The Prince: An excerpt from Samhita Arni's fourth book, a historical fiction inspired by a Tamil epic
The Prince is the fourth book, a historical fiction, by author and illustrator Samhita Arni's (Sita's Ramayana, The Mahabharata - A Child's View and The Missing Queen).
The famous dancer Madhavi is at the court of the Chera King for a grand performance. The King’s first son Shenguttuvan, the crown prince of the Cheras, is getting ready for his engagement to a Velir princess. There is celebration in the air.
But when an astrologer predicts that the second son Uthiyan is destined to be greater than his elder brother, the Chera court erupts in chaos. The courtiers begin to play the brothers against each other. Life becomes dangerous for Uthiyan and the prince is forced to flee his home in the garb of a monk.
In a perilous journey beset by assassins and conspirators, he is joined by others who seek refuge at the just court of the Pandya King. But darkness is descending on the ancient city of Madurai. Warriors from the west, the single-minded and ruthless Kalabhras, have set out to conquer the prosperous Pandya capital and change the face of Tamilaham. Tormented rage and lust, beset by betrayal and terror, Uthiyan is forced to choose a side in a conflict that is certain to end in bloody violence.
The Prince is the fourth book, a historical fiction, by author and illustrator Samhita Arni (Sita's Ramayana, The Mahabharata - A Child's View and The Missing Queen). The following is an excerpt from the same.
Uthiyan wandered, as if in a dream, through scenes of desecration. Each room told a similar story. Bloodstains on the floor, figures lying face down, claimed by death. Soldiers and commoners alike, scurrying quickly down corridors, gems and priceless objects clutched tightly in their hands.
Uthiyan’s heart sank. War, no matter what the cause, the pretext, seemed to always look the same – the same story each time. How often had his father done this?
Had his brother done this?
Outside the palace, the silver pattimandapam, the source of so much of Neduncheliyan’s glory and greatness, was on fire.The silver walls were alight with the red-gold flames. A crowd had gathered – and to Uthiyan’s surprise, they cheered.
As he watched, a soldier ran past him, his arms full of scrolls, towards the fire.
‘Wait!’ Uthiyan called out. ‘What are you doing with those?’
The soldier paused for an instant. ‘Burning them.’ Uthiyan gasped. ‘You can’t!’
The soldier responded with a leery grin. ‘Commander’s orders. We’re burning all of these.’
As he spoke he edged towards the fire, and Uthiyan, following him, was appalled to see pile upon pile of scrolls and palm-leaf manuscripts withering to ashes in the flames.
The crowd cheered again as the soldier tossed his bundle of scrolls into the fire.
‘ Why are you doing this?’ Uthiyan shouted, appalled. ‘These are priceless.’
The soldier examined a scroll closely. ‘Just a bunch of words.’
‘These are famous poems–’
‘The king spent so much on poems and poetry! But nothing on his own people,’ a voice called out from the crowd.
Uthiyan whirled around.
‘That’s right,’ another man exclaimed.‘We saw the gifts he gave poets who sang well of him – golden
flowers, and food, and expensive garments. Elephants even. And for what? For poems that praised him.’
‘No, it was more than that!’ Uthiyan whipped around to stare up at the pattimandapam. ‘This was the seat of the Sangam. This–’
But the crowd had no patience for Uthiyan. ‘All those poets lived off the king,’ another voice piped in, angrily. ‘Those poems were not for us. And now all of those poets have fled. Why do you want to preserve that? Those are just empty verses!’
Uthiyan stared in anguish at the fire spreading up the building, winding like a creeper along the length, up and down the pillars, chasing down the seats where the forty-nine had sat, across the scrolls and manuscripts of the best works that poets had produced for centuries. Exquisite poems, manuals of dance and art and poetry, histories and treatises.
All of it turning to ash. All of it, the beauty, the glory, the pain, the love of the past. The house of the Sangam that he heard of for years, whose tales had filled his dreams. Whose poems travelled up and down the length of Tamilaham, entertaining both courts and villages alike.
How could he explain it to these people – what they stood to lose in the anger of a moment?
This was terrible.
He lurched towards the fire, picking up a tattered palm leaf here, another there, struggling to preserve what he could.
‘Stop him!’ he heard a voice cry out from behind him. He ignored it.
A soldier pulled him back roughly from the fire. Uthiyan turned to him, desperate, cradling the few leaves he had managed to rescue in his arms.
‘Who are you to tell me what to do?’ the soldier retorted.
Uthiyan had had enough. The bloodshed, the looting, the pointless deaths – and now this. He pulled himself to his full height, and in his most imperious manner, shot back. ‘I am your king!’
The soldier snorted.
Uthiyan was incensed.‘You heard your commander on the battlefield.’
‘I heard him and I heard you as well. And then later, on the battlefield, I saw that you didn’t even lift your sword.’
‘That’s right,’ another voice exclaimed. Uthiyan turned to see another soldier, a belligerent gleam in his eye, advance towards him. ‘That’s not the kind of king I want to fight for or live under. Who are you,
princeling, to tell us what to do when you cannot even wield a sword?’
Blazing with fury, Uthiyan replied. ‘You are an idiot.’ He turned to face the crowd, teeth gritted in anger. ‘You are all idiots!’ he shouted.
‘He called us idiots!’ ‘Who does he think he is?’
The crowd broke then, in unison, charging towards Uthiyan. The soldier was the one who got there first. ‘You had it coming,’ he said, as he punched Uthiyan in the gut.
Blows rained on Uthiyan. He fell to the ground. ‘Stop this!’
But the blows came. And Uthiyan found his hand closing into a fist, and punching upwards. His hand connected with something soft. He twisted, and heard a shriek of pain.
And as he heard the scream, something stirred in his mind. A fragment of a memory. A scream like that one, a dark night, in a place thick with trees.
The white glimmer in the trees. The glinting edge of a knife.
Panic racing through him then, as it was racing through him now.
The memory of a man, shaking in fear. The wide, wide whites of his eyes.
The taste of his blood. The sound of a pig being gutted.
The gurgle of blood. The look of death on his face.
It was then, as the crowd grew around him, kicking, screaming, tearing at his clothes and at his hair, that Uthiyan remembered.
Remembered that night of the attempt on his life in Vanchi. How three men had cornered him, how something had risen in him, and then – that night – something had possessed him, like a demon or a spirit, riding his skin, and fighting to save his life.
Biting, kicking, screaming, knifing. He remembered it all.
What had he done?
The blows continued to rain on him. Uthiyan did not resist. He surrendered. He accepted the pain.This was what he deserved, he thought, as agony ripped up his spine, as pain clenched his gut. This was it. This was his destiny. This was why death followed him, seeking his life in return for the lives he had taken.
This was the price he had to pay for the mistakes he had made, over and over again.
This was atonement.
Excerpted from The Prince by Samhita Arni, published by Juggernaut. This book is available on Amazon.in
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