Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Chapter 4: In the woods





In the middle of the sea, the boat was drifting along the placid sea. It seemed rather inconceivable that this gentle sea could throw up huge waves big enough to swallow a war ship!

In the boat, the Prince, Vandiya Devan was arguing vociferously while Poonguzhali with an oar in hand, was watching them silently. The subject of the argument was what they ought to do once they reach Kodi Karai? Vandiya Devan wanted the Prince to come with him to Pazhaiarai. He came forth with many reasons for this.

“Your sister wishes to see you most urgently to discuss the affairs of the Kingdom. I swore to her that I would bring you along with me. You will need to heed this request of mine,”

“I can’t refuse to obey my father’s commands just so that you could honour your word!”

“Those are not your father’s commands. They are Pazhuvetarayar’s commands!”

He further added, “Moreover, do you wish to meet your father as a ‘free man’ or as a ‘prisoner’. Listen to me! If the people of this Kingdom learn that the Pazhuvur lords have imprisoned you, they will take up arms to free you but at a heavy cost of blood. Do you really want that to happen? God in his benevolence sent that storm to aid us. Do you really wish to go against the God’s will and surrender yourself to the Pazhuvetarayar?”

Vandiya Devan’s words slowly changed the Prince’s intention to meet his father. He knew the love and devotion that his people had for him and it was all too possible for them to rise up and revolt on his behalf if they heard that he had been imprisoned. After thinking about it for a while he said, “Even if I were to agree to your idea, how do we avoid the Pazhuvur soldiers who would be waiting for me at Kodi Karai?”

“We have Poonguzhali to help us. She will take us through the Kodi Karai backwaters away from these soldiers. Poonguzhali are you listening?”

Poonguzhali was in the seventh heaven! Saving the Prince’s life in the sea had given her more happiness than she could imagine but she was also pained by the fact that she would have to part with him, once they reached Kodi Karai. When Vandiya Devan proposed that she help them hide away from the Pazhuvur soldiers she was elated!

“If we go towards the west of Kodi Karai there is a narrow canal that takes us through the dense woods. I could take the boat through there. It is a very dense wooded place and very secluded,”

“You could leave us there and go back to Kodi Karai to learn the news, couldn’t you?”

“Yes. There are many places where the boat can be hidden,”

“Prince! Did you hear that?”

“I heard! You are asking me to enter my own kingdom like a thief. Samudra Kumari! Why have you to stopped the boat?”

Poonguzhali immediately started plying the boat.

“Poor woman! How long will she ply the oars without any help? Let me help you. Here, give me that other oar,”

The Prince smiled at his friend and said, “My friend! All your schemes will go waste. I don’t think I will reach Pazhaiara or Thanjavur. In all probability, I will die here and reach Kailasam soon!”

Vandiya Devan turned towards him worriedly and said, “Ayya! What has happened to you? Why is your body shivering uncontrollably?”

“This is the shivering fever, my friend! Don’t you remember I told you how this fever had claimed many lives in Elangai. Only a lucky few have escaped the ravages of this fever,”

Vandiya Devan who didn’t panic even when the sails of his ship caught fire panicked now! Poonguzhali who looked up to see the Prince, dropped her oar in shock and stared at him silently.

The Prince’s body started shivering uncontrollably and Vandiya Devan cried, “Ayya! What do I do? Where do we take the boat? Poonguzhali! Is there a physician in Kodi Karai?”

But Poonguzhali was in great shock and wouldn’t respond. The Prince immediately stood up and shouted, “Take me to my sister immediately. Take me to Elaya Piratti,”

Vandiya Devan’s confusion vanished when he heard this but the Prince in the grip of his fever shouted, “Akka! I am coming to you. I will not heed those who try to stop me,” and tried to jumped out of the boat.

The Prince who was very strong became uncontrollable and Vandiya Devan found it impossible to restrain him. He shouted for help, “Poonguzhali! Come here fast,”

Poonguzhali sprang forward and held the Prince’s hand in hers and the Prince became a docile child.

Akka! Don’t be angry with me. I will listen to you. I will lie down now,”

After this, Ponniyin Selvar lay down shivering. His eyes looked around blankly without recognizing anything or anyone. His mouth churned out gibberish and long-forgotten conversation that largely didn’t make any sense!

Vandiya Devan had by then realized that it was pointless to ask the Prince’s advice. It was his responsibility to save the Prince’s life but thankfully he had the aid of this intelligent boat girl who was not only resourceful but also loyal to the Prince.

“Poonguzhali! Let us not tarry anymore. We need to reach Kodi Karai as soon as possible,”

Poonguzhali immediately took up the oars and started plying them fast. The boat veered through the waves intent upon their destination.

Vandiya Devan sat next to the Prince. He was alarmed by the fact that the Prince tried to jump into the sea. What if he tried the same again? He also tried to chart out the next course of action.

“Poonguzhali! What do you think we should do? Shall we dare our way to Kodi Karai? Will your family help the Prince?”

Ayya! It is difficult to know whom we can trust these days. My brother’s wife is a greedy woman and our family is employed by Pazhuvetarayar to take care of the lighthouse. Moreover, the soldiers who had come chasing you, might still be waiting to catch you. And the number of Pazhuvur soldiers might have increased as well, in the hope of Prince’s arrival,”

Vandiya Devan was glad that he took her advice and thanked his lucky stars that sent her to aid him.

“So it is best that we do not go to Kodi Karai immediately,”

“Look there!” said Poonguzhali suddenly.

There was a large ship standing in the direction that she pointed out and beyond the ship the lighthouse of Kodi Karai was visible.

Aha! That’s a big ship. I wonder if it could Pallava Parthibendran’s. If that were so, wouldn’t it be better to take the Prince to Kanchipuram,”

“It could be Pazhuvetarayar’s ship as well. Did you notice anything beyond the ship?”

“I could see the lighthouse,”

“Did you notice anything strange about it?”

“No.”

“I did. There were some people atop the lighthouse looking at the sea,”

“Will they be able to see us from there?”

“No. But if we go near the beach, we will be visible,”

“Then it is best to be careful, let us go through the canal that you mentioned earlier,”

“Let us go there when the dusk begins. Ayya!  Do you remember I made you stay in that dark mandapam for a whole day? This canal flows near that place. If you could take the Prince there for a while, I could go and find out who has come,”

“Does that canal stop there, Poonguzhali?”

“No. It goes all the way to Nagapattinam,”

At that moment, the Prince started his fevered talk again, “Yes, Akka! You had mentioned about Buddha Bikshus of Nagapattinam Choodamani Viharam. Everything happened just as you anticipated. The Maha Boddhi Sangam of Anuradhapuram came forward to crown me as the next king of Elangai but I refused it. Akka! I have no interest in ruling the kingdom. I will listen to any other advice that you give me but please do not make a ruler of me. I would prefer to sail in the sea in a small boat. Nothing gives me more happiness than that. Akka! Do you know, I met this boat girl in Kodi Karai…”

Poonguzhali blushed when she heard the Prince talk about her in his fevered state. Vandiya Devan listened to all this curiously and waited eagerly for the Prince to continue but the Prince regained consciousness now. He got up and looked around asking faintly, “Have we reached Kodi Karai yet?”

Vandiya Devan said, “There! We can see the beach,”

Even when Vandiya Devan was thinking about whether to consult the Prince, the latter lost consciousness yet again!

Poonguzhali found it difficult to meet Vandiya Devan’s eyes or to look at the Prince after that fevered speech. She looked ahead instead and mechanically plied the oars. She deftly set the boat in the western direction and they soon moved away from the beach towards the backwaters of Kodi Karai.

Even while the sun was setting, they reached the canal that she spoke of. The dense woods and the thicket that surrounded the forest shielded the canal from many prying eyes that were roaming in the beach.

Poonguzhali stopped the boat near a dense thicket and said, “Ayya! If you could mind the boat for a while,” and then got down near the bank and nimbly climbed the nearest tree. “Thank the Gods we came here. There are over a hundred men watching the sea near the beach. Near the lighthouse a huge tent has been pitched and there are many soldiers there too!”

“Who do you think it could be?” asked Vandiya Devan.

“I can’t tell but it must be Pazhuvetarayar. Who else could it be? Let us go to the place where I hid you. And then I will go home once it darkens well enough and find out all the information,”

“Poonguzhali! If something were to happen to you, our fate is sealed,”

Ayya! I have never worried about my life before but I am now. Do not worry. I will take care of myself and nothing will happen to me,”

Poonguzhali got into the boat and slowly plied the oars so that no one hears them approaching. After rowing thus for about an hour, she stopped near a dense thicket and got down. She bid a silent farewell to Vandiya Devan and went through the woods. Walking swiftly through the woods, she made her way to Kuzhagar temple. She reached it just on time to watch the priest close the temple gates.
Poonguzhali and Kuzhagar Kovil Priest

“Oh! It’s you Poonguzhali! I wondered who it could be. There are too many people in Kodi Karai today. Where did you go all these days?”

“I had gone out in the sea, Ayya! You said there are too many people in Kodi Karai, who are they? Who are those people standing near the beach?”

“Didn’t you go home Poonguzhali?”

“I did, but I turned away when I saw many strangers. You do know that I hate meeting new people. Who are they?”

“Periya Pazhuvetarayar has come along with his younger queen and a huge entourage. Parthibendra Pallavan from Kanchi too has come and he didn’t come empty handed. He has brought bad tidings that will soon engulf this kingdom in sorrow.”

“What bad tidings? I know nothing about this,”

“Prince Arul Mozhi Varmar had come in this scoundrel Pallavan’s ship it seems and on the way a fierce storm hit their ship and the Prince jumped into the sea to save somebody. They searched everywhere for him and then came back ashore. That’s why Pazhuvetarayar has stationed his men all through the beach, hoping that the Prince might have survived the storm somehow. Why, even he is roaming around the beach restlessly and so does his queen! Poonguzhali! All those people who talk about the Pazhuvur Queen are woefully wrong. I have never seen anybody else so concerned about the Prince’s fate than her,”

“Is that so ayya? Thanks for telling about the good nature of Pazhuvur queen but why did she come here?”

“She came here to pray for the welfare of the Prince and to beseech the Kuzhagar to spare his life. Not everyone is stone hearted like you are. I don’t see you mourning the Prince’s fate,”

“I don’t think mourning his death is going to help him in any way. Who can overcome fate indeed? I don’t wish to go home when so many important people have come there. If you could give me that Prasadam that you bear in your hand, I would be grateful to you. I will eat and sleep in the temple tonight,”

“You are a strange creature indeed, Poonguzhali! When important people come to our home, one would want to make their acquaintance but you shy away from them. What do you think they would do to you? Why do you want to stay alone in this forest tonight?”

Ayya! If you do not wish to give that Prasadam, it’s fine. Please don’t scold me thus,”

“Shiva Shiva! Now why would I scold you? I am worried that this Prasadam might not be enough for your hunger. Take it,” said the Priest and handed over the cloth bundle that held the prasadam.

Poonguzhali opened the bundle and said, “You are right, this is not enough to fill my belly. What do you have in that jar, swami? Is that water?”

“No. It is the anointed milk. I was taking it home for my child.”

“Today let me be your child. Please be kind enough to give it to me,”

“Well. Here take it. At least, return the jar later,”

As the priest exited the temple, Poonguzhali heard an owl hoot near the temple.

Ayya! What’s that sound?”

“Don’t you know? That’s the owl hooting. There is no dearth of owls in Kodi Karai woods but they won’t harm you,” said the priest and left.

After he disappeared, Poonguzhali went in the direction of the owl’s hoot. Weaving her way through the thicket of shrubs and wild plants, she reached the dense part of the woods and waited. And there she heard them talking. A man and a woman!

Mandiravadi! Everybody believes that the Prince is dead. Pazhuvetarayar too is very shaken up by this news but I don’t believe it,” 

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