by Smita Bhattacharya
They lay side by side on the floor, scrawny legs peeping out of diaphanous skirts. One green, one blue. Their arms lay inert on their sides, matching green and blue bangles on slight wrists. One’s skin was fair like fresh morning milk, the other’s dark like rain-soaked mud. Their hair was plaited tight, bright ribbons on them, green and blue.
They looked about fourteen. One talked while the other listened.
“Tell me again, slowly this time,” the fair one said.
“Why don’t you listen?” the dark one complained.
“You were interrupted last time.”
“I’ll be interrupted again!”
“When is your next?”
“In an hour.”
“Tell me again,” the fair one said, turning slightly to her companion, her squirrel-like eyes pleading.
The dark one scowled.
“Please?” the fair one repeated, scrunching up her nose.
Her dark companion granted her half a smile, one of grudging indulgence, and started again.
When Princess Ahayla turned fourteen, her father King Virbhadra presented to her fifty villages tucked deep inside the snowcapped hills of the impenetrable North. Her birthday fell right in middle of the last month of the year. People from the kingdom’s villages had travelled many, many miles, braving snowstorms and perilous terrains, to behold her presence from afar and verify the truth in poems that praised her great beauty. Because it was only on her birthday that she entertained any guests at all, affording them a rare public appearance. The desire for elusiveness was not her own; her father, King Virbhadra, took considerable pride in his daughter’s beauty and wished to shield her from prying, evil eyes. She was his sole heir and very, very precious.
“How beautiful was she?”
“Like you, skin white like snow, eyes like a reined storm, hair like waves of the great river, lips like an apple freshly plucked.”
The fair one giggled.
The dark one grinned. “But it’s true! It happened a long time ago, but it’s true.”
“Tell me more.”
Princess Ahayla’s mother had died early, in childbirth. Some elders claimed she had been even more beautiful than her daughter. The queen, they murmured wistfully, had scattered sunshine when she rode past their homes, bringing a song to every lip, a sparkle to every eye. Fragile, yet resplendent, she was, like a frozen wish. When she died, King Virbhadra mourned her demise so deeply that he never married again, instead pouring all his love and attention into his kingdom of two hundred villages and his stoic, kind, precocious little girl.
The two girls lay silent, staring at the ceiling ─ dark, sooty, and cluttered with spider webs. The whole building was crumbling ─ outside a gloomy chipped grey, inside a decaying green. The staircases were disfigured and peeling, a slight misstep often leading to a tumble down, followed by a fusillade of the choicest curses.
But the girls had stopped noticing a long time ago.
“Her mother must’ve been nice,” the fair one remarked.
“She was,” the dark one said.
“Her father was a good man too?”
“She was lucky,” the fair one murmured.
They lay quietly for a minute, their eyes resting on the wall in front of them ─ a pool of light from the spluttering bulb fell in a heap beneath, carving out one dancing, dirty patch. They had learnt by heart the bends of that patch: One day it seemed to them like a face, another day like a dress, and yet another day like the map of a forgotten land. And every day it gave rise to a new story.
There was a knock on the door. Neither moved. The knocking grew insistent. Finally, the dark one shrugged.
“We have to go.”
“Promise me you’ll complete the story today?”
They rose together and walked to the door. The fair one paused before she turned the latch.
“Was she really like me? The princess?” she asked.
The dark one nodded but did not look at her.
They brushed each other’s hair and carefully tucked in loose ends. Then, straightening her skirt, the dark one opened the door. She stepped out first. Her fair companion followed.
They were back in an hour.
“Was it bad?” the dark one asked. She was older and felt protective.
The fair one shook her head. “I thought of the princess. It wasn’t so bad after that.”
“Do you want to hear what happened next?”
Her audience nodded, excitement lighting up her face. This time they did not lie down but sat on the floor facing each other, cross legged.
When King Virbhadra granted his daughter fifty villages on her birthday to rule over and bless with her wisdom and presence, the locals were gratified. They thanked their king for granting them this blessing, for many considered her no less than a goddess reborn. Many a village priest admitted that it was often the young princess’s face, as pure as newly formed dew, that swam in front of his eyes when he sang paeans to the Goddess’s beauty. The villages under her rule gladly swore their undying allegiance and sent their darling princess humble gifts every month. She in turn afforded them her audience whenever they needed, persuading her father that their need was greater than his fear.
“She was wise.”
“She was. People came from faraway lands to ask her advice.”
She greeted her subjects seated on her throne of shiny ivory shaded by a canopy of bright peacock feathers. Her sequined skirt was carefully tucked to her sides, her hair neatly pinned in a bun under a crown of dainty pink pearls with gold motifs. She was surrounded by her handmaids and guards who were ready to spring to serve her if she so much as much stirred.
“Was she strong?”
“She commanded over tens of thousands of people, and had the riches of fifty villages.”
“So, she was strong.”
“Strength is also in being good, in being brave, especially when no one else is.”
One day, two poor farmers from the village of yellow huts sought to meet her. They were frightened and wanted her counsel. They told her of strangers from a foreign land who were arriving in black metal boxes that moved on wheels and made strange noises. These were young men, old men; sometimes they came alone, sometimes with wives and children. These frightening aliens threw dirt and garbage in the fields, shooed away the villagers’ children, and stole what rightfully belonged to them—the locals who’d lived there for centuries.
“What did she tell them?”
“She said, ‘I will put a stop to this. I will prohibit the entry of these carts into our region.’”
“What did the farmers do?”
“The farmers blessed her joyously. They ran to tell the others the good news.”
“But she was only a little girl! Could she do as she promised?”
“She was a princess.”
“Was she never afraid? Did she never cry?”
The dark one smiled. “She never needed to,” she said. “And she was always strong.”
“Tell me more.”
A sharp knock rattled the door. They looked up, startled.
“Did you have more tonight?” the fair one asked, alarm and disappointment on her face.
The dark one shook her head, puzzled. “No,” she said. Reluctantly, she rose and walked to the door.
“One of you will have to come,” a bark clouded the room.
The dark one turned back apologetically. “Wait. I’ll be back soon.”
“Let me go,” the fair one offered.
“No, you stay,” the dark one said. Turning quickly, she gathered her skirt, stepped outside, and shut the door, her steps faint on the decrepit passageway.
When the door opened again two hours later, the fair one complained without looking up. “You were away so long.”
Then she saw. “What happened to you?” she cried. “Was this one bad?”
The dark one grimaced as she sat on the floor, folding up her legs and rocking herself. “Get me some water,” she murmured.
The fair one scrambled to fill a glass. “You should’ve let me go,” she said tearfully. Sitting down beside her dark companion, she stroked her hair and wiped the stickiness away from her cheeks. Her friend gulped down the water and asked for more.
“You or me, it’s the same thing,” she replied.
They hugged then, each feeling the musky warmth of the other’s breath on dank, flushed skin.
“What happened next?” the fair one whispered.
The dark one looked at her, dried tears in her eyes.
“You don’t want to know.”
“Is it sad?”
The storyteller nodded.
“Tell me,” her listener said.
The foreigners attacked! A year-long war raged between the locals and the foreigners who arrived with batons and guns, crossing frozen rivers and precipitous ravines. King Virbhadra left for battle one day and never returned. The mountains mourned his death, but the locals called him a martyr and took to the battlefield in greater force. Princess Ahayla led from the front, stunning her opponents who had made the mistake to assume her a helpless waif.
But even her good sense and direction and her country’s unquestioning devotion to her came to no avail. They fell, one by one, each village with its citizens. In the end, the ancient villages were merged with the foreign land to be one ─ a homogenous mass of land and people. The little princess was captured and taken to a small chalet with men in yellow-green uniforms.
“No…” her listener cried, the word clogged with heavy tears. They looked at each other, caught in a tangle, one desperate, the other defiant.
“What happened next?” the fair one said, a silent plea in her eyes.
The storyteller was silent. Her face mirrored her conflict: give pain or kindness, submit to their current reality or escape, speak the truth or lie.
“Tell me,” the fair one insisted.
When the dark one had made up her mind, she spoke again.
The ruler of that foreign land was Prince Agastya, a dashing, brave boy of eighteen. His father had died young, leaving on his son’s inexperienced shoulders the burden of a volatile kingdom surrounded by obstinate hillsmen. The young prince was ambitious but not without a sense of justice. Above all, he respected valour in battle and spared any who displayed courage under enemy fire.
Thus, when he heard that the princess had been captured, he mounted his royal steed and galloped faster than the cold mountain winds to rescue her.
“What happened next?”
The dark one looked at her fair friend; her eyes were smiling again.