Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
All eyes were on the girl when she entered.No one, however, met her gaze when she glanced timidly about the courtyard. Only Hirabai observed her frankly, noting every detail – the tension etched on the girl’s face, the instinctive crossing of her arms over her stomach, the way she chewed on her lip nervously as she scanned the courtyard for friendly faces. People thought Hirabai was just an old crone with one foot in the grave and the other soon to follow. They would be surprised at how much she saw, knew, and understood. This Siya, now. This chit of a girl. Couldn’t be more than fourteen. Yet, only last evening she had been caught retching her guts out behind the servant’s quarters. By morning, there were few who did not know she was with child. Nor was there any doubt about the father’s identity. She had been the king’s favourite for over two months now. Even a dunce knew what it meant for a girl to be summoned to Mahendra Pratap’s bedchamber.
Siya made her way hesitantly to the three other dancing girls who sat together drying and perfuming their hair with incense over charcoal braziers. The four had been close as sisters till yesterday. But today Hirabai saw the trio shifting almost imperceptibly, moving together, closing their little circle. Siya saw it too; she stopped short as though she had been slapped. Her fingers gripped the fabric of her ghagra tightly, crumpling its folds. Her face looked on the verge of crumpling too. Still nobody would look at her, nobody spoke, and an uncomfortable silence settled over the courtyard of the servant’s quarters.
One of the two eunuchs who sat playing dice a few feet from Hirabai snorted out a short laugh, her eyes never leaving the game. The sudden sound cracked the silence, making everybody uncomfortably aware of their presence. Mrignayanee and Nayantara – they had been named well: Eyes or more precisely, the queen’s eyes.
This early in the morning, the royals were still asleep, but Maharani Rohini would find out soon enough. Rohini had little choice but to tolerate her husband’s infidelity. He was, after all, far from being the first king to indulge his sexual appetites. Still, it was a matter she was terribly touchy about, since she had not borne him a child yet. The king’s whores, as she called them, were distasteful enough; she would be damned if she allowed his bastards to roam about in the kingdom, flaunting their lineage to all and sundry.
The girls who went to the king were given a strong potion by the royal vaidya to prevent pregnancies. Yeton occasion accidents did happen. The vaidya had a remedy for that too – a stronger potion to kill the foetus in the womb. More often than not, it killed the mother too, but perhaps that was a mercy. For if Siya survived that ordeal – which was unlikely, thought Hirabai, studying the girl’s puny fame – there would only be worse in store for her. The queen was not exactly known for her kindness, hence the girl had good cause to be terrified. But it wasn’t for her sake that the others were worried. Maharani Rohini had a prodigious, unpredictable temper. The anger meant for her husband, they knew, would be directed towards the servants. Anybody seen to be friendly with Siya, especially with the eunuchs around, could easily end up being accused of complicity in what the queen might see fit to label an attempted cover-up of the girl’s pregnancy.
Hirabai sighed. She had no patience for palace intrigues. Not anymore. People thought themselves so clever, what with their petty schemes and maneuvers. Yet in the end, they too would be entangled, every last one of them, in their own devious snares and machinations- just as she had.
“You, girl!” Hirabai called out. Siya started visibly and turned to look at her. Hirabai patted the cushion beside her. “Come, sit with me. I need some help oiling my hair.”
The look of gratitude on the girl’s face was almost pathetic. Save your thanks, girl, a seat beside me won’t protect you. Once it might have, but not anymore. Siya settled down to unbraid Hirabai’s hair, which was surprisingly thick and long even at her age. Hirabai saw the eunuchs muttering to themselves. She didn’t care.
Siya began to run a comb through Hirabai’s hair. She was extra careful, pausing to unravel every tangle with nervous fingers as though expecting to be reprimanded at any moment.
“You are very pretty,” Hirabai told her, patting her knee reassuringly. “Men are all the same, child. Even kings. Our king is no different. Truth be told, he wouldn’t even have lived to be a man, if it weren’t for—”
Nayantara groaned dramatically. “She’s going to start again. Woman, that story of yours is thirty years old. Nobody is interested in it anymore.”
“There was a time, Nayantara, when nobody would have dared speak to me in that tone.”
“That time is long gone, Hirabai,” Nayantara said, laughing.
But Siya gathered her courage and spoke up, eager, no doubt, to ingratiate herself with the one friend she had. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard the story of your heroic act, Hirabai,” she said shyly, as she massaged jasmine oil into Hirabai’s hair. “I know the gist of what happened, of course, but I’ve never heard the whole story.”
“You haven’t? You are very young, then,” cackled Hirabai. “No matter, child, you shall hear it today. Straight from the horse’s mouth.”
There were some audible groans in the courtyard, but nobody objected in earnest. This early morning hour, when all the royals slept, was the time the servants had to themselves. Of course, some had to start early. The kitchen girls had left and were probably busy chopping vegetables for the morning meal under the sharp watch of the head-cook. And a couple of the queen’s handmaids were in a corner with baskets of freshly plucked flowers from the palace gardens, making garlands for her morning puja. But the rest were enjoying their leisure before the demands of their duties took over their day. Some sat darning clothes or embroidering their ghagras. Others tended their hair. Still others were making intricate henna patterns on each others’ palms. Normally, the courtyard was filled with chatter and gossip at this hour. Today, however, the atmosphere of camaraderie had been sucked up by the scandal. Most people were grateful to have the oppressive vacuum filled with a story, no matter how worn or threadbare.
“Mahendra’s mother, the queen, died in childbirth—“ Hirabai began.
Mriganayanee interrupted almost at once. “Don’t forget yourself, woman. You don’t refer to a monarch by name. It’s ‘His Majesty’.”
“Ego and titles go to the grave with their wearers,” Hirabai answered placidly. She closed her eyes in appreciation as Siya massaged her scalp. “Ah, Siya, child, you are blessed with magic fingers. Truly you are. So where was I? Yes, there he was, a motherless infant, and I, his wet nurse. My own son was about the same age. The two children lay in the same room, one in a cradle of gold in the centre of the room, the other in a wooden cradle in a corner, but both equally precious to me.”
She remembered the night of the coup as if it were yesterday. It had all happened in minutes. One of the handmaids had dashed into prince’s bedchamber, hysterical with fear and blabbering incoherently. Hirabai struck her across the face with the back of her hand to bring her to her senses.
“King Surendra!” the woman cried. “Dead. Slain. By his brother…”
Amid the screams of the palace attendants, came the ominous sound of soldiers ascending the staircase. Panic-stricken, the handmaid fled, and Hirababi never saw her again. When Virendra Pratap finally burstthrough the door, only Hirabai stood between him and the royal cradle.
“No!” she cried, as he pushed her roughly aside. Hitting the floor, she was only aware of one thing: a huge, glittering sword slicing down over the cradle. Then all went black. Coming to, she found herself beset on all sides by fire. She had just enough time to grab the infant in the wooden cradle and escape through the secret tunnel that led from the prince’s bedchamber. Under the cover of the night, she and the baby escaped to the kingdom of Hoshiarpur.
“You’re getting too old to narrate your own precious story, Hirabai” Mrignayanee sneered. “You forgot the whole point — the part about how you switched the infants.”
Yes, that was how the story went. That was Hirabai’s claim to fame. Seconds before Virendra Pratap entered the room, the wet nurse exchanged the two infants, placing her own child in the royal cradle and hiding the prince in the wooden one in the shadows. With each new telling, the story had improved, acquiring new details till it glittered like a bride bedecked with her finest jewels. The wet nurse had not hesitated for a second to condemn her son to death in order to save the prince. “What a paragon!” people said, admiringly. “How noble! Never has she shed a single tear for the loss of her son.”
That was how the story always went, but not today.
Hirabai turned to the eunuch with a smile, but there was cold contempt in her eyes.
“Mrignayanee!” she said. “Such a pretty name, for one such as you. Not that you will ever bear a child, but if you did, you would know that maternal love is the strongest force on earth. No mother would ever kill her offspring.”
Mrignayanee stared at her, too surprised to take offense at the insult. But Nayantara burst out laughing.
“What do you mean to say, woman? That the boy you saved was your son, not Maharaj Surendra Pratap’s? One look at His Majesty is enough to give the lie to your words. Look at his hair. The reddish-brown has run in his family for centuries. His bloodline is an ancient one. It goes all the way back to the rulers of the colder climes before they crossed the oceans to conquer these lands. Where would a wretched street urchin get hair like that from?”
Yes, the hair. The night had been dark when she reached the gates of Hoshairpur after several days of furtive travel, the baby clutched to her bosom. Before presenting herself at the gates, she had made one halt, by the river. The baby had wailed at the touch of the cold water, but Hirabai had persisted, till the dark waters ran blacker still with the dye she washed out of the baby’s hair. And there was the reddish-brown, the true colour of the baby’s hair. It was the colour that had clinched it.
News of the massacre in the empire’s capital city and the subsequent burning down of the palace along with all those who were faithful to Surendra Pratap had reached Hoshiarpur long before Hirabai. But Raja Udai Singh, a vassal king who had pledged fealty to Surendra Pratap when the latter married his sister, had taken one look at the infant and declared that the news of his nephew’s death was false. Virendra Pratap became the target of morbid jokes all over the empire – the usurper who was in too great a hurry to ascend the throne, the coward who had tried to murder an infant and failed even at that. Mercifully for him, he did not live long enough to suffer the mockery. Udai Singh wasted no time in rallying the other rulers to the banner of the true heir of Maharaja Surendra Pratap.
Nayantara was still laughing. Others, however, had stopped whatever they were doing and were edging in closer to listen. Hirabai raised her voice ever so slightly, so her next words would be clearly audible.
“Did I ever say Mahendra is not of royal blood? Of course, he is Maharaj Surendra Pratap’s son.” She paused and looked Nayantara straight in the eye. “Just not the son his queen bore him.”
Hirabai ignored her and turned to Siya. “That potion they make you drink before taking you to the king? Horrible isn’t it? Almost burns your insides out. You spat it out secretly, didn’t you?”
Siya stared at her open-mouthed.
“In my time, I did, too,” continued Hirabai. “But unlike you, child, I was lucky. I was married, you see. To a man twenty years my senior. The impotent old fool was happy to give the child his name if only to put an end to years of jeering about his manhood, or the lack thereof.”
Hirabai cackled at the memory. She fingered the neatly oiled hair that Siya had plaited into a thick braid.
“Everything went well until my son’s hair began to grow in,” she said. “I had to be very careful to keep it dyed black. I was always afraid someone would find out especially when I was ordered to move into the palace. Maharaj Surendra was always kind to the girls he bedded. It was he who made me the prince’s wet nurse when he heard I had had a baby too. Of course, even he didn’t know the baby was his own offspring.” She sighed. “It was a big relief, I can tell you, to wash out that dye for the last time outside the gates of Hoshiarpur, knowing I would never have to hide my son’s hair again!”
Oh, what heady days they had been! Every time she looked upon Mahendra fidgeting impatiently on the royal throne as Udai Singh, sitting at his side, dispensed with the business of the court as his guardian, Hirabai’s heart had filled with joy almost to bursting. My son, a king!
Except for one thing. She had transformed her son into a king, but that didn’t, in any way, make her a rajmata. She was still a lowly servant. In the beginning, it had been easy to forget that. The king would not accept a morsel of food that was not brought to his mouth by her hand. Only she could calm his tantrums. Only her lullabies could rock him to sleep. She was the one who mediated and gave counsel when a crisis occurred .
But, children grow up. And a king grows up faster.
Mahendra soon acquired new teachers – tutors, courtiers, noblemen, priests, army generals, merchants – all jockeying for power and favours. A king’s strength lay in the fear he evoked in the eyes of all who behold him, they told him, eagerly plotting the downfall of their rivals. Reward and punishment – those were the weapons a king must learn to wield better than a sword. Retribution for any slight, real or perceived, must be swift and severe. Mercy was a commodity best used sparsely. For his part, Mahendra was not slow in learning his lessons.
Seven years? Wasn’t that how old Mahendra had been when he flung a crystal glass of saffron milk to the ground, shattering it into a thousand shards? It was her son she had rebuked sharply then, but it was the king who had answered. He had turned on her, eyes blazing.
“Woman, you are talking to your monarch,” he had shouted in his high child’s voice. “Watch your tongue, or I shall have it ripped out.”
Yes, a boy-king learns early in life that people can be outgrown and discarded as easily as clothes and toys.
Her fall from grace had been nearly as rapid as her rise. Relegated to the sidelines, she could do little but watch.
People whispered about the king within earshot. “The company of hard men makes him so,” they said. “If only he had a mother to take him in hand…”
Oh, he does, she wanted to tell them, but his head is so high up in the clouds that he can’t see her.
As the boy-ruler, as the puppet-king with many puppet-masters, he grew into a spoilt brat, prone to tantrums, difficult to please. In time, he mastered cunning, cruelty, greed. But wisdom, compassion and generosity? Thirty years later, they eluded him still.
“This is one tale nobody will believe,” Mrignayanee declared, getting to her feet. “I, for one, have had my fill.”
“What? So soon?” Hirabai smiled. “Siya, child, can you hand me my paan box?”
The silver box with the leaves, betel nuts, and paste was always by her side. Hirabai flipped open its base to reveal a secret compartment from which she extracted a parchment.\
“When I was young, a wandering artist visited our village,” she said, as she unfolded it and ironed out the creases. “My parents gave him food and board, and in return he made a portrait of us children…”
“So?” Mrignayanee paused, perplexed.
“Has anyone noticed how the king does not resemble Maharaj Surendra Pratap in any way, but for the hair? That’s because in every other respect, he has taken after my side of the family.”
They crowded in to see. The faded painting showed five children. The youngest was Hirabai, then just a little girl. But the oldest boy was about twenty-five years in the picture, not much younger than Mahendra Pratap was now. An audible gasp went through the crowd. The resemblance was striking. The nose, the jaw line, the cheek bones. Colour the hair reddish-brown and anyone might have mistaken him for the king.
Nayantara spat, sending a splatter of betel juice to the floor beside Hirabai. “Your words reek of treason, Hirabai,” she said. “This day does not bode well for you, mark my words. Come, Mrignayanee.” She took the latter by the arm and the duo left the servants’ quarters muttering darkly under their breaths.
Do as you will. The two eunuchs were not the only spies among the servants, Hirabai knew, and information always had a way of finding its way to the person who held the heaviest purse. If there was one thing Mahendra had never lacked for, it was enemies.
As the crowd began to disperse, uneasy murmurs could be heard amongst those who remained. Hirabai settled back into her cushions. Siya was the only other person left in the courtyard. She was staring at Hirabai in wonder.
Hirabai smiled. “The royals and everyone else are going to be too busy with other things to bother about you for a while,” she said. “I have heard the traders’ caravan in town is readying to leave. Go with them, child. Go to Hoshairpur. There is a village there called Surgaon. I have family there.” She gestured to the old painting. “For the short duration that I could, during the king’s childhood, I did as well by them as I could. They owe their prosperity to me. Tell them I sent you, and you will be well looked after.”
Siya lowered her eyes in gratitude, then raised them to meet Hirabai’s. “And you? Hirabai, come with me. You are not safe here.”
Hirabai smiled and shook her head. She rested her head on the cushions and closed her eyes, turning her face to the sunlight filtering into the courtyard. She felt light, lighter than she had felt in years.
Siya stood looking at her for a long moment, then turned to go.
“Siya,” Hirabai called.
Siya turned back.
“I shall pray that you have a daughter,” Hirabai said. “But should it be a son, never let him harbor any illusion that he is a king. He will serve you better as an ordinary man.”
Ghagra – A long full skirt, often decorated with embroidery or mirror-work.
Henna – A reddish-brown plant-based dye made, used to colour hair or skin.
Mrignayanee – Doe-eyed
Nayantara – Star of one’s eyes.
Paan – A preparation of betel leaves, areca nuts, and spices that is chewed as a stimulant.
Raja / Maharaja – King (‘Maha’ meaning ‘great’ is prefixed when the title refers to a ruler of an empire comprising of several lesser kingdoms.)
Rani/ Maharani – Queen.
Rajmata – Queen Mother.
Vaidya – Physician.
Author’s Bio: Vrinda Baliga, 36, is a writer based in Hyderabad, India. Her short fiction has won prizes such as the Unisun-Reliance Timeout Short Story Competition 2011 and the Katha Fiction Contests 2010 and 2012. Her stories have appeared in several anthologies and in literary magazines such as Reading Hour, Temenos, flashquake, The Shine Journal, Long Story Short, Rose & Thorn, Cezanne’s Carrot, etc. Visit her here.