(Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha Editor: Suchitra)
(Original Novel : கோபல்ல கிராமம்)
One day, Govindappa Nayakkar asked Pooti, “How did you escape from the Muslim King?”
Mangathayaru Ammal continued from where she had left off:
In that pouring rain, Grandmother loudly chanted the Lord’s name. We echoed her chant while we walked south, “Govinda! Govinda!”
We were drenched through but it was wonderful. The rain continued to fall without stopping. We cupped our hands to catch the rain water and drank from it.
After we had walked for some time, we could feel that we were near a village. We saw a person holding an umbrella under a vaagai tree. As we got closer we saw that it was a short, fair-skinned man with an umbrella made of screw pine. A red vaishnavite tilak was on his forehead. His nose was flat and his hair was in a bun the size of a coconut.
“Randi, randi!” He urged us in Telugu.
Govindappa, what he said surprised us and made us happy.
“I dreamed of your escape last night and have been waiting here since dawn. Quick! Come here!” He said. He gave a change of clothes to all 67 people in our group. He gave us warm water for a bath and tasty food to fill our stomachs. We slept for many days in his empty granary.
“You don’t have to be afraid here.” He said.
Yet, how long could we be a guest? We couldn’t return to our village. The thought of the Muslim King haunted us. We decided to go far to the south into unknown lands.
A fate that we thought would bring us fortune had instead turned us into poor refugees. We were afraid of what was yet to come.
That Govayya gave us a touching goodbye. Being a generous soul, he gave us weapons for self-defense, cooking utensils, as much grain as we could carry, more clothes, and wool blankets.
Can we forget his generosity and compassion? I named my first son, your grandfather, after him. How else could we repay him?
Govayya sent his men out to learn if anyone was on our trail. He only allowed us to leave after he was sure of our safety.
We were not afraid during the day. But at night, fear settled in. We were terrified of thieves and bandits.
We were homesick for our village, our friends, and the lands we had to leave behind. We kept talking about our abandoned cattle, goats, and other pets.
Every now and then Periyappa would cry to Grandmother. “Ma, what harm did we do to anyone that we’re faced with this?”
It was evening and we could not walk any longer. We were in a thick forest and in the distance we saw the gopuram of a small temple. We decided to make that our destination for the day. The temple was dedicated to the goddess Amman and was very big. It seemed we were fated to spend the night there.
We washed ourselves in the cool waters of the spring near the temple. We were reluctant to leave the water. It was so cool and refreshing. We wanted to sink into it and lie under its cool embrace.
The yellow rays of the evening sun were comforting on our bodies. At that moment, we heard singing. It was a divine voice; as though a goddess of the forest was singing from the bottom of her heart. A little later, a very small woman came out from near the temple. She was short and beautiful like a small statue. She wore big, round ear-studs and a toratti in her nose. Her hair had been tied into a bun and tucked into the thick locks atop her head, in the koppu style. Large coral beads were on her neck like a garland. Under her left forearm, she held a long box made of palm leaf strips. In her right hand was a bamboo stick.
She came toward us with a small smile. She stood on the edge of the spring’s bank and watched us wading in the water, humming to herself the entire time.
After looking at us for some time, she asked, “My dear children, where are you coming from?”
Her Telugu was like a chirping parrot. We told her what we had been telling anyone that asked: that we were on a pilgrimage. She laughed with her head tossed back.
We asked her to eat with us and she lovingly said, “You eat. If you fill your bellies, so will mine.”
We went into the spacious temple at twilight and sat down. She joined us. Suddenly, we saw a lot of armed horsemen galloping toward us. They looked like the same horsemen from before. Seeing our panic, the woman assured us, “My children, do not be afraid. I am here. Just relax and be calm.”
We were consoled by her words, but we were still dumbstruck by our defenselessness.
The men dismounted and rushed into the temple. They moved carefully as they searched. But they didn’t seem to see us! It was like we were invisible to them.
The men checked everywhere and their leader asked the woman, “Hey, lady. Did a group of 60 or 70 people with a beautiful girl come into this temple?”
“No, my son. No one came here. I have been here the whole time.” Her voice genuinely sounded like an old woman.
They believed her and left faster than they had arrived.
As soon as they left, she rolled her eyes and laughed silently.
“They’re crazy.” She said and stopped laughing.
We got ready to spend the night at the temple, but Periyappa asked Grandmother, “Ma, do you think it’s wise to stay here?”
Grandmother replied, “Appayi, our shadows will follow us wherever we go.” She spread her arms towards the temple’s sanctum sanctorum. “We are in Her care now.” She said, choked with emotion. At that moment, the lady that had saved us went to Grandmother.
“What is this, dear?” Grandmother asked as the woman quietly handed her the box and bamboo stick.
“Keep this.” The woman said before quickly going into the inner reaches of the temple.
Grandmother and I followed her to see where she was going. We saw a pedestal, but no statue on top of it. We looked up, down, everywhere! But we couldn’t find her.
Grandmother lost control and cried out. I had never heard a shout like that from her throat before. “Mother! Mother” She sobbed. She placed the box and stick on the pedestal and laid prone on the floor to pray. Then she fainted.
At first, we thought she was laying down, overwhelmed with emotion. But when we realized she had fainted, we splashed water on her face. It took awhile for her to come to her senses.
She hugged Chennadevi and shed tears of joy. “I can die in peace. Your bad luck is over. I have seen three divine miracles with my own eyes. The Goddess Devi has revealed herself to me. The fo…fortune….” Grandmother wept and so did we. We prostrated before the box and stick and prayed.
Early next morning, we bathed and circled the temple – going right from the entrance – in wet clothes. We had to decide whether to leave or stay so we sought guidance by casting flowers. They told us to leave.
Grandmother gave the stick and box to Periyappa. She then took a fistful of soil and put it in a yellow cloth. We all prayed, and then continued our journey.