2 weeks ago
Thursday, July 10, 2008
The cry of the peacock tore through the early morning mist of the desert. In the palace, servants rushed about doing their daily chores. The king was getting dressed for another day. In the east end of the palace, the sun rays crawled into the room. She moved uncomfortably in her silken bed clothes as the sun rays disturbed her sleep. Indignantly she pulled the covers over her eyes again and continued to sleep.
A few minutes later eight-year-old, Princess Chitrangada crawled out of bed and opened the windows. She breathed in the morning air and stared straight at the young sun, defying its power. It was a miniature victory for her when she felt that the sun couldn’t defeat her.
When she came down, the king was busy.
“Good morning, Your Majesty.” she said to her father. The King smiled at his daughter and returned to his work. He was having a meeting with some white men. They were very fair and, momentarily, aroused Chitrangada curiosity.
Not bothering herself much, Chitrangada ran out into the lawns to play. All along a maid would be with her. The princess was never to be left alone. But Chitrangada was high-spirited. She didn’t like being monitored all the time.
“Get me my new doll.” she ordered the maid.
“I can’t leave you alone, Your Highness. The Queen has forbidden me from doing so.”
“I will also be the queen someday. Now get me the doll!” said Chitrangada indignantly.
The maid looked around to see if there was any other servant in sight. Seeing no one, she had no option but to leave. As soon as she was out of sight, Chitrangada dashed for her favourite spot on the lawns which she had discovered only a few days ago. It was near the wall, behind an old well. There was a hole in the wall. Chitrangada could see the village from there.
Just then she saw a small figure running up the hill towards the palace. A little girl, not much older than the princess was running. Chitrangada called out to her. The girl seemed a little afraid, but nevertheless came closer. She climbed in through the hole. She was dirty. Dust on her face and hands and even her clothes were torn.
“Who are you? Why are you running?”
“I’m Lakshmi. I was playing with my friends in the village. They’re trying to find me. This seems to be a good place to hide. They’ll never find me here. Are you the princess?”
“Yes I am. Will you play with me while you’re hiding from your friends?”
“Alright. Have these berries first. I just stole them from the garden”
And that was the innocent and humble beginning of a friendship that would change their lives forever.
Chitrangada and Lakshmi then met frequently. Secretly, of course. A queen in the making wasn’t supposed to mix with the commons and Lakshmi too would be scolded at home if she was found playing with the princess. The royal family were supposed to be revered and not befriended. Lakshmi too knew this but she liked Chitrangada so much, she didn’t want to break the bond between them. So nobody knew of their secret friendship. Whenever possible, Chitrangada went down to the lawns and Lakshmi would come to meet her at their hiding place.
Chitrangada learnt from her all about the people in the village and how different their life was from her own. They were all poor. They didn’t have silken robes nor did they eat lavish food. They worked hard all day and even in spite of that, went hungry every few days. In drought, many would die.
“Why don’t the villagers grow their food Lakshmi?”
“Some do. Others are forced to work at the factory by the white men.”
“What’s a factory? And who are these white men?”
“It’s that big building in the city. I have seen it once. They make something there, I don’t know what it is but it is sent it in big carts. And the white men! They are very cruel. They whip the workers if the work is not done. They don’t pay them very well too.”
“Why doesn’t my father ever help the villagers? Does he know how bad the white men are? I’m sure he’ll help if he knows how troubled the villagers are.”
“No, no Your Highness! Please don’t tell your father anything. Especially about me!” said Lakshmi abruptly.
“I have to leave. It’s getting late and mother must be looking for me. I will see you later.”
“Hey wait! Don’t go!” cried Chitrangada, but Lakshmi was already gone. The princess thought lot about that meeting. She didn’t understand a lot of things. She wanted to talk to Lakshmi. Ask her why she left so suddenly at the mention of the name of the king. Lakshmi didn’t come to the palace again. A week passed. Then another one. Chitrangada would evade all the servants and sit alone behind the old well all evening waiting for her friend. No one came. She was really worried.
The little princess then made the first important decision of her life. She took her oldest cotton robes and cut them here and there, rolled them in the dust and rubbed some on her face and hair. Princess Chitrangada then, dressed as an urchin, climbed out of the hole in the palace wall. She gathered all her courage and went to Lakshmi’s house. Lakshmi had told her the way once. Chitrangada reached a little deserted hut. She looked around to see if she could find Lakshmi.
“Go away, there is nobody in that house.” said a shopkeeper.
“Where is that little girl who lived here?”
“You came a little late. The white men came to take her father Bhim Singh away. He refused to leave his family. They troubled him for many days. Then, last week, they shot the little girl and her mother dead. He tried to save them. He too was killed.”
Chitrangada heard all this silently, shocked beyond belief. Without another word she walked back. “I won’t cry.” She told herself. “Princesses don’t cry. I’ll talk to father. He will help me. He’ll punish those bad men. I’ll tell him what they do to the poor villagers. They couldn’t have killed Lakshmi. I have to go back and tell father.”
That evening when she went back to the palace, there seemed to be someone in the Divan. The king often met people there but it was rather late for visitors. She stood behind the netted curtains. She would talk to him as soon as the visitors left.
“We need more people for the factory Your Highness.” said a white man.
“Take as many as you want from the village. As it is the crop always fails and they don’t pay tax. Useless creatures. You had might as well make them slog in the factory.”
“They keep protesting. They can’t leave their families behind, they say.”
“I told you to force them. Tell them it’s my order. They’ll do anything the king says. If they still resist….that’s a fine pistol you have there. Use it. As long as I get the revenue, I don’t care.”
“Your Majesty, don’t worry about that. We are already using that pistol very well. After that farmer’s family we killed last week, all the villagers are frightened. I don’t think they will hold up the protest much longer. Your payment will arrive from the city in a week’s time. Anyway you charge double the tax to those who work in the factory!”
All three men laughed heartily. They were in total oblivion of the little girl behind the netted curtain. A single tear stained those royal cheeks. In complete silence she went to her chamber. She lay on her bed, eyes wide open, not awake, not asleep. By morning, Chitrangada was reunited with Lakshmi.
Not all of the king’s riches could revive his daughter. Nobody even knew how or why she died. The little princess, in spite of her father’s riches, died in the attire of an urchin.