Book Excerpt
Acclaimed author Samhita Arni's retells the Tamil epic 'Silappadikaram' in her new book.
Kannaki, when she had run out of questions, told him her story. She was born of the Maravar, and– ‘The Maravar?’ Uthiyan stopped in his tracks. She nodded. And then a little shyly, added, ‘We’re not all like what you think.’
 
Dimly, Uthiyan recalled that the Maravar were robbers who shunned dharma and lived in the forests near Madurai. They were the bane of merchants who used the land routes between Puhar and Madurai, whose caravans and convoys were constantly raided. The Maravar, when found, had died, impaled by the kings of Madurai and Puhar, and these kings had long sought to find the secret home of the Maravar – but with no success.
 
Uthiyan, surprised, now understood why Kannaki had been so loath for him to take her back home, for they kept the location of their village secret, to avoid capture. ‘But why are you heading to Madurai?’ he asked, puzzled, for the Maravar – due to their reputation – shunned cities.
 
Kannaki continued with her story. When she had turned sixteen, her clansmen had robbed the train of a merchant from Puhar, and taken his son Kovalan – a bright, handsome youth – hostage. News came back that the merchant had nothing to spare, he had gone bankrupt, there was no money, and he advised the Maravar to keep his good-fornothing
son.
 
And so Kovalan had languished, fate unknown, frustrated, and Kannaki, the only child of a widowed mother, who had spent her entire life till that point tending her mother’s cows, had fallen in love with him, wooed – so Uthiyan gathered – by his tales of city life, awed by his claims of wealth and the manners of a rich man’s son.
 
Soon, she was with child. And so they had been married, and Kovalan – for he was too gentle, too civilized, too bronzed by the city to fit in with the ways of Maravar – had set off to Madurai to make his fortune, and to send for Kannaki when he was established there. He had friends – a merchant and his wife – in Madurai, he had told Kannaki and the
Maravar confidently, and they would help him.
 
A most incongruous couple, concluded Uthiyan, thinking of Kovalan and Kannaki. Kannaki was besotted, but the Kovalan she painted seemed like a risky fellow who didn’t truly care for her. A dilettante.
 
And now, when months later he had not returned, and Kannaki, despite the advice of her kinsmen, had got tired of her mother’s cows and had bravely chosen to set off for Madurai. When twilight fell they chose a sheltered spot by the river to rest.
 
‘Sing me a song,’ Uthiyan, who delighted in music, pleaded. ‘Sing me a song that your people sing.’
 
‘Only if you will tell me a story, Adigal!’ she quipped in return.
 
He agreed, and she sang for him the song of the Kuruvai dance, the song that lovelorn cow girls sang as they minded their cattle, waiting for love to somehow, in the midst of their dreary boredom, strike them.
 
Friend! Mayavan swung a stone, and knocked down
all the orchard’s fruit.
If he came down to see our herd, then we would
hear the lovely sound
of his most wondrous flute.
 
Friends, Mayavan churned the ocean,
using a snake for rope.
 
If he came down to tend our herd,
then we could enjoy the sound
of his long bamboo flute.
 
Friends! Mayavan tore up the wild citrus tree
that stood in our vast pastureland.
Should he appear amidst our herd,
then we should have a chance to hear
his sweet shepherd’s flute.
 
Let’s sing now of the bewitching loveliness
of Pinnai, who is dancing near the river
with the boy she loves so tenderly.
 
How can we describe his magic
when he hid the garments of the girls
whose waists appeared so fragile
that, bending, they might have broken?
 
How can we describe the face
of the lovely girl distressed by the remorse
of him who stole her dress?
 
How can we describe the loveliness
of her who stole the heart of him
who loved her but fooled her like the other women
while they were playing in the stream?
 
How can our words express the charm
of him who took the favours and the rings
of her who stole his heart?
 
How can we picture the sweet face
she hid behind her lovely hands
when he had stolen her garments and her jewels?
 
And how can we describe the grace
of his repentance when he saw
with what distress
she hid the fairness of her face
within the darkness of her hands?
 
And this had happened to Kannaki. He stared at her moon-shaped face, illuminated by the ruddy glow of the fire she had just started, as she sang.
 
Something tugged at his heart. She was entirely unlike the sophisticated, coiffed women he had known, but at that moment – her song, the twilight, the wisps of hair that darted around her pretty, fire-brightened face – he felt he was in the presence of true beauty. So different from Madhavi.
 
Kannaki, as if sensing his thoughts, looked up and caught him watching her. The song died on her lips. ‘What,’ she said, self-consciously, ‘what are you looking at?’
 
‘Nothing.’
 
He rose then, to put out the fire.
 
‘What about my story?’ she demanded.
 
‘Tomorrow night,’ he replied. ‘We are still at least two days from Madurai, and we’ll need all our strength for the morrow.’

Excerpted from The Prince by Samhita Arni, published by Juggernaut Books. This book is available on Amazon.in for Rs. 407 only.