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Anyone can start a war, but it takes exceptional courage and vision to judge when not to. In my opinion, the princess deserves the throne.
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Normal Is Overrated”, and the story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is,
The first winner of our January 2018 Muse of the Month contest, Vijayalakshmi Harish.
The reflection in the mirror followed Princess Padmini as she caressed the diadem on her head. Her deep, black eyes, and her complexion, the colour of a winter’s evening, glowed. Closing her eyes, she visualized a crown in place of the diadem. When she opened her eyes, her mother, Maharani Matangini, stood alongside. Prostrating, she addressed her, “Mother, bless me.”
“May you be victorious.”
“Yes, child. Are you surprised that I chose you, my adopted daughter, over my sons who are my flesh and blood? A mother ought not to have favourites, but you deserve the throne; and the throne deserves you.”
“Is my ambition normal? I have heard the whispers that say I am inciting a civil war.”
“What does your conscience say? Women have sought power, though it is not easily given to them. However, there have been great queens before you. You were brought to us with a prophecy that you are destined to be a remarkable ruler, and we took an oath to give you every advantage—even those not available to other girls. Use that privilege. And civil war—it will never come to that. The support for you is immense. Now go, be brilliant.”
A thousand whispers reverberated among the great pillars of the court. The throne stood on a grand pedestal, empty. Below the pedestal, on opposite sides of the throne, stood the Princess Padmini and her brothers, Prince Shekhara and Prince Yadu. The air was charged with anticipation. King Indravahana walked in with the Rajaguru and everything fell silent.
The Rajaguru stepped forward. “We are gathered here today to witness the final test, which will help the king choose his heir. It was assumed that Prince Shekhara would be king when the time came, but Princess Padmini also put forward her claim. Our Constitution demands that the one most suited for the position sits on the throne—be it a man or a woman, be they related to the king by blood, or not. Subsequently, Princess Padmini, Prince Shekhara and Prince Yadu, have all undergone many tests. In the strategy of war, in their skill with various weapons, in their knowledge of philosophy, politics, economics and other requisites, they are equals. They have performed various duties as part of the king’s court and household satisfactorily. However, the skill most essential for a good ruler is good judgement. That is will be tested here today. A citizen has come with a problem. Whosoever provides the most appropriate solution, will be our next ruler. Let the citizen come forward and state his problem.”
A man shuffled forward. Eyes sunken, body shrivelled. There was a weakness in his limbs. He presented a pitiful sight.
“My humble greetings, Maharaj! I am from Shripuri on the banks of River Gomathi. It is at the edge of your kingdom, and on the opposite bank of the river, begins the kingdom of King Aarunya. For the past month, we have been suffering from some great illness. It is as if the body is reluctant to retain water and expels it. Many have died, and others are at death’s door. Save us, Maharaj!”
“Citizen, your suffering is our suffering. I will send some of the Royal Physicians with you, so that they may do what they can to help the people. We will find out what is causing this malady and attempt to find a cure. Leave assured that we will take care of you.”
“Sire, I have a question to ask of him before he leaves. May I?” Prince Shekhara asked.
“What about the people on the opposite side of the bank? Are they ill?”
“On the opposite side is the Gurugram ashram. They seem to be fine, Rajkumar. This curse has descended only upon us.”
“Thank you. You may leave.”
The man hobbled out in obvious pain.
Prince Shekhara spoke first. “Maharaj, it is obvious from the man’s description of the illness that it is caused by bad water from the river. I suspect that it has been poisoned. However, the people on the other side are healthy. I deduce that the poisoning of the river water is an act of war against us. King Aarunya must have warned the ashram residents not to drink from the river and that is why they are not ill.”
“I agree with my elder brother, Maharaj. We must retaliate,” growled Prince Yadu.
“Padmini, you have been silent. Do you agree with your brothers?”
Padmini furrowed her brows, “No Maharaj, I disagree. There is too much information missing, and assuming aggression now is premature. King Aarunya has always been a friend of ours, and there is no reason for him to do this now. The ashram mentioned by the man belongs to Rishika Bhagirathi, the daughter of my Guru and my friend from Gurukul. I am certain that she can help us. May I go meet her? I will have an answer for you in a week’s time.”
“Father! This is unfair!” screamed Prince Yadu. Prince Shekhara grunted and looked away.
“No, she is correct. To rush into war is foolish. Rajkumari, you have my permission. I shall see you in court a week from tomorrow. The princes are free to conduct their own inquiries, if they wish to.”
“This is a waste of time. We are right and we know it!”
The animosity between her and her brothers choked her. But she had a duty to do.
With bowed head and folded hands, she took her leave.
Glimmering lamps, chanting of evening prayers and fragrance of incense greeted her at the ashram. She accosted a young man passing by, “Greetings, sadhaka! I am the Princess Padmini of Padmagiri and must speak to Rishika Bhagirathi urgently.”
“Welcome princess. The Rishika is at her evening prayers. You have travelled a long way and must be tired. I shall make arrangements for your stay. Rest awhile, and then you can meet the rishika.”
“Thank you for your kindness. Will you also take care of my horse?”
“We will do the needful. Please come this way.”
Padmini washed and ate, and had just begun to nod off, when a step on the threshold jerked her awake. The rishika stood smiling.
“Greetings, rishika. I bow to you.”
“Padmini! Why the formalities between friends? Welcome.”
“You are my friend, but you are also a scientist and the head of this ashram. I have some gifts for you. Please accept them.”
She opened her satchel and presented the contents to the rishika “These are some treatises on medicine—your area of interest. I acquired them recently for the Royal Library from some foreign traders.”
“These are priceless! Are you sure the Royal Library can spare them?”
Padmini smiled. “I am the Royal Librarian, and I have copies made of every book. In any case, they will do more good in your hands.”
“Thank you for your generosity! Now, why are you here?”
“On the opposite side of the river is a village which belongs to my father’s empire. The people there are afflicted with a sickness which is causing their bodies to shrink, as if dried out and they are vomiting constantly. Help me save my people.”
“They drink river water?”
“Yes. They do.”
“I thought as much. It is a problem we have been facing in other parts of our kingdom which also receive water from the Gomathi. I have been researching this.”
“You have a cure?”
“Not yet. So far, I have only concluded that it is likely that the water diseased. Something that we are doing here at the ashram is purifying the water, and so we are the only ones not sick.”
“And what is that?”
“My father was in the habit of eating a mixture of medicinal herbs and spices every day. But as he lost his teeth he was unable to chew it. So I started to boil it in water for him, so that he could drink it instead. I became habituated to drinking the water myself, and continued the practice here at my ashram. Everyone here drinks herbal water. Also, a traveller who stayed with us last year showed us that water tastes better when filtered through sand. So now, we boil the herbs and spices in such filtered water.”
“Hmm. So that is three ways in which you are processing the water—filtering it, boiling it and adding the herbs.”
“Exactly. And I was about to conduct experiments to determine which of these processes helps to makes a difference. I shall divide the population in the affected areas into four groups. The first group will continue to drink the water as is. It seems cruel, but it is our assumption that the water is the cause, and we must test it. So we need a control group that has not been exposed to any water treatments. The second group will drink water that has only been filtered. The third will drink water that has been filtered and boiled. And the last group will drink the herbal water that has been filtered and boiled. Then we observe the changes, if any. In the end, we should know if the problem is the water, and if so, then which treatment is beneficial.”
“How much time will this take? There are suspicions that the contamination of the water is intentional, and if I have no answers within a week I will not be able to hold back an invasion.”
“Then we must work fast. The entire experiment will take time but if the water is the problem then we should see some results within the week. We shall start early tomorrow. Now, rest. Shubharatri.”
“Thank you, rishika. Shubharatri.”
A week later the court was gathered again. But where was the Rajkumari?
“Obviously the Rajkumari has failed. That is why she has not dared to show her face in court. Declare me King. Or, Prince Yadu, if you feel he is better suited. But time’s up! We must make preparations for the war.”
“Patience, Shekhara! The day has only just begun.”
No sooner had the king spoken, than Padmini rode into court on her horse!
“Forgive me, Maharaj!” panted a dishevelled Padmini, as she alighted from her steed. “My intention is not to disrespect the court, but I did not want to risk a delay.”
“This is highly unusual, princess. Refrain from such stunts in the future. Compose yourself, and then the court will hear you.”
“Thank you Maharaj for your kindness. It is the river water that is making our people sick. However, it was not intentionally poisoned. There are people in parts of King Aarunya’s kingdom too, who are ill. But the ashram treats the water they drink, and so they are not affected. There is no need to go to war!”
“The rishika is conducting an experiment to determine which treatment works best. We have seen some promising initial results.”
“And what are those?”
“Filtering water seems to delay the sickness, but does not prevent it. Boiling water works best for prevention. But the most interesting finding is that water that is filtered and boiled with some herbs and spices seems to reverse the illness. The rishika wants to make sure that the malady does not recur. Once she is sure of that, we will distribute the herbal water to the entire populace.”
“Excellent! What do you say, Rajaguru?”
“Yes, Maharaj. Anyone can start a war, but it takes exceptional courage and vision to judge when not to. In my opinion, the princess deserves the throne.”
“Rightly said. I shall declare it officially in a ceremony on the next auspicious date.”
The court erupted in cheers.
A wave of joy overwhelmed Padmini, even as the hateful looks of her brothers reminded her that the real test had only just begun. But that was for later. For now, she was one step closer to the crown.
Vijayalakshmi Harish wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations!
Image source: pixabay