Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha Editor: Suchitra)
(Original Novel : கோபல்ல கிராமம்)
The king’s maids from the palace came to get Chennadevi ready.
Amidst the many necklaces she was wearing, the ruby necklace sent by the king looked the best; like it was made for her. She was born to be a queen. A crown was all that was missing.
A little distant from the palace, tents had been erected next to several halls for family and friends to stay. It was an evening during the monsoon season. The wedding would be the next morning. Everyone was tired and hungry after travelling so far.
Palm trees had been cut down to waist-height and large metal bowls had been placed on them. The bowls were filled with oil and had wicks that were three fingers thick. Each lamp provided enough light for five camps.
Curious to explore, some of us wandered into the cooking area. We saw a large inverted basket set to the side and one of us lifted it to see what was under it. All of us were immediately shocked to see the severed head of a cow.
We have been ruined!We could tell that this would be our fate as well and secretly began talking about escaping.
As planned, we went out in small groups as though we were going to the bathroom. Chennadevi put on normal clothes and the clothes and jewelry given by the Muslim king were hidden in the camp. We gathered in a grove far from the village.
We weren’t followed as no one suspected a thing. Half the group would leave with Chennadevi and the other half would return to camp. If they were told to eat, they would say they are fasting and would only eat in the morning. They would then make their escape when the king’s people were asleep.
We retreated quickly, with Chenna, through the forest. We planned to go South but we couldn’t make out where we were going. The night sky was covered in clouds and hiding all the stars. It would rain at any moment.
We walked as fast as we could. Although the ground was covered in thorns, none of them stabbed our feet. The lightning and thunder didn’t scare us. Our backs tingled like an armed horseman was chasing us, so we ran. Whenever we couldn’t run, we walked quickly. When lightning lit our path we were glad to see where we were going. But we were also worried that the lightning would give us away.
Finally, after we had pushed our bodies to their limits, we sat down.
Periyappa breathlessly spoke to grandmother, “Mother, you can’t walk any farther. There might be a village nearby with Hindu elders. I will go and find out and see if they can give you refuge. Stay here quietly. Be brave. It will be dawn soon.”
Grandmother couldn’t say anything due to her exhaustion. She simply put her hand on his mouth. After gathering herself, she spoke. “You can’t leave us, Appayi. You might as well just kill us with your own hand. We shouldn’t part ways right now. Life or death, He is our guide.”
She stretched her hands above her head in supplication to God.
Chennadevi sat next to her grandmother like an exhausted fawn. Grandmother made her lie down, affectionately placing Chennadevi’s head on her lap. She patted her and murmured endearments, “Bangaru…Aparanji…”
“Sita was born and Lanka was destroyed. Is the Muslim king about to die since you were born?” Grandmother said, her voice choking.
Periyappa laughed mournfully. “The Muslim kingdom is nowhere near destruction. It’s us who are perishing.”
In the distance, we saw rows of lit torches like fire-breathing demons. Soon we heard their shouts.
Periyamma said they were hunting us. We began to run again like prey. We would have died happily if our lungs had burst.
Dawn was approaching. It would rain soon.
We arrived at a river at daybreak. It was flooding, water rushing all the way up the banks. The river had blocked us. If we could spot a boat or a boatsman, we could reach the other side for some rest. As we stood dumbfounded, we made out the figures of rapidly approaching armed horsemen.
We decided that it would be better to drown in the river than get caught by the Muslim king.
At this point in the story, Pooti’s face brightened. “Goyindappa…. Goyindappa… This was when a miracle happened!”
A fig tree on the opposite bank, as large as a temple’s tower, bent toward us. First we thought it had been uprooted and was falling across the river. Its branches touched the bank for a moment then it straightened. We realized it was divine intervention and grandmother was the first to realize this. The tree bent back toward us.
“My children… my people! Grab onto the branches. It will save us and take us to the other shore.” She cried.
We obeyed and tightly gripped the branches. As the horsemen came closer, the tree began to straighten. We were so happy we could have let go of the tree!
I can still see the horsemen’s stunned faces as they stared at us. Govindappa, generations of praying around sacred fig trees came to fruition that night.
As soon as our feet touched the other side, it began to pour rain like we had never seen before. Not just the men on the opposite shore, we couldn’t even see each other.
Mangathayaru shut her eyes and began crying. “Oh God…”
An emotional Pooti raised her arms up and sang to God.
Taking the cue that story time was over, everyone left one by one.