(Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha Editor: Suchitra)
(Original Novel : கோபல்ல கிராமம்)
The bandit leader walked slowly toward Chennadevi. The smell of camphor came to us when he got close. The man didn’t take his eyes off her feet painted vermillion-red. He planted the tip of his sword into the ground and knelt down on one knee. With his hands folded on the sword handle, he shut his eyes and lowered his head. Then he got up and took two steps back, standing with his eyes still shut as though he was meditating. He then called out in a choked voice, “Hey Bomman!”
A man wearing a chain instead of a leather belt, moved his spear to his left hand. While keeping the spear behind him, the man covered his mouth with his right hand and walked up to his leader’s left.
“Escort them to the end of the forest.” The bandit leader said, remaining in his meditative pose.
The crowd parted. Bomman rested his spear against his chest and ushered us into the palanquin with a respectful gesture.
Chennadevi came in with the same majesty and sat down. As soon as the door shut, our journey resumed. She looked at my scared face and hugged me while laughing, “Chellee, you were frightened weren’t you?”
We were shocked to find out later that he was the infamous bandit Mallayya.
“Govindappa, he has committed countless murders and crimes!”
He didn’t kill Chennadevi due to her divine beauty – a beauty that deserved worship.
Mallayya was a bandit but he was also god-fearing. He saw a mother in every woman. Perhaps he saw his goddess Chandika Devi in Chenna.
But, Govindappa, a girl of such beauty can never live peacefully. The beauty that gave her fame carried sorrow in its wake. Not just for her and her family. But to their whole society.
Pooti paused briefly to rest, then continued.
More men visited Chennadevi’s house. They were also gem merchants and had what Chenna’s father was looking for. He was good at appraising gems and so, with the help of goldsmiths, he selected the ones he wanted.
The merchants then told him they already had a ruby necklace and they could show him if he wanted to see it.
As he took it from them to take a look, Periyappa, Chenna’s father, was stunned.
“This isn’t meant for humans. It should be in a temple! We should buy it and put it on Alamelumangai, the goddess of Tirupati.” He said, half seriously and half jokingly.
But they couldn’t afford it. Even with a ladder, they couldn’t reach the price the merchants asked for.
At that moment, Chennadevi’s grandmother said that she would like to see Chenna wear it since they couldn’t buy it. Periyappa was against this. He said it was wrong to try on something they weren’t going to buy.
“We always have desires. Mother, we’re going to make her a necklace. Please listen to me.” He said.
“Quiet.” She said to her son before calling out, “Aparanji!” That was what she called her favorite grandchild.
Chennadevi had been watching from the window. When she saw the necklace in her grandmother’s hands, she came out.
Her beauty doubled when she put the necklace on.
Grandmother warded the evil eye by brushing her palms against Chennadevi’s cheeks and then cracking her knuckles.
“Govindappa, we were tricked into believing that those men were merchants. We didn’t know they were the personal servants of the Muslim king ruling over us.”
The next day did not dawn well on our friends and family. The king’s soldiers and closed palanquins had arrived very early in the morning. Our house had been surrounded in advance to stop our escape, but the king’s men told us they were showing their respect.
The king’s secretary was an old man that looked like a Brahmin. He called out Periyappa and showed him the gems, jewelry, pearls and silks heaped inside the closed palanquins. He asked him to accept all these gifts on top of the king’s respect. Who could say no to a king’s gifts?
But we had heard of the consequences that came with accepting gifts from the Muslim.
Our fears were quickly shown to be correct. The old man asked for Chennadevi’s hand in marriage to the Muslim king.
“Don’t be afraid, Appayi. The king wants to marry your daughter and make her his queen.” He said to Periyappa. “Your family is very lucky. Don’t think twice.”
Periyappa didn’t say anything.
He stared at the Brahmin. The latter glanced around and put an arm around Periyappa’s shoulder before muttering in a low voice, “Even if you say no he’s going to take your daughter. Leave it to God’s will and say yes.”
Periyappa pushed the secretary’s hand off his shoulder.
Chenna’s mother, who had always been proud of her daughter’s beauty, now wept and wished that she wasn’t so lovely.
No one spoke. No one ate or drank. Not even a death in the family could have caused us to mourn like that.
The elders tried to think of something but failed. We could have swallowed something and killed ourselves, but that wasn’t going to happen because we were surrounded. And we remained surrounded even though we told them we had to think about it.
Grandmother took Periyappa and Periyamma to the pooja room. They held each other and cried silently.
But how long could they cry?
Grandmother stoked the lamp’s wick to make the flame brighter. Then she faced the direction of the holy mountain Tirupati with folded hands.
“Oh Srinivasamurthi, Lord of the Seven Hills!” She exclaimed and fell to the floor, surrendering to His will. Then she took two betel leaves. She placed a red arali flower on one, and [jasmine and tulasi] on the other. She wound up the leaves, shook them in her hand, and dropped them in front of the lamp.
Grandmother then called out to me. I bowed to the lamp, picked one of the leaves, and gave it to her.
We waited eagerly as she opened the leaf. It had the jasmine and tulasi.
“God…” She exclaimed. “Only You know what You wish for us. We cannot understand, Lord.”
While crying, she reverently touched the flowers to her eyes and gave them to Periyappa.