We would each love to be an expert on everything. And achieve this by
reading a couple of books on a subject, visiting a few places while
staying well within one’s comfort level, and wrangling some of the talks
on visual media to feel right up there with the experts. Dress must
be conservative and glasses help, although not the round ones which
makes a person look owlish and pedantic. Not spiffy ones either, but a nice cross between the two. It helps to go for a voice training class for 10 days. Do not gesticulate. Train your hands to remain still. Practice the look into nothingness. It helps to tide over dicey questions. A Wikipedia knowledge of the chosen subject is good enough. Be sure of a few facts. Never admit to any kind of doubt. One is then settled as a major player in the rarefied world of ‘experts’.
I, Mahisha, too aeons ago thought that I would project myself as an expert. The subject that (naturally) sprang to my mind was Her. The thought of Love followed immediately. The whole world knew about my love for Her. How I had fallen for her like Damayanthi or like the hero in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, just by hearing stories about Her. Yes, I had heard Her sing. Her voice carried down the wind to my palace. Actually, I got Her fragrance first. Many exotic flowers bloomed in Indra’s Nandavanam that I had appropriated for myself. I had initially thought that the smell came from one of those blooms. It was so sweet and delicate that I enquired about it. I would have liked to have an armful of flowers in my bedroom. None of those who tended to the plants were familiar with the fragrance, not even the bent old gardeners who have seen Indras come and Indras go.
Soon after, came Her voice, undulating in the breeze. Before I could send out people to enquire about it, a group of people came from my fortress gates. There was an astoundingly beautiful woman, armed and attired for battle and riding on a lion! This sounded like the delusions of yesterday’s binge drinking. But it was not. A group of guards all swore to having seen this marvellous sight and it was only mid-morning. I sent a small contingent of my guards with Vaskalan leading them. He was one of my most brave and sagacious of warriors. He would know how to handle the unexpected visitor. He would also easily extricate details that he considered important that I know about Her.
I was half-interested in Vaskalan’s return. A passing thought went through my mind that I could ask Her to come and sing in my court. She could certainly sing! It was however a band of flustered soldiers who came to me with the unbelievable news that Vaskalan was dead. Dead! He had left my court scarcely four hours ago. How was that possible?
The story that I pieced together from their disjointed narrative was thus: Vaskalan had poured out his legendary charm and the lady on the lion seemed to be responding favourably to that. He had invited Her to my court after praising Her music. She refused to enter the city. Subtly changing tactics, he had asked Her about the need for the many weapons She was carrying. Was She on Her way to a battle? Could he be of any help? Maybe, he could talk to his boss (me) about it, if she needed any aid?
The lady’s reply was totally unexpected. She had taken a vow that She would marry only the one who defeated Her in combat! Vaskalan was intrigued and amused in equal parts. She was young and agile but looked too slender to be able to wield her weapons with great ease or expertise. Vaskalan immediately thought that having Her in my palace would amuse me. I was getting sick of the cowering devas whose hatred for me was in their eyes, however much they fawned over me. The new visitor would at the least have diverted my attention.
Vaskalan told Her about my valour. He told Her how I had vanquished all I
encountered in battle. Therefore, I was a fit mate for Her, said Vaskalan. With a tiny smile on Her face, She reiterated Her oath to marry or be with only someone who defeated Her! Half in jest, Vaskalan challenged Her to a duel. It had been his intention to capture Her and take Her bound to my court. That would lessen what he thought was overconfidence in Her own abilities. She would still be feisty enough to hold my interest!
The fight started out desultorily enough. Vaskalan was attacking Her with a quarter of his redoubtable battle skill. The lady easily parried all his attempts and returned his arrows with such skill that She was the one to draw the first blood! Vaskalan stepped up his fighting level a bit more. Whatever be the weapon he chose, not only could he not subdue Her, he was actually straining to survive! The soldiers who were looking on tried to intervene but Vaskalan would have nothing of it. She then told
Vaskalan to desist. She had some message for me, was what She told him. Upon his refusal three times, the lady on the lion shrugged, smiled and smote Vaskalan dead. The stunned witnesses naturally came running to me! What were they to do? Was She a demoness even greater than me, out to destroy me?
The singing had started again as they spoke. I was incensed by the death of one of my favourite generals. He had been a poet, a warrior and a friend. His assassin had to be punished, irrespective of whether She was a woman or a demoness.
I sent a fairly large contingent of soldiers, with a couple of my able generals. Their order was to bring the woman to me bound—and terrified. She would learn what it meant to lock horns with me! As an automatic gesture, I rubbed my horns, polished and sharpened to a needle point. The women of the devas used to plead with me to cover the tips as a careless caress could well result in a nasty gash. I was waiting impatiently to see the woman who had killed my Vaskalan.
Hours later, some soldiers ran into my presence. They were trembling. With a perfunctory bow, they told me the horrible sight they had just witnessed. The lady on the lion had made short work of my crack troops! These were warriors who had fought and won over the vast army of devas. The survivors looked frightened. With a roar and a nod, I sent a much bigger division.
“Get Her here,” was my only command. By this time, some citizens who had peeped over the wall and seen Her reached my court. They had caught Her eye and She had smiled at them. They looked as if they had fallen for Her smile. In fact, it was as if they had quite forgotten that the lady on the lion who had smiled so sweetly at them, had killed many of my friends. The way the people spoke of Her sounded silly. Had She cast some spell on them, I wondered!
“King Mahisha, She is so beautiful! She is the only one fit to grace your throne as your queen!” My anathema to getting married was as well-known as my many love affairs with whoever took my fancy. I gave them a dark look. They were oblivious to that, still affected by the charm of the strange female riding a lion. What a choice for a mount, I wondered mentally. Was it all a deva-inspired charade? I never trusted the evident docility of the obsequious devas. A few of the people in my court looked interested at what these people were blathering about. Who was this great warrior lady who seemed to be so attractive as well?
One more of my phalanxes of soldiers were dead. It was only during the battle that the woman’s singing stopped. No one heard a roar or a growl from the lion. Was it dumb? Was it an illusion by the devas? I was not sure. Just as the Sun set, the maddening music too mercifully died down.
I slept badly. Along with the rising Sun, came the by now familiar song outside my fort gates. It was the same lady. Crowds had come to see Her. Every time She looked at the people, She smiled. If thoughts were treason, I would have had to kill all of them; so enamoured were they of Her, who seemed to be a potential enemy of mine!
That day too was a repeat of yesterday. By now, enough ordinary citizens had heard of Her demand. I was to leave the devas’ kingdom to them and leave. However, I would get to rule unopposed in Paathaalam. This was the deal She was putting forth. Of course, She was an envoy of the devas as I had suspected. But I respected her capability in battle. She was trouncing my vast army. Valorous soldiers fell like children playing at fighting with wooden sticks and weapons. I hated Her for killing so many of my people. However, I caught myself listening to those of my citizens who raved about Her jewellery and the colour of Her silks. Her hair was long and unbound. Her weapons shone along with Her jewels in the morning Sun. This was over and above the mettle She showed in battle.
Many a time, I was tempted to ride out and just see Her. Something held me back always. I used to visit the battlefield each evening after nightfall. All I could see were the bloody pug marks of Her lion mount. A faint fragrance lingered there, overpowering even the stench of battle. Much as it was well-known that She was my enemy, there were many who sighed and looked at me sideways. One day, as I was riding back after it was dark, a lone voice piped up from a huddle of people having a sundowner.
“If only he would see her once, this conflict would end.”
I rode on pretending that I had never heard the comment. However, I rode
out to the battlefield myself the next morning. I had taken extra care with my appearance. My dark skin shone with the oil bath I had had. I wore a deep scarlet loin cloth and a simple gold crown, shaped like woven twigs. I was careful to wear my own simple ornaments rather than any of Indra’s opulent ones, available to me. My weapons—as always—were polished to a dull gleam. The tips of my horns were left uncovered and lethal. My cloven feet tapped the ground smartly.
On seeing me, the lion let out a terrific roar. I wanted to roar in return but crushed the impulse. At first, all I could see was a mass of brilliance. Slowly, Her contours became clear. I could now see Her famous killer smile. Instinctively, I caught myself smiling back at Her.
“Mahisha”, Her voice was a statement.
I could now understand why so many had fallen helplessly under Her spell. I was forgetting that She was my enemy and that too one who had decimated a large part of my army. I had to force myself to concentrate.
“Woman, you have done enough harm,” I said roughly. “If the cowardly devas wanted to remove me, why did they not fight me themselves? Why take refuge behind you? And what’s your issue with me? Are you their agent?” My voice was turning scornful.
“Mahisha”, She said gently. I wanted to dismount and lay my head on Her lap. I would be ever so careful not to graze Her skin. “Go.”
She gestured with Her head.
“Leave all this to the devas. You have defeated them roundly. Go and be king in the Nether World which needs someone like you.”
Impulsively, I declared, “Only if you come with me. If you are by my side.”
She would never fulfil Her self-imposed condition, I thought. She had already defeated me in a battle that was not yet formally drawn. We argued. We argued back and forth. Neither of us was prepared to back down. Being a veteran of many battles, I knew the cut and thrust and when to pretend to give in, gather a breath and fight again. I tried. I tried and tried to detest Her and failed. She tried to persuade me to leave and failed. This battle was being fought on many planes.
I decided that She was not important enough to be lied to. Or was worthy enough of knowing the truth. I would prefer to die without Her. That was non-negotiable. She, who had seemingly effortlessly sent so many of my ace warriors to their death, appeared hesitant to despatch me to them. What was it that was holding Her back? Dare I hope for that something in Her that was holding Her back?
They say that at the point of Death, the whole of Life flashes past for a moment. I knew that I would return the kingdom of the piddling devas to them, just because She had asked me to. To make Her happy and for no other reason. As I was forming argument after argument to present to Her, my eyes caressed Her, the way my hands never could. Time was suspended. A demon was wooing a Goddess. This was forbidden in the scheme of things, a scheme that had no place for Love. Battles, deals, wealth, negotiations, ambition, fear, treachery, even Death was okay. But no space for love, let alone Love between diverse species.
And so it was. Finally, She took aim.
“You have broken your promise to yourself,” I told Her. “You said you would belong only to someone who defeated you. My love has defeated you.”
She lowered Her eyes. Down came Her weapon. But in my adoration, I was not about to let Her lose.
“You win,” I told Her. “You must always win. Now take aim. Let your strike be true!”
I fall bleeding by Her feet. No, life does not slip out from the body and rise up to another world. Life hardens and becomes heavier and heavier in the heart till the body cannot move anymore. My eyes are open, yet I cannot see Her anymore. There is only the brilliance of a thousand Suns. Her fainter and fainter fragrance lingers where my breath has fled. Her leg is on my chest. I don’t care for I am beyond death. I have become—as is She—Love.