Vanathi got down from the palanquin and stood out watching the procession arrive near the temple. Her kidnappers, the Kalamugars too stood next to her silently. The silence was so absolute that she could hear the croaking of a lone frog at a distance.
Vanathi didn’t think she could run and escape the approaching party or her captors. She knew the Prime Minister’s reputation. She might probably escape the Kalamugars with schemes and tricks but the likelihood of Anbil Brahmarayar falling for it was unlikely. His political acumen and brilliant statesmanship were well known even among the sheltered womenfolk of Pazhaiarai. Even in the innermost chambers of anthapuram at Pazhaiarai where womenfolk and servants freely discussed the affairs of the Kingdom and the private lives of every nobleman, no one spoke a word about Anirudhar, ill or otherwise because they feared that he might learn about it somehow. It was a well-known fact that the Emperor who was known for his benevolence in other matters would never tolerate disrespect towards his dear childhood friend.
Vanathi knew all this and more. She knew that Princess Kundavai had great respect towards the Prime Minister, therefore, she hoped to get assistance and protection from him but the Kalamugars’ revelation came as a shock to her.
Why would the Prime Minister send these Kalamugars to capture her of all people? Could they be lying?
Though she was confused about the turn of events, she was, however, sure of one thing.
Irrespective of who came here to question, be it the Pazhuvur brothers, Prince Madhuranthakan or even the Prime Minister, I must not reveal any information about the Prince.
This decision bolstered her heart and gave her new determination.
Let them come… I will let them see how brave the people of Kodumbalur clan can be.
The procession stopped at some distance and a palanquin came forward borne by bearers. After it neared Vanathi, the bearers kept it down and Prime Minister Anirudhar got down from it. At his signal, the bearers and the Kalamugars withdrew to a respectful distance and waited.
“How strange? Is this perchance a dream? You are Kodumbalur Princess, aren’t you? You are the daughter of Kodumbalur Siriya Vellar who sacrificed his life for the honour of the Chola Kingdom in Elangai.”
“Yes. I am the Kodumbalur Princess. Ayya! I hope I too am not dreaming about standing in front of the most respected Prime Minister of this Kingdom and the cherished childhood friend of our emperor.”
“Good. I am happy to learn that you know who I am. It will make my task easier and I need not give you too much trouble.”
“I wish you wouldn’t worry about giving me trouble as I wouldn’t consider it as one.”
“Good! I am glad to see that we understand each other perfectly well. I do not wish to trouble you overly. I have a few questions to ask you, and if you answer them to my satisfaction, I will…”
“Ayya! Before you question me, might I ask a few questions of my own?”
“Go ahead and ask. You are like my daughter. A few days ago, I met your uncle Budhivikrama Kesari in Elangai and he requested me to take care of you during his absence and I promised to oblige him…”
“Is that so? Then let me offer my salutations to my father! A few years ago, when I met the Emperor, he had promised to be a father to me and now I have the most powerful Prime Minister too wanting to adopt me as his daughter. I think I am truly blessed.”
“Child! Ask whatever you wish of me quickly. It looks like it is going to rain.”
“Father! Was it you who ordered these Kalamugars to kidnap me and bring me to this isolated temple? Was it you who ordered them to mutilate me, if I failed to answer your questions? These scoundrels are saying so, but I refused to believe them…”
“Child, they speak the truth. It was ‘I’ who ordered them to bring you here. If that is a crime…”
“Ayya! Your statement shocks me. You are the most powerful Prime Minister of this Kingdom and yet you have no idea whether an action such as these is a crime or not? You know the law of this land and you are in a position where even if the Emperor commits a crime, you have the right to question his actions and yet you do not know whether kidnapping a lone woman and threatening her with mutilation is a crime or not? If you do not know this simple fact that what will happen to the rest of the women in this Kingdom?”
The Prime Minister was speechless for a short while when Vanathi started her tirade and he found it impossible to get a word in between. His voice hardened with anger when he said, “Princess! Stop, please. Do not expend your talent in a speech here. It would be a wasted effort, I assure you. There are enough and more reasons for me to wonder whether it was a ‘crime or not’ because it solely depends on the answer that you would give to my questions. I learned that a woman who knew a very important secret about the Kingdom was travelling by the Nagapattinam road and I asked my men to stop this woman and bring her to me. They might have made a mistake. They might have kidnapped the wrong woman who had been to Kudanthai Jodhidhar’s house. Tell me the truth daughter! Did you intend to return to Pazhaiarai from Kudanthai? Did your palanquin bearers take you on the Nagapatinnam road by mistake? Tell me that it was never your intent to meet someone who had plotted against this kingdom? If you can prove that these allegations are wrong, then my men have indeed committed a crime and I too am complicit in it. What do you say? Shall I speak plainly? Did you start on this journey to meet Prince Arul Mozhi Varmar?”
The Kodumbalur Princess was shaken to the core by the Prime Minister’s questions and she was also very angry. She knew that there was no point is showing her anger on this man. At that moment somehow she transformed from being an innocent maiden to a woman who would weigh each and every word she spoke, lest she reveals something important.
“Ayya! What is this that you are saying? How can Prince Arul Mozhi Varmar plot against his own kingdom? Isn’t it a crime to speak about the most darling Prince of the Kingdom thusly? I think I should report this to Princess Kundavai immediately.”
“Go ahead and report anything you wish, Princess. You need not tarry here for a minute longer after you have answered my questions. I will escort you myself to Princess Kundavai.”
“And if I don’t answer your questions… then?”
“You can’t escape without answering the questions from this old man Princess. You will have no choice but to answer me.”
“Ayya! You are the most powerful man in this Kingdom but you will not learn anything from me. I might be a poor orphan girl without any protection in this kingdom but I will not answer your questions. Your men promised to burn my fingers in the fire a little while ago, maybe you should do good on that promise.”
“Princess! I commend your brave heart and steadfastness. You are indeed the daughter of the brave Velir who lay down his life for this Kingdom. You say that you will not answer my question… that is wrong because you have already answered many of my questions. There is but one more question for you to answer which will make all things simpler…”
Vanathi was shocked into silence. She wondered whether she did inadvertently say something that she ought not to say. Then she took heart and reigned in her courage.
No! I didn’t say anything. This old man is trying to trap me into answering his questions.
“Ayya! You are known to be the most learned man in this world. I am sure you recite the Vedas every day, therefore, it is not right for you to lie thus. How can you say this? I haven’t said anything about the Prince, then how could you claim that I did?”
“Think carefully Princess. You may be surprised to know that one need not open their mouth to answer a question. Your very silence about my question has indeed answered them. Let me tell you what you revealed then. The entire Kingdom is right now under turmoil because Prince Arul Mozhi Varmar is presumed to be dead. The citizens of this Kingdom right from noble families to the poor beggar are mourning his death yet you are standing here telling me that ‘you don’t know anything about him’. What does that reveal? That shows that you know for a fact that the Prince is ‘well and alive’. I asked you whether you were on your way to Nagapattinam but you didn’t refute that either. You didn’t tell me ‘No I am not going to Nagapattinam… I am going elsewhere” and nor did you counter me saying, ‘How can I meet a Prince who is already dead?’ This essentially means that you know that he is alive and you are on your way to meet him at Nagapattinam. Now, there are just two more questions that you need to answer. Where in Nagapattinam, is the Prince hiding and I need to know how you learned this information? Once you give this information, you need not worry about anything else, I will escort you safely to anywhere you wish to go.”
Vanathi plunged into despair. She knew now that she had doomed the Prince’s fate through her foolishness.
Is there any way that I can redeem myself from this blunder? No, that’s not possible. The only way out is to give up my life!
“Ayya! You claimed that you are a friend of my uncle’s and that you consider me as your daughter. I beseech you… I do not wish to go to Nagapattinam and nor do I wish to go to Pazhaiarai…”
“You wish to go back to Kodumbalur… I would be happy to escort you there.”
“No. I don’t want to go there…I wish to leave this world. Please ask your men to sacrifice me at the temple’s altar. I am ready.”
“Princess! I told you that I would fulfil your wish, whatever that would be. Therefore if it is your wish to leave this world then so be it but before that, you will need to answer my question.”
“Ayya! There is no use asking me any question, as I will not be answering you. If you truly consider me as your daughter…”
“Princess! I do consider you as mine own daughter. I have known your family for many years. I have great admiration for your father. Your uncle and I have been friends, for the past forty years now. However, it’s been my policy never to mix friendship and politics. Where the welfare of the Kingdom and its people are concerned, we have to set aside these relationships. I can’t turn a blind eye to your crime just because I consider you as my daughter. Just look at Chakravarthy’s actions. Did he stop to consider his relationship with his son? No. When he learned that the Prince had indeed plotted against him, didn’t he send his men to imprison him?”
“Ayya! You are saying so many things about the Prince. In what way did the Prince plot against the Emperor and the Kingdom?”
“Ah! So you don’t know about it. That might be the reason why you are refusing to answer my question. Let me enlighten you. Ponniyin Selvan went to Elangai on the pretext of fighting the war. When our armies defeated the Elangai King, he saw an opportunity to grab the Kingdom for his own. Isn’t that treason against the Emperor and his Kingdom? When the Chakravarthy knew about this plot, he sent two ships full of soldiers to imprison the Prince but he foiled their attempts by deliberately jumping into the sea. The rumours of his death are false because I am sure he must have escaped somehow to some secret place. You are an innocent girl, that’s why you don’t know anything about the Prince’s ulterior motives. If you try to hide his secret, you too will be complicit in this plot against the Kingdom and will be treated as one. Therefore tell me the truth, where is the Prince?”
Vanathi’s anger broke all bounds. She couldn’t stand there and listen to the falsehoods and lies that the Prime Minister was speaking about her Prince. Her anger transformed her from a calm gentle creature into a ferocious roaring tiger.
“Ayya! You are peddling malicious lies. All your accusations against the Prince are false. In Elangai, when our army was disheartened the Prince took over the command and gave our campaign new life. They fought and defeated the enemy thanks to the Prince’s presence and his war tactics. When the people of Elangai came to know about the Prince’s grace, goodness and benevolence they wanted him to rule as their King. The Buddha Mahasangam offered the throne of Elangai to him but he refused. I can’t believe that you would say such things about him! When the Prince learned that the Emperor had sent his men to imprison him, he hastened to meet them on his own. He didn’t jump into the sea deliberately. He was trying to save his dear friend’s life. The Prince never plotted against the Emperor or the Kingdom. I am an unfortunate creature indeed who had to listen to such falsehoods about the Prince.”
Anirudhar responded to her tirade with a slightly mocking smile, “Princess! If someone were to hear you talk thusly about the Prince, they would conclude that you both were lovers.”
“Ayya! What you just said is half true. I have indeed lost my heart to the Prince but I doubt if there is any room in his heart for the likes of me. Even the smallest of the birds in this world can fall in love with the moon but the moon has no knowledge about the existence of the bird.”
“Ah! I didn’t know that my dear friend’s niece had such appreciation of poetry. But then, that’s probably why Princess Kundavai cherishes your friendship so much.”
“Enough! I want no praises from you of all people. Either you let me go free or else command your men to sacrifice me.”
“Princess! You seem to know too many things about Ponniyin Selvar, I am sure you also know where he is hiding right now. Tell me where he is and I will take you to your uncle. He has returned from Elangai now and would have reached Madurai by now.”
“Ayya! My uncle is not a person who would entertain friendship with people who have poison in their hearts like you. I am an orphan. I have no parents, no relatives or family to speak of. I know nothing about the Prince and even if did, I will not be revealing it to you. Do not waste any more time…”
“Yes. We can’t tarry anymore. It looks like it’s going to rain anytime now…”
“Where there are people like you, thunder and lightening too would fall…”
Nature seemed to acknowledge Vanathi’s words because even as she said it, a flash of lightening streaked across the sky.
“Woman! Will you not tell me where Prince Arul Mozhi Varman is?”
“My guess is correct then. You are indeed on your way to meet him with a secret message. Is that true or not?”
“Ayya! You are wasting time. I am not going to answer any of your questions.”
“Alright. Then prepare yourself. You will be punished in a manner that befits those who collude with criminals who conspire against the Kingdom.”
“I am ready for whatever punishment you wish to mete out. Lead the way. I will lay my head on the sacrificial altar.”
“No. You are the daughter of Kodumbalur Velir. You deserve a punishment that befits your station in life. Look at that elephant!”
Vanathi looked at the elephant that was in the forefront of his entourage. It was a huge beast dark and massive in size. In the enveloping darkness and the drizzling rain, she could discern only the pearly white ivory of the elephant’s tusk.
“Princess! Have you heard of Gajendra Motchan? When a crocodile caught the elephant’s foot, it cried for help and Lord Vishnu came all the way from Vaikuntam to save his devotee and slew the crocodile and sent it to the nether world. This elephant too has punished many people for their crimes and have sent them to the nether world. You said that you wished to leave this world… this elephant would fulfil your wish within a second. It will wound your body within its trunk and throw you away.”
After saying this, the Prime Minister laughed which sounded terribly sinister to Vanathi. She was sure that he was a demon hiding within the skin of a human.
“Princess! Let me ask you for the last time. Will you tell me where the Prince is hiding or would you rather prefer a terrible death through this elephant?”
“Ayya! Will you ask the elephant to come towards me or shall I go to him?”
Anirudhar signalled with his hands for the elephant to come closer and then he said something incomprehensible in a language that Vanathi didn’t understand. The elephant came forward and entwined its huge trunk around Vanathi’s slender form and lifted her from the ground.
During that moment many thousand thoughts came to Vanathi’s mind. She was shocked and surprised by the fact that she was so brave and courageous while facing the Prime Minister.
Didn’t Princess Kundavai mock me all the time for being timid and meek? If she had only seen me now what would she think? Will she ever know what happened to me? No…She will know one day and will tell Ponniyin Selvar how bravely I gave up my life to safeguard his secret. What will the Prince think then? Will he realise then that I was braver than that boat girl?
The elephant’s trunk moved upwards and Vanathi too moved up.
Yes! That Brahma Rakshashar was right. This elephant is going to throw me. God knows where I will fall but I will be dead soon.
The elephant was ready to throw her. Its trunk was above the head. Vanathi closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable to happen. Thankfully, she also lost consciousness at the same moment.