Chapter 55 – Nandini’s Lover
“I met Nandini for the first time when I was twelve years old. One day in Pazlayarai, I, my sister Kundavai and my younger brother Arulmozli were playing on the lake behind our palace, holding boat races. After playing for a while we were walking back through the garden. We heard the voice of our elder-grandmother Sembiyan Madevi. All three of us were fond of our grandmother who spoilt us with her affection. We wanted to immediately tell her about our experiences with the boat and so we walked into the garden pavilion where we heard her voice. Besides our grandmother, three other persons were in that building. One of those three was a young girl, about our age. The other two appeared to be her parents. They were saying something about that girl to my grandmother. When we three children walked in, they stopped; all of them looked at us. All that I can recall is how that young girl’s beautiful eyes widened with surprise and watched me. I can see that look clearly, even now ….”
After saying these words, Karikala became silent, gazing at the stars in the sky above him. Perhaps he could glimpse the face of that young girl in those light clouds which floated across the sky, veiling the stars. Who knows?
“Sir! What happened next?” asked Parthiban, bringing Karikala back to this world. The Prince continued:-
“My sister Kundavai told my grandmother all about our boat. After listening for a while, the Elder Pirati asked her, `Darling, did you meet this girl? See how smart she is? They have come from the Pandiya country to the house of our Mr. Esanya Bhattar. They will be here for a while. This young girl is Nandini. Why don’t you make friends with her and play with her? She will be a good companion to you!’ But, I soon found that my sister did not like this. The three of us left the pavilion and walked back towards the palace. At that time Kundavai asked me, `Anna! Did you see that girl there? Wasn’t she awful looking? Such an owlish face! Why does grandmother want me to play with her? I cannot stand her face, what am I to do?’ When I heard this, I realized an important truth. That is, women are born with envious minds. However beautiful a girl is, she cannot stand the sight of another pretty face. Among all the women of my clan, my sister is renowned for her beauty. She could not stand the sight of another attractive girl! Otherwise why would she make such a comment about that new girl? But, I did not let my sister off easily. I teased her often and praised the comeliness of the new girl just to anger her. We often got into petty arguments and quarrels because of this. Arulmozli who was too young, did not understand this bickering and was quite bewildered. Very soon after this, I left with my father to the war in the Pandiya Kingdom. We engaged in several combats against the Pandiya forces as well as the troops from Lanka which came to help them. All our engagements were victorious. Finally, Veera-pandiya abandoned the field to run away and hide. At that time we did not know if he had gone into hiding or whether he had died in the battlefield. But, the Lankan forces which had come to help him, began retreating towards the coast. We followed those retreating men till the Port of Sethu. All survivors of that Singhalese Battalion escaped to their island in small boats and rafts. My father wanted to teach a lesson to those Lankan kings who often helped the Pandiyas against us. He decided to send a large army under the Command of the Younger Lord Velir of Kodumbalur to Lanka. It took us some months to collect supplies and organize the ships for this expedition. We camped at Sethu, organized the campaign and sent off our army in the ships; only after we had news of their safe landing in Matottam did we return. By the time I came back to Pazlayarai, more than two and a half years had passed.
“I had completely forgotten the priest’s daughter who had come from Madurai. When I came back to Pazlayarai, I found that both my sister and that girl had grown unrecognizably. I found them both to be great friends. Not only had Nandini grown more beautiful, but she shone with silken garments and jewels. I found that this was due to my sister’s generosity. Unlike the earlier time, Nandini now hesitated to see me or talk to me; she seemed bashful. I tried to make her overcome her shyness. I found incomparable pleasure in talking to her and spending time in her company. At that young age, this attraction for her surprised me no end. Like the fresh floods of the Cauvery, a new emotion, a fresh experience was flooding my heart, filling my soul with an ambiguous enthusiasm. However, I soon found that none of my near and dear ones liked this new interest of mine. Since my coming back, Kundavai began to dislike that girl. One day, my grandmother Sembiyan Madevi talked to me in privacy, `Nandini is from a priest’s family; you are the Emperor’s son. You are both no longer young children. This intimacy between you two is no longer appropriate,’ she advised. I, who revered my grandmother like a Goddess became angry with her and disregarded her words. I forsook her advice and began meeting Nandini in secrecy. But, that did not last too long. Suddenly one day, Nandini and her parents left Pazlayarai and went back to their village in the Pandiya Kingdom. When I found out, sadness overwhelmed me; anger and rage were uncontrollable. I buried my sadness and showered my rage upon my sister. Fortunately, I had to soon leave and go north. I came away with the battalion sent to fight the Rashtrakuta forces which occupied Thondai and Thiru-munaipadi. It was at that time that I met you; we became inseparable friends.
“With the help of Malayaman, you and I fought the Rashtrakutas. We drove them beyond the River Palar and captured Kanchi City. At that time we heard the bad news from Lanka: our forces were defeated, the Younger Lord Velir had lost his life there. On hearing that news, Veera-pandiya who had been hiding in mountain caves, came out like a serpent emerging from its mound. He collected his army once again and captured Madurai to raise his fish-flag over that city. Remember how impassioned we became when we heard all this news? The two of us went back to Pazlayarai immediately.
“My father was already in ill health, losing the use of his limbs. Even so, he was planning the Pandiya campaign. I begged him to send me in his stead. I promised to destroy the Pandiya army and capture Madurai once again; I swore that I would not return home without Veera-pandiya’s head. You were also with me at that time. My father agreed to send us on that campaign. He ordered us to go under the leadership of Bhoothi Vikrama Kesari, the Elder Lord Velir of Kodumbalur who had already been appointed the Commander for that campaign. We went gladly. On the way we met the Elder Lord Pazluvoor and his battalion. We learned that he was annoyed at not being appointed the Commander for the campaign.
“Seeing our enthusiasm, Commander Bhoothi Vikrama Kesari gave us important assignments in the conduct of that war. My Friend, remember? You and I performed the greatest deeds of daring and valor during those combats. There is nothing wrong in being proud of that! We defeated the Pandiya forces and captured Madurai, but were not satisfied with that. We wanted to destroy every unit of that army so that it could never regroup again. We ordered our men to follow every company of their retreating battalions and kill them mercilessly. We pursued the withdrawing Pandiya King with one compact detachment.
“A fish-flag flying high atop an elephant directed us to the path of that coward’s retreat. We followed in that direction and caught up with that regiment. The Aabathudavi Battalion surrounded Veera-pandiya in all sides and guarded him like a fort. In a way, that Aabathudavi Battalion of the Pandiya Kingdom was much better organized than even our Chozla Velaikara Battalion. Each man of that Pandiya regiment had sworn that he would never retreat, and that he would guard the life of his king by giving up his own life if needed. If that became impossible and they were unable to save their king, those men had sworn to cut off their heads with their own swords and offer themselves as sacrifice. We fought against such invincible men. Those men fulfilled their oaths, for we killed every single one of them. Dead bodies rose in mountains. But, we could not find Veera-pandiya in their midst. We had been fooled by the fish-flag; the elephant stood there carrying the fish-flag of the Pandiyas; but, there was no sign of their king anywhere on it or nearby. Wasn’t Veera-pandiya an expert in running away from the battlefield and hiding himself? We suspected that he had run away once again. We divided our remaining forces and sent them to search in all directions.
“You and some men went swiftly along both banks of River Vaigai. I too did not remain quiet. I stepped into the river bed and went southward. A single horse’s hoofprint marked the sandy river bed; bloodstains accompanied the hoofprint on the sand. I followed the clue and entered a grove which was like an island in the middle of that river bed. A Vishnu temple was in that grove; a few cottages for housing temple priests were also nearby. That grove contained several flowering bushes and trees for use in the Lord’s worship. A small lotus pond was brimming with delightful blooms.
“Dear Friend! You perhaps remember it. I had pointed out that grove and ordered that you or our men should not even accidentally enter it. The reason for my strict orders was not merely to safeguard the temple and the flower garden: that queen among women who had abducted my soul and taken abode in my heart, lived in a priest’s house in that grove. Once earlier, when I rode into that grove, I saw Nandini. Her appearance was quite changed. She had bound her tresses over her forehead, into a coiffure like that of Saint Andal’s and wound flower garlands around it. More garlands decorated her shoulders! `What is this guise?’ I asked her. She said that after she had been forced to part from me, she had resolved to marry no living man and that she was intent on marrying the Divine Lord Krishna, just like Saint Andal! It appeared to be utter foolishness to me. An ordinary human girl, marrying God!? — Even so, I did not wish to argue with her about it at that time. `Let the war be over; we will see afterwards,’ I thought. I asked her if she needed any help. `Arrange it that none of your soldiers come into this garden. Only my aged father and half-blind mother live here with me now. I did have a strong bodied brother, but, he is away on pilgrimage!’ she said. I promised her that none of our men would go into her garden, and returned to our camp. I met her later two or three times. My old passion for her had grown tenfold; but, I remained patient. The assignment on hand must be completed first. I must go back to Pazlayarai with Veera-pandiya’s head. As a reward for that I could ask my father for Nandini’s hand.
“When I had been so resolved, when I saw the single horse’s hoof-prints going into that garden, I became quite angry. On entering the grove, I saw a horse hidden behind the trees. The fellow who had escaped here must be in one of those cottages. I walked up to Nandini’s house and looked in through the window.
“My Friend, the sight that met my eyes in that house remains in my memory like a sign etched with a hot branding iron. Veera-pandiya was lying on an old coir cot. Nandini was embracing him and giving him water. Her face shone with an unusual light; her eyes were filled with tears. She bound his wounds and soothed him. I had no control over my rage as I kicked the door open and walked into that room. Nandini who was binding his wounds, stopped upon seeing me and came towards me. She fell to the floor bowing to me and with folded palms begged, `Sir! In the name of the love you had for me once upon a time, I beg you! Please do not harm this man. Please do not kill this mortally wounded man!’
“Hesitantly, `What is the relationship between you and this man? Why are you trying to save his life?’I asked. Nandini replied, `He is my lover; my God; my benevolent lord who has promised to marry me!’
“Even the little pity I felt for Veera-pandiya on seeing his wounds, now vanished. That wretch, the sinner — he had taken his vengeance on me! It would not have mattered if he had captured my kingdom; he had abducted the queen who ruled my heart! I could never show him any mercy!
“I kicked Nandini aside and went past her; with one swift blow of my sword I chopped down Veera-pandiya’s head. If I think of that monstrous, horrible deed now, I feel ashamed, mortified. But, at that time the rage of anger mingled with the rage of war in me. In that passion, I killed Veera-pandiya; as I was about to step out of the house, I turned back to look at Nandini once more. She too was staring at me without blinking an eyelid. I have never seen such a look on this earth. All the emotions — passion, anger, pride, prejudice, envy, love — burned like bright embers in her eyes. I have tried to decipher the meaning of that look several times; till this day I have not understood it.
“By then, you and several of our men had come there in pursuit of me. Upon seeing Veera-pandiya’s headless body and bleeding head, all of you raised cheers of victory. Nonetheless, my heart felt crushed with a heavy weight, as if the Vindhya mountain was placed upon it.”