Sunday, July 2, 2017

Hands That Stir the Pot - III

For Part I
For Part II

"Vikrama's father Saranga and I were very good friends. Vikram was just around 10 when you were born. Saranga and I decided to get the two of you married when you came of age. Five years later, we even formalised it with an engagement ceremony... The marriage date was fixed for two years later, when Vikrama's apprenticeship under his father would be over," Gautama said, gazing out of the window with a far away look. "There was much hope, many plans... Soon after your engagement was fixed, one evening he visited us. It was all fun and laughter when you entered the room with a sword almost your size. We were amused and though I tried to dissuade you, Saranga encouraged you to slash like a swashbuckler with the weapon. Unfortunately, when you plunged, you tripped and injured Saranga severely. We rushed him to the doctor and bore the expenses of his intense treatment, which was a big draw on our limited resources. It also severely crippled Saranga, who could not continue to give training in weapons. He was unforgiving and within a few months, both of us fell into bad days... Saranga blamed us, you specifically, for our misfortune. Our friendship soured..." Gautama hesitated.

Shravanti stared at him guiltily.

"There was no question of the marriage taking place any more. That was not the worst. Now no one else would consider you as the bride for their sons either... Everyone in our circle knew about Vikram and you being promised to each other, about how we fell into bad days soon after the engagement, and how you were responsible for it..."

Gautama turned to look at her sadly. "Living in that city, I could not even find grooms from other cities because of your growing reputation as the ill-fated one. A girl with a sword!"

The sense of guilt deepened... He could add, knife and bow to it.

"So we packed up and left... In our quest for a new life, we were journeying through this forest when I saw that the villages nearby were being plagued by bandits. I helped the villagers fight them and I started training the young boys in martial arts. The love and respect I got here bound me to this place. Time flew and though your mother often urged me to move to a city, work kept me tied down. I thought I had time..."

He looked at her affectionately. "But looks like I am late." After a pause, he resumed, "Vikrama's seeking us out here is like a voice from the past asking us to return. He wants to marry you, atone for his past..." Gautama looked at her expectantly. "He has also gone through much, my child. He was married twice, and both times, his wives died soon after. He feels it is because he has wronged us unwittingly...He seeks your hand in marriage to make amends. His fortunes have turned, and I believe you will lead a better life."

The lateness of the hour, the feeble candle light, the soft cadence of her father's voice mesmerised Shravanti. She wished she could remember holding that sword, the slashes, and that fateful thrust. She could not remember any but this place as her home - she didn't even know she had lived anywhere else. Of Vikrama, she could remember nothing, nor did she want to. The only question that arose in her mind was, "Would I be the third, father?"

Gautama was startled. "Do you mind...? In a way, you are the first. It is just destiny that it had to happen this way."

His eyes sought hers and held them for a few moments. He saw the confusion in her eyes, but unable to handle it anymore, mumbled that her mother will speak to her.

Revathi seemed besides herself with happiness. "Marrying Vikrama will change your fortunes, my child... You are so lucky... And to think I cried for your miserable life..." She wiped her face.

"I am happy, mother," Shravanti said firmly. "I don't see why you should have worried about me."

"A girl belongs to her husband. Otherwise, she is doomed to a life of misery," Revathi declared harshly.

"I can take care of myself," Shravanti said with a confidence that did not go down well with Revathi. "Stop being unreasonable. How long have I prayed for this day! That your name will be free of all blemish," Revathi snapped.

Shravanti felt her calm, predictable days had been snatched from her in a moment, and she was being rushed to embrace a new life that she did not quite understand. As she was urged into their bullock cart the next morning, with her father at the reins, she wanted to cry and shout at the same time. Vikrama accompanied them on horseback, looking royal.

The cart traversed familiar ground, evoking memories. She was tempted to jump out and run to where Ajaya usually waited for her. If she didn't turn up, would he come looking for her? After yesterday's fiasco, would he dare try and meet her?

Her eyes sought him in the trees and amidst bushes. Her parents were busy discussing the finer details of the impending wedding, but her ears were intent on hearing any movement indicating Ajaya's presence.

Something caught her eye just and she also heard an unusual bird call. She frowned and looked closely. She realised that there was something moving, and probably keeping pace with them. Her heart jumped with joy thinking Ajaya was indeed trying to reach out to her.

In a short clearing, she saw a figure that was unlike Ajaya dart between the trees.

"Father, I sense danger," she interrupted her father.

Gautama smiled reassuringly. "Being married is not as bad as you think, Shravan. It is natural to feel scared, but once you are married, you will be just fine," he chuckled.

"No father, I am saying right now, in those shrubs... Look closely!"

Gautama did and became alert. "What's that?" he asked, more to himself.

He slowed down, studying the lay of the land, and suddenly turned left, towards open land. Two men emerged from the bushes with swords in hands. Gautama cursed under his breath and drew his own out. Seeing him change directions suddenly, Vikrama, who had ridden ahead, turned around and headed towards the cart. His eyes assessed the situation and he made for the back of the cart.

Gautama faced the two marauders. But there were more, who came rushing from behind. Vikrama quickly bade the two ladies follow him and plunged into a shrub.

Revathi and Shravanti moved slowly behind the bushes to keep away from danger. Once they felt safe, they urged Vikram to join the fray, for now, Gautama was surrounded by four men. Vikrama crouched with them, watching the fight. "The time is not right for me to join the fight. I need a good opening" he explained in a hoarse whisper.

Shravanti snatched his sword dangling uselessly from its sheath around his waist, sprang up and rushed towards her father before Revathi or Vikrama could stop her.

One of the men turned. He was tall, broad and well-muscled. His face was covered with hair, and his eyes were bloodshot. Shravanti gasped at coming face to face with a brute for the first time. The man laughed on seeing a diminutive figure singing a sword that seemed too heavy for her.

The fighters paused mid action, hearing the incongruous laugh in this grim situation. But on Shravanti's face, there was only determination.


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