An excerpt from a novella by Vivek Tandon

This is a work of fiction, set in the historical background of India in the fifth century A.D.

They draw the sheets over themselves. Her toes are left bare, and she laughs.
        “What was that?” he asks.
        “Whaa?” she asks, from beneath the smother of a huge yawn.
        “The giggle.”
        “Hoh!” As the yawn ends, it releases her voice with a thud. “My toes ... reminds me, the king's got a new bed ... it takes in ten of his wives at a time.”
        His laugh is a shade unenthusiastic. He does not like disrespectful talk about the king.
        Her toes wriggle, and manage to nip some of the sheet over themselves.
        They stare at the painting on the wall opposite.
        He turns over and puts his arms around her, his chin nestling in the triangular alcove formed beneath her shoulder.
        After a while she says, “How was the trip?”
        “The usual,” his muffled voice tickles her from underneath.
        She scratches her shoulder, and the sheet slips off her toes again. She wriggles them contemplatively once or twice.
        “Job done?” she asks. He shakes his head in affirmative, and her whole body shakes with it.
        After a while, he adds, “And well. The king will be very pleased.”
        She mumbles her approval. He yawns.
        “Don't do that,” she says. “Your breath is getting me wet.”
        After a while, he removes his head. He clutches a bit of the sheet, pushes it underneath her arm, and scrubs the flesh thoroughly. He wipes his lips, too, with it. Then, with great relish, he burrows his head back under her arm.
        “How's the pain in your leg?” he asks.
        “That's gone. Gone.”
        “Hnh, good, good ... ”
        “How's our grand-daughter?” he asks.
        She squeals with pleasure.
        “Grows every hour. Yesterday she threw a pillow at me – and not a small one, one of the big blue ones. She spent the next half hour trying to do it again.”
        She squeezes and rubs his face with her shoulder as she thinks about the baby. He gives a slow chuckle that tickles her into an exclamation.
        He adjusts his face slightly, she adjusts her back slightly.
        After a while he says, “I can't wait to see her in the morning.” The weight of sleepiness, added to the weight of her shoulder, muffles his words almost to incoherence.
        “She won't be awake,” she says. “You have to see the king very early tomorrow.”

It is a clear night. There is no moon, there are no clouds, to blunt the sharp intimate gleam of stars.
        The transparent dome that displays the stars so perfectly begins, imperceptibly, to blanch with the first rays of the sun.
        The dome clouds with light, though the sun is not yet risen above the horizon. Its increasing opacity obscures the distant, sparsely-flecked sea of darkness that forever pivots outside.
        The dome reflects dimly on the part stone, mostly wooden Royal Capital. The streets are severely clean, unlike the lanes and tracks of the rest of the kingdom. They are relatively empty at the moment, but beginning to fill with the servants and providers of the noble households as they go about their early morning chores. An occasional four-strong patrol trots past, the king's colours twitching at the tips of tall lances. Milkmen in bullock carts fill the dingy back lanes with an uneven, grinding sound, as their wooden wheels crush on the gravel underneath. To the aristocrats within the stone mansions, this is the first sign of morning. Back-gates scrape open, and servants struggle with wooden tankards stinking of milk.

        From one of these back gates emerges a chariot, obviously built to accommodate, apart from the charioteer, one person. It is drawn by two immaculate, sheer-white horses. They pull it around to the front of the establishment, from which file out twenty soldiers who station themselves on either side of it. There follows a single noble, tall but tending towards the plump, wearing a white robe and hair almost to the shoulders.
        He is the chief minister.
        He climbs into the chariot, checks the scrolls in his hand, and after a pause absently tells the charioteer to proceed. The guards tramp stolidly alongside.
        The charioteer sits low, back against the base of the tall, open, golden structure that seats the noble. Around him, four ornately worked corner posts swirl up to an elaborately shaped sheet of gold for a canopy, topped by a round-bottomed spike that bucks and winks in the sky.

        The soldiers are joined by ten cavalry at the turning of the street. The chief minister does not notice. He sits thoughtfully, arms against the railings to guard his reverie from the motion. Passers-by stop and stare at the procession till it is out of sight.
        Whenever there is a woman among them there is a perceptible loosening in the foot-soldiers' marching, and a perceptible tightening in the women's walking.
        The women wear a length of cloth draped gracefully around the hips as a skirt that reaches down to just below the knees. Some of them also wear a veil that hangs from the head to leave the breasts, tantalisingly, half-covered. This is the current popular effect among the ordinary classes. Women of high birth, of course, do not walk in the streets. The veil has an added advantage, for when one moves one's head ... in general the women's conversation seems to get more animated as the soldiers approach.
        They make their way swiftly through the city as it slowly stirs to life. Within this slow stirring there are only occasional darts of energy, brief and isolated. The soldiers soon arrive at the walls which enclose the palace complex. The chariot discards its escort at the gates and enters.

        It rides up the broad street between the Royal Court, to the left, and the palace, to the right. In front of the palace the chief minister, robes gathered aside, alights.
        At the entrance of the palace, two guards bow.
        “Tell the king I'm here,” he says to them in Prakrit, the commoner's tongue. He sits down on a stone bench kept against the wall. One of the guards pushes the delicate curtain of the entrance to one side of his mouth and calls softly inside. There is a level-voiced reply from within, and then the chief minister hears the sound of a soldier's sandals going deeper into the interior of the palace. The palace is completely silent – the king's sleep must not be disturbed.

        The chief minister stares at the pillar in front of him. As he waits, he begins to hear the occasional, whispered, tread of women's feet from within. The king's maids and wives have begun to prepare for his day.
        The pillar's colour is murky white. It is very thick and heavy, like all the stone structures of the kingdom. Except for the thickness and heaviness of the palace, it has been carved to resemble as exactly as possible a wooden house – down to the bolts, beams and even the water-filled earthen jars that wooden pillars rest in to prevent damage by insects.
        The wind dips in from outside, and its surprising wetness shocks him like the intimacy of a wet tongue. It occurs to him that the monsoons should be here any day – any hour now.
        On the pillar, an insect takes shelter from the wind in a crack that trickles down from a carved bolt.
        The chief minister starts, and goes to the pillar to study the crack. He realises that the crack, too, has been carved into the stone.

        “Aditya stop acting like my joker and come to the purpose of your visit.”
        The chief minister looks around. The two guards are bowing deeply. Dwarfed by their lances, and the high curtain behind him, a ball of hairy flesh rests over a skirt that hangs cylindrically down from waist to feet. Two plump hands rest over the navel, and the eyes glint with amusement through the surrounding flesh. The ears are overgrown with hair.
        “My lord,” Aditya bows low. “I was just looking ... they've carved even the cracks made by the bolts.”
        “Of course they carved even the cracks made by the bolts,” says the king. “Don't you remember? I had the wooden buildings built first, and the palace carved from that directly. It's the most authentically carved stone building in the world, Aditya! And I remember bragging to you about it. My chief minister doesn't know the chief attraction of my palace,” he says to the two guards. They smile and bow deeply.
        The king stands absently for a moment, then saying: “Wait a wink,” disappears behind a twitch of curtain. He reappears with his slippers on. “Let's go to the garden?”

        They walk around the palace to the gardens behind it. It is a huge, landscaped garden stretching to the rear-most border of the palace complex. It has generously spaced trees, relaxed hillocks, and light streams that occasionally meander on beneath the shaded, silent paths. Right now the gentle sunlight seems yet another feature of the garden, solicitously suspended above it, maintaining all its other elements in their grace. Hanging amongst the trees, a swing or two sways in the gentle breeze.
        They walk silently, and relatively quickly, down the main path that leads to the swimming pool behind the hillocks ahead. Birds populate the trees to about the same extent as the trees populate the garden – moderately. Behind him, as the king's domestic train catches up with them, the chief minister can hear the sound of women's anklets growing to mingle pleasantly with the chirping of the birds.

        The royal gardens have a supply of flowing water from some heights close by, and someone turns on the tap. The sprinklers hidden in the grass start spinning, lazily at first, with weak arcs of water. The arcs swell and tauten, the spinning gathers speed, and the garden blooms widely with swirling sprays, their thin, simple streams twirling with a disproportionate strength of grace.
        Immediately beside the swimming pool is a small underground room, specially cooled. Three of its outer walls are encased in heavy, corrugated sheets of water flowing down their sides from above.
        The roof stands independently of the three walls, on four thick pillars within the room. The fourth wall of the room is simply solid rock, from which the roof juts out.
        The outer sides of the three walls slope inward as they rise toward the roof. They do not join with the ceiling to make corners – they fall short of it by about two arm lengths. The water spills out from above the roof and catches the outer slopes of the walls near the top, then slides down their sides without splashing.
        There is plenty of natural light in the room. It pours in through the curtain of water that hangs over the gap between the three walls and the ceiling. This makes the use of torches and lamps unnecessary, at least in daytime – the sole purpose of the room is to provide coolness and freshness, and torches would have spoilt the effect.
        They climb down the stairs into this reservoir of coolness, and reach a small cave, set in the fourth wall, that leads into the room.
        The room is the size of a small drawing room. The water outside can be heard as a low, running murmur.

        “Victory to my lord,” comes a voice from inside. The chief queen is standing just within the room's entrance, with one of her maids holding a torch near her.
        The king does not like smoke in this room. “Why is that torch –”
        “The torch was lit a moment ago,” the queen says, “because I dropped a pin and had to look for it.” The chief minister sees the queen's eyes flickering irritably over the king's state of undress. Then, to his alarm, they turn on himself and flare up with a sharp resentment that is quickly sheathed again. She turns and tells her maid to blow the torch out, and they leave.
        “Don't be late for food,” she tells the king from the stairs.

        The king enters the room, and gives a sigh of satisfaction that fills it.
        He is close to the fourth wall, the one that is joined to the ceiling. The sunlight comes in strongest from the curtain of water covering the gap in the opposite wall. The light that flows in divides the room diagonally into a lower region of soft darkness and an upper one of liquid light. The king, by the fourth wall, is bathed chest-up in the soft light.

        Aditya, those eyes still flashing in his mind, finds he is blocking the entrance to the king's attendant. The attendant gives the king his tumbler of cold juice, and offers one to Aditya who declines.
        “She disapproves of you,” the king leans forward, gently revolving his tumbler. In it is a piece of glacier transported hundreds of miles in huge salted chunks, large enough for them to arrive only partly melted.
        “My wife ... she thinks I let you see me too often in this state ... ” he indicates his bare belly. “She says a king has no friends, no relatives even – only wives. My chief queen is jealous of my chief minister,” he says to two women who have just entered, holding fans. They titter. Behind them the king's three attendants station themselves in the landing with their trays of drink and ice.
        “What she says agrees with the shastras, my lord,” Aditya says. The king makes a face and a protesting noise, and looks around for a place to sit. A ledge runs along the fourth wall of the room, and he picks up one of the cushions scattered on it and wedges himself, cushion underneath him, into a corner. He pats the stone surface to his right, and the chief minister sits. The king mimics his wife in a doleful whisper:
         “You, are, king. Cloud all your subjects in the illusion of your divinity. Especially the highest. And then no one will dream of treason.” He looks at Aditya sideways, wiggles his head knowingly and pats him on the shoulder solemnly. From the landing to their left come the sniggers of the two women. “If she came back, my lord?” Aditya asks, mildly.
         “I have my guards, my spies, my secret police,” the king solemnly points at the women, who snigger even harder. The fans, their faces, their naked trunks are conjured up by the light as they step in front of the king and start waving their fans in his face.
         “How many times do I have to tell you, not here!” the king says exasperatedly. The women stand awkwardly for a second, regarding each other sulkily until he tells them to sit down. They do so, eagerly, to his left, near the small dark cave. In the border between the light and dark, their faces are faintly visible, their heads lightly tilted towards the king, their lips twisted in delicate wisps of wistfulness. They are, like all the king's wives, and royal maids, very beautiful in a conventional sense – the kind of beauty celebrated on the walls of the Ajanta caves. They are generally fair, a few with light eyes – some of them have Greek blood. Above their green skirts the bare skin is equipped, almost at every curve, with some form of jewellery.

        Sitting in the lit portion of the room the light has a brightness, its colour like that of hard, flattened gold. Behind them the wall is awash with golden wrinkles of light, in flickering patterns and streaks of shadow. The glare from above the wall opposite makes it difficult to see into the darker parts of the room, so that Aditya feels that they are enclosed in a small space, constricted by the light. One of the attendants moves in the landing, and the scrape of his heels and the tinkling of ice floats across to him as if from a distant limbo.
        “What are those?” the king asks, looking at the fabric in his lap.
        “The treaty I signed with King Shatrughan. Should I –”
        “No, later. This was the first time you met him, wasn't it?”
        “Yes, my lord.”
        “Hmm. But he really believes he's a direct descendent of Ram. I don't know how he reconciles this with his grandfather's defeat by the Guptas, though.”
        “Oh, it must be from his mother's side then,” says Aditya.
        The king laughs. The translucent shadows from the water above curl under his nose and around the black opening of his mouth. There is something about the structure of the room that kills all echo – probably the water-laden walls. It makes their voices sound tinier than they otherwise are. It reinforces Aditya's feeling of being in a tiny block of golden light suspended in a mighty black space that he cannot see for the glare.
        “Brother, the golden age is over. Today the whole Aryan world is ruled by such idiots. And some are even worse. There are those who remind one of the ugly old saying, 'Princes like crabs are father-eaters.'” The king grimaces and lets his hand fall helplessly against his thigh.
        Aditya shakes his head gently, in mock regret. “Yes, today the Aryan world is ruled by idiots. But in the golden age ... oh, it was ruled by such princes! As the old saying tells us, those saintly princes who –”
        The king snaps irritably, though he cannot help laughing at the same time. “The princes of old were not like that, Aditya. I'm not romanticising. Everybody knows that if the Guptas still held their entire Empire, the Huns would not be a threat. Now you have fragments of Empire littered all over the place, dancing with intrigue and just waiting to be picked up by the Huns. But in the Empire ... it was all so much grander. Religion, Administration, Trade ... Art ... ”
        “ ... War, the Secret Police ... ”
        “Oh Aditya ... ”
        “ ... and Peace, I admit. But even then I would quote the old saying: 'Memories are sweet, being sweet remembrances of sweet reminiscings.'”
        “ Silent, I command you! Gods! how your mind twists and turns. The only reason I can stand you is because I can command you to be silent. You yourself told me how, when you used to travel, you saw that the ... the overall scale of the framework pervades all activity in any given place. So in the Empire, life must have been ... so much more assured, on such a larger scale – its opportunities deeper, more abiding – I'm sure they would not have even noticed the Huns. Now the Huns swarm around us, picking off kings and kingdoms at will.”

        Aditya turns serious. “Yes I agree. And today my lord, those with most merit in past lives are rewarded by being born in our kingdom. Because it is our administration that is the nearest to the Guptas' in standard.”
        The king nods solemnly. “That's because of you.”
        “To a greater extent than you realise, it's because of you my lord.”
        “You're being modest.”
        “It's simply that under your rule, any man of more than reasonable ability could do as well as I have, my lord.”
        “Stop being so relentlessly modest.” The king is still irritated.
        “You flatter me with the charge of modesty, my lord. But even being truthful only occasionally can make anyone sound modest.”
        The king has to laugh. The women look at him uncertainly. As his laughter subsides, they break out in a laugh that is half in echo of his laughter, and half in pleasure at his pleasure. He stops laughing in annoyance, and they stop too, watching him with a gently hurt apprehension.
        “All right. If you want to believe you're not such a good chief minister do so, but why be so insistent?”
        “But,” he adds, “no other chief minister could keep me as well entertained.”
        “That, my lord, is because in your entertainment lies my entertainment.”
        “How is that?”
        “It's my hobby.”
        “That's not a pleasant thing to say, Aditya,” the king says with another exasperated laugh.

Copyright © Vivek Tandon

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