Chapter 14 – A Crocodile On The River Bank
In those days, those who wished to reach Tanjore from Kudanthai, travelled along the banks of the rivers Arisil or Cauvery and reached the town of Thiru-vai-aru. From there, they would turn south to go towards Tanjore. Convenient ferrys or fords to cross the rivers Kudamuruti, Vettar, Vennar and Vadavar were available only along that route. Vandiya Devan who started from Kudanthai, first went towards the banks of River Arisil. The sights that he saw along the way astonished him, being more exquisite than what he had heard about the Chozla countryside. Any beautiful sight appears more striking when it is viewed for the first time!
Emerald green rice fields, gardens of ginger and turmeric, plantations of sugarcane and banana, groves of tender
coconut palms; streams, rivulets and brooks; tanks, pools and canals; all these made a mosaic of the landscape. Water-lilies bloomed in profusion in the creeks; Lotus and blue-lily were in riotous display on still-water ponds and pools. The large red-, white-, and blue-lotus flowers dazzled his eyes. He had never seen such flowers before! White storks and herons flew in large groups like soft clouds. Red-legged cranes stood on one leg and performed penance. Crystal clear water rushed frothing along conduits. Farmers ploughed their rice paddies — muddy fields, darkened with good fertilizer and rotting leaves — even deeper. Women transplanted seedlings in the well tilled fields. As they were bent on their task they sang pleasant folk-songs.
Sugar mills were established next to the cane plantations. They fed the mature, dark cane of the previous year’s harvest into those mills and extracted sweet-juice. The aroma of the fresh juice and boiling molasses being made into sugar-candy and jaggery filled the air and tingled the nose.
Small cottages with roofs thatched with coconut palm-leaves and houses with tiled roofs were found amidst the palm groves. In the villages, they had cleaned the streets and front porches to a mirror brightness and decorated them with beautiful drawings of rice-powder. On some front porches they had spread the new paddy to dry in the hot sun. Hens and roosters came and pecked at the grain and ran hither and thither with cries of “Koko ro ko, koko ro koro!” The little girls set to guard the grain did not seem to bother: `How much grain can the tiny hens eat?’ – they thought in disdain as they continued with their board games with cowrie shells.
The smells and smoke of cooking rose from chimneys on rooftops. The fragrance of paddy being cured, millet-grain being parched, and meat being roasted mingled with each other. Such smells made Vallavarayan’s mouth water.
Blacksmiths had their shops along the roadside. The fires in such smithies burned bright with glowing embers. The sound of hammers striking iron could be heard loudly. The smithies were filled with implements essential to farming, such as plough-share points, wheel-pins, shovels, hoes and rakes as well as sharpened spears, lances, swords and shields; farmers and soldiers vied with each other to buy these instruments of their trade.
Small temples could be spied in the midst of tiny villages. The sound of drums being beaten and pipes being played inside the temples mingled with the pleasant music of religious chanting and singing of devotional poems like Thevaram.
Priests carried the guardian deities of the village, like Mariamman, on little cots and pots balanced on their heads; they danced the Karagam in tune to the beat of little udukku drums held in their hands as they sought alms of grain and produce.
Men, tired of their work behind the ploughs, rested beneath shady, wide spreading mango trees. They entertained themselves by setting sharp horned goats to fight each other.
Pea-hens roosting on housetops called out to their mates in a shrill voice; the pea-cocks lifted their long, beautiful tails with difficulty and flew up to them majestically. Turtle-doves shook their heads and danced with cooing sounds. The parrots and cuckoos — poor creatures shut up in cages — sang sweetly.
Vandiya Devan rode upon his horse rather slowly, enjoying such scenes. His eyes had plenty to occupy them. His heart also enjoyed all the sights. But his inner mind dwelt upon the picture of a girl, covered in mist.
Aha! Why didn’t that girl open her reddened lips and utter a few words? What would she have lost by uttering a few sentences? Who could she be? Whoever she is, shouldn’t she have some manners? Do I seem like a fellow to be ignored? — That wily old astrologer never did reveal who that girl was! He is clever; very clever. How he measures the depth of one’s heart! Such experienced words he utters! Of course he did not predict anything sensible or specific. About political affairs … he escaped without disclosing anything! He merely repeated things known to everybody in a fascinating manner. But he did make the good prediction about my lucky-stars being on the rise … Let the astrologer of Kudanthai prosper in his trade.
Vandiya Devan rode onwards with such thoughts occupying his mind. The sights presented to him, dragged him off and on from this dream world to reality. Finally he reached the banks of the River Arisil. After going a few yards he heard the sound of women laughing and the jingle jangle of their bracelets.
The women were completely hidden by the thick groves of trees growing on the bank. He peered into the trees, trying to locate the women who made the noise. Suddenly he could hear the fear filled screams “Oh dear”, “Ai Oh”, “Help”, “Crocodile!” said the voices of several women. He whipped his horse in the direction of the shouts. He soon spied several maids in a clearing between the trees close to the water. Their faces were filled with fright. But, — surprise of surprises — two of them seemed to be the very same women he had seen in the astrologer’s house! Vandiya Devan recognized all this within the fraction of a second.
That was not all. A horrible crocodile opening its jaws wide, could be seen at the foot of a thick tree trunk, blending with the roots, half in the water and half on the bank. He had recently seen one such fearful crocodile in the floods of the Kollidam. He had heard how dangerous the beast was. Therefore, when he saw the reptile, his heart skipped a beat and his whole body froze with agitation for a minute.
The crocodile was very near the girls who had been laughing merrily a few moments earlier. It was opening its horrible jaws wide and appeared monstrous. The crocodile had to only move just one step closer; one of the girls would be gone! She could not escape because of the thick tree!
However confused his heart and mind, there was nothing wrong with his courage. He did not even think beyond one second about what he should do. He took careful aim and swiftly threw the spear in his hand. The spear pierced the crocodile’s back, entered deep into its hide and stood upright. Our hero, immediately jumped off his horse and drawing his sword he rushed towards the reptile to finish it off in one stroke.
He heard the girls laughing once again, like before. The sound was repulsive to Vandiya Devan’s ears. Why do these foolish women laugh like this at this dangerous moment? he thought.
Having rushed forward, he stopped in shock and surprise for a minute. He saw the faces of those women. He could see no fear or fright in them. He could just detect the signs of laughter and mischief. He could not believe that they were the same girls who cried out for help a few minutes ago.
One among them — the maid he had seen in the astrologer’s house — spoke in a pleasant, elegant voice: “Girls, stop it! Why are you all laughing?” He heard her scolding as if in a dream.
He moved closer to the crocodile and then hesitated as he raised his sword. He turned to look at the faces of those girls once again. A suspicion, which filled his heart with shame, humiliating his very existence — rose in him.
By now, that girl — the lady who had dwelt in his thoughts for some time now — parted from her friends and came forward. She stood before him, in front of the crocodile, as if guarding it!
“Sir! I am very thankful to you. Please do not trouble yourself unnecessarily,” she said.