Instead of looking at Manikankana, Princess Bidyunmala continued to gaze into the distance and said lazily, ‘That is a joke, Kankana. You call this a wedding? This is nothing but a move in a game of political chess.’
Tucking her legs beneath her, Manikankana turned towards Bidyunmala. ‘So what? Why will the groom not come to the bride’s house to get married?’
Two miles ahead of them was a whirlpool, which the two rivers had conspired to create. As she stared at it, a bitter smile appeared at the corner of Bidyunmala’s mouth. ‘Do you think it is easy to forsake not one, not two, but three wives? That is probably why he could not leave his kingdom,’ she said.
Manikankana kept smiling. Then, putting her hand on Bidyunmala’s arm, she said, ‘King Devaraya has three wives—you will be the fourth. Is that why you’re not happy?’
Finally, Bidyunmala looked at Manikankana. ‘And you are, I suppose?’
Manikankana said, ‘I’m neither happy nor unhappy. Kings do have more than one wife, don’t they? I have never heard of a king with just one wife.’
Bidyunmala said, ‘I have. Rama had Sita, and no one else.’
Manikankana smiled. ‘That was in another era. Women are cheap these days, so men marry as many times as they can. When the times have changed, how can the rules stay the same?’
Bidyunmala became animated at this. ‘Horrible rules! If a wife cannot have her husband all to herself, marriage is meaningless.’
There was a brief pause. Then Manikankana said, ‘And what does having someone all to yourself mean? It is not as though a husband is his wife’s possession, not to be shared with anyone else. It is actually the wife who belongs to the husband.’
Bidyunmala’s red lips flared, rebellion flashing in her eyes. ‘I don’t accept that.’
‘Accept it or not, you’re going there to get married, aren’t you?’ Manikankana said, laughing loudly.
‘I am,’ said Bidyunmala. ‘In the same way that an innocent man sentenced to death is led to the gallows. I will never be able to love a husband with three wives.’
Manikankana put her arms round Bidyunmala and said, ‘Don’t be unhappy, my dear. Look—your mother and mine both love the king, don’t they? Once you’re married, you’ll come to love your king too. You’ll no longer be bothered about your rivals.’
Morosely, Bidyunmala sat still. ‘Suppose King Devaraya took you as his wife too—would you be able to love him?’ she asked.
Manikankana replied, wide-eyed, ‘Not be able to love him! What do you mean? I would love him a lot more than any of his other wives do. I have all the love in the world to offer. Whoever my husband may be, I will love him with all my heart.’
Bidyunmala held Manikankana close, looking intently at her for a while. ‘If only I could be like you, Kankana. My heart is far too selfish—if I want someone, I cannot share him with anyone else.’
Manikankana embraced Bidyunmala fervently. ‘That will never happen. You worry too much, and that is what is confusing you. If something is inevitable, what is the use of worrying about it?’
Bidyunmala did not reply—what, indeed?
The sisters sat together in companionable silence. The sun had turned blood-red in the horizon and the heat it gave off was on the wane; a slow, sweet breeze had sprung up, carrying with it the scent of the southern bank. It was enchanting to be on the river at this hour.
A creaking, splintering sound beneath the deck brought the young women back to reality. Manikankana chuckled and whispered, ‘Mandodari is awake.’
An enormous woman appeared on the upper deck. Her clothes dishevelled, she was clutching a silver paan case in her hand. Sitting down with a thump opposite the princesses, she yawned, snapping her fingers before her open mouth and saying, ‘Praise be to Jagannath.’
Manikankana signalled to Bidyunmala with her eyes—here was an opportunity to tease Mandodari. When time hung heavy on one’s hands, a few laughs at Mandodari’s expense was not an unpleasant pastime.
To the north of Kalinga lay Orissa, which was where Mandodari hailed from. She was about forty years old, with a complexion that was less than fair. Her rotund body, unblemished by dimples or wrinkles, granted to her a striking similarity with an earthen pitcher. She was decked in heavy ornaments and her face was perpetually wreathed in smiles, like the full moon.
Having entered the royal family of Kalinga eighteen years ago as Bidyunmala’s nursemaid, Mandodari still reigned in full glory. And she was now sailing to Vijayanagar as chaperone to the two princesses. With no family to speak of, she had made the royal family virtually her own.
Manikankana greeted her with a straight face. ‘May the lords shower their blessings on you. And how was the postprandial nap?’
Opening the container of paan, Mandodari said, ‘What nap? It is so hot in there that all I could do was fan myself. I just about managed to nod off towards the end.’
Bidyunmala looked at Mandodari in feigned alarm. ‘How long can you go on without sleep like this, Manda? You can’t sleep in the daytime, and at night the fear of pirates keeps you awake. You’re losing weight by the hour!’
Mandodari’s laughter was self-indulgent. ‘Now don’t pull my leg. I am not unappreciative like the two of you—I enjoy my food and I put on weight. As for you—not all your meals can make either of you fat.’
Looking into the case of paan, Mandodari discovered just two or three betel leaves, wrapped in moist cloth, left. This was not surprising, for the long journey had eaten into her stock. Although they had managed to despatch boats to a few villages on the river bank now and then to replenish supplies, it had not been enough. There were many takers for paan. Mandodari herself consumed them voraciously and Uncle Chipitak Murthy was a connoisseur too. As a matter of fact, the container set before Mandodari belonged to Chipitak. Mandodari had run through her share and had now usurped his.
The container held, besides the paan, lime, catechu, clove, cinnamon and various other ingredients. Mandodari proceeded in an orderly fashion to prepare her paan with these. The sisters changed tactics when they realized that Mandodari would not rise to their bait about her obesity. Manikankana said, ‘Tell me, Mandodari, we have been seeing you ever since we were born, but we have never seen your Ravana. Whatever happened to him?’
‘Do you suppose he is still around?’ Mandodari replied.
‘He has been gone for ages. Yama took him away even before I came to your household.’
‘Was your husband’s name really Ravana?’ Bidyunmala asked in surprise.
Mandodari shook her head and said, ‘No, he was called Kumbhakarna.’
Manikankana broke out in peals of laugher. ‘Ah, now I know! Your Kumbhakarna bequeathed his famous sleeping powers to you before he went.’
‘So all you need now is Bibhishana?’ Bidyunmala teased.
‘What Bibhishana?’ Mandodari sighed. ‘All these years gone by just taking care of the two of you—where is the time for Bibhishana now?’
‘Oh, there is plenty of time,’ consoled Manikankana. ‘You’re not that old, after all. I’m sure Vijayanagar’s Bibhishanas will come running with their tongues hanging out when they see you.’
Bidyunmala said, ‘Who can tell, maybe the heathen kings will take you off as their consort.’
‘Ugh, they eat beef!’ protested Mandodari.
Manikankana said, ‘If they get you, they will give up beef.’ Mandodari knew they were teasing her. But there was a part of her, hidden deep within her soul, that revelled in such jibes. Her paan prepared, she popped it into her mouth and said, ‘That is true. Who can say what fate has in store? Praised be the lord.’
Suddenly, a piercing scream was heard from the lower reaches of the boat. It sounded like a woman’s voice, but it belonged, in truth, to Uncle Chipitak Murthy. He had worked himself into a fury for some reason.
The very next moment, he was seen bounding up to the deck. Spotting Mandodari with his container of paan in her lap, he rolled his eyes in a frenzy. Pointing at her with his finger, he stormed in his high-pitched voice, ‘You stole my box, Mandodari!’ Then he snatched it from her grasp.
‘Really?’ Mandodari exclaimed, feigning astonishment. ‘It’s yours? I couldn’t tell.’ Chipitak Murthy opened the lid to discover the case was empty. Flying into a rage, he said, ‘You witch! You have devoured them all! Just wait—I’m going to kill you today. I’ll have you thrown into the river, and the sharks and crocodiles will eat you up!’
Mandodari was unmoved. She knew Chipitak Murthy was not strong enough to push her into the river. Besides, such mock wars between them occurred frequently. Chipitak Murthy’s frame was as insubstantial as his voice was thin. He reminded one of a dragonfly—the most prominent feature of his physique was a pair of long legs; everything else was only nominally present. But his complete credentials shall be presented later, at the appropriate juncture.
Arm in arm, the princesses were merrily enjoying Chipitak’s bluster while trying to conceal their laughter. The sun was setting, having belched out blood over the Tungabhadra. The boat was approaching the confluence, rolling slightly on the restless currents of the combined rivers. They were sailing close to the southern bank a to avoid the swirling currents of the confluence as much as possible as they joined the flow of the Tungabhadra; the northern bank was at quite some distance. Manikankana’s restless eyes, which had been roving over the waters, suddenly fixed themselves on a particular spot. Having looked carefully for a while, she told Bidyunmala, pointing to the north, ‘Mala, take a look at the waters over there—can you see something?’
By Saraidndu Bandyopadhyay (Translated from the Bengali)