her pleasure; and succumbed to her threats to remain silent.
But that did not mean she was to forgive Rudra, or forget him. She would ruin his life, as she felt he had hers. And, as if God was listening to her, she learnt of Meera.
Her thoughts were interrupted as Arjun yanked her towards him. She smiled naughtily.
“Why loot and have half a fun, when the treasure can be yours to enjoy fully?” she questioned, and turned her face backwards towards him. Her sharp profile was shimmering. An immediate gleam of joy lit up Arjun’s eyes, and he released her from his grip.
The bare room, in which they stood, was part of Arjun’s private stables. Made of wood, it was tiny, with one small window looking out towards his palace. A small lamp flickered on the wall, reflecting the dull brownness of the room, which had a small stack of hay on the corner, and a sort of show case to hold the tools required for the stable beyond. The concrete floor was dusty, and uneven. But, this was the only place where Arjun could have called Roopmati undetected at this unholy time of the night. His initial intention to call her had been only to provide a suitable answer to her retort the other day…the men of Sujanbhoomi still had enough valor left in them to protect their honor. But, when she came into the room, having ridden her own horse, he could not resist his temptation. The wild red lips were too inviting for him to control his basic animalistic need, and he had caught hold of her.
“The battle begins tomorrow; let this night be of love and fulfillment” She raised her arms to invite him.
He rushed to her, his long hair flailing behind him and took her in a strong embrace.
Knowing that she had been late in returning, Tara climbed the stairs of the brothel hastily; her anklets ringing below her, her ghagra trailing behind her, her dupatta clung loosely about her bosom more by the friction of the wind than by intent and the full moon reflecting off her fair skin. Her heart beat faster than normal; all the short way from the boat to here, she had thought of how beautifully Rudra had described Meera…pure, divine, pretty and tender. How contrasting was it to her demeanor- sullied, dirty, artificial and hardened!
She pushed the wide doors open, and entered the vast white hall of the house; and stopped short in her tracks.
“Shorya babu, you?”
The mujra in the next room had just got over, and an intoxicated chorus of voices was praising the singer and dancer, with demands for an encore. The heavy voice of Chanda Bai was extolling the virtues of the girl, a ploy to hard sell her to one of them for the night.
In the heavily lighted hall, Shorya was standing at the window, looking past the River Mukti. She was not happy to see him; in any case, he was not expected that day! A small doubt crept into Tara’s mind; had he seen her with Rudra? But, then she relaxed; though the river was visible from this room, the embankment from where she had got off was not discernible; Rudra’s boat had in any case gone the opposite direction towards the royal moorings.
On hearing her voice, the man turned towards her. But before he could say anything, the heavy voice entered the room.
“Arre beta Tara, you have arrived; see, Shorya babu has been waiting for so long for you. I told him he could choose another; but he insisted on waiting for you…I reckon you have done a grand magic on him for him to fall in love with you thus!”
The plump, short woman, the owner of the best whore-house of the kingdom wobbled across the sprawling space towards her. She wore a gawdy purple sequined sharara, with a matching blouse and a thick netted dupatta, that barely concealed her hennaed thinning hair. In her effortful walk, which was made difficult by her increasing girth, her hands were raised, half to caress Tara, when she reached, but more to balance her from stumbling over. She smiled, revealing her betel-stained teeth; a small trickle of the stain had accumulated at the corners of her lips, where age had irrepressibly placed some grotesque wrinkles. Seeing her now, it was impossible to tell that she herself had once been quite beautiful, and fancy of many a rich man!
Tara winced at the use of the word ‘love’ in such a derogatory and loose fashion. But that is how Chanda Bai was! Perhaps, over the years, she had genuinely started believing that the repeat customers were actually in love with her girls.
“But…” Tara’s eyes moved helplessly from Shorya to the lady walking towards her, but Chand Bai’s stern stare stopped her midway.
Ever the wonderful actress, Chanda Bai continued to admonish her with the stare, and at the same time said in her sweetest voice and with a loving smile, “Beta, you are lucky to have caught the fancy of Shorya Babu!” She reached Tara, and with the podgy fingers, lovingly held her chin. “Go to the room and take care of Shorya; I have already had the wine sent there” Tara felt the pressure on her chin from the woman’s fingers, as if warning her not to do anything wrong.
Tara inwardly sighed; back to business, she thought sadly; she turned on her artificial smile and said, “As you wish, aapa!”
Rudra stood on the terrace of his private room, observing the night pass by. As usual, his wife was not there, and he thanked the heavens for it. For whatever lowly sojourn she had gone, let her be there forever! He looked up at the cloudless sky. And the millions of stars there…somewhere between them, they held his future in their arcane twinkles, so the sages told him.
“Rudra?” a voice called out.
He turned sharply.
“Mother! When did you return?”
The Queen Mother Meenakshi Devi, in the royal attire of a heavy brocade sari, stood at the doorway; though pleasant plump and always a smile on her soft aura-exuding face, she still managed to give an understated but unrestrained look of authority and power; she was a King’s daughter and a King’s wife- it was as if both her genes and her environment had honed her stateliness into the realm of impeccable polish, wherein she did not have to pretend being a queen, it came to her naturally.
“I returned today evening,” she replied.
He moved forward and touched her feet. She placed a light hand on his head and blessed him with a long life.
As he got up, he noticed grief in her motherly tender eyes. “What is the matter, mother?”
She walked, from the doorstep, into the open terrace, and stood near the low wall, looking out at the vast expanse that marked the beginning of the jungles. Below, the guards were on their duty, and above the Gods were at their work.
“Your father gives me a bad news!” she said. “Is it true that you have refused to fight the battle with Sujanboomi?”
He lowered his perfectly square face, closed his dark deep eyes and placed his hand on the thick parapet.
“Your silence speaks volumes! Do you realize why this war is happening?”
He knew it; he had heard it all, when he had been with his father today, earlier in the evening.
“Mother, it is not my fault!”
“So you think! But, for me, it is an insult! And I shall not bear any insults to my honor. I accepted your father’s second marriage with dignity, considering it as my duty. In the same manner, I order you to fight this war- good or bad; right or wrong! This is the prime duty of a Kshatriya; and this is what you will do. I hope you will not let me down” She spoke with authority and strength, leaving no room for argument.
“As you wish, mother!” He bent down, again, to touch her feet.
It was a night of the moon, yet it was a dark, foreboding night. It was the night of strength, yet in its muscles, weakness traversed with fluidity. It was the night of love, yet lust was spreading its evil designs in a fine mesh, throttling the goodness in its suffocating strangle.
It was the night of the calm, yet within its womb it held a demonic force…sleep, the tender angel of the night, which resuscitates the frayed nerves, and soothes the tired bodies and tends to the broken souls, was unceremoniously kept out, as the two neighboring nations prepared for the war. Life, with its weakened reserves and mournful blank looks, awaited with bated breath the charge of the death on its beautiful offspring…just the way the scared ladies of the army personnel clutched to their crying babies, shivering, as they saw the steely glimmer of the weapons reflected in their husband’s metallic glazed eyes, as they sharpened it on the wet whet-stone. The charioteers hammered on the wheels, and fed their horses; the animals, ever the sensitive and perceptive to the foreboding disaster, neighed and resisted the sudden interest of their masters in them. The strategists sat with their council of men, drawing and withdrawing plans and movements. The mothers prayed at the temples, and the children forgot to be naughty; the fathers, caught between their manly instinct to fight and their fear for the loss of their loved ones, sat on the cots, hoping that the time would pass without their living through it.
Yes, it was a sleepless night, a tense night, a distraught night…
Rudra paced the terrace, long after his mother had left, his eyes lowered, his arms crossed at the back. His mother had given her orders, his education implored him to take up the arms, yet his heart wanted to run away from all this, because he acknowledged history would blame his reckless heart for the bloodshed that was to be tomorrow.
The darkness placed a heavy hand on him, smothering his breath, and restlessly, he increased the speed of his pace, finding no respite and no one to speak his heart out in this heavy hour.
Some where beyond, two bodies lay side by side, naked, in a tight clinch and spent, having ridden the wave of passion. Arjun gently stroked the lower back of Roopmati as she recounted her story; he was amazed at the depth of the emotions of the woman he had just made love to- wild, uninhibited and exotic.
In yet another part of the land, another couple lay after the heat cooled off; but they were not together; indeed, there was a vast gap between them- mental and physical. While Shorya slept, a satisfied smile on his lips, and snoring lowly, with his back turned, Tara lay awake, naked, with just her removed sari lying over her, and her arm on the forehead…her thoughts pierced by the rasping voice of Shorya telling her a secret that she felt she was not supposed to know, yet Shorya had mumbled it out in his drunken and power-hungry state.
She heard the grand old musician of the house playing the sarangi, practicing his pure art at this tense hour; a single strain of music so sad that she shuddered hearing it; the notes were not playing on the strings of the instrument, but on her heart and it pained…was this same pain that strings of the instrument also felt as the musician cruelly moved his bow over them; was the sacred music always a consequence of the deepest pain?
Shorya stirred in his sleep and murmured incoherently, but went back to his deep state immediately. She got up, her hair open and flying around her nude shoulders, and held the loose sari around her bosom.
She had to meet him…now!
The River Mukti continued its flow incessantly, uncaring for the unfolding drama on both her banks; her waters- deep and dark- did not lose their direction, as mankind around her had!
On the opposite bank, there was a row of low-class wooden hutment; a sort of shanty, for the laborers and the workers and the cobblers and the gentry. Built with the wood of the Mukti Jungle, they were in no particular order or any style- just a bunch of pitiful collection of walls and roof for the poor to hide their heads in the night. In one of them, Rattan, stood at the window- or rather the open hole in the wall, and stared out at the grassy bank, and the river.
His nostrils were flared, and his breath was fast…he sat on a combination of a wooden trunk covered with hand-me-down quilts and rugs, placed strategically near the low hole that was the only inlet for the sun and the air. Else, the dreary room was nearly empty, except for the cluster of pots, urns and the earthen fire stove that was his kitchen. His meager collection of Kurtas and dhotis were in another trunk, placed next to his designated kitchen.
Narrowing his eyes, he peered outside, towards the river, but more specifically at the white building; the lights had darkened. He placed his left arm on the sill, and his chin on it. His mind was gushing with the same speed as the Mukti…he had been lucky in his life…very lucky, and certainly much more than his stupid brothers who toiled the earth but got no reward. He was blessed with good looks, and a poetic mind, which nearly always attracted the women to him; plus, his innate talent as the gardener always did the trick. Several of them had fell for his immaculate charms, while he explained the delicate nature of each flower…yet the one he lusted for, was beyond his reach. And, thinking of her, his heart raced. In his imagination, he was over her on that dark green bed, and kissing her neck-so soft- and the breasts- so large and round, and perfectly malleable, and she was holding him tight, behind his back, and perhaps digging her nails in them…he could feel the pain of the nails in his back, and he felt a shiver of pleasure…he found his free right hand moving towards the growing mass of pleasurable nerves, beneath his dhoti. Yes, Tara, when I set eyes on you I wanted you there and then…but, you bitch, you wanted to play this game of friendship, so I just went ahead…and there he pounced on her lips and bit them…but now I am tired of your games, you can throw my friendship into the Mukti, and give me pleasure the way you give that ass, Shorya…he was now pinning her arms above her, and parting her legs…and his hand jerked in a rigorous movement. You whore…of all things you talk of friendship…he slapped her, and felt a wonderful pleasure dancing within him, so…here you are, one more, she was screaming in pain, and he was enjoying it. As the emotions became more turgid and pulled him, he raised his head and his neck was turned upward, and his eyes were closed…Tara was squiggling beneath him, yes…go on, bitch…I will hurt you more…again, he held those flailing arms and pinned them in the tightest grip that he could and felt the heat of the blood oozing out from where his nails dug into the flesh….yes…there you are, fully in my control, fixed on top with my hands, and below by my…his hand rocked faster…come on, shout and scream, and cry, I love your tears…friendship…I will show you friendship, and fun! With his eyes closed, the world seemed to swirl around him in utmost pleasurable sensations…fast…faster…rocking away, the entire universe was circling around him, he was the epicenter, the master, the controller….fastest….his body taut and arched like a fully stretched bow, his teeth clenched, his unruly mop of hair wet with his sweat…and then… the dam burst with a forceful gush, and he felt his breath stop for a second, as he fell from the highest peak in a cottony float…falling in mid air, with softness….falling…falling….
His breath came in short gasps, heavy and filling the quiet room. He took a deep breath, and opened his eyes…all was calm…and silent…and normal…the river flowed, uncaring and unrestrained.
In the darkness, he got up to clean himself…his breath, still shallow, was not the only sound that his now calmed ears were listening…there was the river, the mosquitoes, the insects, the preparations in the neighboring house… and anklets…
Immediately, he turned. The unbolted door burst open…a woman stood there, her head wrapped in a heavy shawl, covering most of her face, except for the ferocious eyes…
To Be Continued.