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The Widowing of Kannaki is from Samhita Arni’s new book The Prince, a retelling based on ‘Silappadikaram’, one of the five greatest epics ever written in Tamil Nadu. Republished here with permission from the publishers, Juggernaut.
Trigger warning: graphic violence
Kannaki clutched Uthiyan’s hand tightly as guards brought out a bound Kovalan from the wagon. The executioner led her husband up on to the platform.
She cried out. ‘Kovalan!’
Kovalan turned to look at her – and Uthiyan was shocked at his appearance. This was not the indulged, spoilt youth he had met just a day earlier.
In a day, Kovalan had changed. There were bruises where the guards had hit him, a thin line of blood from a cut lip. But it was his expression that struck Uthiyan hard – the haunted, dazed look of a man with no hope.
Kovalan gazed at Kannaki as if there was nothing left in the world.
A pair of guards grabbed his arms, and another held him from behind, pushing him down and holding him in place. The executioner held his sword aloft.
He then swung his sword, and Kovalan jerked backwards. The blow missed his neck, but cut into his skull. Blood spurted out. Kovalan screamed.
Despite having grown up in a palace, Uthiyan had never before seen an execution.
This was nothing like what he had imagined.
The guards gripped him tighter, and Kovalan was pulled forward again. The executioner swung again, and this time managed to hit Kovalan’s neck. A fountain of blood spouted out, spraying the crowd, and Kovalan screamed again.
He was still alive.
The crowd roared. Uthiyan turned away, unable to bear the sight of Kovalan’s death.
Instead, he watched the faces around. He was aghast to see excitement, something not too far from pleasure in some, revelling in this bloody, gory execution. Others wept. Yet there were many, to Uthiyan’s surprise, bursting with anger, who shook their fists at the guards and the executioner. The king’s justice did not seem to be popular with all of his subjects.
The executioner hacked and hacked – it took a number of blows to sever Kovalan’s head from his body. Kannaki, unable to bear it, fainted and crumpled to the ground. Uthiyan struggled to pull her up, and discovered that her clothes were wet. Her legs were dripping with water. He dragged her to the edge of the crowd. A group of women standing there helped him lay her down on the ground.
The women clucked, as they noticed her wet clothes. ‘She’s near her time.’
‘What?’ Uthiyan was startled. ‘She’s not due for months!’
‘It happens sometimes that the baby comes early,’ a woman replied. ‘Where do you live? She will need a midwife soon.’
Together, they carried Kannaki down the street. It was impossible. The crowd was large and unruly, and Kannaki, barely conscious, had begun to toss and scream.
Her screams were unbearable.
A palanquin passed by. Uthiyan, with all the air in his lungs, cried out, ‘Stop! Help us!’
The palanquin stopped, and a delicate hand parted the curtains.
Uthiyan found himself staring into Madhavi’s face for the second time that day.
‘Uthiyan!’ Sattan was standing by the head of the palanquin. ‘What are you doing here?’
Uthiyan stumbled for words, but it was Madhavi who spoke first, looking around at the knot of women kneeling by Kannaki’s semiconscious form. ‘What is happening?’
One of the women who had been helping Uthiyan replied. ‘She’s about tobirth.’
This was the last person Uthiyan wanted to ask for help, but he had to. He took a deep breath. ‘Will you please help us?’
Madhavi signalled her bearers to place the litter down. She alighted from her palanquin. ‘Quick,’ she told the women, ‘lay her there.’
‘What about you?’
‘I’ll manage.’ Madhavi replied. ‘You’ll need a midwife.’
Sattan spoke up. ‘I’ll help find one. Where do you need to take her?’
Uthiyan told him, and then directed the palanquin bearers. As Sattan darted off, the bearers picked up the litter, and Uthiyan turned to Madhavi. ‘Thankyou.’
He started to follow the palanquin.
‘Wait,’ came Madhavi’s voice. ‘Before you go, what happened?’
‘Her husband,’ Uthiyan replied, choking back a sob. ‘He died because of me. I gave him a dagger, the king thought it was mine – and had him executed for theft and murder. He was tortured, I think, too. But he knew nothing about me or who I was.’
Madhavi gasped. ‘I had no idea.’
‘How could you?’ Uthiyan responded sadly.
‘I-I thought I was protecting you.’ Madhavi buried her head in her hands, disconsolate. ‘I did it for you.’
This excerpt has been used with permission from publishers Juggernaut.
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