The last day of the Thai Poosam festival reverberated with religious fervor and gaiety. Muthuvaduganathan was happy that everything so far had gone well with his duty and very well with his personal life. The days that ensued after he saw the beauty by the pond made him sulk and brood. He was not his real self, counting the innumerable stars at night and longing for fervent glimpse of the teenager without mustache on the horseback. He never failed to amuse Muthu, starting from his French songs to his mastery in calming down the elephants! Elephants? Yes, he witnessed the astounding feet of his secret love, Velu Nachi handling the temple elephant as if it were some child's toy.
The day before the festival, Muthu knew if he didn't confront the fiery maiden he would never sleep in peace and staggered slowly towards the two mustache devoid men munching nuts, lying on the meadow by the pond and chatting. One look at Velunachi and her delicate features covered carefully in dhoti, he almost burst out laughing. Velunachi and Kuyili looked up at the man towering over them. Kuyili's senses alerted the very moment and her hand clutched the concealed dagger with full might.
" Enjoying the sun and breeze, aren't you? You kids?", Muthu drawled, his eyes locked fierce with Velunachis'. " Yes...and will you stop calling us kids?", Velunachi hissed with her eyes shooting daggers at him. Muthu felt a strange stirring in his belly and a mischievous grin escaped his lips. Tying his horse to the banyan tree, he placed his head gear and towels near the two bewildered lads. Playfully, he started undressing. " This heat is unbearable. Almost too much for this time of the year, what do you say, little one?", he quipped.
Kuyili was wondering what kept the Princess from getting up and leaving the place. She was always spitfire- Tempest. What kept her from running away from this vile person? She was indignant. When she turned around and looked at her friend, she was astonished. Velunachi was spellbound, sat as if in a trance as the bare chested Muthu continued undressing. A scar ran all through his right upper torso which looked like a sword had sluiced through his body. And yet, he looked devilishly delectable...Oh no! Kuyili rushed to Velunachi and with a mighty pinch, brought her back to normal. With eyes still locked to his, Velunachi moved in abandon as pulled by Kuyili to the horses. Even as they mounted the horses and rode out, Velunachi had eyes only for him.
When Maruthu brothers learnt of this little escapade from Kuyili, they were definitely not happy. How dare he? Some man to undress in front of the Princess of Ramnad! They had to teach him a lesson. And they would do it tomorrow- the Thai Poosam, the day that marked the death of Soorapadma. And they would do it without knowledge of the Princess, they vowed.
Devotees in droves rushed past the temple praharas with tonsured heads. The Kavadis were getting ready, few devotees were skewing tiny vels ( sharp spear) in their mouths with the chant Muruga...Muruga...Maruthu brothers broke apart from the women and hid behind one of the many pillars, awaiting Muthu. Muthuvaduganathan loved to be a commoner, to participate in the lives of his subjects and he wished to remain unnoticed. Thai Poosam festival pulled a huge crowd and he knew he was in grave danger if he ventured out, he would be a sitting duck to the French, British and Portuguese who had captured parts of their Kingdom. Clad in a commoner's clothes, his face smeared with sacred ash, he and his dutiful guards merged with the crowd that was now swelling into thousands with the chants.
It was Chinna Maruthu who first spotted the broad- chested macho man in the procession. As the procession drew near, in a swift motion, his hands closed on the wrist of Muthu, whom he turned towards him. Muthu felt the cold metal blade on his waist even before he turned to face his attacker. Seeing the fuming Maruthu brothers, he realised this was a warning to him for what transpired by the pond. Smiling to himself, he decided to play along. " I don't know why you are cornering me. I am a simple trader, I don't even know you", he wailed. Periyamaruthu grunted - " Enough! Stop your games. We know what you tried to do to our friends by the pond yesterday. One more look at them, i shall gouge your silly eyes out."
Muthu was taken aback by the genuine anger in his voice and tried to calm him. " Easy...easy. What wrong did i do? I just took bath when two young lads were idling away. Is that wrong? Are we men not supposed to undress and bath in the company of men? How strange!" The brothers stood dumbstruck a moment and Chinna Maruthu loosened his grip on Muthu's wrist. Only then did the brothers notice that they were encircled by a group of plainclothesmen from all directions.
As Muthu gestured to them to back off, they slithered back with a look of aggression writ large over their faces. Whoever this was, he was not to be messed up with, thought Periya Maruthu. This was not the time nor the place to prove their might and power. The Princess was now in their care and they had the duty of safely returning her back to the Kingdom. This man, can wait. With a last angry look, the duo slipped into the crowd.
All the while, Muthu had been laughing to himself. The predicament of the brothers humored him and their love for their Princess awed him. His eyes scanned the crowd for the lithe lad and he spotted him a few yards away. Behind him, Maruthu brothers closed in menacingly. For now, he had no choice. He had to let her go. But by God, he will get her- marry her. With a last forlorn look at her, he moved away.
By the time the Princess was back in the palace, strange things had happened. Queen Sakandimuthal was dizzy with happiness. Her little daughter's hand had been asked for in marriage and that too to the King of Sivagangai! The messenger from Sivagangai was smothered with food and wine. King Sethupathy felt relieved and glad. Peculiarly, the King of Sivagangai- Muthuvaduganathan had sent a portrait of him to be shown to the Princess, through the messenger. It was strange that the face was covered by an iron mask.
Velunachi was not the same girl who left the palace for Kalaiyarkovil few days ago. She was mellow, subdued and dreamy. The mother noted the changes in her daughter like quicksilver. Something in her little one had transformed. Velunachi thought day in and day out of the tall brooding stranger she met by the pond. She longed to see him again, but could not till she left for Ramnad. The man had simply vanished in thin air. She wished she knew his name. When the King sought to meet her in her chamber, she was nonchalant. She noted a covered easel adorning the corner of her chamber. When did this arrive? Whose painting is it? she thought absently. " I am so happy for you my child. The King of Sivagangai has sent word that he wants to marry you!", said Sethupathy, who was almost breathless.
The words "King of Sivagangai" and "marry" registered slowly as she turned around to her father, trying to focus on what was being said to her. The King had wanted an early wedding, probably by next month. She nodded her head as if in a trance and Sethupathy continued to talk of his soon to be son-in-law. With a word that the King had sent her the painting in the corner as her gift, a beaming Sethupathy left the room. Wedding? So soon? She had never thought of it. Velunachi took a long breath and pulled her unwilling legs to the painting. Flipping over the cover, she took in the masked face that revealed thundering jet black eyes. Eyes that reminded her of a stormy night. Eyes that pulled her into their unfathomable depths. As her eyes glided slowly towards the open bare chest, she felt the whole world spin. The earth beneath her slid and with a shriek, she fell on the floor with a thud, unconscious...
The dull red scar ran along the right torso of the man in the painting...
To be continued...
p.s.: The paintings attached here are masterpieces of King Ravi Varma, the first one is the Lady by the moonlight, the second one is Contemplation. Courtesy: cyberkerala.com