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She was shy at first, wondering if this other woman would even understand the feelings she had for her, so initially, she would approach her every day, buy a single flower, smile, and leave.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
VJ is one of the winners of the November 2020 Muse of the Month.
Valli and Padmini were sure that they had been led to Anantapuri for a reason. It would delay their onward journey, but they surmised that staying a while to resolve Anantapuri’s problems would benefit them in some way.
They had been shocked to see this once prosperous land in the throes of poverty and strife. Was this really the Anantapuri famed for its vibrant culture and opulence? They had stopped at an inn, searching for both nourishment and information and what they had discovered had piqued their interest.
The secret of Anantapuri’s prosperity had been the laughter of their princess. When she laughed, the most precious and unique pearls fell out of her mouth. She had always been a happy soul, so there was never any dearth of them, and the kingdom grew by trading them. A kingdom that used to engage in agriculture and other trade before the birth of the princess, became dependent on the trade that the famed pearls brought in. Their entire economy revolved around those pearls.
But for the past year, the princess had refused to so much as smile, so there wasn’t even the tiniest pearl to trade. The traders and tourists stopped coming. The markets, always so bustling, slowly fell silent.
The king of Anantapuri had announced that anyone who could make her laugh would be given whatever their heart desires, except for the princess herself. Many had tried, but no one so far, had succeeded.
Valli and Padmini decided that they would take that challenge.
The sun was just setting, but there was already a deathly quiet on the streets.
“To the palace?” asked Valli.
“Yes, but should we both go as we are? There may be a deeper mystery here. You may need a spy they don’t suspect. Or they may allow only one person to try at a time, and I think we work best as a team. We should ensure that both of us are able to get in.”
They looked around, until they found the dead body of a parrot under a tree.
Padmini sat down and meditated, mumbling a mantra. Soon, her body fell aside heavily, devoid of life. The parrot came alive.
Valli mock shuddered. “I will never get used to you being able to do that!” she exclaimed, shaking her head.
“Hide my body. Don’t want anyone cremating it thinking I’m dead. I DO NOT want to be stuck in a parrot’s body forever.”
After making sure that Padmini’s body was hidden, and well-guarded by venomous serpents, Valli set out with the parrot-Padmini on her shoulder. Approaching the palace, she rang the bell in the courtyard. A woman, dressed like a palace servant came out.
“I am here to attempt the challenge to make the princess laugh,” Valli announced.
The woman led her to a hall. A woman, who Valli took to be the queen, was seated, on a silver throne.
Valli bowed and introduced herself. She noticed the queen eyeing the gem on her brow, and wondered if she would be thrown out, or punished for her “daring.” However, the queen was either one of the few who was not biased, or she was so desperate, she was willing to let even an “animal” try.
“You think you can make the princess laugh?”
“I plan to try.”
“Many have failed. What makes you so sure you can succeed?”
“I have my talents. And I have my pet here – this parrot, highly entertaining! Never fails to make people laugh.”
As if to prove the point, parrot-Padmini let out a comical squawk. A few attendants giggled, but were silenced by the queen’s stare.
“Alright. You will spend tonight in the same room as the princess, and you will attempt to make her laugh. Do not attempt to touch her, or trouble her in any way – there will be guards outside the door, who will chop your head off at the slightest sign of distress from the princess. As proof that you’ve made her laugh, you must bring us at least one pearl that falls from her mouth.”
“What if I’ve just hidden a pearl on me, and offer that as proof to you tomorrow morning?”
“You will be searched thoroughly before you go in. Also, the pearls that fall from the princess’s mouth are unique. There is no other like them – and we can tell a freshly formed pearl from an older one. Now go. Your time is running out. I’m sure you won’t want to waste it.”
A few hours later, Valli and the parrot-Padmini were sitting inside a dimly lit room, a few feet away from the princess, a thin curtain separating them.
For a while they stayed silent, observing each other.
Then, the parrot-Padmini, taking the lead, broke out into a series of funny songs and limericks, hoping to get the princess to at least smile, if not laugh. The princess, however had no reaction.
Valli then appealed to the princess’s moral side. She spoke of the suffering of the people. The starvation and the ruin. All of which would disappear, if only the princess started laughing again. “Isn’t it your duty, as a person of the royal family, to take care of the welfare of your people?”
This time, the princess spoke.
“It pains me too, to hear that the people are suffering. I’ve heard it from every single person who has tried to make me laugh. But what about what I want? Doesn’t that matter? Is my life only meant to be a sacrifice for other people?”
“It seems to me,” the parrot-Padmini squawked, “The princess has ambition, like the merchant’s wife who lived in Vijayanagara.”
“Oh! Tell me more,” said Valli, playing along.
“In Vijayanagara, lived a merchant with five sons. The sons were lazy and spent all their time, gambling and drinking. He was old and frail, but he had been without a wife for years, and in the twilight of his life, he felt the need for a companion. So he married a young woman, named Shyamala. Shyamala proved to be not only a devoted wife, but also a shrewd and intelligent businesswoman. For every coin that his sons spent, she earned him a thousand more.
When the merchant died, the sons staked their claim on the property, and fought amongst themselves. They went to the king, to settle the dispute, and lo and behold, there was Shyamala, asking that the property should be given to her. She had sacrificed her youth, and now she wished to live comfortably, instead of as a poor widow. Tell me Valli, you are smart. What did the king do? Who did he give the property to? Remember that the king of Vijayanagara was a just man.”
“To the eldest son, obviously!” Valli exclaimed, winking at the parrot-Padmini.
An amused and derisive snort came from the other side of the curtain, and the tiniest pearl rolled towards them. The mirth was an expression of disgust, so the pearl too, was black.
“You’re the genius who is supposed to make me laugh? Ha! Don’t you realize that the king, who is a just man, would have given the property to Shyamala, who had who had legitimately contributed to the making of that wealth, unlike the useless sons? Hmph. And you parrot – are you trying to hint that what I want is the throne? Let me tell you this, I care nothing for power or wealth.”
“Hmm…it seems to me Valli, that the princess is the romantic kind. Just like the daughter of the temple priest in Suryagiri.”
“So let’s have that story, parrot,” Valli said.
“The temple priest of Suryagiri had a lovely daughter named Janaki. Every day, she would go out to the forest, to pluck flowers for worship in the temple. Once, while she was out in the forest, she met a hunter, who had taken a liking to her. She liked him too, and soon, they were deeply in love with each other. When the priest found out, he was furious. He dragged her to the town square, accusing her of dishonouring him. He whipped her and threatened to behead her. He shouted that he would kill the hunter too. At the same time, the King of Suryagiri was passing by on his chariot. He saw the scene, and approached the priest. Remember that the king of Suryagiri is a man who cares for justice. What do you think he did?”
“Of course, he must have punished the girl and the hunter! A hunter and a priest’s daughter! Such disrespect of caste laws! He may be a king, but even kings must follow tradition. His subjects would never accept him otherwise.”
“Hahaha,” the princess giggled, and a few medium sized pearls fell from her mouth. There was a hint of melancholy to this laugh, and so the pearls had a bluish sheen.
“Are you really such a fool? The parrot keeps giving you clues as to the correct answer and you keep ignoring them. The King of Suryagiri is a brave, just and honest man. Class, caste and other such irrational barriers are irrelevant to him. I’m sure he united the lovers, and punished the priest for trying to separate them. Sigh! If only Anantapuri had a king like that.”
“Ah! See Valli, I told you what the princess wants is her true love. One she has that, she will laugh. I think we have teased her enough. Time to tell her why we are really here. Listen then princess, to the story of the princess of Anantapuri – your story.”
Hearing this, the princess sat up straight. Valli smiled mischievously.
“Princess Anandi of Anantapuri was a happy woman. Because she was happy, the people of her kingdom were happy. Now, the princess, who did not like to be trapped within the palace, had the habit of sneaking out incognito.
One day, as she roamed the markets in disguise, her eyes fell upon a female flower seller, and it was love at first sight. She was shy at first, wondering if this other woman would even understand the feelings she had for her, so initially, she would approach her every day, buy a single flower, smile, and leave.
Eventually, she gathered the courage to tell the woman that she loved her, and offered her the same flower she had just bought. When the flower seller accepted the flower with a shy smile, her heart soared. Soon, both of them started spending time together and fell deeper and deeper in love.
The king found out, however, and since then has imprisoned the princess in the palace. She has been forbidden from meeting her lover. Now, tell me Valli, what happens next?”
“How did you know?” came a whisper from behind the curtain.
“I spent some time chatting to your attendants, while they were searching me. They didn’t tell me everything, but I was able to join the dots, and understand what was happening. Princess, I am Valli, a royal of the Nagas, and this parrot is really the Crown Princess Padmini. We came here with the aim to make you laugh, but you may have noticed, that we haven’t gathered up any of the pearls. Once we realized the reason behind your refusal to laugh, we knew that your cause was just. Not that you need us to save you, but know that we stand with you, and if you would have us as your allies, we will follow your lead. We shall do what you ask of us, and shall leave only when it becomes clear that you are free to live your truth.”
The Princess laughed delightedly, and with relief. The largest, most beautiful, white pearls fell, too numerous to count.
Editor’s note: Mexican portrait painter, Frida Kahlo, was an influential artist who combined traditional themes with a contemporary style and also helped to promote the role of women in the art world. She had to make her style big and bold as an artist, as it was the only way at the time to succeed as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Self portraits were to dominate her career, as the artist in her constantly experimented with new twists around this same theme.
The cue is this quote by her: “There is nothing more precious than laughter”
VJ wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the film Choker Bali
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